How premium design stays ahead of the curve

High-end brands are under greater pressure than ever from mid-market competitors emulating their designs, so with technology trends driving changing fashions how do you stay premium without losing consistency?

“Math is easy; design is hard.” It’s not surprising that these were words uttered by a designer – Jeffrey Veen, author of The Art of Science and Web Design – but when it comes to premium brands in 2015, he has a point.

To be seen as premium, design increasingly needs to be seen as current and on-trend, especially given the speed at which website and mobile platforms develop and improve. But it’s unlikely that most brands’ product and development cycles can keep up with these changes in fashion.

“There’s been a shifting of the goalposts,” says Matthew Huband, head of global marketing at perfume house Penhaligon’s. “Premium has become a mass-market ambition for all product marketers. But if everyone else upgrades, where does that leave us?”

Diageo-owned Baileys faced this dilemma head on, with sales nose-diving after decades of strong growth (see case study, below). “There had been a huge amount of innovation at the bar counter,” says global brand director Garbhan O’Bric. “Gin exploded. Vodka exploded. There were craft brands. And amongst all that innovation, Baileys looked tired and dated. We had failed to evolve, tweak and iterate our design and that exposed us further.”

Competition is only part of the challenge. Not only do premium brands have to look behind them as others aspire to match their aesthetics, they also have to look ahead to what’s coming next. Online that’s easier said than done: social media has made it harder than ever to maintain ‘premiumness’ across all channels. Viral content is quickly adapted by users with no regard to brand guidelines.

“In order to control a brand image you have to be in control of everything,” explains Falmouth University’s head of graphic design Bryan Clark. “There was a time when you could do that. But you can’t control social media. Now it’s about achieving consistency [but only up] to a point.”

So, how do premium brands strike the balance between consistent design and the freedom to adapt to change? What triggers are used to determine when to stick and when to twist? And what implications does design evolution have for budgets?

“If you are a premium product, you need to innovate on websites and social media to keep up with trends”

Neil Boyd, Ian Macleod Distillers

Thanks to channels such as Instagram, the public is more exposed to aspirational design than ever before. The upshot is that they are more design-literate and discerning. “Consumers have been educated and enriched, and that’s made them more demanding,” admits Diageo’s O’Bric.

In response, mainstream brands have upped their game, adds Fraser Norton, head of brand at airport hospitality business No.1 Traveller. Norton cites brands such as Ikea, Topshop and H&M, which have made it a business differentiator to bring on-trend design to the masses as quickly as possible. Other examples include Argos’s store redesigns, using high-end materials and touch screens; and JD Wetherspoon’s introduction of high-end drinks brands – in both design and positioning terms – such as Fever Tree mixers and craft beers and spirits.

Supermarkets have also had a big say in foregrounding premium design. Research by Nielsen late last year showed sales of premium own-label products growing at four times the market rate of overall grocery sales – 5.2% compared to 1.4%. But this isn’t purely down to better design: 71% of UK consumers say the quality of the ranges has improved.

“The perception of own-label products has improved dramatically in recent years,” says Nielsen’s UK head of retailer and business insight, Mike Watkins. “As with manufacturer brands, retailers have successfully built equity into their own-brand products by investing in product innovation, further developing ranges and increasing marketing activity.”

But with mainstream brands now occupying their territory, where can the premium brands go?

Jocelyn McNulty, recently appointed marketing director at Tyrrells Crisps, admits that it’s not easy to look truly premium given that even the budget brands are “appropriating the language of quality”, albeit in a “very unoriginal way – the black packaging, squiggly logos and softly-lit product shots”.

“The challenge of being premium is to continually reinvent the language of premium so the rest stay a step behind you,” she explains. “If other brands ‘borrow our clothes’ and we stand still, then suddenly we don’t look premium. It’s [therefore] up to the very best design and creative talent to constantly push the boundaries.”

She adds: “Premium brands in particular are well-placed to do this. The genuine premium brands subvert the rules of premium, in our case using wit and humour.”

The idea of brands – both premium and luxury – using a less serious tone in marketing and design might once have been sneered at, but the rules are changing. Well-written, distinctive copy requires an investment that premium brands with bigger profit margins are more willing and able to make than low-margin, mass-market brands. The same is true of manufacturing processes and materials.

In its 2014 luxury packaging report, Stylus concluded that designers are updating luxury hallmarks such as black and metallic with “matt finishes, laser-cut details and sensual curves to create more tactile, playful packaging”. This will continue with future designs likely to be “more colourful and experimental as luxury brands seek to push the boundaries and attract a younger audience”.

