Spray put

Anyone living in a city has come across stencil graffiti, but sometimes it is so subtle that only the trained eye will appreciate it. Stencilling can be unobtrusive, much of the time consisting of simple line art images or crude lettering. Many writers also choose decaying masonry as their canvas, so their work can literally blend into the background as time goes on. This certainly integrates their work into the urban environment, but it could conceivably make it hard to spot in the first place.

Tristan Manco, director of Bristol design consultancy Tijuana Design, has compiled an exhaustive book of stencil graffiti from around the world. From abrasive social commentary to tongue-in-cheek slogans, this is certainly a comprehensive selection. First impressions are good: Manco is a graphic designer by trade and the entire book, from the stencil-style typography to the clean, uncluttered layout that allows the graffiti to dominate, are a joy to behold.

It’s a shame Manco’s writing doesn’t come up to scratch. His prose is dry, academic and an effort to read. It is filled with the hackneyed jargon of the least imaginative designers, the kind of copy that makes you immediately glaze over.

However, to give Manco his due, he has taken the time to dig up a wide range of writers, and he gives them plenty of room to talk about their work.

A cursory flick through the book will not fail to draw a smile — Figure with Tiger, by Jerome Mesnager (above left) is a work of subtle genius, the way the tiger is camouflaged by the decaying plaster, stalking Mesnager’s trademark white figure. Then there is Banksy, who paints subversive alien chimps wearing sandwich boards, warning humankind to clean up its act, or they’re going to take over (above right). Banksy’s work stands out even when it is covered by the visual noise of inferior writers: one particular work in London’s West. End portrayed a silhouette of the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher on her shoulder. The image was so striking, twisted and incongruously funny that just catching sight ‘of it would lift your mood. Banksy is well aware of the potency of his work: ‘As soon as I cut my first stencil, I could feel the power there, The ruthlessness and efficiency of it is perfect.’

There are other writers, such as Mitch and Swifty, that are taking the graffiti aesthetic and applying it to graphic design and typography. Mitch’s custom typography, which Manco aptly describes with the oxymoron ‘retro-future’, is peculiarly satisfying: the simplicity of the letters; the way different words are juxtaposed to make a vibrant complete image; the way he uses spray paints to, in his words, ‘provide some bad-ass colour fades/splats/cracks’, should be an inspiration to any designer.

Similarly, Swifty’s installation for an Amsterdam coffee shop, which consists entirely of slang words for marijuana, in a stunning array of day-glo colours, is a riot of style. However, graffiti starts to lose its power if you take it off the streets. Banksy knows what he prefers: ‘I’ve done gallery shows’ and, if you’ve been hitting all sorts of places, they’re a real step backwards.’

So take a look around you, because you could be missing out on what could be described as underground pop art for the 21st century.

Research and employ, not search and destroy

TRADITIONALLY, there is no love lost between creatives and researchers. Such different personalities, such different methods of problem-solving. Some put it down to the left brain against the right. But that is old news.

This was the case long before Professor Sir Christopher Frayling’s Design in Business Week speech last October, in which he took the step of condemning research as one of the heresies of the design industry. Though not quite Axis of Evil’ material, these were strong words. So why is research so often seen as the destroyer of the creative process?

Wendy Gordon, who heads the research team at creative strategist The Fourth Room, thinks she might have part of the answer. And the research industry, she acknowledges is partly to blame.

Gordon traces the problem back more than 20 years to the way research has actually come to be used in the creative industries.

‘When I first started working with ad agencies in 1979 there was a whole new breed of qualitative research coming into being. The whole thing then was–how can we connect the creatives and the creative process better with real human beings?’ she says.

Back then, research was a much more extensive function, that tied in closely with the creative, recalls Gordon. It would be brought into the creative process at three key stages: first, before a strategy was developed to inform creative ideas; second, to test a couple of strategic alternatives developed on the back of the first stage; third, the creative idea. The results, she say, were good.

‘It was pretty successful. It did help ad agencies and clients feel they were creating more effective campaigns based on what people thought and felt,’ says Gordon. But then the marketing services sector was hit by a blow that changed the use of research forever. The result was effectively a wholesale downgrade of the discipline.

‘As we hit recession, these three stages quickly condensed into one,’ says Gordon. ‘Agencies wouldn’t pay for the three-stage process and neither would clients. What you tried to do in the space of one group discussion was work out what was going on, what the potential strategies could be, and evaluate some ideas that had already been conceived,’ she adds. It was clearly all too ambitious.

As a result, throughout the 1990s qualitative (non data-led) research, became synonymous with the focus group discussion, says Gordon. This condensed approach to research saw too many agendas on the table at once. The research function never fully recovered as a creative force.

Nowadays, Frayling’s view probably sums up the attitude of many creatives towards research. The problem is that Frayling and others only seem to experience ‘research’ when it is killing their ideas. Gordon is sympathetic.

‘Using research to evaluate design is the problem. However, it should be used as part of the journey to understand,’ she says. ‘As soon as a consultancy is involved, a project has already moved into the implementation phase. Implementation is about evaluation, not exploration,’ she says. The point is key to her thesis.

She feels that by using research to inform client and consultancy-side creatives at the start of a brief, and by uniting design and research thinking at the investigation phase, she can begin to change a few perceptions about research.

But proving the creative case for research means adopting a radical stance about how and when research is to be used. Gordon describes her approach as ‘designing and interpreting research that enables companies to connect and re-connect with their customers’.

Focusing on fundamentally understanding customers and their needs, she suggests, is key to developing business strategy and company growth. Her goal is to elevate the status of research to a discipline that ‘brings companies and brands face to face with real people, in real contexts, in the real and changing world’. Key to this, she says, is the thirst for knowledge–curiosity. But there is still a long way to go for this thinking to be more widely accepted.

