If the going gets tough, send in the designers

It’s been a remarkable week in which four major players in two key sectors have publicly promoted design as a healer of commercial ills.

In retail, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s, both with solid reputations on the line as their fortunes dwindle, are looking to identity programmes to boost their respective images, working with Interbrand Newell and Sorrell and 20/20 Design and Strategy Consultants respectively (see News Analysis, pages 7 and 8). The news that M&S has also brought in Rodney Fitch & Co to revamp its 40 or so neighbourhood food stores suggests a sudden conversion to design, following last month’s launch of wine-shop pilots by Holmes & Marchant International (DW 4 June).

Airlines Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, meanwhile, vie to play up their Britishness, one with a new Union Flag-inspired livery, the other by bringing the flag back to the tails of half its fleet of aircraft, acknowledging that the departure into “art” has failed to impress.

On the face of it, it is good news for design to have such a public airing and to be linked with world-class clients. But can it be expected to gloss over cracks created by management shortcomings?

Here the retail examples will be most telling. M& S and Sainsbury’s have been trail-blazers in their time, but both are essentially family businesses. Both have been slow to weigh up the competition – holding on too long to the idea that a household brand will win out against allcomers, without the need for change.

Gap is cited as the upstart to topple the mighty M&S on the clothes front, despite the latter’s bid to keep abreast of fashion by consulting top-flight designers, the latest being Helen Storey. But did it also consider the impact the British fad for cookery on TV, and subsequently in the kitchen, might have on ready meals sales?

Sainsbury’s has long been seen as “an odd one” by retail specialists, a view borne out by its peculiar decision to let John Cleese shout down its customers in its ill-conceived TV ad campaign. But even the week before it launched its new marque, it was losing ground to arch-rival Tesco.

BA’s “big idea” launch of its identity by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell in 1997 has since emerged as ill-timed, given the airline’s internal communications problems. For the sake of the industry, let’s hope Sainsbury’s and M&S haven’t left it too late to redeem their standing. Design alone doesn’t make for better management, but it has proved a useful scapegoat when policies fail.

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