Fussy designs, giant chocolate rabbits and other perils of working in Russia

When McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990, a reported 30,000 people came through the doors on the first day and more queued for hours for weeks after. Back then the Russian appetite for McDonald’s was one example of the kudos associated with Western things and this is something which still rings true today.

From a design perspective, with no schools of commercial and industrial design in Russia, the country gravitates towards Western standards, while Russian businessmen place value on working with foreign expertise, providing good opportunities for Western agencies in this market.

With a wealth of experience in working in Russia, David Rogers, founder and creative director of We Are Pure, shares his experiences of working where East meets West and answers the question ‘Your Russian client gifts you a 3ft chocolate rabbit as a thank-you. What do you do?’

Soldiers on Moscow's Red Square

Source: Simon Lee

Soldiers on Moscow’s Red Square

Blending new with familiar

‘Russians still have fundamentally different cultural design references. It’s not as clear-cut as simply overlaying Western design on to Russian brands, people like familiarity too. An example being that Russian design is characteristically fussy. Russian designers have a tendency to keep adding layers to packaging with embossing and use of foils and gold. This contrasts with the “less is more” approach often favoured in the West. It’s important to give clients the best of both worlds – simpler design but with finishing touches such as the inclusion of silver foil on the packaging that Russians recognise as an indication of quality.’

Get a foothold in the market

‘Russian companies will want to see a tangible example of your successful design work for a Russian brand. Our work for Natura Siberica led other Russian companies to start approaching us. Successful track records of local work, cost-efficiency, responsiveness to clients’ wishes and professional expertise have allowed us to grow our business in Russia.’

Establish an office locally

‘Our work in Russia started in 2006, but in early in 2012 I made the decision to open an office in Moscow, rather than operate using a token phone number. We serviced this arm of our business from a creative and design perspective from our UK office. There are many benefits to having a dedicated local office. Day-to-day matters, can be dealt with more quickly and efficiently than from the UK. They speak the language and deal with practicalities such as contract negotiations, which would take me a lot longer to agree. But their importance goes deeper. Even with eight years experience of the country, there are many things I just don’t know. Russia is vast and there are regional differences too in people’s business attitudes, expectations and processes. Even with a local office, Russian clients expect me to be at meetings too. Dealing with people face-to-face is considered a sign of respect and important to the relationship. And I make it clear I’m available by phone anytime and support clients in other ways, such as English language re-writes for their PR activities. So our client servicing matches our design approach, a blend of East and West.’

Reframe challenges in a positive light.

‘Working in this market is not without its challenges. You’re competing against local providers who are expensive, often difficult to work with and not as good as us. But Russian businesses have grown used to these behaviours and they take some shifting. There is also an issue around getting Russian clients to understand great design is not only about nice picture and printing style – it’s about the message one wants to address to customers through the package, derived from thorough market research, rather than personal preferences. What other companies might perceive as client hassle, we treat as concern about products and aspiration for perfect outcome. What others view as knocking off the price, we reframe as budget constraints. And rather than talk about Western experience, we show real local success stories.’

And what happened the chocolate rabbit?

On my last visit to Slavyanka in the Russian Far East, as a thank you, my client gave me a 3ft high chocolate rabbit. Rather than transport the rabbit some 1500 miles, my initial thought was to donate it to a local charity. However my colleague in the local office insisted this would be seen as an insult. It didn’t occur to me that what we would consider a philanthropic act would be viewed differently. And the rabbit? It was smashed into pieces by UK Customs who believed it might contain contraband. I did get to keep the chocolate afterwards though.’

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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