Running up that hill

Packaging and branding must be among the most resilient markets for design. Whatever horrors the economic downturn has wrought elsewhere, judging by Design Week’s news pages commissions keep on coming.

One of our observations on the branding front though is that for the past couple of years work has tended to be for smaller client organisations than might previously have been the case. The situation is very different than it was in the mid- to late 1990s, when full-blown identity programmes were rife, riding on the back of top-level acquisitions and mergers then taking place across the globe. We are still seeing global projects, many from developing nations such as Russia, India and the Middle East, but the majority of branding jobs from UK consultancies that we report on are relatively small.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Eurostar apart, rebranded in recent months by London consultancies Johnson Banks and Someone respectively, most work is more localised – typical is Harriman Steel’s visual identity for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, announced last month on the eve of Arts Council cuts that hit many an orchestra. And, as these examples demonstrate, independent consultancies represented in the business performance tables (pages 26-29) are managing to divvy up a reasonable share of the spoils against bigger players.

According to our research, an increasing number of branding jobs come from the not-for-profit sector. We might expect this trend to escalate as charities continue to compete for cash as funding sources shrink and third-sector organisations proliferate in the wake of Government cuts across the public sector and the onset of David Cameron’s Big Society.

We are also detecting an increase in branding ‘campaigns’, particularly in the charitable sector, as opposed to more far-reaching – and more expensive – branding programmes. Clients still have a message to put across and to remind their audiences of their activities, but might not be able to stretch to a major identity overhaul. This move has prompted us to separate out campaigns from programmes in the Benchmarks awards over the past couple of years, honouring the best of branding in each stream across market sectors.

With regard to packaging, fmcg projects go on regardless. Brands continue to compete on-shelf through design and even when supermarket chains have introduced budget ranges to suit customers’ reduced spending power in austerity, and this has resulted in packaging commissions. So called ‘challenger’ brands, literally challenging market leaders in various categories, have also provided lucrative work for designers. Meanwhile, as in any downturn, the high-end luxury market continues to thrive globally.

Anecdotal evidence suggests though that budgets are ever tighter across packaging and branding and consultancies’ fees often greatly reduced, even when they are on a client’s roster. Designers are increasingly expected to pitch ideas for free or for minimal fees, with no guarantee of work at the end of it, and the free-pitch debaters have gone very quiet as a result.

We hear too of clients being increasingly risk-averse, which many in design claim has affected the overall quality of the creative work, particularly in own-brand packaging, which, ironically, set the design bar at its height. There are few breakthroughs in terms of visual style, with, if anything, an air of nostalgia pervading in sectors such as toiletries and food. But advances in materials technology have prompted some innovations, as have concerns about sustainability, ease of transport and packaging waste.

It is against this backdrop that we have compiled the data featured on the following pages. In the financial chart, we rank the Top 30 independent packaging and branding consultancies according to business performance in the 12 months to December 2010, taking UK fee-income as the determining factor. As with Design Week’s multidisciplinary Top 100 chart we have had to exclude ‘owned’ global groups that are subject to Sarbanes-Oxley legislation in the US.

The complementary ‘creativity’ chart  includes both independents and groups owned by marketing services conglomerates such as WPP. These are ranked according to their success in reputable creative awards that include packaging and branding categories. They do not include successes in design effectiveness prize schemes.

It would be great if the most creative groups were also the most successful financially. Sadly, the tables don’t show this to be the case in most instances partly because one part of the design community likes entering awards, while the other prefers purely to make the business case for their success. The two routes to market should not be mutually exclusive.

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