Champions of Design 4

Friday 27 February 2015

For the last four years, jkr have published a series of books that celebrate brands that use design for competitive advantage. Each book identifies examples of great design ideas, the people who created them, and the clients that bought them.

This year, we have focused exclusively on Asia. Champions of Design 4 places homegrown brands from India to Australia and China to Singapore in the spotlight. So, what makes an Asian Champion of Design? Is there an Asian design aesthetic, and if so what are its characteristics? What conclusions can be drawn from these twenty case studies?

The short answer, of course, is that there is no ‘Asian aesthetic’. Asia is a culturally diverse and economically divided collection of countries that happen to sit next to each other on the world map. Nevertheless, we can make a few broad observations about how design is used within the context of branding.

A ‘Champion of Design’, as we define it, is a brand that has a design spirit or idea that is distinctive and charismatic, and that is applied with skill, inventiveness, consistency or wit. Alas, finding convincing examples from this broad region is disappointingly challenging. Sure, we could look to Asian brands that have grown through canny business strategy (Alibaba, Huawei), ‘fast following’ (Samsung) product differentiators or great advertising. But visual creativity? That seems in rather short supply.

In short, Asia has plenty of brands with success stories, but only a handful that have embraced design as a credible part of the marketing mix. Why? Perhaps it’s because many Asian economies are only now emerging from years of cultural and economic suppression (China, Cambodia, Myanmar) political upheaval (Indonesia) or isolationism (India).

Perhaps it’s because branding is relatively young, and design even younger – an intangible, elusive medium that’s not on most business school curricula in Western Europe, let alone on the radar of family owned businesses in emerging economies.

The exception, of course, is Japan. Champions of Design 4 features six Japanese case studies, and could easily have included many more. Japan boasts some of the most unique, considered and well crafted brands not just in Asia, but the world. There is clearly something in the Japanese world-view and in its cultural inheritance that is a potent force for creativity.

But what about the rest of Asia? China is emerging from its love affair with Western brands to rediscover its own cultural heritage in brands like Shang Xia, Feiyue and Shanghai Tang, whilst it is also embracing product design innovation in the tech sphere, with the populace buying more Xiaomi phones this year than Samsungs. There are success stories in FMCG that stem from long established icons that continue to be sensitively evolved – Singapore’s Ayam brand and Tiger Balm, or Thailand’s Red Bull. And there are new brands, born out of a mixture of entrepreneurial flair and design sensitivity – take TWG Tea or Blunt umbrellas for example. There is a lot to be celebrated in all of these.

So what does the future hold for Asian design? I believe that in the next decade, we can count on Asia to give us stories of business success through design. As Asian economies mature, the retail sector will become ever more sophisticated, renewing pressure on brands to raise their game against the threat of own label dominance. And as Asian consumers continue to travel, they will become ever more sophisticated, ever more demanding and perhaps ever more appreciative of the rich cultural legacies at home that could become the seed for charismatic branding when they return.

Here’s to the next twenty Asian Champions of Design.

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

P.S We're always on the hunt for future brands to feature so please leave any brand suggestions within the comments box below.

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OCD – Organised Creative Design

Wednesday 18 February 2015

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The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most talked about films of last year and a reminder of Wes Anderson’s genius. Or so I believe. I grew fonder and fonder of his style the more I started to dissect what makes it so distinctive.

One thing he’s been doing well is reviving the idea of authorship in the film culture, a behaviour that is being adopted faithfully by some brands as well, as they attempt to convey consistently and coherently the same message across all touchpoints using a toolkit of visual assets. Similarly, in the Andersonian film world everything tells a story and follows a formula: the plot, the narrator’s voice, the set, the costumes, the little details - you name it.

Carefully chosen and controlled colour palette
The hazy-hued lens through which you get into his world has a retro quality that casts a layer of nostalgia for a time that could have been.

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Perfectly symmetrical compositions
The one-point perspective has become Anderson’s signature, carefully placing the most important element right in the centre of the scene.

Careful typographic aesthetic
Anderson’s films are a type-rich treat, combining the clean graphics of Futura with cursive handwriting and handmade type. 

