Design: UK design goes global

Brands are breaking down global barriers by hiring UK design agencies to unify their international identities, reports Drew Barrand That the world is getting smaller is an oft-recited cliche, but in the case of design, it is an entirely appropriate statement. The increase in international work - both for existing and new clients - is one of the biggest strategic evolutions among UK design agencies.

This is because clients want to present a unified brand message across all communications - a trend which has led to a centralisation of such activity. Design has been placed at the heart of this strategy because of the perception that it can bind all the other media agencies' work together.

'Brands are beginning to see themselves in a single global marketplace,' explains Ralph Ardill, marketing and strategic planning director at The Imagination Group. 'They are adopting a more holistic approach to brand management, looking at the totality of their work rather than fragmented regional markets. The design agencies that thrive will be the ones that embrace this strategy and look to deliver on it.'

With global brands adopting this approach, the appointment of a single design agency to handle the look and feel of the marketing message is not uncommon. And UK design agencies are now proving their power in the market, winning major global accounts for some of the world's leading brands.

According to NGO UK Trade & Investment, 43% of UK design consultancies derive more than half their fee income from overseas work. This is a figure that Andrew Eyles, managing director of Blue Marlin, expects to grow. 'As a business, I expect 80% of our profitability will come from outside Europe within three to five years,' he says. 'The increase in international contracts is being driven by chief executives who are realising there is a need to deliver a unilateral message. The future is clear for agencies. Unless you can manage global contracts, you will always be relegated to the lesser components of client work.'

Relevant concepts

With clients breaking down global barriers in favour of a unified brand message, the challenge for design agencies is to make the creative relevant to every regional market.

'It is about global identity with local awareness,' says Ardill. 'The big problem tends to be the language - not only in terms of vocabulary, but also colloquial jargon. To make this work, communication lines between ourselves and the local teams in each market have to be strong in order to achieve true relevance.'

Design agencies are aware of the need to go where the work is and the clients' desire for a global focus has changed the day-to-day life of the agency staff. Many design agency executives are finding that they are increasingly on the road, visiting local teams to get a feel for the specific issues affecting each regional market. In an era of technological advancement, the location of the agency's headquarters has become largely irrelevant, meaning that design firms from every area of the UK have as great a chance of winning a global pitch as those based in London.

One such success story hails from Birmingham, the home of Boxer Design, which recently scooped the global packaging contract for McDonald's.

Chosen for its ability to 'capture the McDonald's brand attitude', Boxer Design beat off six other shortlisted agencies to win the pitch. This marked the first time the fast-food chain had centralised its packaging contract to present a global identity.

The pitching process involved visiting McDonald's offices around the world to deliver a creative brief covering 20 product groups.

Larry Light, McDonald's executive vice-president and global chief marketing officer, said: 'When we leverage our resources, talent and infrastructure, the power of the McDonald's system is unparalleled. This decision is an example of our continuation to work together to move this brand forward in ways that customers everywhere will find fresh and appealing.'

The increase in international work has also enforced a structural change within design agencies. Many firms now employ global innovation directors with the responsibility of going out to source new business from across the world. These directors are playing heavily on the UK's reputation as leaders of creative and strategic thought in design - a status that is paying dividends with the major brands.

A number of these global brands have moved away from their US agency incumbents due to the ability of UK firms to fit in with the global identity strategy. It is indeed the strategic angle and the transparent communication lines between design and the other media agency partners that is driving the high level of international work coming through.

The other side

While increased international work is an incentive to design agencies, particularly with regard to big global brands, there is still ample work to be done for smaller regional clients with more targeted needs.

'It's important not to get carried away with the impact of international work,' explains Charles Wrench, managing director of Landor UK. 'International clients are looking at UK agencies, but for every one that is opting for global branding, there is another that wants a more targeted regional approach. The market between big and small brands is endlessly polarising, but there is scope for growth of design business in both.'

These words of caution are worth bearing in mind, but with international brands increasingly looking to centralise their marketing message, it is a highly encouraging evolution for UK design to be at the cutting edge.


To establish itself as a global offering, Lever Faberge's washing-powder brand Surf hired Vibrandt to apply a radical redesign across its communications. Vibrandt, part of The Sandom Group, created three variants on the Surf branding - Breeze, Spring and Sunshine - which became the catalyst for the product's global marketing. The work, which was used across the range of powders and tablets, was created following a consumer research programme which ran alongside the creative process. Consumers helped to build ideas rather than just evaluate existing proposals. This research inspired the on-pack language, including a section on 'Surf's Law' - a humorous look at things that can go wrong in the washing process.


Having decided to redesign its packaging, McDonald's hired Birmingham's Boxer Design to initiate a strategy to be rolled out in three stages across 2004. Inspired by the company's first global brand campaign, 'I'm lovin' it', Boxer reinvented the McDonald's packaging in a similar vein, placing storytelling at its heart. Real customers from across the globe were used in the visuals, with the images becoming a representation of the brand and uniting the firm's global customer base through its cartons and bags, as well as the use of its Golden Arches logo, which remains the focus of all packaging. The new look is now used in more than 30,000 restaurants in 119 countries, reaching 46m customers each day.


After winning the pitch for NCR, Elmwood developed a consistent look and feel for the world's biggest provider of consumer transaction ATM machines. The Leeds agency conducted a workshop with global marketing communications teams in North America, Latin America, EMEA and Asia Pacific, before building a campaign that focused on consumers rather than the technology. This strategy placed NCR apart from other technology companies, which predominantly go to market on the complexity of their products. On the back of this strategy, Elmwood created a tagline and visual identity, which was rolled out across all forms of communication. In simplifying the offering, the identity improved understanding of the technology.

NUROFEN - Pi Global

Pi Global had been on Boots Healthcare International's agency roster since the late 90s when it picked up the global identity and packaging contract for the company's Nurofen brand. The London agency focused on the brand's core symbol - a target - using it as an icon. In taking this approach to brand identity, Pi Global dictated that the target was applied powerfully and consistently across any visual expression, at every brand and consumer interface, to maximise recall and investment in communication. As well as being instantly recognisable, the use of the target symbol also provided flexibility in conveying the range's individual product offerings across different regions.


1. The Imagination Group - international work made up 42% of the company's overall turnover, equating to £33.2m worth of business to the end of 2003.

2. Design Bridge - 54% of the company's overall turnover was from international work, adding up to £6.6m worth of business to the end of 2003.

3. Springer & Jacoby Design - international work accounted for 95% of the company's overall turnover, equating to £5.7m worth of business to the end of 2003.

4. Mansfields - made 92% of its overall turnover via international work, accounting for £3.98m of business to the end of 2003.

5. Checkland Kindleysides - international work made up 33% of the company's overall turnover, adding up to £2.7m worth of business to the end of 2003.


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