Step into your client’s shoes

If you own a brand you have an edge over designers who don’t – you truly understand what it feels like to be a client, says Adrian Whitefoord

If like us you have helped to create and develop brands for some of the UK’s largest companies, isn’t it time you thought about actually owning your own brand?

Owning a brand can be daunting, but also very exciting. Nothing can beat seeing your product on-shelf, something that you have not only innovated and designed, but have a vested interest in. It gives you a tremendous buzz and – hopefully – financial reward at the end of the day.

To meet the challenge of being a brand owner requires a significant recalibration of mindset – which makes you a different designer when you return to the day job. We now understand clients better, what makes them tick and what keeps them awake at night.

For anybody thinking about setting off on the road of brand ownership it’s essential to realise that you are unlikely to be able to do it alone. It’s good common sense to work with partnering companies that have complementary strengths and skills. Our start-up virtual company consisted of Pemberton & Whitefoord (design and branding), Healthy Sales and Marketing (sales and business logistics) and The Organic and Fairtrade Consultancy (sourcing, legislation compliance and food technology).

Change is an ever-present factor, so flexibility is important. It was, for example, our initial intention to concentrate on all-organic products, but over time this proved to be too restrictive, so non-organic ‘free from’ products are now among the portfolio, selling under our Free Natural, Free & Easy, Really Interesting Food Company and Mr Bean brands. It’s a good idea to have a management meeting each month to discuss financial issues and brainstorm new product development.

Change continues apace as we grow in size. New acquisitions have brought the PLJ, Rayner’s and the Honegar brands into the fold under a new umbrella company named Health Food Brands. With an increased product portfolio comes other challenges. HFB now has a manufacturing base with a 650m2 factory. If achieved, our first-year turnover will represent an increase by a factor of six.

What hitherto felt a little like a cottage industry now feels like a very grown-up and potentially dynamic company. P&W only has a relatively small shareholding in HFB but it is sufficient to keep us motivated, which is imperative.

It is important to temper enthusiasm with commercial realities. In the early days a degree of soft subsidy is almost inevitable and our experience has been no exception. However, this cannot go on indefinitely. P&W is now able to charge HFB fees at a commercially viable rate and will eventually benefit when parts of the brand portfolio are sold once they reach their potential.

The whole brand-owning experience gives a better understanding of the anatomy of a brand from the inside out. If you work on both sides of the fence, it will make you both an unusual brand owner and consultant – one that is able to take a 360º view. Hopefully, we will have more successful brands as a result and we will be able to create profitable brands for our clients.

If the idea of brand ownership attracts you, then you should start looking for brands that will benefit from the skill and knowledge you have to offer. There are quite well-known brands tucked away in the portfolio of major brand owners, neglected and in need of updating.

For us, PLJ fitted this description – a sleeping giant that lacked the attention it deserved. We worked hard to rebrand and refresh the look of the product and also created a line extension. EDDWarly sales figures since relaunch are positive, with full listings at most of the major multiples.

I would endorse brand ownership because being able to walk at least a mile in our clients’ shoes has taught us a huge amount. It’s the sort of learning that is not generally available to consultancies. Owning a brand has the added benefit of displaying to clients a self-belief in our core skill set; we understand the pleasure and pain involved with seeing things from their point of view. If you are able to allocate a consistent resource and take the rough with the smooth, it can be an enlightening and rewarding journey.

Adrian Whitefoord is founder of Pemberton & Whitefoord

• Owning a brand means you have a vested interest in it, which gives you unique skills as a designer – you can see the client’s perspective
• Don’t do it alone – work with partners that share your strengths and skills
• Regular meetings are essential to formulate strategy for your brand
• Subsidies may be necessary before the brand becomes profitable
• Pick a brand that can benefit from your particular expertise

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