What Future for Brand Design Companies?

The last 50 years has seen a rise in the realisation of the power of brand design, coming from what was before, just a part of the advertising process, today, brand design has become one of the principal ways in which brands and products communicate with their customers.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the only way to reach a large number of potential customers was through the medium of advertising on billboards, in the press and on television. Then, it made sense that advertising was king and the brand was, …well just the company name or the box a product came in!

But all that has changed. The wider distribution of cable TV and niche programming, the coming of the internet with it’s open access to information and more importantly the enormous rise of retail, and with it, access to choice and purchasing power. All these changes that have happened in the intervening years, have all come together to create a shift in power from manufacturers to consumers.

Because of the growth of all these influences, and because consumers are now much more informed, or at least have more access to information, advertising has changed, and is now much more subtle and diversified than ever before, blurring the distinction between what used to be ‘above’ or ‘below the line’. Brand design, on the other hand, has been like a shooting star, seeing it’s importance to brands and branding climb to dizzy heights, recognised by all to be the bright and dazzling way of the future.

Brand design brings brands closer to consumers, it’s brand design that builds company or product notoriety and has even been responsible for changing the way companies now operate. In our modern world, companies are now evaluated by the power of their brand or brands, and are bought and sold, not to expand production facilities, but to complete or expand their brand portfolios and market presence. In fact, more and more, we see that brand companies don’t actually manufacture at all and that in some cases the product is actually irrelevant!

Behind this expansion of the power of the brand and with it, brand design, there grew an entire new creative industry, some might say ‘cottage industry’, because in the beginning, most of the design companies were set up, by talented individuals who created ‘small teams’ of highly creative people. However looking back, we can see now that these ‘small teams’ had an influence that far outweighed their size, for there is no doubt that these ‘small teams’ became in a large part responsible for the growth of brands and the expansion of many of the worlds largest companies that we see today.

In time, the influence of the brand design companies expanded even further, and the strategic thinking and brand development tasks, previously in the hands of the advertising agency, shifted to the design companies, and with this shift, the design companies began to include marketing, research and strategic thinking departments into their offer, thereby capturing an even larger part of what used to be the advertisers territory.

But, just like any shooting star, the brand design company’s meteoric rise wasn’t going to last!

Advertising agencies were, and remain, rich and powerful, with their large functioning offices throughout the world, whilst their clients, ‘the brand companies’, became truly international with global aims, global strategies and global needs. Whereas, apart from a few exceptions, the now aging founders of the ‘cottage industry’ that was brand design found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, thinking and acting local when the world of brands had become global!

In this brave new world, the needs of the brand companies had changed and the advertising agencies were there with the infrastructure that the brands needed, and if they didn’t have the brand design expertise any more in-house? ……well, no problem, they had the money to buy up the best design companies and with them, all the expertise they needed. This is just what they did!

So, does this mean the end for design companies as we know them?

I suppose the answer is yes and no! Clearly, there is no going back to the way things were in the dizzy heights of the past. What we are seeing today is a polarisation of the design industry, with, on the one hand, the bigger, ‘advertising agency owned’, design companies expanding to deliver the needs of their global clients, and on the other hand, the smaller, highly creative, design studios acting like ‘squat teams’, successfully intervening when necessary to bring the sharp creative thinking that is so hard to get from larger organisations.

Where the outlook is bleaker, is for the medium sized design companies sitting in the middle, where, just like for the brands themselves, the market is shrinking, or rather migrating to the edges.

The good news is, that the future of brand design itself continues to be as healthy as ever, of that there is no doubt, but the industry is inevitably undergoing a radical change. It seems that we are returning, once again, to the age of the advertising agency, although because of the brief and brilliant rise of the design companies, the shape and the role of advertising has been forever transformed. Now, the advertising agencies find themselves to be the owners of some of the biggest and best design companies of the world, companies they can feed with projects from their advertising clients, and can expand throughout the world to support the global aims and local proximity that their client’s marketing strategies demand. But also, these ‘agency owned’, brand design companies will inevitably change their thinking and change their organisations from within.

However, I still believe there is an important role for the smaller design company, because as we are all aware, ‘innovation rarely comes from the centre’, large corporate companies are just that, ‘large’ slow moving and often managed from high up, far away from the ‘factory floor’. This is where the smaller ‘design squat teams’, can have the advantage, by being highly creative, fast moving, knowledgeable and effective, working close to the market, close to consumers by creating young, dynamic teams of creative people who are in-touch with what’s going on.

Challenging the status-quo and daring to be different is the natural territory of these teams, being ‘ahead of the curve’ even ‘creating the curve’, when necessary – for these creative individuals, there has never been a ‘box’ to think outside of, it’s the larger organisations that create the ‘box’ around themselves.

Rowland Heming © 2012
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