Attack of the “eff” word

A new swear word has entered our vocabulary. The “eff” word. Efficiency has, without doubt, been the biggest management phenomenon of the decade. We hear as much today about down-sizing, rationalisation, out-sourcing, and Total Quality Management systems as we did when consultants like Arthur Andersen started the efficiency campaign years ago.

Everyone seems to be in pursuit of another pound on the bottom line – whatever the cost. I suggest, however, that we have yet to fully understand the long-term effect of efficiency on brands.

So why do I call it a swear word? Surely it’s fundamental business sense? Well, increasingly I’m finding that it affronts so much of what we’re trying to achieve as a design industry. If branding has come to be about creating a competitive edge then why do we seem increasingly preoccupied with compromise, and complete standardisation? To resort to a cliché – seeing the cost in everything and the value in nothing.

For many of our clients it seems that using an existing structural format is more thrilling than creating something new, saving two colours at print is a better result than editing a shopping list of product claims, and even that ISO 9002 compliance can mean more than a good idea. We’re in danger of losing sight of what can really make a difference.

But, I’m glad to say, it may not all be doom and gloom. Last year Fortune magazine undertook a study of the top 100 performing companies in America. Not surprisingly, it revealed that most now operate pretty much on a par in terms of their respective levels of efficiency and profit returns. What characterised the top performers was their attitude towards, and ability to embrace, creativity at every level throughout the business. And that spans everything from big organisational matters to the label that goes on the widget.

With this in mind I suggest we learn from the success of some of our more enduring packaged brands that, at face value, do not seem as “efficient” as they might be. Take Kit Kat, After Eight, and Dairylea – three brands you could call iconic. Brands, however, that probably would not come into existence today because their packaging would be laughed out of court as being cost prohibitive. And yet their packaging contributes to their unique status in the minds of the consumer. Put Kit Kat into flow-wrap (Nestlé have just introduced Kit Kat Chunky), and it would lose its magic.

It is often said that God is in the detail (like the little tipped-in paper label on a bar of Imperial Leather). The fact of life in 1999 is that those details cost. Usually too much.

Call me old-fashioned, but moving Colmans Mustard from the metal container to the plastic container actually lessened my enjoyment of the brand. Heinz ketchup seems less “real” in squeezy plastic than glass, and the move of K cider from screen print to label (and, I’m informed, more recently to shrink wrap) dents its stylish image. For me it’s rather like how the sound of a car door closing defines your perceptions of the whole vehicle.

But the negative effects of efficiency can run much deeper. Across the board savings have been made as artwork becomes the domain of the client and their repro house (yet the saving can be false when what goes to market has completely lost its integrity through bad interpretation).

In corporate identity we have become restricted to work with A4 letterheads because other shapes wouldn’t go through the printer. Even business cards are pretty much the same shape (like credit cards) to fit in a universal wallet holder!

And the “eff” word has made its mark on the way we run design businesses. Unable to increase prices many appear to have resorted to under resourcing projects to deliver profit – or even simply to balance the books – as design buying becomes increasingly price-driven.

Do not get me wrong. This is not a call for wanton excess or client extortion. It is a reminder that efficiency is a very big issue that needs to be dealt with in a clever way. The onus is on us to demonstrate that some of those quirks and details – that are so easy to strip out – actually help to elevate packaged goods into brands.

We operate in a world that is ever competitive and where consumer loyalty is increasingly difficult to attain. Let’s make sure the achievement of an efficient business is not ultimately at the expense of the consumer’s perception of our clients’ brands.

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