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Rectilinear décor
Once you become aware of the constant use of geometry and particularly the straight lines, it’s hard not to notice them. 

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Adding a final touch are the distinctively comical dialogue and naturally awkward situations that give a unique tone of voice to Anderson’s cinematic approach.

This impeccable consistency, deeply methodical and distinctive visual style makes Anderson’s film direction uniquely charismatic and idiosyncratic, a valuable lesson for brands to take in. By drawing the lines to the creative exploration in a way that is not rigid and restrictive but, on the contrary, is tight enough to create a sense of discipline, you can set free the creative expressions knowing that it won’t get out of hand. Hence creatively designing in an organised way.

Whether it’s the saturated industry of filmmaking or the supermarket aisle, the fight to stand out is the same. Therefore embrace your uniqueness and celebrate it in order to build a confident and distinctive brand. How delightful and aesthetically pleasant would the supermarket aisle or shopping centre be if brands would find their own discipline?

By Alina Pirvu, Creative Planner, jkr London 

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Packaging as media in the age of digital printing

Monday 16 February 2015

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Despite the glorious moniker ‘Fast Moving Consumer Goods’, it takes a very long time to print a bag of sugar or a bottle of beer using a conventional print process. It’s not uncommon for pack design projects to begin 12 to 18 months before launch. Partly as a result of this, packaging has been obliged to play a rather static role in the marketing mix, symbolising, reflecting, and at the most suggesting the values of the brand that are created by other more versatile and quick-footed media. The role of the pack was to remain steadfast and unchanged. Consistency was king.

But that assumption is being undone. The role of the pack within the marketing mix is profoundly changing. For the first time, the pack is now able to build the brand idea, rather than merely reflect it. For the first time, the pack is able to drive engagement in ‘real time’. For the first time, the pack is now media. And what’s enabling this shift is the advent of a new technology: digital printing. What used to take several months can now be done in a matter of days. If conventional printing is like a freighter ship—large, cumbersome and slow—then digital printing is like a speedboat. It’s fast, nimble and responsive.

Personalisation

So how is packaging being used as media in this brave new world? Personalisation, as ever, is a key trend. Narcissists like to feel special, which is why we all loved seeing our name on a bottle of Coke. But it also worked because it was consistent with the brand promise, and helped add another chapter onto the brand’s gleaming, beaming happiness story. But just because putting names on bottles worked for Coke, doesn’t mean it’ll work for anyone else.

There are other ways to resonate with an audience that increasingly demands fresh, new content. If you are a global or regional brand, a geo-specific strategy is one way to create tailored design content for different markets, regions or cities. Imagine coffee cups with unique designs for each outlet. Or in-room collateral tailored to each destination if you’re a hotel. As long as it fits with your brand idea, then consider your pack as a canvas, not a branded receptacle.

In December 2014 my company created an idea for Scottish carbonated beverage IRN-BRU. IRN-BRU is described as Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ (after whisky) and outsells both Coca-Cola and Pepsi in its home country. It’s a Scottish icon and a source of national pride. We proposed that the brand celebrate its heritage by changing its packaging to the tartan of (almost) every clan in Scotland. The launch saw the biggest ever week of traffic to the IRN-BRU website. We call this a ‘design campaign’—an initiative that uses packaging as media to advance the brand story.

From a cult of consistency to endless experimentation

Forget about limited editions. Digital printing allows brands to produce limitless editions. Absolut vodka combined digital print with algorithms to create its Absolut Unique range, consisting of 4 million completely individual bottle designs. For the first time, technology was being used as a creative enabler—as a vital part of the creative process—rather than simply the executor of a designer’s vision.

As the tech geek in their promo video explains (below), the project required a complete reconfiguring of the production line "to create variation and randomness, whereas they were designed to create stability and control’’. For Absolut, using the pack as a canvas for millions of original artworks underscored its positioning as a creative, design-led and innovative brand. As a result the collection is more than mere novelty;; it seems to resonate at a brand level, with technology actively building the brand story. 

