The UK has been a world leader in design for decades. From the Mini Roadster to Vivienne Westwood and Apple's Jonathan Ive, British products and designers are noted for their innovation, creativity and a certain subversiveness.
'British design is in good health,' says Silas Amos, creative director at design agency JKR. 'There's a distinctly British sensibility. We have charm and wit and a craftsmanship which finds an international audience.'
Dan Rowe, co-founder and creative director of brand consultancy Calling Brands, argues that the recent regeneration of King's Cross station in London sums up this approach to design as it represents 'traditional heritage mixed with creativity and a little bit of eccentricity'.
It is also a great example of design effectiveness, he adds. 'Not only is it showcasing British design and architecture, but it has had a massive impact on changing the urban landscape.'
As UK businesses navigate economically choppy waters, design is proving its worth as a discipline that offers value for money and can effect positive change. A 2008 report from Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing calculated UK design expenditure at about £50bn annually. Meanwhile, the Design Council's Design in Britain 2008 survey of 1500 UK firms found that the value placed on design had increased over the previous three years. The proportion of companies that regarded design as integral to their business doubled to 30% in that period.
Many successful businesses, such as Burberry, Paul Smith and Dyson, are driven by good design. Mini UK is owned by BMW, but nonetheless regarded as a British brand. It is manufactured in the UK, and, according to Adam Sykes, its general manager of brand communication marketing, 'the brand is inextricably linked to the product - design is an immense part of what Mini is'.
Indeed, the discipline is becoming integral to brands beyond a product design capacity. Tim Little, chief executive at heritage shoe brand Grenson, says that product and branding design are equally important. 'Design is the way we communicate the brand,' he says. 'Whether somebody picks up a box, sees the website, picks up an email, or looks at shoes on the shelf, design shapes how customers make up their mind about what kind of a brand we are. It's crucial.'
Clients are becoming more aware of the central importance of design to brand building, says Jonathan Ford, founding creative partner at branding consultancy Pearlfisher. Meanwhile, Morgan Holt, senior strategist at Wolff Olins, contends that thoughtful design keeps a company stable and helps it adapt to changing environments.
The role of the design agency has also changed, says Ian Noble, managing director at communications agency Lionhouse Creative. 'It used to be about the visual side of communication,' he adds. 'Design agencies have evolved into brand communications agencies, and have to be far more strategic.'
This integrated approach is reflected in the make-up of the marketing team at Virgin Media. Jeff Dodds, executive director of brand marketing and communications, works closely with creative director Adrian Spooner, who, in turn, oversees the work of branding agency Start JudgeGill and ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
'Design is critical, but all too often, it's not considered as early in the process (as other factors),' says Dodds. 'Start JudgeGill has been working on the design and look of our corporate identity ever since we began the process, so they know us well.'
The growing relevance of design is underlined by an increased focus on effectiveness. Over the past four years, the Design Council has been running a Designing Demand programme, which places design mentors with SMEs.
Last year, an independent evaluation of the programme showed that the average return on investment for every £1 spent on design was more than £25. In other Design Council surveys, 80% of UK businesses said that design would help them stay competitive in the testing economic climate.
Design effectiveness can be demonstrated in a wide range of sectors. Haulage company White Logistics, for example, teamed up with The Allotment design consultancy through Designing Demand.
The agency rebranded and redesigned the company's services with the aim of making it stand out. The fresh identity helped to increase turnover, from £5.5m in 2008 to a projected £6.4m for 2011/2012.
Similarly, Moving Brands was briefed to revamp wholesale tea distributor All About Tea's identity, to help it cut through in a 'sea of sameness'. The consultancy focused on the company's 'metronomic' delivery and the quality and rigour of its service and products. The makeover helped the average order value increase by 105% (see case study overleaf).
According to Nick Jones, creative director at Moving Brands, the brands that use design well are those 'that value it and think about it over the long term. When you do that, you can start to add value'.
