Designed for lives of customers

Brands are finding that the most effective product and identity designs are those created to meet customer rather than industry needs, a trend that is being replicated online.

Innocent keeps its design clean and simple but gives people ‘little surprises and moments of interest’

Marketing and design should be considered as separate disciplines and there should not be such a heavy focus on return on investment for design, according to heads of top brands.

“For the better part of a decade, it’s all been about the work, the business results and the bottom line. This has frustrated many design firms. We need to separate design and marketing and view the former more as alchemists. 

“From that you build a different kind of relationship and respect for the craft. I want designers and agencies to be proud of being studios and proud of their art,” says Unilever vice-president of design Dennis Furniss.

Design agencies are enjoying a purple patch despite challenging economic conditions, with average fee income growing by 30 per cent over the past two years, according to the Design Week Top 100, a list of the top agencies  – suggesting that brands are investing more. Five of the top 100 design agencies have enjoyed a rise in fee income of 100 per cent or more since 2011.

Unilever has worked with Design Bridge (number two in the Top 100) for 26 years and Furniss believes that part of their joint success has been the ability to step away from commercial pressures and focus on design as a ‘conversation’ rather than answering to specific briefs.

His belief that designers have an innate talent that can be trained to deliver against the business is echoed by Dan Germain, head of brand and creative for Innocent. “Great businesses have great people that understand the essence and spirit of the business and can work out ways to express that through design.”

Germain admits that this trust is borne out of the fact that he has worked with Innocent since its beginnings 14 years ago. However, he insists this understanding of the spirit of the business is not limited to one man. “I’ve got a team of 12 people, many of whom have been in the business for at least eight years. They know and understand as much as I do.” 

Not everyone agrees that free-flowing creativity, however well-founded on experience, is the way to generate successful design. “Agencies respond better to a well-constructed brief that is clear and simple. It’s important to do the hard miles upfront to work out what you need to say and then communicate that as effectively  as possible,” says Steve Curzon, associate marketing director at poultry company Gressingham Duck.

Having a strong but flexible brand is also something retailer John Lewis strives for. 

John Lewis
John Lewis updates designs in response to changing customer needs and shopping habits while keeping to its brand values

The challenge at John Lewis is to maintain a long-standing brand while adapting to the changing needs of the consumer, says Paul Porral, its head of brand creative. “I focus less on design trends and more on the way we live and shop. Customers are changing the way they shop with us, affecting how we approach design.”

For the John Lewis & Co heritage menswear brand, created in 2011, the design solution was to capitalise on the consumer trend for heritage and nostalgia. It took as its inspiration the brand’s core values of elegance and sophistication.

In homewares, the retailer embraced the trend for pared down simplicity with House by John Lewis. Its packaging is much bolder than the traditional John Lewis offering but Porral explains the departure by saying “It was modern because it responds to what those products are about.”

The Design Week Top 100 agencies list also reveals that the trends of trust and valuing design are key for most clients but also suggests that there is a discernible shift from pared down modernity to brands exhibiting more warmth and personality. Some would argue that both are possible.

“The trend may be towards personality but simplicity is still incredibly important,” advises Nicole McDonnell, global brand director at Ella’s Kitchen baby food. “Mums and dads have so much going on that the little things such as having ingredients listed on the front of packs really count. It’s warm, but simple.”

Ella’s Kitchen has to target two different sets of consumers: parents and toddlers. To get the attention of both it uses vivid, primary colours on pack as well as packaging types aimed at convenience for a child rather than an adult. 

Yet the company recognises that the purchasers, parents, also want to interact with the company on different levels, including online where the brand dispenses the majority of its nutritional advice. As consumers demand consistency of brands across platforms, how does a company that targets its products at under-2s then communicate with adults?

“Online there needed to be brand recognition and a consistent look and feel. While the colourful design attracts children in-store, it lifts parents’ spirits online. Talking to both sets of consumer without patronising either one is a delicate balance,” says McDonnell.

Gressingham Duck’s Curzon worries that the focus on communicating in the digital space has reduced brands’ focus on delivering consistency. He says: “Maybe the art and science of brand management has got lost as marketers have become immersed in social media rather than what matters most, which is getting the brand across.”

The art and science of brand management may be lost as marketers become immersed in social media

He suggests that companies are using digital as a platform to deliver what the brands want to say and this is getting in the way of what the customer wants to know. “Online is a broader canvas but I would contend that the issues that drive packaging at headline level are the same as online: simplicity and information.”

To this end, Gressingham Duck refreshed its branding in order to stand out more on shelves in-store but translated this across to the online experience. The bold amber and black colours are replicated online and the brand philosophy of ‘information is key’ is prominent both on and offline. Curzon noted that customers were unsure how to cook duck. As a result, three-step cooking instructions are displayed on the front of the pack and translated online into a recipe hub. 

Again, Curzon believes that simple design does not necessarily exclude warmth or personality. “Less is more,” he insists. “Both on and offline the amount of time you have to capture attention is limited.”

