Aim for the top

Their work can have a transformative effect on corporate reputations and profitability, but design consultants must first ensure they have access to top-level decision-makers. By Richenda Wilson

When global giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) says it is putting design at the centre of its business strategy, you know that things are changing. This is a major revolution for a company that used to focus on price, innovation and technology.

“I want P&G to become the number one consumer-design company in the world,” chief executive Alan Lafley told US business magazine Fast Company last year. “So we need to be able to make it part of our strategy. We need to make it part of our innovation process.

“We want to design the purchasing experience, we want to design every component of the product and we want to design the communication experience and the user experience. I mean, it’s all design,” he added.

Constant struggle

So, has the battle been won by the design industry – an industry that has always struggled to persuade the board that it is more than just a cosmetic addition to the armoury of business weapons?

Far from it, argues Raymond Turner, design leadership consultant and former group design director at BAA. Last month, Turner presented the Design Business Association’s (DBA) Design Effectiveness Lecture on the subject of how to champion effective design.

He thinks there is still much work to be done to demonstrate the effectiveness of design and persuade marketers to see design consultants as business partners, rather than simply as part of a supply chain of commodity services.

Turner suggested to the DBA that several broad issues need to be addressed to ensure that design is taken seriously.

First, you need to show that design is not simply a commodity, a superficial element that happens after the real work is finished. Some people think that design is expensive, elitist or irrelevant, but Turner argued that it is “one of a company’s most strategically potent tools, fundamental to creating the customer experience and view of the product”.

There are many examples of companies that have put design at the core of their operations with tremendous results. From the Macintosh to the iPod, Apple has demonstrated a design-centric mentality that has kept it at the forefront of its markets in the face of growing competition.

Paul Foulkes-Arellano, managing director of design company Wren & Rowe, agrees that many successful brands have a central figure who cares about all aspects of the brand. “Gü, Rachel’s Dairy and Tyrrells all have a strong design idea, and they ‘breathe’ owner involvement,” he says. “Compare this to many big brands, where it is clear that the best thinkers in those businesses are delegating design matters to junior people.

Think like they do

“Agencies need to fight their way to the top of company organisations,” argues Foulkes-Arellano. “The easiest way to do that is to be as bright as the senior management, and understand the big issues that chief executives and financial directors face.”

This was Turner’s second point in his DBA lecture. He said designers need to appeal to clients’ intellectual motivation in order to dem- onstrate that design can be a key instrument in manifesting corporate strategy.

“Design is one of the few resources that make a clear and practical link between the decisions of the boardroom and day-to-day operations,” he said. “Design can realise corporate purpose and deliver strategic intent.”

Design can even help to establish or clarify corporate values, believes Ian Schofield, group sales director at global brand strategy and design consultancy Watt Gilchrist International.

“Design is a company’s front-end visibility,” he says. “It is how a company presents itself to the world. In the modern, time-poor world, where first impressions count for everything, its importance is greatly increasing.”

This was another point made by Turner. Design has a bearing on all the touch points between the consumer and the business, he said. The customer experience of a business has a profound impact on corporate reputation and thus a company’s ability to create wealth.

Turner cited Yorkshire Water, which had a woeful corporate reputation in the mid-1990s as a result of its self-confessed management shortcomings. Over the next few years, Yorkshire Water addressed these, but its reputation remained in the doldrums. After it was rebranded by The Chase in 2002, customer complaints fell by 25% in the following year and its operating profit rose 7.5%. The company put a large part of this improvement down to its new identity.

Proof indeed that design can have a major impact on business success and that it should be given priority by all senior decision-makers.

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