Me, me, me

But of course, sometimes a more brazen appeal to your audience’s narcissism is too tempting to resist. Diet Coke repeated the Absolut stunt in Israel with 2 million unique bottles. Why? Because, according to the VP of Marketing at Coke in Israel, the company wanted to show Diet Coke drinkers that ‘they are extraordinary by creating unique one-of-a- kind extraordinary bottles’. Hmmm. For me, Diet Coke’s never been about individuality, or creativity, or art, or design, so this collection feels technology-led, rather than brand-led. Just because you can print 2 million different bottle designs, doesn’t mean you should. 

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An opportunity for more creative packaging

If you’re the owner of a big brand, you’re obliged to make big bets with any packaging change. Big bets, therefore, tend to be safe bets. Big bets make for risk-averse clients and boring, safe creative. Digital print is more cost effective for short runs, so it allows you to experiment, to test, trial, adapt, test again and perfect a design idea. That means we should see braver, more experimental work from agencies and clients alike.

Digital printing is a new technology, and like any new technology, we haven’t quite yet got to grips with it. The same timeless wisdom still applies—start with the brand, not the trend. But for clients, designers and creators who can see its potential, the size of the prize is unprecedented. 

Here are some additional examples of brands that have made use of digital printing.

Just Right by Purina creates a tailored nutrition plan for your dog and allows you to upload the dog's name and photo to a website so personalised packs can of pooch food can be delivered to your door: 

Heinz Get Well Soups allow customers to send a tin of Heinz soup with a personalised message to a friend feeling under the weather: 

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To re-engage a young audience that shuns traditional media, Japanese newspaper Manichi took to printing news stories on bottles of water, a new story every day: 

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By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

First published on Campaign Asia

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Designing identity in the digital age

Monday 16 February 2015

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Last week’s biggest identity story was about the new Sonos logo. In the unlikely instance that you missed it, here it is again. You have to scroll up or down to see it in action.

Cool, isn’t it.

Is this the first example of a logo that uses technology to create an optical illusion to express the brand idea in a way that is quite literally, dynamic? I suspect it is. Does this herald a new dawn for identity design? A future in which identities are kinetic, rather than static? A brave new world in which identities become multi-sensorial, fusing the audio with the visual, or creating new living, breathing, morphing brand worlds that redefine our understanding of identities? Let’s not get carried away.

The Sonos logo is wonderful, but it’s a rare, serendipitous confluence of events that produced it. (According to the designers it was a ‘happy accident’ which they only noticed halfway through the design process). It seems unlikely that we can all find our own ‘brand-centric’ digitally-enhanced optical illusion too.

That said, it does seem like we’re only just starting to master digital as a medium for brand expression. To state the obvious, digital screens are not the same as printed brochures; just as battling your way through the supermarket is not the same as ordering your groceries online. We’ve all been told that simplicity is an essential quality in an omni-screen world, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to the digital equivalent of rubber stamping a flat identity across banner ads, web pages and social media.

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This exercise caught my eye recently – it takes the logic of a responsive website and applies it to some big brand logos. If you reduce your browser size by dragging it, you’ll see the logos featured become increasingly simplified until just an icon remains: a Nike swoosh, a Chanel logo and the Coke icon. Click here to try it out.

For me, the digital space affords brands nothing but new opportunity: unrestricted by the restrictions of the ‘real’ physical world, (in which printing different logo variations costs money and time) we have a new playground. In this world, brands can be responsive, variable and malleable. The Sonos logo is great because it draws on an existing aspect of everyday technology to bring new dimension to the brand. Surely we have only just begun to scratch the surface of this opportunity.

To close, I love this work for the Quebec City Magic Festival by agency lg2, which beautifully fuses the physical and digital words in a rather, ahem, ‘magical’ way.