Challenger brands found that using personality bucked the prevailing trend for simplicity a decade ago. In the intervening 10 years, the landscape has changed dramatically and the majority of these brands have become mainstream. As rapidly growing category leaders, they have inspired copycats that have arguably diluted the effectiveness of this particular type of ‘chummy’ branding. Does this mean that brands such as Innocent have to create a new brand trend to forge a path once more? 

“We try to keep the core elements of design the same. It’s simple and clean in terms of how the product looks and then we give people little surprises and moments of interest. The brand has grown up, so tone and outward appearance is bound to change,” Germain says.

Design evolution for challenger brands is just as difficult to negotiate as it is for established brands with firmly entrenched design parameters. For the challenger brands mentioned above, growth has presented its own issues.

“The thing that’s always on my mind is, does it all hang together? Every time we design a new bottle or bring out veg pots we have to step back and ask ‘Does it still all work?’,” Germain says.

For others, growth presents an opportunity to take stock and take the decision that the business is ripe for change. “We grew to a point where we had 2,000 products in different categories and each category had a different theme. Refreshing the design to reflect a brand family created an umbrella for the products. It simplified communications while remaining friendly,” explains Rosewood Pet Product’s marketing director Bev Panter.

The brand refresh through the Truth agency was critical to Rosewood as its range no longer reflected the company’s personality. Consistency was important because Rosewood has a limited consumer-facing presence, relying on resellers ranging from highly brand-literate pet superstores to independent pet shops that place less value on merchandising. 

Whether it’s a traditional brand such as Unilever or John Lewis, former challenger brands such as Innocent, or growing brands such as Ella’s Kitchen, Gressingham Duck or Rosewood Pets, the core premise of design remains the same. Brands must continue to adapt and respond to consumer trends not industry ones. To adapt well, companies must look to build around their core brand values and know that if they invest in the right people, they can trust that the creativity of the designer will enhance and not dilute hard-won equity.

See the Design Week Top 100 2013 online here

The big three challenges

Valuing design

Paul Porral, head of brand creative, John Lewis: “Companies that treat design as part of their armour have credibility and authenticity. For this, design needs to have a voice higher up the food chain. Valuing design is about collaborating with agencies and partners in the design process and having a design guardian internally.” 

Dan Germain, head of brand and creative, Innocent: “Part of my job is to guard the things that are difficult to put a value on. Does funny copy generate revenue? I can’t justify that and never will be able to. I work in a wider marketing team of 30 people with some who are more traditional, involved in measuring and quantifying campaigns. I work very closely with them but they trust that what I do is right.” 

Sustainability through packaging

Dan Germain, Innocent: “My desire is for more sustainable packaging. The bigger Innocent gets, the more stuff we use and it seems like we’re striving for the impossible – how do you become a creative brand while using less packaging.”

Steve Curzon, associate marketing director, Gressingham Duck: “The provenance of food has never been more important and being able to communicate that through design on shelf is critical. In food, the brand is the guarantee so bringing details of where the animal was raised to the fore will drive differentiation.”

Managing growth

Nicole McDonnell, global brand director, Ella’s Kitchen: “Our issue is to keep customers with us. There is a short 18-monthwindow until the children effectively grow out of it. Our customers say they wish they could stay with us so we’re developing ranges to take children from toddler up to pre-school. It will be important to keep the personality of the brand but it needs to look and feel more grown up and that’s a big challenge.”

Warmth and simplicity

Unilever, owner of Marmite, says its design successes have a lot to do with being able to separate commercial pressures and focus on creating ‘conversations’

Steve Curzon, associate marketing director, Gressingham Duck: “Customers want a real voice, not false chuminess. It works for Innocent but for me-too brands there is a weariness. The flip-side of that is a desire for warm, engaging but plain-speaking brands. Customers just want to find the right information when they need it.” 

Dennis Furniss, vice-president of design, Unilever: “Companies have a huge opportunity to play with equity and tell stories, using brands as a visual language in a more compelling way. Think back 100 years to Bourneville and Guinness – they knew how to flex their image. This is an attitude that goes beyond a brand being recognised as a flag or a symbol. We need to encourage deeper thought around the brand symbols and use them as a way to connect in-store.” 

Translating design across platforms

Bev Panter, marketing director, Rosewood Pet Products: “Creating a seamless customer experience across platforms isn’t about replicating packaging design, it’s about translating brand personality. Our Facebook
page isn’t about the packaging, it’s about showing how the product’s personality links
to animals. Videos and lifestyle shots communicate the brand essence. The design personality informs how we represent ourselves online even though it is a very different look.”

Nicole McDonnell, global brand director, Ella’s Kitchen: “Even though much of the design we produce is aimed at children, such as a weaning guide that is in the form of a baby board book with games to play at mealtimes, it supports parents through what is an emotional stage. Being supportive is an important part of our design premise and it maintains consistency.” 



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