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Making the case for design-centric brand building

Design, innovation, brand: All the work we do at Rare can be traced back to these three fundamental elements. Rare director, Andrew Piper, has worked in branding and design for over 20 years and has seen trends come and go.

We sat down to discuss the finer points of how these three pillars fit together, which brands paved the way, and what it all means for the future of brand building and innovation.

Rare Design: We’re on a mission to put design at the heart of the brand building agenda. Why?

Andrew Piper: Design is one of the most effective ways that a brand can get its message across. In an age where advertising has changed so dramatically, people view things through any number of channels – and certainly not all traditional advertising channels. Brand character can be captured through the design that it is built with, to have rapid, huge impact and to flexibly meet consumers where they are in terms of their lifestyle, their preferences, and in the things they enjoy. These all can be effectively captured in design and turned into a brand message.

In this way, design fulfils a role that was historically all about the advertising agency. As things have changed over the last fifteen years, the social media generation has come to expect to see things in all sorts of ways and design is what they will find themselves engaging with – whether it’s a piece of packaging, a device, an ad or some sort of video. All of these things are design-led, in my opinion. When they’re design-led and brilliantly conceived and executed, they’re working much harder to engage.

RD: So, touchpoints are more proliferating and design is more important as a result?

AP: Yes: and design features in every moment of encounter with the brand. It used to be just a logo slapped on. In the old model, the adverts came on: we all saw an ad for something, which included a logo or a simple reference point which audiences picked up. Nowadays, brands must work harder. And I think people very much expect to experience design to make their every day more interesting, more engaging and more beautiful.

RD: When did design become important in the ways that you’ve described? 

AP: I believe one is the coffee shop movement, which created – out of very simple tools – the third place: an environment to live in during the day, to work in and to relax in. Starbucks built that with the character of their brand. At one level, it’s a fast food joint; at the other end of the spectrum, it employed design in every aspect throughout – from their cups and their iconic feel, and equally the way they developed their environment, language, tone of voice and signage.  

All of these things came together, and I’m wondering if that’s a point perhaps where things changed a lot. Of course, IKEA is another prime example of that type of shift.

RD: With IKEA in mind, is design only significant for brands in luxury or premium markets, or is it more important in some markets than others?

AP: It would be hard to say. Certainly, it’s more important in some than others, as Apple proved by making a big noise about how they’ve laid out the interior of their latest gadget; the way all the components have been beautifully placed. And they’ll make as huge a deal out of the box-opening experience as they will the product itself. 

In a way, this probably also applies to the engineers at BMW and the like, where brands are working to optimise their potential design value. Not just the aesthetic of course, because that’s not always the case, but the design integrity of the engineering that goes into their car designs or any number of other things.

If we move back to the front of that question, I wonder if it’s true that consumers have to pay extra for good design. Terence Conran in the late Sixties and early 1970s was at the forefront of democratising design through his work at Habitat. And IKEA is a very good example of well thought-out products sold in a well thought-out environment. They’re not necessarily any cheaper, but they’re not necessarily pitching for a premium because they’re designed well.

Oddly enough, I think again that Apple is quite interesting because while they sell a highly priced product, they’re not more expensive than many other phones. They’re in a category with other brands pitching at the same sort of price. In other words, you might choose Apple for its design but you wouldn’t necessarily pay more if you were looking for a premium smartphone. One would be an Apple – which some people would consider to be beautifully designed – but it wouldn’t necessarily cost more.

Moreover, often I think luxury and premium markets don’t deploy designs at quite the same level. Instead, they trade on image. Think of the ghastly world of premium – premium spirits and all that sort of crazy stuff in those premium categories. They’re some of the ugliest things on the planet. They’re operating in a different space, which is to do with association and tradition. It’s all pretty grim.

RD: Which other factors does a design have to work with and against when it comes to building brands?

AP: Budgets are one. As IKEA proved, you don’t have to have a massive budget to buy a well-designed table, but at the same time, you do have to be prepared to engage with people who do this stuff – skilled designers – to produce such goods.

Take Gunna, for example.  That team engaged us for a design approach that would lead the building of their brand. It was an investment that the brand believed in, which has since been the priority really in terms of the work that’s been done. It has to be a great product or the right product, and it has to be sold effectively. At the end of the day, it’s communicating a lifestyle.

What else do we have to work with? Complex client relationships. Designers don’t have a blank canvas by any means. They have to work in an environment which includes stakeholders who may have a different agenda.