It will take a huge process of education to alter battered perceptions from the creative side of the fence, as well as redefine what research means and how it should be used by clients. But Gordon has a few ideas about how qualitative research, when used well, can fuse with traditional creative disciplines.

‘If you could get creatives to think of researchers as being intuitive–tapping into the experience that they have with people–they would find the whole thing makes sense,’ she says. She has experienced this first-hand, having worked closely with Michael Wolff.

‘It’s not laborious and left brain. Good researchers use a very creative process–it’s just a different type of creative process to designing. Good researchers and good creatives have an immediate rapport, but bad creatives and bad researchers have a terrible rapport,’ she concludes.

At last year’s Design in Business Week, Frayling also voiced concern that design is too often used for the quick-fix, rather than as a strategic tool. So it seems to be with research. Could it be that Gordon’s story is not so different from Frayling’s?

Developing relations and nations

THE MILLENNIUM PRODUCTS roadshow rolled into Johannesburg in November 1999. Since then, attempts to promote British design in South Africa have been few and far between.

Designers, however, are beginning to show more interest in fostering links between the two countries, whose bilateral trade was worth pounds6bn in 2000 (Trade Partners UK).

A fortnight ago, Tomato Interactive’s Tom Roope and Farrow Design’s Mark Farrow attended the 5th International Design Indaba in Cape Town – described by its founder Ravi Naidoo as ‘a high-end event to inspire and benchmark South African design against the world’s best’. Separately, RFA director Richard Fowler is returning to South Africa this week to negotiate the basis for contract relationships’ on a tourism and community project in the Khayelitsha township.

That the country is home to both new media shindigs and shanty towns gives a fair indication of its diversity and character as an emerging economy. RFA’s commission followed a visit in January last year by a group of British exhibition designers, which also included Event Communications and Land Design Studio.

Trade Partners UK Cape Town representative Janet Usher organised the trip. She says, ‘Design is something we haven’t done an awful lot on. It’s a mature industry here in terms of graphic design, for example. But we would like to encourage more British companies to come out and take a look. The main opportunities will be in partnership and we do run a match-making service.’

Fowler agrees that British designers have ‘no chance’ without first finding local partners. ‘You can’t just expect to fly in and fly out,’ he says. RFA is working with Cape Town architect Magqwaka Associates. Fowler expresses confidence in ‘sophisticated local design and contracting facilities’.

What British exhibition designers bring to the table, says Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins, is high-level technical expertise in terms of audio visual and interactive effects, as well as experience in creating museum narratives. ‘UK interpretation skills are top of the pile,’ he says.

In Fowler’s view, there is plenty of good work on offer. Higgins points to strong curatorial expertise and ‘fantastic stories’ like ‘the Cradle of Humankind’. He adds, ‘Investment in the heritage and culture would bring in tourists and extend South Africa’s appeal as a holiday destination.’

But Higgins is ‘not holding his breath’ about such ideas getting off the ground. The problem is funding. The South African government needs to spend money on education and fighting Aids and potential commercial sponsors are strapped for cash, he says.

While the cultural sector is simply under-resourced, currency volatility is a wider issue. ‘The brand has devalued 40 per cent in the past year,’ says Naidoo. ‘The exchange rate is around 16 brand to the pound.’ Although fees for the township work are minimal, Fowler hopes to fix his payments in pounds sterling.

With 50 per cent of the population under 18 years old, demographics suggest South Africa is destined to become a significant market. The country has more mobile phones than landlines and a youth-oriented consumer culture is starting to develop, says Naidoo, who is managing director of the consultancy Interactive Africa in addition to running Design Indaba.

Usher says she intends to carry out an ‘in-depth’ internal review of the South African design industry. She adds, ‘We need to become more knowledgeable about the market to break it down and see where the opportunities are and what technology and skills are needed.’ But financial and cultural factors seem likely to constrain direct British involvement in the medium term.

The corporate market for identity, strategy, packaging and literature jobs is dominated by a ‘big four’ of Brown KSDP (owned by WPP Group), Interbrand-Sampson, Switch Design and Trademark Design, according to InterbrandSampson managing director Jeremy Sampson. ‘The major design consultancies are in each other’s faces all the time,’ he says.

UK consultancies haven’t discovered the South African cost structure, which is 75 per cent of the going rate in London, says Sampson. With ‘global best practice’ and electronic communications, this allows InterbrandSampson to present itself as a low-cost producer within the Interbrand group, he says.

For British designers, moving into this market is not half as easy as they might think, says Sampson, who first came to Johannesburg in 1968. He adds, ‘There’s a limited number of big clients and the most successful design businesses have grown in South Africa. It’s not just a case of sticking a flag in the ground.’

Naidoo thinks vibrant smaller consultancies, like Red Shift, Wireframe and Type 01, are already capable of ‘challenging the status quo’ domestically.

But he is also quick to spot ‘arbitrage opportunities’. He says, ‘South Africa is positioning itself as a hub for creative services – world class production values at brand prices.’

While Sampson suggests retail and interiors work is hotting up and Naidoo says specialist design input will increasingly be required ‘further up the value chain’, Naidoo implies South Africa has more to offer the UK than vice versa at this stage.

The technology infrastructure in Cape Town is the same as in downtown San Francisco or London, says Naidoo. His, vision is that Cape Town will become for the design industry what Bangalore is for software providers.

South African consultancies will become ‘more assertive’ in seeking ‘strategic alliances with design and production houses in the UK c outsource front-end design or print,’ he says. Naidoo adds, We’re so darned competitive, it becomes a no-brainer.’

Visual cliches

YOU know where you are with a good old design cliche. There’s no fear of mistaking what type of product or company it belongs to or what image it’s trying to present, because there are a host of competitors doing exactly the same thing with variations of the same design cues.

And while you’re not going to win any prizes for creativity or make any startling leaps in market share, you know that by playing safe, you should avoid risky and costly mistakes while doing enough to, at best, make a modest gain and, at worst, keep pace with your rivals.

