A Worcestershire logistics firm specialising in 18-tonne lorries might not share many obvious similarities with the £13bn-a-year luxury car marque Jaguar Land Rover. But both firms say that putting design at the core of their business – White Logistics has new jazzy lorry livery; Land Rover created its new-look Range Rover Evoque – has helped to turn around their fortunes.
A focus on design didn't come naturally to the haulage business White Logistics. Judith Stracey, managing director, says that when she started looking at ways to grow the business, "I thought, 'Design? What's that got to do with us?'". But Ms Stracey was struggling to make her firm stand out, and agreed to a £40,000 design revamp, including redesigning the company's logo, conjuring up a new slogan – "Problem? Solved!" –, and painting brainteasers on vehicle livery for drivers stuck in traffic behind to solve.
The changes have generated more than £500,000-worth of new business in 12 months, helping turnover to hit £6.4m. "Many companies who'd been wavering [over contracts] signed up after the re-branding," says Ms Stracey. "The new look gave them greater confidence in our ability."
It's a similar story at Land Rover, where the Evoque has become a celebrity favourite, sold out in every country it's available. Gerry McGovern, design director and chief creative officer, says: "It's the design that sells. When technology and quality are comparable from one brand to another, it's the design that makes someone buy something – they connect with it on an emotional level.
"In the past at Land Rover, design was thought of something that was a consequence of engineering and manufacturing, but the emphasis has changed. Our chairman [Ratan Tata] trained as an architect and felt very strongly that design should be at the top table. Now the Evoque is all about design – there's nothing else like its silhouette on the road – and it's shown how you can transform a brand like ours and take it to a whole new group of consumers."
Jaguar Land Rover's brand transformation represents more evidence of Britain's design specialism which is underplayed in this country, according to the economist John Kay, , who is a speaker at the DesignSummit next week. "There's a manufacturing fetishism in this country, all talk of rebalancing the economy involves this idea that only physically making things provides a real economic push," he says. "That's rubbish. Look at Apple. Its products aren't particularly innovative, they are not at the cutting edge of technological possibility – what makes them effective is their simple design and ease of use. The prosperity of western economies doesn't rest on making physical objects, but on the value that can be added to them."
That's been the experience of Pearson Bikes, the cycling company founded by the great great grandfather of current owners Will and Guy Pearson in 1860. The company had a shop in Sutton selling its own brand of bikes as well as those of larger rivals, but needed to find a way to compete with fast-growing national cycling chains.
"We knew our business needed to be more internet-resistant, to grab more football, make more of its heritage, and become service-orientated," says Mr Pearson.
He decided that the company's branding was "messy – too many different logos and styles, with no identity" – and made contact with the Savile Row tailor Timothy Everest, a keen cyclist and regular Pearson Bikes shopper. The duo worked on a rebrand, with Mr Everest inventing what Pearson calls a "design bible" for the brand, including a retro logo, and a new design for both the company's second store in Sheen, with British-made, bespoke fittings, and its bikes.
"There are loads of bikes for sale in this country but they all have a similar look – italicised writing in red or blue, similar paint schemes, and meaningless names like 'R300'," says Mr Pearson. "So we put our new logo on to the bikes, and gave them racehorse-like names, reflecting the Britishness of our brand – so a touring bike is called I May Be Some Time and a race bike called Mine Goes to up to Eleven, after Spinal Tap."
Pearson Bikes' sales are up almost 20 per cent this year so far.
Meanwhile, Timothy Everest says demand for design consultancy work is growing as other firms catch on. "The world has changed. Businesses are finding it difficult to squeeze into spaces where big brands are operating, and British design has become a commodity," he says. "There's a focus on all things British – it started with the Royal Wedding – we're on a wave of popularity and British design can help turn around the country's economy."
To that end, Pearson Bikes and Mr Everest are starting to sell cycle-orientated clothing to the Japanese. "If we had stood still it would have been difficult to compete with the bigger players," Mr Pearson says. "But with our new design, by leaning on our heritage but still being a modern brand, we're staying ahead."
That British branding is crucial to take on emerging market competitors, believes Professor Kay. "We've been too hung up on the fact that Far Eastern companies are lower-cost vehicles for making things," he says. "They struggle to replicate Western design without getting Western designers to do it. Just look at clothes, handbags, shoes, furniture – the shops of London are full of people from the East buying our designs. Everything that we regard as tasteful today is defined by modern Western civilisation – that's a huge competitive advantage for UK firms. Our design culture is our competitive strength."
'The Independent' is a media sponsor of the Design Council's 2012 DesignSummit, taking place on 26 June