Daniel Wheeler, marketing manager at organic dairy brand Rachel’s, says the challenge today is less about looking premium and more about standing out. “There are codes, languages, structures, images and photography which can allow your design to look premium but this does not necessarily equate to success on shelf and online,” he explains.

Indeed, standing out is much trickier than looking premium. Paul Tuvey is sales director for Europe at Shutterstock. “Looking premium is easier to achieve thanks to a blistering amount of content resources to build one’s brand,” he explains, not least because “our accessibility to technology has enabled design growth to occur much more rapidly”.

Thanks to channels such as Instagram, the public is more exposed to aspirational design than before

This is most evident in digital channels. Web designer Suleiman Leadbitter tweeted that “design trends online change more often than the wind, and slightly less often than my socks”. This can be both a blessing and a curse for those trying to maintain their premium brand image.

Take fashion, a category inherently exposed to change because of the very nature of the industry. Though often only subtle alterations, timely visual or functional updates to apps or website designs can help premium fashion brands reaffirm their position as forward-thinking trendsetters.

“As client behaviour online and through all digital platforms continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate, a brand site needs to keep pace with this,” says Charlotte Ellis, director of digital at Karen Millen. The women’s clothing brand achieves this through an “agile ‘test, learn and refine’ approach of continuous incremental development”. This includes innovation like the virtual store created with Avenue Imperial.

“Over time the overall brand representation evolves and retains brand consistency while keeping up with the latest trends and changing client behaviour,” Ellis explains.

There is a caveat: don’t get sucked into fads. “In the world of technology if you are a premium product, you need to innovate on websites and on social media to keep up with new trends – but always be led by your customer,” says Neil Boyd, commercial director of malts at Ian Macleod Distillers.

“The consumers of online media tend to be younger, but the consumers for single malt whisky – and for many other premium products – might be older and may not be as savvy online. You therefore need to match your development to their expectations.”

The pace of change also depends on the sector and whether the design cues are clear from the outset. Many cite technology firm Apple as an example of a brand less susceptible to change because of the level of consumer trust established by its design – both in its hardware and software. Indeed, once a premium brand has been established, only subtle changes may be required, with anything more potentially suggesting insecurity or hesitance around the product or brand identity.

“If you look at Apple, the products have changed but the overall look and feel of their designs have remained very similar,” says Boyd. “They’re an example of starting from the right place and keeping changes small.”

Boyd, working with design consultancy Good, tends to stick this ethos of evolution rather than revolution. “Consumers recognise brands over time [so] if you’re constantly changing then you’re not going to be recognised. For example, we might want to launch an older variety or a smaller pack – but they will still look like Glengoyne. There’s a lot of change out there for consumers, and brand consistency helps them to navigate and assign value.”

Consistency is a word that crops up time and again. “It’s absolutely key,” says Rebekah Hall, co-founder of Botanic Lab. The juice company has been working with innovation agency Adaptive Lab to build a premium online offering and experience. “It’s not an exact science but the best money we’ve spent is on assessing how to maintain ‘premium’ through all channels,” says Hall.

This, of course, includes the offer: design-savvy and price-conscious consumers are unlikely to be hoodwinked by a premium design and bog-standard product or service. “You need confidence in your product and the way you tell your story,” says Penhaligon’s Huband, who works with design agency Jones Knowles Ritchie.

Likewise, even the most successful products can lose their appeal if design falls by the wayside. Just ask Baileys. Diageo’s O’Bric concludes: “There’s isn’t a Baileys 2.0 – our liquid remains the same so design is even more important. It informs everything we do.”

Case study: Baileys


For more than three decades Baileys enjoyed double-digit growth as drinkers, mainly women, lapped up what they saw as a modern, aspirational and innovative brand. But in 2008 the hangover started. The product hadn’t changed but the perception of it had thanks to innovations from craft spirits and beers, says Baileys global brand director Garbhan O’Bric.

With customers often choosing other drinks at the bar, it was time for a re-think. “Advertising alone wasn’t going to address [the decline],” says O’Bric. The bottle was redesigned and there was a brand extension – the limited edition gold-packaged Baileys Chocolat Luxe proving “hugely popular”, especially with younger customers.

In November, coinciding with the cream liqueur’s 40th birthday, a multimillion-pound marketing push was announced – including the largest on-trade investment in the brand for over a decade. The aim: to get the drink’s mojo back.

The dive in off-trade sales is being clawed back, but at the heart of the revival is design. With agency Lewis Moberly, O’Bric explains “we’ve thought about the whole experience – from the bottle to our Facebook page, from our headed paper to our website; even our office now echoes the design aesthetic the consumer sees. We have a new set of principles in which design is organic. We will move as the landscape around us does.”