Dull, but true. And while design cliches are nothing new, in today’s economic climate of caution coupled with pressure of faster speeds to market and the need to cater for international audiences, many designers feel increasingly frustrated with what they see as a pervading sprit of conservatism and a reliance on those handy, but hackneyed design devices.

‘People can’t be bothered to come up with their own ideas. It’s a visual shorthand that means absolutely nothing,’ says Williams Murray Hamm director Richard Williams, who despairs of the lack of innovative design and urges designers to take the lead.

‘We designers are meant to be experts in what we do. We’re not forelock-tugging suppliers, but are providing clients with a creative solution that sets out what needs to be done. Rather than follow the market, why not leapfrog it and steal a march on your competitors?’

More exciting opportunities exist abroad, adds Design Bridge creative director Tim Perkins. ‘UK packaging used to be seen as being cutting-edge, but we’re doing braver stuff in other countries now. Maybe we’ve got too many rules here,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of pressure to get things out there rather than getting something out there that will really get noticed.’

Johnson Banks creative director Michael Johnson adds that his most innovative clients are also outside the UK. ‘It’s quite a tough time to get weird stuff through. There’s a degree of conservatism around and fear on the part of designers and clients. A lot of people are just trying to stay alive,’ he says. ‘There’s just a lack of enterprising spirit generally. We’re very risk averse.’

The difficult nature of the current economic climate should really be no excuse for relying on cliches.

‘It costs very little to play safe. But, a recession is the best time to invest when you can buy cheaper in terms of manufacturing and, if you’re going to push the brand forward, to do something more innovative,’ says Tutssels Enterprise IG executive creative director Glenn Tutssel.

And while great graphics shouldn’t take any longer than uninspired graphics, a swift graphic make-over will inevitably appeal more to a client than a costly and potentially riskier structural packaging overhaul. There’s a pressure to fend off the competition by reacting very quickly. But maybe it’s a false economy because many just hold off the competition when really the better option would’ve been looking at the bigger picture and taking longer,’ Tutssel adds.

Readily available imagery is also a contributor to clichedom. Many blame computer software. ‘Everyone has access to the same tools and second rate designers would rather fall back on these cliches,’ says Wolff Olins senior designer Ned Campbell.

Increased reliance on photolibraries rather than commissioning photography is another factor, says FutureBrand creative consultant Peter Stimpson. ‘We’re starting to see a paucity of ideas in photography. It does become very easy trap — nice picture, manipulate it a bit, with neat typography and you’re in business.’

But there are undeniable advantages to the creative use of design devices familiar to the audience, rather than risk confusing or irritating them by too much change.

‘The one thing that makes a brand successful is that a consumer can understand the brand category it’s in,’ says Tutssel. ‘You can use cliches to your advantage by finding a fresh way of interpretation, for example taking a crest and doing it in a fresh and contemporary way and making it ownable by the brand.’

The skill is in knowing when those familiar design cues have become cliched to the point of meaningless, and when it would be better to update them or even go for something innovative that may become a trend, and who knows, in time even a cliche in its own right.

Business-to-business design language

‘Business-to-business is absolutely riddled with cliches. Businessmen shaking hands, cityscapes, business meetings, computer screens, hands on keyboards. The colour palette always appears to be blue and burgundy, maybe silver — what people assume to be professional and having gravitas,’ says Coley Porter Bell creative director Stephen Bell. Design consultancies haven’t really helped by perpetuating the cliches.’

Global signifiers

Use of spheres/globes/arrows/arms to signify the international character of a company. Newer examples include Consignia, cited by many designers as a prime example of a cliched identity. The prevalence of such symbols makes them ‘utterly meaningless’, says Wolff Olins senior designer Ned Campbell.

The crescent shape in corporate identities

Combined with a logo type and used singley or in a series to resemble what one designer called ‘fingernail clippings’.

The iMac-inspired translucent blue, moulded case

Often hand-in-hand with the organic styling that’s replaced more geometric shapes in product design over the past decade, as popularised by the iconic status of the iMac. ‘We’ve seen it used in everything from copycat computers to calculators. You can recognise it as a cliche created as a moment of fashion,’ says Factory Design co-director Adam White.

The food-on-a-fork packaging shot

Wins extra cliche value when used with rising steam. ‘Frozen foods all have something stuck on the end of a fork. Do we really need to be shown how to eat?’ says Design Bridge creative director Tim Perkins.

Devices for premiumness

‘Script type to indicate premiumness; fake crests to say “I’m regal”; rosettes/ribbons! medals/bows as signs of provenance – even sausages have rosettes on them. It’s an instant graphic to add on,’ says Tutssels Enterprise IG executive creative director Glenn Tutssel. Also no type or minimal type on matt black to signify super-premiumness.

Use of brand-leader’s colour scheme

‘Rip-off Cadbury purple, Heinz turquoise, Coca-Cola red and so on, to gain familiarity with the consumer. It’s a very cheap trick. It works on some own-label brands, but it really is a cop-out,’ says Tutssel.

‘Swirly-wirly’ graphics on soap-powder packs

This really gets on designers’ nerves. ‘Does vulgar mean shelf impact? It’s a market crying out for change,’ says Tutssel. ‘There’s a lot of looking over at what other people are doing, rather than thinking how you can create the difference,’ says Perkins.

Exclamation marks in the banner

‘Please, you don’t need to tell me. If it’s exciting enough — I can work it out for myself,’ says Williams Murray Hamm director Richard Williams.

Pet food packaging

‘Catfood always has a cat looking up appealingly for food. They all look as if they’ve been stuffed,’ says Williams, adding that it’s a packaging sector badly in need of change.

