Image is integral as the brand plays on

This year's Design In Business Week is looking at the changing role of brands as companies start to develop product recognition factors that offer substance rather than surface
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To most people, design and branding have always been closely connected. Designers, after all, are seen to be responsible for the logos and other aspects of "identity" through which companies and their products and services are promoted.

To most people, design and branding have always been closely connected. Designers, after all, are seen to be responsible for the logos and other aspects of "identity" through which companies and their products and services are promoted.

So, at a time when businesses are seeking to establish branding as something that is not merely visual but goes to the heart of what they are about, the role of design in this area might be expected to diminish. However, just as there has been a growing tendency to get branding away from marketing departments, so there has been pressure to shift design from being an activity confined to production and manufacturing. And according to their proponents, both should be the responsibility of chief executives.

The design industry appears to be enjoying some success in promoting the importance of the discipline to the development of business strategy. The Design Council's latest research indicates that 35 per cent of businesses felt design was integral to their operations. That's an increase of 11 per cent from the previous year.

Perhaps more significantly, the survey Innovation and Growth - A Global Perspective by the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that design is seen as a strategic asset by the highest-performing companies, while less successful businesses give it a lower level of importance.

But part of the problem in quantifying the importance of design to business lies in the fact that the discipline has many manifestations. While many lay observers still see it as being about the look of things, those involved in the industry stress that it has much wider applications. Indeed, the Design Council devoted last year's Design in Business Week to examining the role of design within a knowledge-driven economy. And 96 per cent of the nearly 10,000 people who attended various events around the country saw design as "a way of opening up new perspectives to turn current challenges into future opportunities".

This year's Design in Business Week, which runs from 27 October to 3 November, might seem to be a return to basics, since its focus is on the role of brands in an era of rapid commercial change. But, given the way that the brand concept is developing, it is likely that the various events will also look at areas such as organisational design, and design as a catalyst for changes in strategic direction.

At a time when innovation is seen as being one of the great differentiators, some companies are being explicit in the importance they attach to design in their branding. The current advertising campaign for the car manufacturer Audi, for example, carries the simple strapline Think About Design. On the face of it, such an exercise fits the traditional notion of branding. The idea is that the consumer chooses a product like this over the others because the maker is making attractive claims for the product.

However, it also fits a new notion of branding that is starting to develop. Will Murray is a consultant and author of the forthcoming book Brand Storm, and will be speaking about the future of brands in the curtain-raising event for Design in Business Week. In his view, the arrival of the internet and the associated increase in competition are creating the need for a re-examination of what we mean by the word "brand".

"The idea of stand-alone brands supported by advertising is going to be shown up as rather hollow," he says. Companies are going to have to differentiate themselves either through a commitment to something like extraordinary customer service or by espousing a set of "values and virtues" . This is going to require much greater openness and honesty, he adds, pointing out that "companies have got to be much more up-front about what they stand for."

This view is echoed by Robert Jones, of the corporate identity consultancy, Woolf Olins, which increasingly sees itself as advising on brands as a whole.

It has often been said that the power of a brand is that it gives the company that owns it the benefit of the doubt if something goes wrong. But, with the plethora of brands in danger of creating brand fatigue, it is more important than ever that the proposition being used to promote the brand is believable. Audi can claim to concentrate on design because its cars are generally regarded as being pleasing on the eye, well-made and innovative.

Nor is this the only way in which a company's image - or brand - can be seen to be integral to both design and strategy. For example, Glasay International has established itself as a supplier of frozen yoghurts to British Airways and other airlines around the world partly through seeing demand in the UK and elsewhere for a product that was previously confined to the United States.

But to win this business, it had to come up with a way of keeping the product frozen. The result was the Dryce Box, a package deemed innovative enough to be named a Millennium Product by the Design Council. It uses dry-ice in innovative packaging to keep the yoghurts frozen even on long-haul flights.

One company that is widely reckoned to have properly understood the extent to which brands have internal as well as external aspects is the mobile phone company, Orange. Consequently, it has designed the whole organisation around the need to steer its customers through the complexities of the modern telecommunications market.

The result is a legion of fans happy to recommend the company. According to Jones, who is about to publish a book about this area called The Big Idea, Orange "tapped into a kind of anxiety about technology".

The advertising slogan, The future's bright, the future's Orange, started with the words "don't worry", he says, adding that this struck an emotional chord. But it would only work in the long term if the organisation of the company and its general approach reflected that.

Because the internet prevents companies controlling the flow of information, companies are less able than they were to announce that something they have introduced is a brand simply because they have invested heavily in it and adorned it with a smart logo.

A brand - in the sense that it stands for something and is imbued with reliability and integrity - is much more something that is bestowed by the public. For example, Jones is enthusiastic about BP's rebranding of itself so that we are encouraged to think of the initials as standing for Beyond Petroleum rather than British Petroleum.

But as the petrol crisis demonstrates, events can suddenly change perceptions of organisations. It is for this reason that Will Murray warns against being too short-termist about brands. It is only when they have been around for a while that customers and suppliers can judge whether or not they live fully up to their image.

'The Big Idea' (£14.99) is published by HarperCollins in October. 'Brand Storm' (£18.99) is published by FT/Prentice Hall in October

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