Design Case Studies: Brands willing to take risks will establish lead in design game

Agencies must beware the trend for safe, comfortable design, and instead make brave choices, writes Richard Abbott.

Attendees at last week's Marketing Design Awards will have come away feeling that the design industry is in rude health, considering the high quality of the work being recognised.

However, while such events encourage celebration of the industry's undoubted creative talent, there was an undertone of cautiousness.

Marketers now expect any decision made by agencies to be completely watertight, with return on investment assured. Few are prepared to accept the possibility of risk, given the wider financial woes that have had an impact on the business landscape.

However, risk is an inherent aspect of design work. One person's idea of a clever piece of brand representation is likely to turn off another entirely. This is why unparalleled levels of time and effort are being devoted to planning, research and testing.

Deborah Dawton, chief executive of the Design Business Association (DBA), the trade body for the UK design industry, agrees that most marketers are 'pretty risk averse at the moment'.

'The day of the hunch is over,' she says. 'It is a risk that businesses aren't prepared to take.'

Dawton adds that marketers are placing agencies' track records under unprecedented scrutiny. 'Clients are looking for those companies that have the ability to effect a change in the marketplace,' she says. 'They are looking for a track record of significant change in the businesses that agencies have worked for.'

Over the next four pages, you will be able to read the thoughts of two of the design industry's leading brains, along with case studies of game-changing work that their agencies have produced for brands.

Roger Hart, managing director of Blue Marlin, argues that understanding the customer journey - essentially, putting yourself in the shoes of the person using the brand and examining their interaction with it - is the key to getting consumers to tell others about a brand. You can read how Blue Marlin put this into practice when canvassing mothers' opinions about Cow & Gate baby formula.

Having a detailed understanding of the target consumer is vital to avoid a branding misfire. When Britvic briefed Blue Marlin to bring Tango back to its heartland of bold, irreverent fun and resurrect its 'in yer face' personality, the agency came up with a 'mashed-up' design (pictured) that talks to its target audience of teenage boys in a language they understand.

Meanwhile, in our second essay, Peter Knapp, executive creative director at Landor Associates - the agency behind the iconic branding of Heinz Beanz - offers his take on how brands can retain a personal touch, regardless of their scale.

He cites as an example the way Landor brought a human touch to Nokia's mobile operating platform, Symbian.

Dawton argues that designers now have a crucial role to play in encouraging marketers to break with convention and invest in work that can help brands make a big splash within their respective sectors.

'There is a danger that when things are good and perform OK, you just carry on with what you have been doing,' she says. 'Now we are in a period where doing what you did before isn't going to be good enough. It is the role of designers to encourage those businesses to think in that way.'

Far from accepting the current trend toward certainty and avoidance of risk, branding and design agencies must demonstrate beyond doubt that bold, creative work can reap dividends by making brands stand out and consumers' lives that little bit more comfortable.

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