How to look like a winner

Marketing: effective design can hone your competitive edge
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WHEN it comes to design, small and medium-sized UK companies face a dilemma. Many lag behind larger competitors in their use of design to improve their businesses. But they do so because they are put off by the lack of hard data available to prove not just that effective design works, but how.

Leading designer John Sorrell, co-chairman of design consultancy Newell & Sorrell, and Design Council chairman, is attempting to redress the balance. In a new book published this month he urges greater understanding of the value of design effectiveness and increased awareness of the need for it and difficulties in gauging its effect.

To add weight to this argument, he publishes, for the first time, data that shows exactly how design has contributed to the bottom line for companies that include Boots and Routledge, the publisher. "Effective design does give a company a competitive edge, and the pursuit of this can only become more important for British business," Mr Sorrell says. But smaller companies are sceptical because of insufficient proof. There are two reasons for this.

Many companies do not fully research the impact of design because it is difficult to gauge, he says. Successful design must be part of an overall strategy, so proving its worth requires separating it from other factors, such as advertising or new technology. Companies that do conduct detailed research rarely share their findings for fear of losing an edge on the competition.

"It is often a secret how design can benefit organisations," Mr Sorrell says. "But difficulties in gauging its effect must not put us off fighting to find different means of measurement." Boots is one company setting a positive example, Mr Sorrell believes. A brand development programme implemented by Boots in the depths of recession is featured in the book. Four years ago, Boots attempted to expand its 2 per cent (value) share of the pounds 121m UK baby food market, at a time when birth rates had declined and baby food manufacturers were cutting prices. "Boots brand range of baby foods lacked an identity to link a comprehensive product range across a number of diverse baby food sectors," says Alan Wilson, Boots group product manager.

Sub-brands were created which spanned premium- and standard-price products, including the Mother's Recipe range and First Harvest. The emphasis was on simplicity and clarity, to reinforce the core values of the Boots brand. Within a year, Boots's share of the baby food market had risen to 5.9 per cent; by last year it was 10.8 per cent, with annual sales of pounds 13.1m.

But not all effective design can be gauged in the form of hard business data. Anecdotal reactions should not be overlooked, Mr Sorrell says. Another case study features the publisher Routledge, which was created by the merger of four publishing houses owned by International Thomson. The new company was slow to establish a profile in the market, due to a credibility gap internally and externally, says the Newell & Sorrell director, John Simmons.

A new corporate identity was commissioned to give the company a renewed sense of unity and purpose internally, and to enable it to compete more effectively outside. The design consultancy also advised on improving the publisher's own design and marketing processes.

Three years on, Newell & Sorrell conducted a design audit which showed sales have increased by a third - from pounds 10.1m to pounds 13.3m - exports have grown significantly, and Routledge has moved from No 3 to No 1 in its market, with barely any advertising at all. According to Routledge's design manager, Jo Hart, the new identity "was important in bringing everyone together, making everyone feel a part of the same company".

Effective design operates on more than one level - it does not only have to benefit the bottom line, Mr Sorrell says. It can enhance performance and add value to products and services. In the case of Routledge, it even reduced staff turnover.

He adds: "I believe that over the next few years the spotlight will be on the way design can help industry, and believe that UK business performance will improve as more companies recognise this."

o 'The Secret of Design Effectiveness' is published by Newell & Sorrell at pounds 14.95