Anything ‘designer’

Nonsensical use of the word ‘designer’ as a description of a product. ‘We’re always irritated by seeing a “designer” telephone or a “designer” desk-set, for example. It’s so daft when you look at it — like buying a particular brand of “doctorly” aspirins,’ says White.

And a few other favourite cringe-worthy cliches:

* Sports-drink style sipping tops on any beverage

* Cliche brand names like Be Good to Yourself

* Male toiletries with embossed stripes in the packaging

* Shock brand attitude tactics like FCUK

* Dotcom language such as @ in corporate graphics

* The landscape pack shot — good for anything from cereal to bacon

* Medicinal packaging diagrams with painful chest/head/throat indicated by redness and concentric radiating circles

* Pizza packaging with ubiquitous shot of a pizza slice with stringy cheese in the foreground

The year of the cat

JAGUAR’s director of design Ian Callum is living his childhood dream.

Since he was five years’ old, he used to play with models of Jaguar cars or draw sketches to reinvent the British classic sports car. You could argue that because he has reached his goal, there is very little left for him to try to achieve, yet Callum rejoices at the challenges that a job connected to such a heritage brand brings. A life spent in the automotive industry hasn’t dampened his spirit either.

Trained in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art, he was at Ford for ten years, working his way up the company and taking posts at the several design studios abroad. He spent another ten years at TWR Design, as chief designer and general manager, and since 1999 he has been located at Jaguar’s Coventry headquarters.

He was, he recalls, originally employed as ‘director of styling’, but his pragmatism and in-depth knowledge of the car industry meant that he was soon asked to become head of design, with the styling department recognised as a design department. ‘Although we don’t do the engineering, we have to know everything about it; then there is ergonomics involved, the packaging and the very architecture of the car,’ explains Callum

Jaguar’s design department is part of the overall product development area, comprising about 2500 people. And Callum runs a tight ship with a team of about 120 people, equally split into designers, digital and clay modellers with surface and feasibility engineers.

Yet Callum’s role isn’t confined to just vehicle design. Under a directive of J Mays, vice-president of design at Ford Worldwide, it has been made an overall Ford policy that design departments have a say, and in some cases a sign-off, to most aspects of the visual outward facing elements of the design process, from corporate identity through to the car itself. ‘Our function however, is not to necessarily produce all the elements, but to approve them,’ says Callum.

So far, Jaguar’s main external collaborations have been with Imagination for its motor show exhibitions, The Partners for branding and Young & Rubicam for advertising. No major shake up as regards appointments is planned, although small, developing criteria such as touch-screen technology within the interiors might require appointment of new design consultancies.

‘The reason I’m looking outside is because I’ve learnt that a designer has to respect one thing, that is to do what he is best at and do it well, and leave other functions for other people who are best at theirs,’ Callum says. Learning ‘to call the experts in’ can be a stimulating exchange; an area in which he has done exactly that is in product design with some car designers, which he won’t name. Historically though, he admits that Jaguar has been quite self-contained, farming very little work out to independent designers.

However, there is a sense things could change, although maybe not in the high-profile way Ford did with Marc Newson. Recently, Jaguar commissioned a research project with Seymour Powell focusing on how various functions of a car work better. ‘They produced some super ideas,’ says Callum. ‘The only problem is that once you analyse them there are some cost implications.’

Callum is a firm believer in the power of the Jaguar brand and in the futuristic design ethos that made it such a desirable item in the past. For him, the archetypal values of Jaguar can be found in the late 1950s and 1960s, with icons such as the E-Type and the Mk II ‘a sports saloon car designed while companies like BMW were producing boring boxes.’ However, he acknowledges that the bold, design verve stopped around 1967, when the car industry went ‘into international meltdown’ and production became so tied by laws and legislation that it was impossible to continue producing such daring, sensuous shapes.

His mission is to return to that pioneering spirit and to recreate a set of Jaguar values that comprise ‘performance, character, spirit and British design tradition’. Differing brand perceptions across the globe is also a consideration. Jaguar’s main market is undoubtedly the US, where the brand is perceived as ‘very English, slightly off-centre, quaint, with 40 percent of customers being women.

In Europe, the main competitors are BMW and Mercedes and Jaguar’s current aim is to delve further into the European market. Callum is confident in Britain’s design heritage, which, as Burberry and Paul Smith have shown, ‘can be turned on its head with some humour’.

Callum is a man in the right position and the right time. He joined the company at a moment of uncertainty, but has now been given free reign to push the boat out further. Last September, in Frankfurt, Jaguar launched the R Coupe four-seater prototype, which captured all the elements (iconic design, luxury and heritage, married with contemporary style) that Callum is trying to bring back to the fore. He calls it ‘my statement of intent’ and stresses how important it was that his manifesto of design philosophy was made public, as a way of gaining confidence within Jaguar’s management and allowing design to move forward.

Tools of the trade or pretty packaging?

EVERY design consultancy has its own way of doing things. Some adhere more rigorously to their approaches than others. But, for the most part, these tried and trusted models — sometimes seen as brands in their own right — become integral to how the business is run.

To what extent, though, do clients buy into such thinking? Moreover, in recessionary times, when competition for all kinds of design work is intense, can consultancies make any marketing capital out of promoting a particular skill, service or specialist resource? In short, are branded offers anything to shout about?

When Nucleus completed a brand strategy programme for Cable & Wireless (DW 14 February), it was keen to highlight the role of its BrandDueDiligence service in the project. Nucleus managing director Peter Matthews believes that ‘robust methodologies’ enhance a consultancy’s credibility.

‘Design consultancies need to be able to talk to the [client’s] board about hard business issues, not just the look and feel of a brand,’ says Matthews. ‘More often than not, branding decisions are subjective and taken on the fly. [We] use a diagnostic tool [to be] as objective as possible in terms of evaluating a brand’s relative strengths and weaknesses.’

