How to build a design-led brand

In the same week that O2 announces plans for a ‘user experience design centre of excellence’ a management shake-up at Apple sees Sir Jonathan Ive given the reins for interface as well as product design at the company.

O2 is setting up a 'user experience centre of excellence'
O2 is setting up a ‘user experience centre of excellence’

At O2, head of brand strategy and customer experience Simon Groves is hoping to align the company with a design-led way of thinking found in some companies which look out from within, using in-house teams to shape the products, the services, the brand and ultimately the way people perceive the company.

He says he has looked to the set-up at Apple, BMW, Sky and Virgin Atlantic to see how design-led in-house teams work.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Groves said, ‘There was a common set of principles, [including] building a strong in-house team that can be the experts [rather than just outsourcing to agencies]. Also, having designers empowered around the decision-making table, rather than making decisions on marketing or financial or engineering grounds.’

The goal is to produce what Groves calls ‘world-class’ digital products and services, rather than, as Marketing Week puts it, ‘benchmarking itself against other mobile providers.’

To this end O2 is in the process of setting up its in-house team with 25 user-experience experts, and is currently seeking a senior designer who will report to Sally Cowdry, the company’s director of marketing.

Market-leading brands have long been associated with being design-led, and for innovating from within, whether that be through product, interface, or brand development.

How these teams are structured, where they sit within the organisation and how they work in practical terms, has a huge bearing on the kinds of products and services they are creating .

Virgin Atlantic head of design Luke Miles
Virgin Atlantic head of design Luke Miles

At Virgin Atlantic, one of the design-led brands referenced by Groves, Luke Miles joined as head of design in April 2011 and leads a multidisciplinary team of around 25 people, which covers service design, industrial design and architecture, brand design, digital entertainment and events and sponsorship.

Set up in 1995 the team, which has grown and diversified, now sits within the product and service division and works across the entire organisation.

Inside the new upper-class virgin atlantic suite
Inside the new upper-class Virgin Atlantic suite

Miles says, ‘The team has two critical roles. The first is to finely craft the customers’ end-to-end experience through the physical, digital and service realms. This spans multiple touch-points, from the experience of one of our global clubhouses to a glass on-board.

‘The design team are not only responsible for all project work, but are also tasked with ensuring the overall experience is joined up and well-curated. This involves taking projects right from inception, through to final launch and also to review the product life cycle.

‘The second concerns brand guardianship. Importantly this element is both internal and externally facing and focuses on the culture of the organisation and how this links to the external experience of our customers.’

Miles says he frequently works with planners who identify core elements of a brief  ‘and together we craft a business need for a project.’

Inside the new upper-class virgin atlantic suite
Inside the new upper-class virgin atlantic suite

Preliminary R&D is generally conducted in-house – including the recent upper-class suite – which was conceived by the in-house design group.

‘When we are confident with the route we want to take we often collaborate with an external design agency to work with us on the initiative,’ says Miles.

Recent results include two new club houses which have just been completed in New York – the JFK clubhouse with its ‘Uptown’ theme, and the Newark Clubhouse which opens later this month, has a ‘Downtown’ theme.

Sky Arts by Sky Creative
Sky Arts by Sky Creative

Over at Sky, its in-house operation Sky Creative has been running as long as the organisation itself according to a spokesman for the business.

The division is overseen by executive director Robert Tansey who took on the role in December 2011.

Under him are 260 full time staff who comprise a full-service team which specialises in the branding of on-air, off-air, digital campaigns and TV production.

The team’s remit covers all Sky channel brands and interestingly Sky Creative also faces out from the organisation, working for a number of third party brands, through Sky Media – Sky’s advertising sales house. Recently these have included Ford, Gillette, Blackberry and Panasonic.

Sky Arts by Sky Creative
Sky Arts by Sky Creative

The spokesman says that Sky Creative is being integrated further with the rest of Sky’s businesses under Tansey, particularly ‘the content teams and Sky’s Customer Group, which oversees all product and brand marketing.’

Recently Sky Creative has helped launch  Sky Atlantic, alongside Heavenly and designed the look and feel for Sky’s entire entertainment portfolio .

Automotive companies meanwhile are by their nature driven by internal product R&D. BMW, also name-checked by Groves, has three design studios in Munich, Los Angeles, and Singapore, home to ‘a large team of designers’, says a spokesman.

‘Of course car design is absolutely central to our business and the investment in this side of our business is significant,’ he says, but as with some other car manufacturers, he confirms that BMW also designs mobile phones, planes, trains, aeroplanes ‘and a host of other things.’

Common to all these brands, and to creating a design-led company, is in the words Groves ‘having designers empowered around the decision-making table.’

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