Few things are more important to creating identity and loyalty than a product's physical packaging and visual design. William Goodenough explores the challenges of designing a strong identity that transcends generations and cultures
It has always seemed strange to me to divorce the business of the brand from the look of the brand. The two are intrinsically linked for a very good reason: a consumer buys into a trusted product that can 'do the job'; and, moreover, he or she buys into a set of values that can deliver against their aspirations for a better life.
How does the consumer decide whether a product can deliver these twin needs?
So, if consumers make their decision to buy or not to buy based on what they see and perceive in front of them — the role of design is strategically at the heart of what companies offer to the public. They are, in essence, guardians of a brand's physical and visual equities. If only for that reason, design partners should form an integral part of a company's global team.
Global business, local identity
As the arena of decision-making is shifting from the countrywide arena through whole regions toward a global business, decisions on branding become ever more crucial. It is time to start talking about brand identities and product identities — aligning the first globally and using the latter to create connections with local or regional cultures.
Getting business decisions wrong can be financially very damaging to a brand's profitability. Getting the brand identity wrong can eliminate a brand in a remarkably short time. Consumers rarely give a second look to a brand they cannot identify with at some level. It does raise the stakes on getting the brand identity right. Globalisation can remove the essential uniqueness for national audiences.
That is the nature of broadening a brand's appeal — standardisation can knock a brand toward mediocrity, removing design elements that may have been part of a future generation's nostalgia. Imagine a unique bottle that has been around for 100 years, but because all countries have to fall into line, the equity of that bottle may be lost forever and of course can present a significant threat to the brand's position in the given market.
Let us be quite clear then about the benefits of understanding the essential difference between brand identity and product identity: it is not about dogmatic decisions to follow cost reduction slavishly, one of the rational benefits of globalisation.
Show me, and I will remember
People don't read first, they see and recognise images. This is something you can't simply rationalise away. To move away from this position is to lose 'A' brand status.
Brand building is about reinventing the past in the context of today and tomorrow. It is not about discarding the past.
Working hard to retain visual equities and, indeed, develop them into a meaningful and recognisable consumer proposition is more difficult when there are numerous cultural audiences. Knowing what to keep and what to discard from a set of visual equities is a vital skill.
Indeed, it is the cultural differences in the world that present both greater challenges and greater opportunities than any artificial borders can impose upon a project. That is why we need to focus on what unites — on what motivates human behaviours at a fundamental level — rather than allowing national boundaries to dictate problems that can almost always be overcome through powerful design.
Organisations have different ways of achieving emotional connection. The strength of the Nestlé brand has been leveraged on pack and through its product and brand naming for generations. Nestlé has achieved much from a relatively seamless transition from corporate identity to product brand. It also deploys structural form as a key communicator of brand values. The Nescafé coffee jar is different and distinctive. Nestlé recognises the range of design tools available, and considers graphics and structure as equally integral to brand identity.
Process driven, not stifled
It will always be vital to spend time at the outset of a project discussing the equities that give life and colour to the brand. The process should not be there to stifle creativity, but to let it flow. In fact, global leadership within organisations such as Heineken and Diageo is marked out by the time and focus given over to the detail of design.
At Starbucks, the well-known principle of 'everything matters' refers to design detail as much as it does to any other element of the brand. Howard Schultz, Starbuck's enigmatic CEO, gives credit for the growth of Starbucks to a foundation of values seldom found in corporate America — values that place as much importance on employees as they do on profits, and as much attention to creativity as to growth.
How can brand leaders judge the design and its performance if they are to crank up the importance of strategic creativity in building brands? It is remarkably easy to insert the word 'strategic' into any sentence about creativity and expect the broader issues to be taken into consideration.
At its most simple, strategic design is about recognising the outcome of any project being part of a wider portfolio of communication tools. In isolation, however, this won't solve anything. It is consumer insight that is at the heart of meaningful creativity. So interpretation of the brief alongside the use and development of consumer insight are at the heart of strategic brand planning. Excellent planning measures use the client brief and original consumer insight to inform and guide the creative output through a focused and inspiring design brief.
The secret of successful design is building on the ingredients from insights and adding the inspiration through the creative process. Crafting skills, inspiration in the ideas and choice of style and imagery can build 'A' brand status and deliver a breakthrough in the category. Superior execution measures must clearly exceed the expectations of the client and the standard of the industry as a whole.
There is a real link between brand valuation and business valuation. The intangible value of a brand, its goodwill, can be upwards of 90 per cent of the amount paid for a brand as a whole. GrandMet paid almost a billion dollars for the Pillsbury brand name and associated brands back in 1988. How much of this vast sum is down to goodwill and the strength of brand identity?
Facilitating long-term brand building by developing root strengths of visual and physical equities through detailed management can deliver more commercial as well as financial success than focusing on the business decisions and associated management issues. Design is an influential cost centre as it affects all the packaging costs from capital expenditure through materials and many production aspects. Get this wrong, and this is effectively getting the business for the whole brand wrong.
Bring insight to life
The devil is as ever in the detail. As companies strive for brand identity excellence, be it for national, regional or global consumer markets, the commercial challenge for design is to harness the core reason why the brand has been successful and develop this for the audience. Risking consumer relevance is risking brand value, that much is clear.
Be clever in choosing design partners. There are a large number of good design companies around the world, but not so many that really understand the disciplines and skills for developing, managing and creatively implementing 'A' brand visual equities.
In these days of the 'global brand,' invest more time — not less — in design detail, and in harnessing creative power. Manage visual equities with a global perspective but with a close eye on consumer motivation and cultural drivers. Global brand leadership does not thrive on compromise, but requires the head and the heart to work in harmony.
William Goodenough is executive chairman of Design Bridge, a 20-year-old ingredient branding and packaging design consultancy with offices in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. www.designbridge.com