Searching for an identity

Companies are under so much commercial pressure that they no longer know what their brand is about or what customers want. Sara Manuelli thinks design groups could help.

The findings of a new report published this week by Springpoint, the London branding and identity specialist, suggest that organisations need to concentrate more on brand development and less on conventional marketing.

In a study carried out among 200 senior UK managers, 73 per cent of the participants revealed a will to change the current structure of their organisations. The future tendency will be for a more fluid and flexible structure, where the brand becomes the heart of the organisation, they say. This could mean an end to the stranglehold on brands by conventional marketing departments and more opportunities for outsourcing strategic branding.

Companies which participated in the Springpoint survey include British Airways, Virgin, Campbells, Unilever, United Biscuits and the British Tourist Authority. All stated the need to restructure their organisations. The theme was that business should be driven by a brand vision, plus an understanding of the customer.

“It’s not that marketing is unimportant,” says Springpoint managing director Fiona Gilmore. “But marketing should not be confined to just one department. It should not stay on the periphery.”

According to the survey, most managers believe that every department, from human resources to pricing, should be involved in delivering the brand. Tony Allen, joint management director at Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, believes this is already happening. “Over the past five or six years, large companies have been developing a holistic brand approach and have recognised that old fashioned disciplines need to be integrated,” he says.

With consumers becoming increasingly sophisticated, and the realisation that the components making brands a success are complex, more and more consultancies, from design to brand specialists, have been called in to take a place at the strategy table.

Many organisations’ desire for change stems from a direct response to the Internet revolution, which has shifted the values of both service supply and consumerism. As a consequence, established organisations are now on unsteady ground.

Internet service providers are seen to lead the way. Growth of these companies is organic and is wholly customer-oriented. These companies do not suffer from the legacies of hierarchical management or stale marketing strategies that plague traditional companies. They embrace flexibility because they reflect the ever-changing dynamics of the Internet itself.

As a result, their brands reflect this. Gilmore quotes companies such as Amazon.com as an example of a fluid venture where brand sits at the core of the business.

Examples of large organisations which are gearing towards looser, more organic structures include Procter & Gamble and Unilever. A Unilever spokesman confirms that brand focusing is becoming more important in the way business is conducted: “We have about 16 000 brands around the world. In the near future we are looking to drop about three quarters of them and concentrate on strong ones such as Persil.”

He does not, however, believe that marketing is an obsolete practice. “Marketing means so many things, research, sales, you can’t just do without it,” he says.

Gareth James, head of brand management at the British Tourist Authority and a participant in the Springpoint survey, agrees with many of its points. He believes that obsession with competition and marketing has led corporate giants like J Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer to lose sight of both customers and brand essence.

“Companies which don’t have a passionate commitment to satisfy clients’ needs will fail,” he says. “The British Tourist Authority is in the peculiar position of not producing an actual product, yet it does have a brand, and a statement of what that represents.”

But what does brand refocusing mean for design consultancies? “The report’s result is good news for design,” says Gilmore. “There will be more opportunity to contribute to the brand.”

She believes organisations with a need to evolve into more organic structures are perfect for design consultancies, which don’t like to be compartmentalised.

Unlike 20 years ago, when companies had monolithic structures that were inflexible and slow to adjust to change, design groups will now be able to participate in all aspects of the brand, she says.

The way in which clients will make use of design consultancies in the future will depend on scale. Gilmore adds: “Some companies will have everything in-house, while others will outsource.”

Simon Rhind Tutt of The Tutt Consultancy says the time is ripe for design groups to climb the ladder in terms of value, and to give credible brand advice. “There are no more rules with regard to who is the brand custodian.

“Ten or 20 years ago it was the advertising agencies… now there is a real chance for the design industry to prove its worth in the marketing mix, provided it can think commercially as well as creatively,” says Tutt.

The first step, according to Tutt, is for design groups to position themselves as brand or corporate consultancies rather than just design consultancies. “Ultimately, it’s how you package your services,” he says.

The presence of big name players could be vital for the design industry to take its new role. Tutt believes that, at present, things could do with some improvement. He mentions the 1980s, when there was a fantastic design boom period led by figureheads such as Terence Conran, Wally Olins, Michael Peters and Rodney Fitch. Tutt feels this leadership could today be supplied by the likes of Michael Peters and Bruce Duckworth of Turner Duckworth.

The role of design and brand consultancies has also altered in the face of the changing global economy. Most large organisations today have brand directors with a global brand approach. According to Allen, consultancies that can create global brands can be counted on one hand.

But he does not believe that design consultancies are a substitute for advertising agencies. “The best advertising comes from people who concentrate on it intensively. Design has so many wider applications,” he concludes.

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