BrandDueDiligence is tailored to brand valuation issues arising from mergers, acquisitions and divestment activity. But it is not the only branded service Nucleus offers. Matthews’ general view is that such a suite of services makes the consultancy more ‘business-like’.

In terms of attracting new business, branded solutions are ‘points of discussion’, Matthews says. He adds, ‘It’s important to have a platform to deliver insights and relevant stories to talk to clients about.’ Once a project is underway, these tools can be used to ‘define what success looks like, and you can measure the benefits of that.’

So how is this regarded on the client side? Cable & Wireless vice-president, marketing services Mark Davis says, ‘I would encourage the use of branded tools. They offer a clear, pragmatic roadmap that is easy to understand and can articulate specific deliverables. It makes it easier to manage the process of informing and influencing stakeholders within the [client’s] organisation. Senior people feel more comfortable with solutions in a box.’

While Davis doesn’t want to lose the ‘flexibility’ that designers bring to the table, he thinks ‘good project management’ is what clients find reassuring about branded processes. ‘It’s what we expect from the ‘big five’ groups and that’s no different when buying from a brand consultancy,’ he adds.

Some degree of client hand-holding is evident in Elmwood’s Step Change product too. Elmwood chairman Jonathan Sands says it began as an in-house ‘creative thinking tool’, but is now offered as a strategic service to clients.

Downsizing has stretched many clients’ resources, Sands suggests. As a result, briefs have become ‘less rigorous’ as the client is effectively ‘subcontracting strategy’. Through Step Change, the consultancy can get involved ‘further up stream’, helping clients to generate ideas ‘before the product is a gleam in the marketer’s eye’, he says.

Sands believes a branded offer has enabled Elmwood to adopt fresh positioning as ‘an ideas company’. He says, ‘The concept has made a major contribution to growth over the past two years. Without it, our London office would not have been a success.

Glen Gribbon, marketing manager at drinks company Kyndal, endorses the approach. He says, ‘Our relationship started because of Step Change and Elmwood won design work on the back of it. As a model, it does encourage inclusive working and I would look for similar processes in future. It shows a consultancy is thinking about brand dynamics.’

However, it takes time to develop a standalone product. Step Change came through several iterations and was tested for two years with ‘friendly clients’ before being rolled out. But having ‘genuinely differentiated product’ is worth it, says Sands, because ‘clients’ greater buying power [means] price premiums cannot be justified without offering something extra’.

BamberForsyth Fitch’s name generation service, Namebrains, operates more like a sub-brand. BamberForsyth Fitch director Clare Fuller says the benefits are that clients can see ‘quickly and easily’ that the consultancy has a ‘specific focus, a rigorous programme and a track record’ in naming. In some sense it’s also a way of avoiding the hard sell. ‘Not everyone wants to buy design work as well,’ she adds.

However, Fuller says any subbrand ‘needs to complement the core business’ and doubts whether further segmentation would be of any value. ‘We have a limited marketing spend and wouldn’t be getting most bangs for our buck if we spread marketing over several sub-brands,’ she says.

The prevalence of branded offers seems to be a response to increased competition and the fact that design is becoming more like other forms of consultancy. Sands suggests that developing a specialist service cannot be done in piecemeal fashion. ‘It’s not a one-off investment,’ he says. ‘Lots of branded jargon is met with cynicism and scepticism. Clients are bright people. They’ll find out which [offers] are selling them short’.

What is uppermost in clients’ minds is effective delivery and good project management. Whether branding a tool or service makes any difference is a moot point. Davis is full of praise for the approach taken by Nucleus with Cable & Wireless, but says tellingly, ‘I don’t know what it’s called. It’s the process that’s important.’

Smile please, big cheese

THERE’s a certain type of chief executive who really seems to go in for the weird photo opportunity. They’re all around, just look in the papers. It’s a trend not just confined to the odd eccentric either. Some of the sanest and most powerful people in the land seem to relish the chance of posing in strange guises or with an ensemble of weird and wonderful objects around them or in hand. Frankly it’s a bit disconcerting.

Now there’s nothing wrong with spicing up corporate life a little — I’m all for it. But at times like this, it gets kind of puzzling. Whatever the reason, it is a habit that gets indulged to the full at every Plc Launch Day (whatever it is for). Somebody told me they have started to call this conker syndrome’ — (a reference I think to National Savings & Investment’s chief executive Peter Bareau, who recently posed for the nationals with a giant conker in hand to launch the group’s new identity.

Sir Martin Sorrell has been a favourite patron of conker syndrome over the years — there is a chief executive with a penchant for the portraits. Sorrell, I hope, won’t mind if I refer to his head and shoulders for a minute, by way of example. Because over the years they have been featured in a striking array of poses, like the one with an illuminated light bulb over his head. Sorrell, of course, is allowed to. It’s his game after all (come to think of it he may have even invented the genre).

There is definite potential for an entire book of prints, of these honest and respectable captains of industry — plus prop. It’s just waiting to be compiled.

But what about those chief executive officers without such a good excuse? What possesses them to be caricatured thus? How odd is it that the big bosses can get away with it, and in company time?

An old PR saying springs to mind at this juncture, which might justify some of this behaviour: ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’. (There are one or two people who might disagree with the saying anyway, but that’s another matter.) Its relevance? Simply this: that somewhere there must be a large strand of corporate-facing PR practitioners who think it doesn’t matter how you get into the broadsheets as long as you get there. Please think again.

CEOs, of course, know better than this, particularly the heads of our largest public companies. They can’t afford bad news, they really can’t. Not with the Stock Exchange and the city breathing down their necks at any rate. So the news has to be good. It’s what keeps these men and women at the big table. But back to the photos.

How times have changed. During the mid-1990s, it became a bit of a fad for some business publications to print the most bizarre portraits they could. The weird angle, the strange location and the crazy prop were actually photographic policy for the corporate people profiles in more than one magazine.

