Jaffa's in a jiffy: how a brand was reinvented

WMH leads the way in radical creativity in a conservative world of branding, says Jane Bainbridge

In a world obsessed by logos, it takes courage for a company to reduce the size of its brand to almost an afterthought, opting instead to cover its packs with slogans. So, when United Biscuits changed the design of McVitie's Jaffa Cakes this year and emblazoned "Keep Your Hands Off" and "One for You, Three for Me" in place of the brand name, it was clearly a bold step.

In a world obsessed by logos, it takes courage for a company to reduce the size of its brand to almost an afterthought, opting instead to cover its packs with slogans. So, when United Biscuits changed the design of McVitie's Jaffa Cakes this year and emblazoned "Keep Your Hands Off" and "One for You, Three for Me" in place of the brand name, it was clearly a bold step.

But what was brave for the food company was business as usual for Williams Murray Hamm (WMH), the design agency that created the work. In its seven-year history, WMH has carved itself a niche as a radical operator in the conservative world of branding. The agency accused of being "too creative" and "not to be trusted on big brands" by clients and rival agencies has gone from unknown to be ranked as the most effective design agency by the Design Business Association.

But even its most successful work has been contentious. Jaffa Cakes achieved their best sales following the redesign, but United Biscuits pulled the packs and a rival agency was briefed to increase their brand visibility. Richard Murray, one of the agency's directors, is sanguine about the loss. "We are really proud of it, but even when you're successful, you can't overcome corporate caution," he says.

WMH has been rowing against the tide for so long that "Jaffagate" is just one more undercurrent. When Murray and his fellow director, Richard Williams, formed the agency in January 1997, they had a clear and unbending proposition: to create difference. "In the world of branding, everything looks the same. Ours was a single-minded pursuit of differentiation and it took a long time for people to understand the benefits," says Murray.

To understand the mind-set behind WMH's work, you simply have to stand in a supermarket and look at the acres of shelves in front of you. As the number of grocery products on sale has grown, a code - or category language - has evolved whereby brands of the same type end up looking the same. The code could be colour - for instance, washing powder boxes use white and green, a signpost - such as sparkle effects for household cleaners, or specific imagery: frozen pizzas use a slice oozing melted cheese. "There's a lot of cynical marketing, spin and invented stories," adds Murray. "People buy a stock shot of Tuscany and put it on a pasta sauce and think that makes it authentic, but consumers see through it."

The first major design work of WMH's that broke these category conventions and brought the agency recognition was for Interbrew's alcopop Wild Brew in 2000. Instead of the bottle being covered in bold type with a large logo, all branding was removed and the bottles were covered in animal prints, such as tiger stripes. Sales increased 450 per cent, the design won creative and effectiveness awards - proving that the two are not mutually exclusive - and the agency started to be talked about.

But it was WMH's work for a 115-year-old bread brand that really got them noticed. Shoppers couldn't fail but spot Hovis's revamped packaging, which portrayed how the bread was eaten, with vibrant designs of baked beans and chopped eggs. Along with new advertising, the redesign turned Hovis into the UK's fastest-growing brand in 2002. It gave the agency ammunition in its ongoing fight against consumer research and how it dumbs down design. "Consumer research contributes to the dull stuff out there," says Murray. "Everyone sinks to the lowest common denominator. People are paid £50 and try to be helpful but they block things off. Competing companies have access to the same people and information, which doesn't yield any commercial advantage."

WMH's stance against formulaic branding is not just about bold design and banning logos; there are business principles behind it. In a world of lookalike brands, trademarks need to be registered to protect brand image. "We give clients an idea they can own; an idea they can defend in court," says Murray.

But no matter how many awards you win, going against conventional thinking doesn't always win friends.And if branding is conservative, then one of the most conservative sectors within it must be financial services. So for WMH to see off the corporate identity giants and win the identity brief for Barclays was indeed a coming of age. But there is one client for whom the WMH treatment was a step too far. They might want to shake off some of their crusty past and get a new image but WMH failed to convince the Tories that they were ready for a "Hovis".

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