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

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Champions of Design Asia - TWG Tea

Thursday 12 February 2015

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Having tea at TWG Tea is like stepping back in time. Everything is more sophisticated. The customers are stylish, self-assured tea connoisseurs. The staff trained at Downton Abbey. In this magical world the tablecloths are whiter, the napkins are crisper, the teapots are shinier and the crockery clinks with a more elegant timbre. TWG Tea is to tea what a bottle of Chanel No 5 is to perfumes, a Moleskine is to notebooks, or a Birkin is to handbags. In fact, ‘having tea at TWG Tea’ is a woefully inadequate description of the experience. 

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TWG Tea sells ‘the finest teas of the world’ from glimmering gold teapots amidst beautifully constructed table settings and in lovely little tea rituals. It sells a vast range of packaged teas, limited editions and gift sets in old-fashioned caddies, each with their own graphic personality. It sells loose teas from a wall of big tins that look like they just got loaded off this morning’s clipper from Ceylon. The brand has a string of elegant tea-houses throughout Asia and concessions in Harrods of London and Dean & Deluca in NYC. High tea in any of them will make you feel like a colonial memsahib in old Singapore. 

So what’s the story behind this heritage brand? How did its Raffles-era sense of nostalgia suddenly eclipse Raffles hotel itself? Where has it been hiding since 1837? 

The truth is, ‘TWG Tea’ was only established in 2007 in Singapore by 3 entrepreneurs who saw the Asian nostalgia wave coming long before the rest of us, and also managed to tie it cleverly to our thirst for luxury living. Abroad, in markets like the UK, the brand’s colonial vibe seems to appeal to consumers with Fortnum’s fatigue. 

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Have we been duped? Does it matter? Do we even care? I have a hunch we care less about it here in Asia than we would in a mature Western market. In Asia, we still trust brands, and even those that dissemble don’t seem to faze us. Faux authenticity isn’t such a bad thing when authenticity itself is in such short supply. Ultimately, Asians are extremely pragmatic, and if a pot of tea and a macaron at TWG Tea is a supremely enjoyable throwback to colonial splendour, then what’s the problem? 

TWG Tea’s brand story is a splendid mirage, made persuasive and convincing by the fluency of its design language – old fashioned of course, but also not too slick or ‘designed’. The role of design is to give visual expression to intangible ideas – as it has done for this brand-new old-fashioned brand. I for one, am willing to suspend my disbelief in return for ‘a pot of tea at TWG’. 

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

First published on Campaign Asia

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The new whisky codes

Tuesday 10 February 2015

A couple of years ago, this was the prevailing category language for single malt whiskies.

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Now, it seems that single malts are starting to look a bit more like the ones below.

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Crikey! What’s that all about?! That feels like a significant shift to me. Whisky’s always been a ‘manly’ category’, but with this development, it seems to be finally sloughing off its pipe and slippers image and embracing a new kind of masculinity. The sepia tones, heavily typographic labels, scripts, signatures, ink etchings, watermarks, crests and stags seem to be falling out of favour. This new whisky vision is bold, confident, uncompromising – whisky is no longer just for those in the know, these packs seem to be saying – it’s for those bold enough to choose a new whisky path! Or something.

The truth is, of course, that the category is in the middle of exchanging one set of generic category conventions for another. Out with one kind of typography (italicised, scripty, frills and bells); and in with another kind (letterpress and sans serif: brave and modern). Out with accents of gold, and in with accents of lime green and teal. It all looks exciting and new and on trend.

But that’s kind of the problem.

Trends come and go, and they can’t be ignored – not even by packaging, which has traditionally occupied a very static role in the marketing mix. But nor should they be embraced at the cost of brand distinctiveness. This bold reimagining of the whisky category is a welcome breath of fresh air, but the bottom line is that a sans serif caps type on clear PSL labels is neither unique nor ownable. The trick with trends is to own them, rather than letting the trend own you – in knowing what your brand stands for, and aligning its visual expression with its inner spirit.

Cheers!

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

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Champions of Design Asia - Suntory

Sunday 08 February 2015

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‘Wabi-Sabi’ is the Japanese world view that prizes the beauty of transience and imperfection. It has no direct translation in English, but it connotes ideas of isolation, simplicity, longing and a closeness to the natural world. It explains the Japanese aesthetic: understated, contemplative and elegant. According to Suntory’s chief bartender, Takayuki Suzuki, it also explains his company’s approach to whisky manufacturing. 

