Forays into foreign territory

Does their expertise in consumer research entitle product design groups to muscle in on the branding sector? David Benady investigates

The over-supplied branding industry is getting more crowded. Product designers are getting in on the act as well.

Seymour Powell, one of the UK’s top product design consultancies, last week unveiled branding work for Unilever teeth whitener White Now. Not only did it design the structural packaging for the product, it also created the logo and on-pack branding.

This is quite a departure for the product design consultancy, which is better known for designing a hydrogen-fuelled motorbike and a state-of-the-art steam iron. It has been quietly building up a branding and graphics team over the past couple of years and says it is considering whether to make a concerted foray into branding.

There is an increasing crossover between the skills of branding and structural design. Branding group Vibrandt set up structural design division Vibrandt Form in June, with three former executives who joined from product design giant PDD, while Design Bridge has long offered two-dimensional graphics alongside three-dimensional structural design.

PDD design manager Alex Peacop says that clients have been increasingly asking the group to undertake branding work. He believes the prime place that product consultancies have in developing brands is driving this trend. ‘Product and packaging design consultancies have a strong background in user-research. Before a brief is written, the client will often say, “We are looking for the next big thing in our area – what is it?”. We talk to users of products and understand the relationships they have with products and brands themselves, so companies are coming to us for branding because we’ve got that understanding.’

He believes product and packaging designers have a holistic understanding of the complexities of consumer lifestyles and have integrated ways of working through semantics, trends research, consumer insight and design strategy. This is a strong background for developing brands.

According to Peter Booth, a director of structural design consultancy Tin Horse, structural designers create packaging designs at least three years before a product launches. This gives manufacturers time to alter machinery in their factories to make the packs. ‘I can understand the interest in getting in on graphics and branding, because the turnover is much quicker and, after all, you already know the fundamentals of the brand,’ he says.

But some wonder whether clients are better served by employing specialist consultancies in different fields rather than seeking a one-stop shop to create products, structural packaging and on-pack branding.

Laurel Miller, creative director of structural and new product development group AM Associates, is derisive about the integrated approach. ‘What we do is collaborate with some of the best graphics and marketing groups in the UK, so the world is our oyster,’ she says. ‘Getting different designers to collaborate is a much better option for clients. We are amenable and flexible enough to work in that way with graphic consultancies, and to bounce off each other.’

She questions the motives of consultancies offering product, structural and graphic design under one roof. ‘Is it just about maintaining control over the project and improving your name and status, or is it really about giving the best to the client?’ she muses.

Many clients, however, appear to be happy to put all their eggs in one basket, as Unilever has shown. It appointed Seymour Powell’s Richard Powell as design director for its Dove brand and as a consultant on the Lynx range after his consultancy created packaging innovations for both brands. The group’s move into branding seems like a logical extension of this relationship. The consumer goods giant has a history of employing advertising, media and marketing agencies for integrated tasks.

Seymour Powell moved into structural packaging about five years ago, extending beyond its core skill of product design. Last year it recruited Design Bridge creative chief Neil Hirst to take charge of its packaging design offer. Until now it has worked with outside graphic designers to create 2D designs, so its foray into creating graphics in-house is significant.

Hirst plays down the group’s move into branding, and says it is still considering whether to get more involved. ‘There will be things that come up where we have designed both 2D and 3D, but it is not something we are set up to do on any kind of scale,’ he says. ‘How we deal with that is something we have to consider.’

Meanwhile, Bob Scott, Seymour Powell account director on Unilever’s White Now business, points out the advantages of offering both disciplines under one roof. ‘2D and 3D branding and packaging go hand in hand. The two need to work together,’ he says.

Compared with the highly technical and engineering-based skills required for product and structural packaging, branding can be sketched out by any inky-fingered creative with a good idea. The challenge lies in developing insights into the way consumers relate to those brands, which is where the product and structural designers believe they have an ace up their sleeves.

It remains to be seen whether the product and packaging designers will make a successful push into branding, or whether it is simply an opportunist foray into a related area. They may find there is more to designing logos and graphics than at first meets the eye.

ONE-STOP OR TWO?

• Product designers moving into branding include Seymour Powell and PDD

• Branding groups moving into product and innovation include Vibrandt, with the creation of Vibrandt Form

• Packaging consultancies collaborating with branding groups include AM Associates

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