Business priorities may change, and design rarely beats those kind of tectonic plate shifts that occur from time to time, moving everything around in a way that nobody was expecting.

The designers will always be held up as the bravest and best people in a project. But at the end of the day, when the business says we’re not doing that anymore, the business isn’t doing it anymore. And no matter how great everything was, there’s going to be a point where changing priorities are the deciding factor.

RD: So what does design-centric brand building look like?

AP: Well we think we’re doing it right now  We’re working with Kellogg’s and Heinz in precisely this area, using design to inform the strategy for brand development.

These businesses are in mature categories where there is only so much you can say about the product. The product is not that innovative: it is how it is. Design helps us to shape a positioning which is distinctive and memorable.

Design gives us an early understanding of what things might look like.  By understanding who we’re targeting, we can create design that has the character and features that are appropriate to that target. So from the get-go, we’re looking at the visual outcome.

Old school marketing would have done lots of technical brand building, if you like, which would have involved tons of research data and essential best practice, but design would have been bolted on at the end. It would have been the final piece, when the brand decided right, now we need to put it on the shelfor now we need to get it into marketing, in whatever way.  

Design-centric brand building puts design right at the beginning of that process and says let’s see what this might mean for our brand; we’ve been in marketing for a long time, we’re introducing products into a new category; these products are going to be great but they’re going to need to really cut through if we’re going to sell enough of them.

Design is one of the key tools to shaping that opportunity and giving it meaning as it goes into research. At the moment, we’re working with Kellogg in their snacks category to explore new opportunities. We’re also working with

Heinz on new brand opportunities for meal solutions.

RD: Let’s look ahead. How do you see brand building changing in the future? Will it become more design-centric or will other factors, such as technology, take over?

AP: This really interests me because I think there’s something about automation which will prove interesting. That’s how can we learn from algorithms ways of decoding consumer insight in a much bigger and faster way: using that process to give us indications and directions for how designs should look and work to create indicative design solutions. It all sounds a bit scary and probably rubbish, but actually I think it’s quite an interesting area – where design is being processed by an algorithm in the same way that keywords are being processed for other purposes.

In other words, technology could help to automate design work. There’s always going to be a place for the craftsperson in the mix, because that’s what a designer does. They work uniquely with their hands to craft something. But, actually, there’s this interesting bit somewhere in the middle that could be quite exciting.

RD: So, behaviour-driven design?

AP: Well, let’s talk about that slightly differently. A.I. is teaching us about everything from automated and driverless cars to retail experiences. What can we learn from that when we’re talking about brand building? This, I think, will absolutely influence future brand-building.

But at the end of the day, you can’t beat that moment when a consumer reaches out for something in a store without realising they’ve done it. There’s a moment of connection that brands alone can achieve. They connect with this sort of hidden heart equation which is so unique to every consumer that there’s still this thing, this extraordinary opportunity, to encounter a brand that is very hard to bottle. It somehow kind of happens. It doesn’t always happen for everyone, of course, but it’s that thing which I think is the craft of design hitting home and coming together in a form, whether it’s a packaged food or drink product or another device that we use in our lifestyles. Whatever it is that somehow connects and makes us think Ha!

That can be the simplest thing. There’s nothing more beautiful than a Rare coffee cup with its sticker. And it’s just a standard item that’s been assembled in such a great way that it’s rather brilliant. 

MOO are also a good example of that. Everything they’ve done is very very nice. They’ve considered the website which is where it all happens. It’s fabulous. And from there on in it just gets better. Everything they do is beautifully designed. There will be another company just like them – probably called Vistaprint – who will look a bit dodgy and it will do exactly the same thing. It will probably be the same price. It will probably be as good in terms of what they make. But there’s something about the MOO package that gives you a reason to go back to them and you feel differently about them as a result. 

And I think that to answer the question is yes, brand building will become more design-centric. In fact in a way, more design-centric is a slightly odd phrase because I’ve got a feeling, if we’re not there already, where everything is design-centric, where everything has been done rather well.

Except maybe those chicken shops. I was driving around South London and there’s more chicken shops in Lewisham than I think anybody can eat.  And they all look the same. It’s very strange.

Innovation industry veteran and Rare Design director, Andrew Piper leads our design-led efforts to unlock our clients’ brand potential, bringing them to life in crowded and complex categories. 


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