However, he adds that clients, and the design industry itself, need to focus even more on effectiveness. 'People are making judgements on design largely without any insight to client, brief, deadline, the audience, and effectiveness,' he explains. 'They are judging creativity on a pretty superficial level.'
The importance of heritage and provenance, key consumer trends in the recession, still holds sway. Waitrose recently added a 'great British summer' food range, beauty brand Space NK launched a Beautannia line to celebrate Britain, and Liberty of London rolled out a refreshed brand identity, designed by Calling Brands, that reinstated its crest, to celebrate its heritage. Elsewhere, the recently launched company Hiut is reviving the Welsh town of Cardigan's denim industry, and using this story to drive the business.
New Balance, too, is capitalising on its 'Made in the UK' credentials. Even though it is a US company, the sports shoe brand has a factory in Flimby, Cumbria, a fact it is highlighting in its current ad campaign, which represents its biggest UK adspend to date.
Graham Dicken, EMEA marketing manager at New Balance, says: 'Our lead story is that we're a running brand that makes the best-performing and fitting running shoes. The ad shows that story, but with a domestic manufacturing twist to tap into the domestic pride in Britain in 2012 - it came at the right time and was a big opportunity.'
Meanwhile, John Lewis is rolling out a 'Made in UK' mark for home-grown products. According to Hilary Lovie, innovation manager for brand development at John Lewis, it has noticed customers' growing interest in products' provenance.
'To us it made a lot of sense to tap into that interest,' says Lovie. John Lewis also collaborated with British designer Nick Munro on a range of official Olympics products, but Lovie is quick to stress that this focus on provenance, UK manufacturing and design collaborations has been at the heart of the retailer's ethos for decades.
In this respect, designers warn brands banking on Britishness that the approach needs to be authentic. 'Many of the messages are either playing to cliches or else saying nothing at all,' says Holt. 'Just saying, "we're British, be proud of us" doesn't move the conversation forward.'
Lionhouse Creative works with several quintessentially British brands, including Grenson. Its policy is to focus on a few attributes that it has identified as defining strong British brands in the run-up to 2012. 'These are the sense of authenticity, of place, and heritage, which is about values, traditions and beliefs that are passed down,' says Noble.
Jonathan Ford, creative partner at design agency Pearlfisher, says that Virgin Atlantic's London campaign, which recreates the Union Flag but reinterprets it with images of the city, is a great example of using a brand's 'Britishness' in a considered way.
'It works so well because it retains Virgin's core equities and emphasises them,' he adds. 'For example, the Virgin stewardesses, dressed in red, which the brand is synonymous with, remain central to the "London" design. Brands that are focusing on "Britishness" to drive their business need to do it in a way that draws on and becomes part of their existing brand truth and visual equities.'
Virgin Media has also appropriated the flag in a more integrated way, incorporating it in its redesigned logo.
Dodds says: 'Some brands have a right to claim that space, and we are one of them.
If you have the right to unlock your British credentials, the consumers do care. If you don't and you're an international trading company trying to suddenly dial up your Britishness, then that's cynical, and consumers would view it that way.'
For brands to build success and Brand Britain to remain centre stage, such authenticity and integrity, and the design ideas that convey them, are key.
THE OLYMPIC EFFECT
With Britain hosting the Olympics and celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee this year, a focus on heritage and provenance has become a key marketing tool.
However, when it comes to 'Brand Britain', the picture of success is complex. According to the 2011 Country Brand Index report by consultancy Futurebrand, the UK slipped from the top 10 country brands for the first time since the survey's inception, the culmination of a two-year downward trend.
The study stated that the UK would 'surely be hoping that the "Olympic effect" starts to improve low scores' and 'hopefully, the country can start to tell a new story about its future, counterbalancing an increasing dependence on pageantry and nostalgia, to maintain its position'.
Telling a new story to boost business is something a growing number of brands has been looking to do. According to Jonathan Ford of Pearlfisher, many are using their 'Britishness' as currency around the world while looking in greater measure to the Far East and other markets for sales.
