Survival of the fairest

Companies that embody beauty – in design and in philosophy – achieve a competitive advantage. But will this leave the future bland, asks Clare Dowdy?

“Beauty is the essence of sustainable competitive advantage,” asserts Paul Dickinson in his book Beautiful Corporations. And manifestations of a company’s “beauty” can be achieved or enhanced through communications including design.

Dickinson, director of research at Rufus Leonard, makes a good case for corporations to “develop compassion and empathy. Perhaps they must even learn to love,” he bravely suggests.

For the era of profit-obsessed companies without a long-term, more responsible approach to business, will soon be a thing of the past, he believes.

The author elaborates on the metaphor of “corporate beauty”, claiming that it ties in with the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. The role of design is well illustrated in this process, with profiles or examples from Johnson & Johnson, OnDigital, Ikea, and some, such as Specsavers and Gala Clubs, drawn from Rufus Leonard’s own work. There is also a section on Jam’s involvement in changing perception of clients through its innovative product design.

And once the claims for beauty, and design’s potential contribution to the bottom line have been made, Dickinson gets down to the nuts and bolts of best practice in the use of design – implementing corporate design, monitoring an identity and other client issues.

This is a thoroughly researched, thoughtful plea to clients to think long-term. Dickinson has had the cooperation of a healthy number of exemplary clients such as The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick, and design or business experts and commentators including Sean Blair, then design director of the Design Council.

However, in Dickinson’s predictions for the future of branded enterprise, he treads a tricky line between a sunny world of brands, and a bleaker, to my mind blander, forecast.

Consider the positive claim that: “The era of values-free, over-consumption capitalism with its cancerous vortex of ‘work harder, buy more’ is coming to an end.”

And combine that with the surely worrying belief that “people would rather be branded than not.” Of course, clients want to hear that, and design companies rely on it for their own business, but is it really true that we would all rather be branded than not? Or is it that there isn’t much choice not to be branded anymore?

Dickinson’s main platform is sustainable development and how tackling that can be beneficial to companies themselves. After all, his master’s degree is in Responsibility and Business Practice, so when he says that for each problem we face, “there is a particular commercial sector that can profit by addressing the problem”, he surely knows what he is talking about.

However, companies are not just going to take a greater interest in sustainability for their own ends. Beautiful companies should take an interest out of compassion and empathy: “Saying that the purpose of business is profit is like saying the purpose of life is breathing.” This might not be how every exploited consumer out there views it, but it is something that his client readership might aspire to. In a world, then, where well-branded corporations are taking an active role to stave off the two looming catastrophes of sustainability and exploitative trade practices, where does this leave the consumer?

“Managing happiness is the end game of capitalism… And to be honest, there is something slightly worrying about the reduction of cultural diversity through global homogenisation,” he admits.

So perhaps that is the price we would have to pay for corporate beauty – the risk of a loss of variety.

Beautiful Corporations: Corporate Style in Action, by Paul Dickinson, designed by Rufus Leonard managing director Neil Svensen, is published by Financial Times Prentice Hall, priced £24.99

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