War of words is down to strategic thinking

It’s a perennial issue: should design consultancies offer strategic advice to their clients? Kevin Thompson and Dorothy Mackenzie take up the debate

Kevin Thompson


Many design businesses now claim some form of strategic ability to define a brand or develop a client’s brand strategy. Even more galling from the client’s perspective, some claim responsibility for the brand and some are sufficiently arrogant to call themselves ‘brand guardians’. Let’s be clear; let’s define an irrefutable truth. No creative group owns the brand or is the brand guardian. That’s the job of the marketing director and is ultimately the responsibility of the chief executive officer.

Hiring a planner or two will not, in my view, transform a design consultancy into a strategic consultancy or for that matter, enable it to provide effective brand strategy input – though it might be a nostrum to charge higher fees.

Changing the business name to include the word brand will also not convince any self-respecting marketing director that designers have the breadth of skills to define a brand and develop a cogent brand strategy.

Let me venture a definition of brand strategy. In its simplest form it defines how the brand responds to the business strategy. However, we all know it’s more complicated than that. No matter how well the brand is defined and creatively interpreted it will fail if the business does not support the brand’s promise through all facets of its operation and offer – too broad a remit for designers to address.

There is now, and always will be, a need for designers and branding consultancies. Their role is to visualise and communicate the brand strategy – effectively bringing a series of thoughts and beliefs to life through forms of communication comprehensible to all stakeholders. However, a designer’s strategic expertise, no matter how intuitive, cannot and should not stretch as far as defining the corporate brand strategy or even the product brand strategy.

Why? Because if clients are to believe in and pay fees for brand strategy consultancy, they need to be sure they are receiving truly media-neutral advice. Clearly this excludes designers. Why? Easy, because designers and their paymasters believe in and live for the media solution – not the brand strategy solution.

Experience proves that many organisations embark on a branding programme, or worse a rebranding or repositioning programme, without actually identifying why they are doing this and what aspects of the business has changed to require this new set of visual clothes and marcoms messages. Often the problem is internal, relating to the way the business is run, or how the product or service is developed or marketed. Few design businesses carry this level or depth of expertise and therefore cannot competently address the full needs of the business.

Like design, crafting a brand and developing a brand is an art, albeit a sedulous one; whereas design is an intuitive art – both require a different mindset and approach.

Dorothy Makenzie


There’s no reason why design groups shouldn’t offer strategic advice. Yes, clients are responsible for developing strategies for their business and their brands, but they should feel able to call for input from whatever source they believe may be useful. That includes designers.

‘Strategic advice’ implies advice relating to the longer term or the future vision of the brand, rather than advice related to short term tactics. You could argue that a design perspective encourages a close understanding of the outside world and of the trends that influence people’s attitudes and behaviour. Offering insights and advice derived from this broad, external, future-orientated perspective must be both legitimate and valuable.

Nowadays, the success of many brands is based on how they connect with their audiences at an emotional or values-based level, not simply at a rational level. Connections may be intuitive, based on empathy. Design can play a key role in establishing these connections – as we have seen with brands such as Apple Computer, Orange and Sony.

It’s sometimes argued that design groups are incapable of offering advice because they are biased. The accusation is that they make a particular executional route – design – the inevitable consequence of their advice.

This implies not only huge cynicism on behalf of designers, but also a lack of intelligence in clients, who are deemed incapable of seeing through a disingenuous argument. This view also fails to appreciate that many design groups derive significant revenue from advice that is unrelated to execution and may possess no executional pull-through.

Sometimes such activity is more profitable than design execution. Clients appreciate this advice because it comes from an environment where creativity, inspiration and innovation are valued – and it complements data-driven analytical advice from other sources. Many design groups employ consultants who could easily be working in strategy-only brand consultancies or in management consultancies, but who find the environment of a design group more dynamic and satisfying. There’s no lack of competent, intelligent and knowledgeable people within design consultancies.

For clients to delegate responsibility for strategy development to external strategy experts is an abdication of responsibility.

My impression is that sophisticated and intelligent clients want to work constructively and collaboratively with a range of different groups, valuing each party’s different input, while retaining ultimate responsibility themselves for formulating the strategy.

There’s no reason why brand strategy consultants with no exceptional capability should not be a part of this group, but their inclusion need not exclude designers who can bring their distinctive perspective and experience.

Excellence in one executional area does not disqualify you from being able to think long term or of the bigger picture.

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