Design consultancies are spreading their wings in response to the
changing demands of clients. Now they are jumping in at the very
beginning of the production process, whether it’s for new or existing
products, to carry out the research, planning and the overall
development of corporate strategy. They also design, writes Helen Baker
When you talk to some design consultancies about how they approach their
work, the word ‘strategic’ pops up with irritating regularity. Design -
especially in corporate identity - is now only a small part of the
service these multi-disciplinary companies offer.
The actual marque or logo is the tip of the iceberg; the real business
of corporate identity lies in research and development, in planning and
strategy and in effectively communicating the client’s brand
As Wally Olins, chairman of Wolff Olins, says in his 1989 book,
Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design:‘The
identity of a corporation must be so clear that it becomes the yardstick
against which its products, behaviour and actions are measured. This
means that the identity cannot simply become a slogan, a collection of
phrases - it must be visible, tangible and all-embracing.’
The seriousness with which design and identity are now treated is
reflected in the phenomenal fees top consultancies are able to charge
for their services. If identity has become the very symbol of a
company’s philosophy and aspirations and a reflection of its every
nuance, small wonder it doesn’t come cheap.
But the concept of design in this all embracing strategic approach has
almost been lost. It seems that the large, business-oriented
consultancies working in this sector have moved away from their artisan
roots to become another animal altogether.
‘We consider management consultants to be competitors,’ says Amanda
Connolly, managing director of Coley Porter Bell. ‘In a way, design
consultancies, NPD specialists, marketing consultancies and advertising
agencies are all after the same slice of the business. What we offer
over and above the rest is strategy in a visual form, which we call
‘visual planning’. We’re carving out a unique niche for ourselves.’
Last year’s CPB repositioning of Golden Wonder Crisps, which culminated
in a bold, energetic, new look for the brand, was a case in point.
It was the result of months of painstaking research, which showed that
though consumers had warm, nostalgic feelings towards Golden Wonder, it
was perceived as slightly old-fashioned. With arch-rival Walkers making
significant inroads in the aggressive snack-food sector, it was decided
that a new go-ahead 90s image was required, which CPB duly executed.
Identica, the four-year-old consultancy run by Michael Peters, offers a
range of services from planning and NPD to business consultancy and
marketing consultancy. ‘I brought in the first planners [during the 80s
at Michael Peters Group] and many people have emulated that since,’ says
‘Design companies are often treated as a commodity and clients sometimes
treat them as firemen to put out the fire. We are one of the new breed
who get involved in the early stages of thinking and don’t just get the
fag-end of the business.’
Soup to nuts
Peters points to the downsizing of in-house marketing departments as the
main reason that clients have come to demand a soup-to-nuts marketing
service from design consultancies such as his.
‘With Sellotape, for example, we were able to look at the whole of the
business,’ says Peters. ‘They came to us knowing what we had to offer.
But the secret ingredient is always good design.’
Adrian Collins, managing director of design consultants Ziggurat,
continues: ‘New product development agencies may be good thinkers and
strong on strategy, but they can’t execute the design for you; they can
show you the promised land but they can’t take you there.’
He points to his company’s work on RJ Reynolds’ low-tar cigarette brand
Camel Lights, which was rolled out in March. Ziggurat undertook the
research, planning, debriefing and design of the new-look packaging.
Sales in the crucial German market have grown by 80%, while UK sales
have soared by 130%.
Realisation of this shift in emphasis has led some design companies to
redefine themselves altogether. Three-year-old Tutssels - which has
completed projects for the likes of BT, Bass and SmithKline Beecham -
uses the subsidiary line ‘the brand builders’. ‘It sums up our holistic
approach to brands,’ explains Liz Dunning, Tutssels’ marketing director.
‘Often we’ll just come up with speculative ideas, like the black and
white ‘football’ can for Carling Black Label. We mocked one up and took
it to Bass. They paid us pounds 36,000 for the artwork and it was on the
shelves four weeks later.’
Tutssels’ sister company, Lambie Nairn, which specialises in high-
profile television identity work for the BBC and Channel 4, as well as a
host of cable and satellite broadcaster, describes itself as a ‘brand
builder for television’.
Meanwhile, Wickens Tutt Southgate, which services such blue-chip
clients as Tango, Anglepoise and Tomy, has taken to describing itself as
a ‘total branding agency’.
But this corporate doublespeak simply doesn’t wash with some of the
smaller, creatively-biased design studios.
‘At a lot of companies the marketing people get paid more than the
designers,’ complains Andy Altmann of Why Not Associates. ‘The real
skill is in the design. They would be nothing without the designers.’
Set up by three graduates from The Royal College of Art in the late 80s,
Why Not has consistently sold radical design into fusty institutions
such as the BBC and Royal Mail.
The modus operandi of its large corporate-minded counterparts is
anathema to Altmann. ‘I’m totally amazed at what they charge,’ he says.
‘OK, clients buy into a complete service, but often they don’t actually
need all of it.’
Coley Porter Bell’s Connolly recognises the increasing polarisation of
the two camps. ‘The common perception is that either you’re a wacky
creative hotshop or you’re strategic and boring. But strategy and
creativity aren’t mutually exclusive. Our holy grail is to amalgamate
Kasper de Graaf, managing director of design company Assorted Images,
agrees: ‘Just because something’s business-driven doesn’t mean it can’t
be creative. The concept of creativity is often used as a smokescreen
for ignorance and lack of business acumen.’
Assorted Images is an interesting case. Best-known for its innovative
record sleeve work during the 80s for chart-toppers Culture Club, Duran
Duran and Simple Minds, it has recently reinvented itself as an
exhibitions and corporate consultancy.
All seeing, all knowing
Somewhere in the transition some of the Olins philosophy has rubbed off.
‘Corporate identity is like going to a psychotherapist,’ declares de
Graaf. ‘You have to know absolutely everything about the patient before
you can proceed with the treatment. It’s not just a matter of
presentation; there’s far more to it than just design.’
In fact, sometimes there’s no design involved at all. Ziggurat often
provides planning and strategy alone, and in a deliberate, quasi-
symbolic move, will physically separate its strategic consultancy and
its design agency.
‘Focus pays,’ says Collins. ‘We have decided to concentrate on brand
identity. We’re not going to make the mistake that many design companies
did during the 80s by over-diversifying. We’re going to do more of the
same, but in a bigger pond.’
Marketing consultants watch out - the designers are coming.