This might be fine perhaps for the profile, maybe even for a big consumer launch or a great set of financial results, but editorially thereafter things get more dangerous. And particularly for the corporate brand relaunch.

Over the years, for some reason or another, the rebrand has not been particularly well-loved. Perhaps it is the fault of the mainstream media, which fails consistently to grasp that there is more to the story than logos. Perhaps it is a reflection of the British public’s ‘small c’ conservatism that sees change of any description as abhorrent, even when it is clearly beneficial. Perhaps it is the branding sector’s failure to communicate the business value it claims to provide for clients. Whatever the reason, it is a fact of life that we have to deal with.

To end on a moralistic tone, isn’t it time for big branding projects to create broadsheet headlines about strategy, re-organisation and vision, rather than about logos, colours and the symbolism of images. If it’s city desk coverage that is sought, why all the allegory?

If CEOs need something to hold, what about a brand strategy document. But seriously, the corporate identity should probably be an addendum to the business relaunch, not the story itself. (Really daring clients could even choose to casually forget the new marque.) The point is that selling the story a bit better than we do currently will not only create value for clients, but help rid us of this tired media image.

What CEOs get up to in their own time is their business. But what they get up to in the national press on your behalf needs to be calculated.

International refreshment: as Gordon’s gin and Schweppes tonic relaunch

THE world is shrinking for brands. Consumers want to be able to fetch themselves a G&T safe in the knowledge that a Schweppes tonic and a Gordon’s gin are the same whether they are drunk in the French Alps or on a Spanish beach.

Familiarity can be bred by aligning the look of a product across different markets, even if it can mean changing a well-established brand identity, such as the renaming of Jif to Cif in the UK.

But catering for gaping cultural differences while retaining brand consistency is not easy.

An international brand can be perceived differently by a global audience. A country’s culture, historical perceptions of a brand and even climate all affect the way nations regard different brands.

Cadbury Schweppes is consolidating the branding and packaging of its entire soft drinks portfolio, including Schweppes tonic, across Europe .

The range is due to launch in Australia in October or November. Down under, Schweppes tonic is consumed without a mixer more often than in colder countries, and people are introduced to it at a much younger age.

And Schweppes lemonade is a cult drink in Australia, competing with soft drinks on its own, rather than just used as a mixer, explains Andrew Eyles, managing partner of Blue Marlin, which is redesigning the entire soft drinks portfolio.

‘Australians, for example, wouldn’t be seen dead drinking ginger ale, but in the US it is a major adult soft drink,’ he says.

The structural packaging of a drinks brand can also be as ingrained into a particular culture as the brand itself.

Schweppes lemonade is traditionally served in a beer-style glass bottle in Australia, and it may prove tricky to persuade Australians to embrace a new-look, unified corporate bottle, says Eyles.

Global consolidation of a brand, particularly one with strong heritage — the first Schweppes company was founded in 1783 — must take into account cultural nuances and that can only be achieved by doing your homework.

‘International brand management is all about immersing yourself in as much information about the product as possible beforehand to discover what it stands for, suggests Eyles.

‘It is at this point that you can draw out the common, consistent brand values that will work in any country or culture,’ he says. ‘Brand essence’ forms the basis of a consolidatory rebranding programme.

In some oases, however, a brand’s raw essence isn’t enough and its international variations are too ingrained to warrant change.

International gin brand Gordon’s, which has just been redesigned for the first time in 60 years, by Design Bridge, has a different bottle shape, colour and graphics for the UK market.

‘The UK version of Gordon’s historically had the same design as the international market–in yellow and red,’ explains Design Bridge board creative director Graham Shearsby.

‘But to cut costs during the First World War, Gordon’s shifted to green glass and a black and white label because it was cheaper to produce. The international design will stay the same, because it is has brand equity, so will the UK version,’ Shearsby says.

Certainly, not all cultural subtleties can be brushed aside, or companies could be accused of putting profit before customers. In this case, it is local advertising specifically and accurately tailored to a market, rather than subtle changes to packaging, that successfully differentiate a brand in different countries, Eyles says.

‘One country may use sex to win over consumers, but another may simply advertise a drink as a good mixer with alcohol. But the raw brand will look the same wherever, he says. This way, a country can even think that an international brand is home-grown.

‘You cannot force a change on a market. Any graphic or structural design changes must be sympathetic with a country’s culture and the brand,’ Eyles says. ‘The danger with a sudden, far-reaching redesign is that a brand can lose customers overnight.’ In cases where a radical overhaul is needed, a gradual approach is required, with an interim design filtered in over a period of time.

Shearsby agrees, suggesting international brands undergoing a revamp should aim to for the middle ground. ‘You can’t do something too leading edge, which might work in the UK, but not in the US, where it’s all about the hard sell,’ he says.

Cost, as Shearsby points out, is one of the driving factors behind consolidation of international packaging.

‘Most brand packaging is harmonised across all markets because it makes sense from a cost perspective,’ Shearsby says. ‘It’s logical that brand owners will want to minimise costs for marketing the product, which you can do if you have got the same pack across all markets.’

Eyles agrees. A consistent international brand identity could save a company around 15-20 per cent by cutting out repackaging and design costs, he suggests.

There are other, non-financial reasons. People are becoming less nationalistic and more global in their outlook, helped by increasingly global advertising and media, as ‘most brand owners want their products recognised the world over’, says Eyles.

Ease of international travel, despite a ‘hopefully temporary’ downturn since 11 September 2001, must add to the clamour for international brands.

Some will mourn the loss of quirky cultural differences in products at the expense of profit-seeking and corporate brand values, but consultancies are reaping the benefits.

Inside information

Communicating a business philosophy and brand internally can be just as important as the methods used to market the company and brand to its target market and clients. Mike Exon finds out why this is.