Suntory has been making whisky in Japan since 1924 when Shinjiro Torii (aka ‘the nose of Osaka’) built the first Japanese whisky distillery outside of Kyoto. Japanese people laughed at his vision to sell Scotch whisky in the domestic market, whilst single malt connoisseurs in the West sniggered into their crystal tumblers. But he persisted and his blended whiskies finally came of age – both in terms of product taste and design aesthetic. 

In the Scotch whisky category, there is a set of visual signifiers we intuitively ‘read’ to infer notions of authenticity, heritage, complexity, strength and so on. Hibiki and Yamazaki share none of these established category codes. And yet, we don’t doubt that similar notions are suggested by this very different style of packaging. They feel credible, but they also feel quintessentially Japanese. 

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The Hibiki bottle design in particular, with its distinctive 24-faceted profile, is inspired by the 24 hours in a day but also the 24 segments in the Japanese lunar calendar. The label is made from traditional hand-crafted paper called washi, whilst the name ‘Hibiki’ means ‘resonance’. It’s potent, poetic stuff. And it’s a million miles away from images of highland glens and silhouettes of stag heads. 

It wasn’t always like this. When Suntory started out, the company clearly looked to Scotch whisky for inspiration and direction. The original bottle, dating from 1929, apes the conventions of the Scotch whisky category: big label, centred composition, gothic type and quasi-Christian symbolism. But eventually Suntory whisky brands found their voice. 

Which just goes to show. If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em. 

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

First published on Campaign Asia

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Champions of Design Asia - Asahi

Tuesday 03 February 2015

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There’s something about the combination of bold calligraphic black type against raw, shiny aluminium on the Asahi beer can that feels quintessentially Japanese.

Ancient tradition and futuristic optimism: these contradictions seem elegantly resolved in its design. The logo alludes to the kind of craftsmanship we expect from Japan, whilst the can feels unequivocally urban. The success of the design is that it speaks to heritage and to newness in one breath.

The design has become a visual shorthand for Japanese beer, yet the identity as we know it has only been with us since 1987. The story of its introduction is a fable of brand rebirth.

For decades until this point, Asahi’s logo consisted of a rising sun framed by Hokusai-inspired waves (‘Asahi’ means ‘rising sun’ in Japanese). It’s hard to conceive of a more authentic, nationalistic piece of brand iconography. I would like to have been a fly on the boardroom wall when company president Tsutomu Murai tabled the idea of throwing the whole lot in the bin and starting again.

Why? In 1982 Asahi beer was in a seemingly unstoppable spiral of decline. From the number two beer in Japan, its share had dwindled over time to just a little over 10%. Tsutomu Murai instructed the company’s R&D team to do something revolutionary: to really listen to the market. They came up with a new, light and refreshing style of beer they called ‘Super Dry’.

The new design broke the rules of beer branding. It rejected the vernacular of the category, with no conventional ‘racetrack’ device (the oval shape and cross-bar that signifies most European style beers) or star symbol in sight. In trying to express the idea of ‘newness’, Asahi found its own voice – one that is modern, urban and sharp. Somehow the elegant, strong brushstrokes of the logo manage to conjure a feeling of strength, dynamism and opportunity, without relying on the more literal rising sun icon to do it.

In the year of its launch, the brand’s growth outpaced that of the category threefold, and the redesign, along with the Super Dry innovation, received credit for reversing the brand’s fortunes. It’s now the biggest beer brand in Japan and one of the top 10 beer brands in the world.

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Would Asahi have achieved the same result with a Super Dry variant of its rising sun label? I doubt it. Murai knew that kind of superficial tinkering would have been a case of ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. Sometimes, when a company or product undergoes fundamental change, the role of design is to shout it from the rooftops. Nothing says ‘we really mean it’ better than a visual promise that you do.

By Katie Ewer, Strategy Director, jkr Singapore

First published on Campaign Asia

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The jkr Design Gazette offers up opinions, insights and stories from the crossroads of design and marketing.

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