Making brands better by design

Companies such as British Airways, SodaStream and GSK are putting design at the core of their marketing to positively impact consumers’ perception and boost sales.

Above: ExCel has created a commemorative wall to celebrate its role in London 2012

“SodaStream has been completely turned around by innovation and design,” claims Yaron Kopel, the company’s chief innovation and design officer.

 Cynics may be unsurprised by this claim, given Kopel’s role, but with sales up 29 per cent to $145m (£88m) in the third quarter last year, and chief executive Daniel Birnbaum agreeing that progress is being fuelled by “positive consumer response to our demand creation efforts and innovative products”, the facts seem to support Kopel’s assertion.

SodaStream first enjoyed mass-market success in the early 1980s, but the past 20 years have been anything but bubbly. Since relaunching in 2010, however, and with the emphasis now on “revolutionary” design, health and sustainability, it is on an upward curve once more and recently attracted Hollywood A-lister Scarlett Johansson as its first brand ambassador.

This focus on design, and the greater impetus it is receiving within the overall marketing mix, is prevalent at businesses as diverse as British Airways (BA), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and file-sharing company WeTransfer, all of which agree that design can be a genuine brand differentiator.

Indeed, British Airways introduced the role of creative director last May to help bridge the gap between design and marketing. Richard Stevens, who took on the challenge, says: “My role was created to advise our head of brands and marketing [Abigail Comber] on how to use the [design] skills and expertise we have at our disposal within the department and across the business.”

As a result, the airline is moving away from viewing design as a separate function. 

“We need to get to a point where everything we create is always based on our understanding of the total customer journey,” says Stevens. “Design should never happen in isolation; our customers experience design as part of the journey so that’s the way we have to think about it too.”

People love great design. They will pay more for something that makes them feel special

BA continues to focus on what differentiates it as an airline and Stevens has been working hard to define how design can help with that goal and become a core function of the business.

“We know great design is about getting things right for the customer and for the business. It’s not about decoration or design for its own sake,” he says.

“We have always thrived when we champion great British design to help us find those right ideas. And it’s not by going for the famous or fashionable but by partnering and growing with the genuinely innovative.”

Being British is also at the heart of one of exhibition centre ExCel’s most recent design projects as it looks to immortalise the role design played at the London 2012 Olympic Games.  

The venue, which hosted seven Olympic and six Paralympic events and welcomed 1.3 million people through its doors during that time, enlisted design consultancy Equinox Partners to install a commemorative wall in what was previously a vacant space. The wall features 12 plaques to illustrate the various events that took place at the venue, alongside hand-print casts of athletes who competed there, such as men’s boxing super-heavyweight gold medallist Anthony Joshua, in addition to those of Olympics chief Lord Sebastian Coe and London mayor Boris Johnson.

“The role we played in the Olympics is an important part of our history and highlights the strength of our brand, which we don’t want to be forgotten,” says James Mark, executive director of ExCel.

“That’s why we wanted something physical to mark it on site rather than taking out an ad or explaining what we did in a newsletter. We wanted something that would stand the test of time, that would be engaging and interactive and would remind people of the part ExCel played.”

BA introduced the role of creative director last year to help bridge the gap between design and marketing

While ExCel looks to commemorate its Olympic history with a physical installation, the mission of WeTransfer – a purely digital business – is to bring the brand to life through design.

“We believe in an online world that is as close to human as possible,” says Nalden, co-founder of WeTransfer, which has 18 million monthly users.

“Technology can allow people to get more out of their lives and we see design as the tool to get people to embrace this technology… We give half of our annual advertising inventory to the creative community and this connects with people because it allows them to go beyond transferring files to discovering amazing content.”

WeTransfer recently brought designer and artist Nelly Ben Hayoun on board as head of experiences. Each week she shares her work and travels through a visual diary on the site’s full-screen backgrounds.

“This allows our users to experience the places she goes, the activities she does and the people she meets,” says Nalden. 

“Beyond this, we have asked her to develop ways in which we can make our digital content a more physical, human experience for users, whether that’s through enhanced 3D backgrounds, videos, installations or events.”

The brand is also focused on developing new products and will be launching an iPhone app in the next few weeks, which will enable users to transfer up to 10GB of photos and videos from their mobile phone. 

As WeTransfer still has quite a small team, Nalden says there is a lot of crossover between the design and marketing functions because the roles tend to be held by the same people.

However, for a consumer healthcare business like GSK, which houses multiple brands such as Sensodyne, Aquafresh and NiQuitin and has thousands of employees worldwide, the structure is a lot more complicated.

GSK has elevated design’s role from being a piece of packaging to design as a strategic lever across multiple touchpoints

Design is now seen as a strategic enabler for the business, according to vice-president of global design for consumer healthcare Andrew Barraclough, who over the past two-and-a-half years has been working to fully embed design into the marketing function of each brand team.

