Boots pioneers a mix of advertising and design

Boots the Chemists has, in its time, been a trailblazer in design. One of the first high street retailers to espouse effective design management, it has always seen good design as a way of selling products.

An industry benchmark was set by the long-standing role played by Pentagram partner John McConnell as external design head, instituting and overseeing a roster of top-flight consultancies to create often award-winning packaging for Boots and its then subsidiary Halfords. Not surprisingly, when arch rival Superdrug came along, it emulated Boots by setting up an equally illustrious roster, albeit run by an in-house design head, and taking the process one step further by creating a panel of rostered groups.

All along though Boots also boasted an in-house team of designers, based at its Nottingham headquarters, handling everything from store interiors to point-of-sale material. In theory, the blend of internal and external skills gave it the best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, businesses of all kinds have, over the past few years, built their in-house teams, limiting the amount of work put out to external consultancies. Iceland and Marks & Spencer, with Mary Lewis as external advisor on packaging, are among the retailers that took this route in a bid to cut costs and increase control over print and packaging design.

Now Boots has gone against the grain again, axing its in-house design service, apart from creative director Jon Turner, relying now on external groups for its design (see News, page 3). This gives Turner greater flexibility, enabling him to shop around for the right group for the job, but, though he has said he might stray off the roster, it also gives greater prominence to consultancies already working for the ‘nation’s chemist’.

Turner says he will depend on those groups, not just for their creative expertise, but for the knowledge they have of the company. Many have been working for Boots for sometime, while it has gone through management upheavals and shareholder pressures, and their experience will give it continuity now with the in-house team gone.

It is a great opportunity for design to show its worth, but it won’t be easy. Rostered groups apart and incumbents such as retail specialist 20/20, Boots’ creative push looks set to be spearheaded by advertising in the near future, as Turner builds his creative ‘hub’ within the London office of advertising supergroup Mother.

There is room for design in there, he says, as part of an ‘integrated’ offer, but it isn’t there yet. Now there’s a challenge for design to get up and show it can do it. Boots could prove a great test case for design and advertising to work towards collective goals.

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