Brand image at forefront of innovation

Exclusive research by Marketing Week reveals agencies and their clients agree the impact of design on campaigns can only increase.

An overwhelming 93% of clients want their design agencies to step up to the plate and take a more strategic role in their branding activities. Marketing Week’s Design Attitudes research reveals that while clients say they have less to spend than two years ago, they want their budgets to be used in smarter ways than ever before.

As a result, 84% of clients think design will have even more impact on marketing programmes in 2010. One technology marketer reports: “Increased competition and fewer customer pounds always causes design to be brought more into the decision-making process – every penny spent must have impact and return.”

While 56% of clients have less to pay for design than two years ago, brands seem fairly confident about the future with 44% claiming more budget. Design’s star certainly appears to be rising, with 58% of clients believing it is taken seriously at the top of their organisations, and 72% optimistic about what lies ahead for their design projects in 2010.

One brand manager from a large consumer goods business describes his company’s approach to design at a senior level as positive “because we are willing to invest in it, and also because there is an understanding of complying to brand guidelines and the benefits of doing so”.

Meanwhile, a chief marketing officer at a not-for-profit organisation adds: “We rebranded two years ago and the executive team really got involved. They could see how having a strong, creative brand with strong values can benefit the organisation.”

For 11% of client organisations, the recession of 2009 was no barrier to business. They report that their business improved last year. The organisations that claim a rise in design budgets are also the most positive about it being understood by their board. One marketing manager notes: “Our chief executive is very concerned with brand image.”

Meanwhile, those client companies that have been forced to cut back on design spending note that it is a lack of understanding at a senior level that holds them back from investing in this area. One marketer at a manufacturer claims: “Many senior managers do not appreciate the value of good design.”

An executive in the retail sector thinks: “It’s a very subjective area and senior management often comment on what they like rather than trying to take a customer view. Budgets for design are heavily scrutinised.”

Design agencies seem less positive overall than their client-side counterparts, which is perhaps an acknowledgement that they are dependent on any shrinking budgets, rather than in control of them. While 71% are optimistic about 2010, it appears that 2009 was a poor year for many – 55% of agencies report that the recession had a bad effect on business, compared with just 17% of clients.

Client budget cuts is the largest single issue that agencies face, with price concerns also a major problem for business. Indeed, 25% also report that the agency is facing tricky times thanks to lower staff numbers following redundancy programmes.

One agency executive says: “Budgetary pressures from clients lead to demands for cheap and basic projects”, while others believe that marketers cannot afford to invest in design at the moment because it is perceived by “the men with the budgets to be an unnecessary expense”.

Although agencies and clients share a belief that design will have a bigger impact on marketing this year than others, it seems many of the reasons for this are negative. Some cynical agencies note that design will grow in importance because it is relatively cheap compared to some other marketing disciplines.

But others are more cheery. One design director notes: “My hope is that the relationship will be symbiotic with each striving to create a consistent brand message. With continued difficult times ahead, the message to the customer must be clear and consistent, whether our area of expertise is design or marketing.”

One area that sees agreement from both clients and agencies is how the nature of modern design has changed. Very few design projects appear to be exclusively online or offline in their scope. Most projects appear to encompass a degree of both traditional graphic design skills, along with the ability to translate design motifs and marketing materials to interactive channels. Indeed, 70% of clients and 65% of agencies report that their design projects involve both online and offline media.

There is also consistency in the types of design that are being carried out by brands and their agencies. The most popular type of design for clients is print, while web design, brand work, retail design and posters complete the top five.

Agencies cite general brand work as their single largest piece of business. The top five are completed by graphic design, print, web design and poster design. However, interior design and product design rank relatively low among the interests of both clients and agencies.

Back to Basics

In terms of the future of design and how it is likely to evolve over the next 12 months, a number of ideas crop up in the research. Many clients see a return to “simplicity” or “basics”. This is echoed by those who call for less “design for design’s sake” and suggest there should be a move back to designing for functional needs, rather than simply being “arty”.

Although a few clients and agencies mention green issues and the sustainability of materials, this is a relatively low number in the overall sample. It is also notable that this seems to have more interest from agencies than clients. Forty-two per cent of agencies acknowledge that the sustainability of design materials is having an impact on the industry, but just 5% list it as the issue making the largest impact on them.

Many who say community design is likely to become a trend, also point to the importance of social media and the potential effect this could have on projects. As brands become more willing to involve consumers in their marketing, design is likely to be affected by this trend.

Agencies agree on this point, with one managing director noting the low cost of social media will make it more attractive to clients. Another design director says we will see “sobriety and community, a more humble, wholesome approach”. He adds: “Pre-recession excesses have been replaced with a more authentic timeless approach. Local relevance should also ensure engagement with the community.”

So it appears that despite a few grumbles about cost cutting and the economic difficulties of 2009, both clients and design agencies are looking forward to what 2010 has to offer. With several respondents hoping to see more “futuristic” requests and “augmented reality” appear in their briefs in the next 12 months, it seems the design industry is looking forward at last.

Key findings

  • 93% of clients want their design agencies to take a strategic role in helping them with their branding.
  • 58% of clients believe that design is taken seriously at the top of their organisations.
  • 72% of clients feel optimistic about business in 2010, along with 71% of design agencies.
  • 52% of design agencies cite client budget cuts as the issue having the greatest effect on the industry – the largest single issue.
  • 17% of clients think that the recession had a bad or very bad effect on their design projects in 2009, compared with 55% of agencies.
  • 70% of clients’ design projects involve both online and offline media, compared with 65% of agencies’ projects.
  • 84% of clients think that design is going to have a greater effect on marketing in 2010, compared with 75% of agencies.
  • 50 employees and under is the size of the majority of agency respondents, while most clients report between 101-500 staff.
  • 56% of clients have less to spend on design than two years ago.
  • 11% of clients using design feel the recession was no barrier to business.

About this survey

  • The research was conducted in January 2010 among readers of Marketing Week magazine and MarketingWeek.co.uk subscribers.         
  • 22% of client respondents work for organisations employing 1001-5000 people, while 77% of agencies say they have less than 50 staff. 
  • Client-side respondents were drawn from all types of organisations, with 17% financial, 16% not-for-profit, 9% retail and 11% consumer goods.
  • 58% of client respondents with responsibility for design are marketing managers, 7% are marketing directors and 4% are chief marketing officers. 
  • All results have been rounded up or down to the nearest full percentage point. Not all tables add up to 100 as there may be more than one answer given where indicated.

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