WE are all pretty comfortable with the idea of external communications. It is no secret that the marketing of products and services to the outside world can help a company’s sales to grow. In the same way, the idea of internal marketing has been around for a long time. Educate your staff about your products and business and it will more than repay your investment. So the theory goes. This was all fine for a while, but then something changed all that — the workplace revolution.

With hindsight, the shortcomings of the old approach to communications are quite plain. An educational spirit is all very well if the teachers know what should be taught. But in this case they didn’t. There wasn’t much enthusiasm among managers of organisations to learn a thing or two from the people who actually make the business what it is — namely the customers and the staff. Well as we know, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

‘Internal communications was once seen as internal marketing. It was all very one way. But now that is changing it is much more exciting,’ says Imagination marketing and strategic planning director Ralph Ardill. In his view there is now a significant imbalance between all things internal and external.

‘One of the biggest challenges is the challenge of alignment — the alignment between companies-to-consumers and companies-to-themselves,’ he says. Ardill explains that there used to be a ‘wall’ between the two ideas, until it slowly dawned on organisations that there needed to be consistency between the two.

But for now let’s focus on things internal. Client organisations have slowly come to realise the tangible benefits of maintaining a dialogue between their people — particularly the ones at the top and bottom of the pile. It can save them money for a start. This was demonstrated in a recent US study by the communications group Fleishman-Hillard, (which polled 30 global organisations including 18 Fortune 500 companies). The study found that the two most sought after benefits of employee communications programmes were: the creation of bottom-line results, and cost-cutting opportunities.

But internal communications is still many things to many people. Like the elusive science of branding, internal communications is practiced by the full swathe of client services groups, ranging from design consultancies and business strategists, to ad and PR agencies. There are even several internal communications specialists, such as The Brand Union’s MCA Communicates.

Within the context of the branding sector, internal communications is often tied closely to corporate branding projects. After all, the success of most corporate branding depends on the ability of a management team to instill a vision inside the heads of the people associated with their organisation. These people are, necessarily, either outside the organisation (customers, suppliers and so on), or inside it. The art of the successful internal communications project is to marry the two.

The Tuft Consultancy recently completed an internal communications project for a major retailer, which sought to understand how the marketing department communicated with the group’s other departments. It is an area which clients have not given too much thought to until recently, says The Tutt Consultancy founder Simon Rhind-Tutt.

Internal communications projects take many forms, says Rhind-Tutt. He highlights internal marketing strategy, projection of the company vision, internal written and video communication, training and internal research, as the key areas.

Richard Brennan, managing director of training and human resources consultancy Time Manager International, defines internal communications nicely. For him it is, ‘connecting people together around a common message using a variety of mediums to reinforce the core themes and detail.’

As far as these mediums are concerned, the Fleischman-Hillard study found that the most common corporate communications channels are print newsletters and intranet sites, e-mails, voicemail, television, audiostreaming and videostreaming. Other groups have begun experimenting with some of the newer technologies like text messaging, digital radio and interactive news bulletins as well.

Historically, organisations have tended to look to the power of the internal communications programme at certain points in their development. The most obvious of these is probably following a merger or acquisition, where disparate groups are being integrated. People within the incoming group clearly need direction, and management at HQ is anxious to explain the game plan, as well as keep the wedding running smoothly.

After insurance group Primary Insurance recently acquired some half a dozen companies to form the Primary Group, it appointed Brand Frontier to handle the internal communications as part of an overall brand identity programme.

‘Internal communications has been vital for Primary Insurance,’ says Brand Frontier director Mark Pinder. ‘We looked to engage Primary’s staff in a conversation about what the brand stands for and what the brand is trying to accomplish externally. We also encouraged them to understand that each employee was part and parcel of delivering the brand. It came down to the fact that if they did not develop the right kind of relationship with customers then they were going to lose business.’

Like Rhind-Tutt, Pinder has seen interest levels in internal communications work growing, as companies have slashed marketing budgets and cut their workforces.

‘With the recent economic downturn across the Atlantic and many global companies cutting budgets and staff, it’s interesting to see how many of them are turning to internal communications to not only raise morale, but also to redefine their brand offer. Internal communication is a two way process: it’s as important to listen to staff as it is to communicate a given message. Rather than reacting to a time of crisis with such a dialogue, companies must keep communication lines open at all times,’ he says.

Internal communications programmes are also a powerful tool for any organisation changing its direction or positioning, even if for some management teams this can be an all too infrequent event. To give a simplistic analogy, if a traditional clothing manufacturer decides to start producing fashion clothing instead of traditional raincoats, there is clearly a need for this strategy to be well understood by the staff on the shopfloor, who are in direct contact with the customers.

The most enlightened management teams now have company systems in place to enable their people to have a much greater influence in the running of the company. Consider Richard Branson’s policy of encouraging Virgin staff to e-mail him about potential problem situations. This attitude goes hand in hand with Virgin’s policy of ensuring no letter from outside the business goes unanswered, no matter how banal it might seem. Such behaviour starts to fundamentally change what a business is about and how it behaves. And this is when a business starts to become the proverbial brand.

Of course all people within companies communicate, but not necessarily with as many people as might ultimately benefit from the act. The most important thing is for any communication to be a genuine dialogue whenever possible.

When the former Bank of Montreal chief executive officer Matt Barrett took the helm as chief executive of Barclays Bank, he needed to find a way to communicate his vision to bank staff. Imagination was appointed to design The Open Forum, an internal communications project designed to signify a new style of leadership for the bank. ‘Barrett wanted to meet and address the concerns of staff in a way that made an immediate impact and set new standards in communication across the Barclays Group,’ says Imagination marketing and planning director Ralph Ardill.

Imagination developed a rolling programme of meetings in which Barrett met with Barclays’ staff face to face. Within an informal setting, The Open Forum allowed Barrett to bring his vision for the business to life, while demonstrating his desire to forge a new business culture at the same time.

