As more and more companies move their brands into international markets, greater emphasis is being placed on designs that can work in all countries, transcending cultural and linguistic differences.

Somewhere, no doubt, there are still people who learn and practise Esperanto. Despite everything, the ideal remains an attractive one: a language everyone can speak without feeling that it is imposed or alien. We might imagine that a global design “language” along the same lines would work slightly better. But in fact, many of the problems that have undermined the dream of a neutral lingua franca – politics and tradition among them – now beset the extension of design across international frontiers, even within Europe.

Aspects of structure and graphics tend to need no translation, crossing borders with relative ease. But brand names such as “Robijn”, “Coccolino” and “Cajoline” – different fabric conditioners from the Lever Europe stable – are often the point where vocabulary problems begin.

Here, as with any established brand marketed in more than one country, the owner runs up against the reluctance of its individual national organisations to abandon names that consumers have lived with for decades. And of course, the argument of “why fix it if it isn’t broken?” does often make a lot of sense. Uniformity for uniformity’s sake is a poor substitute for strong sales.

For years, most of these mainland European equivalents of Comfort conditioner have featured a toy bear on the pack, building up associations over time of softness and care, but above all being a re-cognised brand identifier. When Lever brought in Graphique to redesign the graphics for its conditioners across Europe, there was no question of discarding equities such as this.

“If the bear represents the brand, how do you switch to having a baby on the pack, as we do with Comfort?” explains creative director Ray Armes. Conversely, attempting to persuade the UK consumer to take the teddy bear seriously would be a thankless task.

So if certain brand names and the better-established identifiers in different markets must not – to confuse images – be thrown out with the bathwater, what about the broader associations of the product? Here again there are problems, says Graphique.

In given Continental markets, detergents traditionally use very strong effectiveness cues without any balancing care cues. This is an emphasis which has always been seen to work well for them. When Graphique wanted to integrate a human figure onto packs of Persil concentrate and its equivalents across Europe, many of the national Lever companies thought that, on its own, this would communicate too much of the care and none of the cleaning.

As a result, markets such as France and Spain now have packs which sport the striped clothes and the inverted triangle used on previous designs, and not a person in sight. Associations of toughness – or even aggressiveness – which might harm a detergent brand in one national market can only do it good, it seems, in others. This has been true of some Lever brands even after the formulation crisis with Persil Power.

Where an international brand has developed organically over time, as with the Lever detergents and conditioners, market positionings are never going to be identical in the different markets. This can prove an obstacle to pan-European consistency in design.

But demonstrating that a brand spanning a wide range of products can be effectively harmonised and sales strengthened often overcomes the objections of different marketing departments. The Design Bridge redesign of the entire Scholl range worldwide, involving over 300 products, also shows how graphics can communicate many of the details that would otherwise have to be spelt out in the various languages. Tactile symbols link with the image of a relaxed foot to evoke the effect of each of the products in the toiletries range.

Colourways and the basic Scholl lozenge had to stay, says Design Bridge group creative director Rod Petrie, with a rising yellow curve used as a branding device across the range. “Otherwise, it was very much a typographic exercise in laying out the hierarchy of information,” he says.

The strength of some brands, of course, derives from their status in the different European markets as an imported product rather than a home-grown one. Some fun can be had projecting a product as being essentially foreign, as happened with Snòfrisk, a goat’s cheese from Tine in Norway. Dragon worked on the design for the new brand, and according to creative director Greg Vallance, the name was invented, even down to the accent, and means nothing in any language.

“We always ask, ‘What is your ambition for this brand?’,” says Dragon director Jane Mann. “The client has to decide if it is purely export or if it wants the brand to be truly pan-European, at home in every market.”

It is an experience common to many manufacturers that, so long as supplying products is just an export operation, standardisation of pack designs is relatively easy. But once sourcing and production are running independently in different markets, control becomes more of a headache.

“Once that control is lost, the fact that it is a pan-European brand means nothing. That, too, is lost,” says Vallance. This is why the brand manual, once a luxury, has become a necessity for international brands, says Dragon.

When EMI UK introduced its Mid-Price mid-range CD price category a year ago, its success prompted the international arm of the company to take the same brand into other countries. In this case, Dragon produced a brand manual spelling out the colours to be used on the logo, the typeface, and where the label was to be applied to each CD. The identity was to be carried across point-of-sale displays and advertising.

Like graphics, 3D design can be of critical importance in establishing an international brand identity which works. “Structure can be very powerful in that it gives you a greater degree of freedom, allowing you to act European and think local,” says Steve Kelsey, creative director, structure, at PI Design International. “You can inject a lot of identity into the shape and the colours while retaining local visual cues on the pack.”

After a redesign by PI, the Shell Chemicals Car Care range has been taken Europe-wide. Similar geometric lines are used to bring together over 30 products, while the Shell pecten trademark is used for a visible brand identity. Having such a strong identifier was a great help, says Kelsey, but this is not always the case in pan-European design. “You try to find a common denominator – not the lowest – but nonetheless, they can be bland. You look for the common element with a spark of interest and which grabs people’s attention.”

More centralised marketing strategies for multinationals have helped moves towards pan-European design. If a unified pack identity helps to reduce the overall spend on TV advertising, clearly this is a benefit. Also, with growing exposure to cross-border and satellite TV, simply having a common appearance and impact for a brand counts for a great deal.

Brand owners may look for a more harmonised international image in order to exploit the brand – with its associations of quality, auth ority and reliability – to the full. Or as Graphique’s Armes explains, they may see no rationale for identical or even similar packs in different European markets, unless they lead to cost savings somewhere along the line. And with increasing use of centralised product-specific filling and materials purchasing, there can often be savings and logistical benefits from standardising on both graphics and structure.

These long-term benefits of cutting packaging costs were central to the decision of Paris-based retailing group Promodès to develop a new identity for its supermarket chains in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. The branding had to be flexible enough to span nearly 1,600 product lines in the Continent, Continente and Champion chains, says Coley Porter Bell, which worked on the redesign and claims it is Europe’s largest packaging design project.

Coley Porter Bell came up with a curve and ribbon device, bearing the retailer’s name in white, designed to unify the brand and project an image of quality and visual appeal onto each product. Here, designing across borders was not a problem, says managing director Amanda Connolly. “The whole premise was that all consumers respond to products which look good and which, for food, have appetite appeal,” she explains.

For Promodès, using a consultancy from outside France paid political dividends, says Connolly, in a French co-ordinated project which required acceptance across a wide range of markets. And there are other benefits from coming in with a fresh approach, she says.

Category language as perceived by the brand owner in different countries is often shown to reflect tradition more than real consumer triggers. “When you ask ‘What is the evidence? How do you know?’ The answer is often, ‘That’s the way we have always done it’,” she explains.

Dragon shares the view that a pan-European approach can shake up many preconceptions established over time in national markets. Although to the northern European eye, black has premium associations for a range of product categories, this particular colour code has not always travelled well. Traditional associations in southern Europe are more mortuary than luxury. This meant that Dragon had a hard time convincing a client in Spain to accept its proposed black livery for a premium range of pasta. In fact, says Vallance, consumer acceptance proved to be very positive.


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