“People see design in quite a narrow way,” he says. “They don’t see it as something that can add significant value to the bottom line of an organisation. But great design can absolutely do that.”

He believes design should be given the same impetus as other functions within the marketing mix, such as market research and R&D.

“In most FMCG businesses, market research is a separate function that is embedded within the brand team, so it is about taking that model and saying yes, you need a research specialist within the brand team but clearly you need a design specialist too.” 

Having done this, GSK has elevated the role of design from “design as a piece of packaging” to “design as a strategic lever across multiple touchpoints”, says Barraclough.

Funding has also been transferred from marketing to the design management team, which he says enables the team to “own the relationship with design agencies, optimise design spend, negotiate better service levels and client teams, control the quality of the input and output, build a true partnership with agencies, and move from simply managing design to a position of design leadership”.

Barraclough thinks it will take GSK four to six years in total to complete the transition and rewire design thinking across the business. 

As part of this evolution, GSK performed a major cull of its design agency partners.
“We were working with over 100 different agencies but now we work with just three,” says Barraclough. “[It doesn’t make sense to have] 20 different agencies working on one brand because you will get 20 different thoughts and views.

“Equally, if you’re spending a small amount of money with 100 different design agencies, you’re always going to be the mistress, never the bride. You need to form a really true partnership.”

GSK has embarked on a four- to six-year transition of design’s role within the company

GSK now has long-term agreements in place with its design agency partners, whose representatives attend team meetings and are exposed to long-term planning. 

Like GSK, SodaStream has undertaken a major shift in thinking and now gives design more emphasis, especially given its goal of generating $1bn in global revenue by 2016.

Kopel says: “Our approach to design has changed dramatically. It now plays a vital role in everything we do. The new products we have delivered in the past two years and plan to deliver over the next three years will have a determined effect on our success.”

SodaStream launched the Source model and SodaCaps single-serve flavour capsules last year and is set to introduce its more affordable, entry-level machine, Play, in a couple of months’ time as it looks to widen its audience.

This shift in strategy has prompted the company to partner with design magazine Wallpaper* for a series of ‘Lock In’ parties and to host the Bubble Break soda bar in Harrods.

“Before we could only sell the product in mass-market places, but today it is sold everywhere from Walmart in the US to Harrods,” says Kopel.

It is also why the brand has attracted the endorsement of a celebrity ambassador in Scarlett Johannson. The first ad featuring the star will be aired in a much sought-after slot during the Super Bowl on 2 February.

Great design goes hand in hand with great marketing but, in order to leverage both effectively, each needs to be embedded in the overall brand strategy because one without the other could be a recipe for disaster.


hree big challenges


Organisations need to embed design into their overall brand strategy and upskill their staff accordingly in order to understand how it can influence the innovation pipeline, according to Andrew Barraclough, vice-president of design at GlaxoSmithKline consumer healthcare.
e says: “An awful lot of education [needs to be done] around what design can do and what it can deliver, and how to cross-pollinate ideas and design across multiple touchpoints. What elements do you use where, and how do you continue to build the equity of the brand through quality of design?”


Richard Stevens, creative director at British Airways, says the brand must continue to thread together all the initiatives being developed across the business.
“More importantly though,” he adds, “we need to work harder at being more agile, more efficient and less process-driven in the way we design. We are encouraging much more prototyping and testing – the making of new ideas. More thinking through doing. 
f we can use this to speed up the delivery of those initiatives and improve the customer experience, everybody benefits.”


s a start-up, WeTransfer still has a fairly small team. So for now, its design and marketing divisions comprise the same people, which enables a close-knit approach to both sectors.

Co-founder Nalden says: “I think most start-ups try to get the most they can out of a small team. Luckily, we’re growing fast so this also involves hiring the best people we can find. No matter how large the team grows, we truly believe that design underpins our entire service. So for us, marketing people and designers will always work closely together.” 


Richard Stevens

Creative director
 British Airways

Marketing Week (MW): To what extent can investing in good design help to boost sales and improve brand perception?

Richard Stevens (RS): We all make decisions based on emotion, then we rationalise our decisions. So we need to design with emotion, warmth and character.
 People love great design. They will pay more for something that makes them feel special and great design makes people feel special because it clearly shows that we have thought about them.
We need to show that we care about every detail of their journey and show how every element works together to create an experience that is as good as we can possibly make it.
We know people will always make rational decisions, but we also know that with great design we can make emotion a much more important part of choosing us as an airline. 

MW: What proportion of the marketing budget is assigned to design?

RS: This fluctuates from year to year as it is totally dependent on our product and service life-cycle. When it comes to designing assets such as new aircraft, for example, it is a significant investment in time, resource and budget, both internally and externally. 

At the moment there is an awful lot going on. Product and service innovation on the ground, in the air and everything in between, combined with what our digital future will look like.



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