In addition to developing the concept and managing the production of the events, Imagination developed a distinctive identity for the programme, which was later adopted to cover all of Barclays’ internal communications activities. ‘The Open Forum meetings, attended by nearly 20 000 staff, constituted the largest internal communications activity ever undertaken by Barclays, or any other high street bank, and was met by a 95 cent approval rating from delegates,’ adds Ardill. Having toured the UK. The Open Forum concept was then rolled out to staff in the US and continental Europe.

One organisation where internal staff communication lines play a particularly critical role is British Airways. At its ultra-modern HQ near Heathrow Airport, which features a shopping mall and a street of coffee bars, BA staff can access computer touchpoints around the building hosting the company intranet. This system provides interactive information for all of BA’s office-based staff.

BA design manager Mike Crump outlines a few of the airline’s other initiatives. He explains that the weekly newsletter, BA News, is received by just about everybody in the company. In addition, various niche workforces, like cabin crew and ground force, have their own newspapers, written in an appropriate vocabulary and style of language. There are also e-mail circulars for the management population, which highlight important company issues.

‘At BA, we have a communications department that runs the internal communications. It is a complex job,’ says Crump. ‘My responsibility is to provide a consistency and tone of voice for the brand internally as well as externally. In this respect, the way we speak to our customer is the same as we talk to our staff.’

Post moderniser: Deborah Maxwell

WHEN is a brand not a brand? When it’s a signpost, according to Deborah Maxwell.

It’s her job to turn the Post Office from a mere signpost on the high street into a commercial brand with real live values.

Sounds like a tricky hill to climb and, when you start totting up the obstacles, it could be described as insurmountable. First there’s the dreadful state of the PO’s holding company, Consignia, with press speculation of 20 000-30 000 job losses. And the PO’s own losses are mounting: pounds 100m for the first half of the financial year 2001/2002. Couple those headaches with an internal culture that is uncomfortable with change, a decision-by-committee management style, an audience that is static in size but ageing and things look positively dire.

But Maxwell has made considerable in-roads since becoming head of brand marketing two years ago. Previously at the Woolwich and the Automobile Association (where she was involved with the campaigns With the Woolwich’ and ‘Britain’s fourth emergency service’), she was brought in to change the PO from being supply-driven to consumer-facing and she’s gone some way to achieving this.

She got Marketplace Design to design and articulate the P0’s brand values, which have been used to focus its advertising and communications over the past year.

It may be difficult to believe in this brand-sodden age, but here was an organisation with no guidelines, consensus or consistency among employees and agencies as to its personality. ‘It didn’t behave like a brand,’ Maxwell says. ‘It didn’t advertise on TV, it didn’t protect its intellectual property or trademarks. Its big selling point was its size. It was internally focused on suppliers like BT rather than on customers.’

The PO now has four different brand values for each audience, from consumer, business, employee and stakeholder. To the consumer it’s easy, personal, knowledgeable and helpful; to the employee it’s purposeful, flair, inclusive and accountable. It may sound rather dry and bland, but it’s a start.

And, according to some before and after research on brand perception, things are looking up.

At the same time, Maxwell has managed to get her budget hiked from a measly pounds 400 000 to pounds 15m in the first year and pounds 21.5m for this year. That in itself deserves respect from anyone in the branding business.

Maxwell’s role was newly created at the PO. Previously, there had been a head of marketing communications, who had taken voluntary redundancy. She and her 14-strong team sit within its customer services arm. It’s their job to strengthen the brand so that it can stretch into new markets and retain customer loyalty. There are a colossal 28 million customers. ‘We call our customers hostages because they think there’s no choice, but there is,’ says Maxwell. The brand should also help focus previously disparate employees.

She admits that working within the PO’s system is no picnic at times. ‘I had a preconception that it would be process-driven, but I’m shocked at how process-driven it is. A polite term for its approach would be consultative,’ she says. Which means: ‘It’s much harder to get things done here. It makes the job of changing perception even more difficult.’ This is partly because staff turnover is so slow: it’s not unusual for employees to have been there since their teens. The atmosphere is fun and friendly and although these people might be eager for change, implementing it is another matter.

One of the first things Maxwell did was to put together a pitch for brand development. Marketplace beat off Enterprise IG, Dragon, which created Consignia’s name and identity, and the ad agencies Publicis, McCann Erikson and Joshua. She went with the Abingdon consultancy because ‘it seemed the most down to earth’ and could work on redesign of the P0’s environments. The consultancy has also reworked the logo, making it three-dimensional.

Marketplace’s values for the PO were briefed down to Publicis and Joshua, both appointed in March 2001, to come up with above- and below-the-line campaigns respectively. The TV commercials last year featuring Richard Branson and Stelios of Easyjet were some of the fruits of this process.

It’s early days, but since the new communications went live brand perceptions have improved beyond Maxwell’s wildest dreams. ‘I have beaten my five-year goals in one go,’ she says. Findings from Millward Brown show that the consumer values of easy, personal, knowledgeable and helpful were already well received in October 2000. However, Maxwell has just revealed that consumers gave these attributes even higher scores in 2001, making the PO the UK’s most trusted brand, bar Tesco.

Maxwell admits that being trusted doesn’t in itself make you a destination of choice. She sees it more as leverage: ‘It allows us to develop new products and services with partners.’ Brand Finance calculated the value of the brand, so that it could be leveraged for royalty rights in partnership deals. To this end, TV ads for a new telecoms venture will start airing at the end of this month and a home insurance product will go live mid-March.

Come April, a new concept store will be on trial in Barking, with a symbol’ retail partner, such as Spa, Londis or Budgens. The concept will be jointly branded properly, rather than a corner shop with the P0 counter stuck at the back.

Maxwell is justly pleased that things are changing, but she’s aware that time, and to some extent the internal culture, is against her. ‘People don’t understand that if they don’t invest in the brand, it will collapse.’