Identity Crisis

The relationship between design consultancies and new clients can be tense. It’s the designers’ responsibility to lift the veil of mystery, while customers shouldn’t expect a quick fix.

There is not a lot of mystery attached to the processes involved in advertising, direct marketing and sales promotion, but design consultancy work and branding are a different matter.

From the outside, the means of developing a logo, brand identity and brand values are unknown. This ignorance often leads to disdain. The Sun, with its sneering headlines about the BBC and British Airway’s new identities, helps fuel the perception that, for example, spending &£6m to redesign a few tail fins is the result of a bunch of creatives with ponytails pulling the wool over the eyes of a gullible client.

Of course there are those who understand the whole process and still believe gullibility is involved. But that’s another matter. The shroud of mystery surrounding design means clients approaching consultancies for the first time can find it a daunting process – a situation often fuelled by the agencies themselves.

Waste management company Shanks recently completed a successful rebranding programme through Bamber Forsyth. However, communications and brand manager James Weekley says that during the initial pitch process “There were some consultancies that revelled in the fact that they knew something that we didn’t.”

Roger Felton, director of Roger Felton Associates, says: “The comment we get a lot from clients who are new to design is that the agencies are invariably arrogant – especially the bigger ones. Clients sometimes feel they are going to be told what to do by consultancies which think they know more about the organisation than the client.”

With design newcomers the onus is on the consultancy to throw out all the jargon, slow the process down and explain it at every stage. Lippa Pearce associate director Rachel Dinnis says: “You have to go the extra mile with new clients. You need to explain things such as how to buy print, sign-offs and other terminology. There is more of a sense of responsibility.

“If you are dealing with a client that has used design before, you get a good input. But with “debutantes” the design has to work so much harder because you are starting from the beginning. You have someone else’s dream in your hands and, as a result, you tend to do more work.”

Working with a company that is new to design “tends to make the relationship very strong”, but there are disadvantages. Dinnis continues: “Although we didn’t experience this when doing design work for the recently launched soup shop Soup Opera, some new clients think you have to have a logo on everything. It’s difficult to explain that the strength of an identity is being able to cover up the logo and still know what company it is. The identity is shown through the personality of the typeface and the way it looks.

“Marketing and design are complex and hard to understand.”

Dinnis points out that consultancies tend to lose money on new-comers, which inevitably have lower budgets and are more time intensive.

Clare Fuller, a principal at Bamber Forsyth, says: “Shanks was very shrewd and applied the same managing supplier mentality to us as it did to others. It drove a hard bargain.

“It has very good negotiators and encouraged us to go the extra mile.”

Fuller believes that, in the end, Bamber Forsyth didn’t charge enough for the job – the price having been driven down by Shanks in the early stages of negotiation. She argues this was mainly because Shanks had no idea how much work was involved.

“We spent ages doing extra research with the senior management to show them that what we were proposing was the right thing to do, even though we knew it already.

“We knew we weren’t charging enough, but they didn’t understand why we wanted to charge more. The next time we pitch for a design debutante and it questions the fee, we are going to get it to phone Shanks and ask what it thinks.”

The relationship between Bamber Forsyth and Shanks was a good one and Weekley takes these comments on the chin: “We didn’t know how much you were supposed to pay for it. We knew what money we had available, and we knew what we wanted. We definitely got good value for money.”

It is important to get clients, particularly senior management, to understand what the fee structure is based on.

Felton comments: “We have just presented an identity for a floor retail brand. The director was not involved in the previous three meetings, but he loved the design. However, when he was told how much the project was going to cost – and it was not a lot – he said: ‘How much? I could have done that myself’.

“Companies tend to take the logo on board but have no understanding of the process involved in getting to it. It is very important for them to understand how many hours go into developing an identity.”

When the Terrence Higgins Trust hired Roger Felton Associates it was the first time the charity had worked with a design consultancy. Felton says: “It had a low budget, and charities are invariably very political. We had to bring it in at every stage and show it how we were thinking. It meant that, in the end, the charity felt as though it had been completely involved in the project.”

Felton points out that any work relating to a company’s identity, particularly rebranding and renaming, is risky and can make the client feel vulnerable.

Name of the game

Springpoint recently handled the naming and development of a new brand in the financial services industry: Opus. Springpoint client services director Vanessa Lumby says: “Naming is a hugely difficult exercise and a big step for any company. A new client needs to understand that coming up with a name is not necessarily going to involve a eureka moment.

“I know Opus found initial stages of the naming process difficult. We became aware that it was being very neutral about what we were presenting and not totally candid in its responses. We went to the chief executive and said: ‘You have to give it to us straight.’ Because it was such new territory for the company, it didn’t have the confidence to speak honestly.”

Opus marketing director Philip Smith agrees it was a difficult process: “When we started, I didn’t know how long the process would take and the emotional energy it would involve. Naming and creating the identity for a new company, particularly a management buyout, has a lot of emotion attached to it.

“If we did this again, I would resource it differently. I would have more people involved at our end. I underestimated the level of work involved.”

Smith says there were cultural issues at stake: “The senior management at Opus are in their mid-40s to mid-50s, which indicates a certain mindset. These are people who understand what it takes to make a sale and have a good product or service, but they have never had to put it together in a disciplined way to form brand values.

Beginners’ scepticism

“They had difficulty relating to that process and there was a certain amount of scepticism.”

The relationship between design agencies and inexperienced clients is a potentially fraught one. But as more clients turn to integrated branding solutions, design agencies need to step out from behind the veneer of mystery and accept that the general public is suspicious and anxious about branding and design. Clients, on the other hand, must accept that producing a logo is not a matter of dashing off a drawing in ten minutes, and that, if used properly, branding initiatives can move a company culture forward.


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