'While Europeans have a tendency to be more interested in their own brands, further afield, Brand Britain is thriving,' adds Dan Rowe, co-founder of Calling Brands.
'British luxury fashion-labels, such as Burberry and Mulberry in particular, are having success with Chinese consumers.'
GREENALL'S LONDON DRY GIN
With a 250-year heritage, Greenall's is now Britain's second-biggest distiller of super premium gin. However, according to its design consultancy Dragon Rouge, which was briefed to refresh the brand's identity, the brand's presentation did not match its past.
The company wanted to seize the opportunity presented by its 250th anniversary and the global resurgence in gin's popularity to reclaim its moniker of 'The great British spirit'.
Dragon Rouge decided to focus on the quintessential Britishness of gin and looked to Vivienne Westwood, Mini Cooper and Paul Smith for inspiration to make the brand more relevant.
'We rooted the brand confidently in its British spirit with a green Union Jack that plays to category codes but subverts the static landscape on shelf,' explains Barbra Wright, director of consumer brand identity and packaging at Dragon Rouge.
A year after the relaunch in April 2011, Greenall's has reported a 10% volume increase in sales. Previously the brand was sold only in some Waitrose stores and low-profile hotels; now it is stocked in five supermarket chains.
Christina Brown, former marketing director of G&J Greenall, who commissioned the rebrand, says: 'We are pioneers in the industry but we never rest on our laurels and always want to move with the times. The new packaging speaks to a fresh generation of gin drinkers, while respecting our strong heritage.'
ALL ABOUT TEA
Wholesale tea distributor All About Tea wanted to hone its offer, further its reach, retain its warehouse feel and establish a loyal consumer group.
The company briefed Moving Brands to create an identity that would stand out.
It needed to work across its existing wholesale market and enable the brand to grow into retail channels. It also needed to communicate the founder's passion for the art and intricacies of tea.
An assessment of the company by Moving Brands highlighted its 'inherently metronomic' delivery, the quality and rigour of its product and service and its passion for tea.
The final All About Tea identity system, currently being rolled out, incorporates a brand identity, brand architecture, website, packaging, stationery, photography style, sales templates, mood film and tone of voice.
'Since implementing the identity we have not been able to keep up with the increased interest from new customers,' says Andrew Gadsden, chief executive of All About Tea. 'The site and packaging seem to have caught the imagination of a market tired of the same old design cliches in the tea sector.'
The process leading up to the actual design work was 'nothing short of a total redefinition of what the company is and what we do', adds Gadsden. 'The skill of the Moving Brands designers was in encapsulating this redefinition accurately in visual form. That explains why the branding feels so solid and correct.'
The revamped identity has resulted in a growth in average order value of 105%, with average order frequency down from 70 to 55 days.
In addition, the average size of All About Tea's customer by annual turnover is up from £200,000 to £900,000, with 'many more sales in the pipeline', according to Gadsden.
For the past two years, heritage fragrance label Penhaligon has commissioned branding consultancy JKR to design its Christmas gift collection.
For 2011, the brief stipulated a box that would charm the customer with its British eccentricity while ensuring it felt like a tailored gift.
JKR came up with the theme of 'hidden London' and the range depicts a Victorian household with three box sizes that stack to create a six-storey house.
Emily Maben, head of marketing at Penhaligon, says that design can be particularly effective.
'It's not as simple as slapping a Union Jack on a box, but it's a case of trying to convey the personality of our brand, which is British, but far from traditional,' she explains.
'We work hand-in-hand with our design agency, and it's vital that they understand what makes us and our consumers tick. They often pre-empt our ideas, exactly as it should be.' Maben cannot share sales figures from the latest Christmas packaging. However, the previous year's design, for its 2010 Christmas gift collection, also created by JKR to build on the brand's eccentric English roots, recently won a Marketing Design Award, having powered a 38% increase in sales.
'We've had a significant uplift in sales since we started working with JKR and really focused on conveying our brand essence via the packaging,' adds Maben.