Briefly Put: One Key to Successful Design

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We’ve all seen the numbers, and they are daunting: tens of thousands of new products launched each year, on top of those that already burden store shelves. Dishearteningly few succeed; we’ve seen those percentages as well. Innovation protocols promise to create new value for brand owners, while delivering sometimes barely-nuanced iterations of products already available. Soda begets diet-soda, then diet-soda-with-lime, then diet-soda-with-a-hint-of-lime-but-without-caffeine… what’s next? Flashback diet soda with cyclamates? 

Avoiding this “non-innovation innovation” is simple enough to describe, though sometimes challenging to achieve. It starts with ensuring the product or brand emerges from a simple and motivating idea that is well-differentiated from competition and meaningful to shoppers – not a variation-on-a-theme of what’s already out there.  

Once that’s done (no small feat), the brand must be expressed consistently, across media, across SKUs and across geographies, and compellingly to key audiences. Consistency in brand expression does not equate to constrictive “graphic-fascism,” but instead simply demands that all brand communications support the central brand idea in a way that contributes to the overall brand promise. The message needs to be relevant, meaningful, and valuable... when all come together, the message is motivating and compelling. Then, you’re on your way to success. 

Today’s post focuses on one of the most important and most under-developed tools that brand owners can use to improve the likelihood these brand messages will trigger the desired response: the design brief. 

Continue reading the full article after the jump.

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The brief, the key instrument of direction from client to design firm, is far too often either not done at all, or left to the last minute and handled in a way that is slipshod, ill-conceived, poorly expressed, and generally undisciplined. Often, content is merely lifted from existing, sometimes irrelevant sources, and the result can confuse the team and impede the process. While enlightened marketers treat the brief as the mission-critical document that it is, many seem to delegate the task to the most junior of team members. And the results show. 

Worse still, briefs often substitute conventional measures of success, when convention sometimes is a recipe for imitation.  

A few years back, we executed a fairly thorough analysis of scores of package design briefs across a host of CPG brands and the results were telling: the majority of briefs had some variation of the following objectives:

• Update brand imagery with a more contemporary appeal

• Appeal to new users without alienating current consumers

• Optimize shelf impact

Imagine the creative team’s response to these banal objectives: “Yeah... FINALLY we get to optimize shelf impact while not alienating current consumers!” Further, when so many briefs read like all the others, it’s unsurprising that so many brands resemble all the others in their categories... maps pointing the same way will lead all travelers to the same destination. The result? The sea of sameness that undercuts brand value and hinders new product success. 

A good brief (illuminating, comprehensive, yet to-the-point) is absolutely critical as first step to avoiding this. The better the brief, the better and more effective the creative product. When crafted properly, a design brief: 1) draws a bold line between design activities and business objectives; 2) establishes the approval and decision process; and 3) provides a clear set of metrics to evaluate success. 

The more attention you give the development of the brief, the greater the time-and-resource savings throughout the program. A clear brief can minimize waste and improve the chances of a good “first-pass” from the firm. While most clients, like most creative firms, have formalized, proprietary briefing templates, many hew to the following general areas: 

A. Project “Quick References”  

B. Project Scope 

C. The “From State” 

D. The “To State” 

E. Audiences  

F. Executional Considerations  

G. Success Criteria/Metrics 

H. Approvals  

A. Project “Quick References” 

Who are the internal client project managers? Phones, e-mail, etc., offer practical reference points, while an explanation of roles and responsibilities will assist in ensuring smooth communication. Who within the client organization has ultimate sign-off authority? Is there an internal job name? P.O. requirements? Billing requirements/Sarbanes-Oxley considerations?  

B. Project Scope  

Is this a top-to-bottom strategy renovation? Package design tune-up? Is this an evolutionary update? Or a revolutionary change? Sub-brand launch? SKU rationalization? Will it address graphics only, graphics and structural design, or structural issues only? What words would you use to provide a sense of your expectations for this program? How many SKUs are in the line? Are all SKUs to be addressed, or just a portion of the line? Which are the lead SKUs (i.e., if the firm were to use a few items to represent the line in initial exploratory work, which would they be)? Provide art files and electronic assets, as applicable and available. 

C. The “From State” 

How would you describe the current position of the brand, its background and the key issues it faces? Why undertake the project NOW (versus last year or next year)? Describe the product (including key attributes and benefits); market size (volume and value); consumer consumption data; the brand’s positioning; category brands/products and their communications activity, etc. How well-entrenched is the brand in its channels? Are key accounts solid? Is distribution holding well for the brand? What are the brand’s S.W.O.T’s? (Strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities? Threats?) Does the brand or product have a well-crafted position, essence, and personality definition? Are these well-differentiated vis-à-vis competition? 

D. The “To State” 

What business outcome are you looking for? How does the change you anticipate fit into the short/medium term brand plans; how does it fit into the longer-term vision? How do you see design assisting in achieving these goals? How will the end-result of the program fit into larger portfolio considerations for the brand or parent company? 

E. Audiences 

Who are we addressing in this program? Identify the gender, age, geography, characteristics, priorities, occupations, and socioeconomic/attitudinal/cultural considerations for each group. What motivates and inspires each subsegment, and how can we identify differences and similarities between the sub-groups? How would your audiences describe the brand? How would you like them to describe the brand? Is their connection to the brand rational (functionally based), emotional (inwardly based), or cultural (outwardly based/self-expressive)? What is the key consumer insight, and is it based on a specific piece of research, a number of studies, or is it anecdotal?  

F. Executional Considerations  

Are there budget parameters? Are there design issues that are off-the-table? How about strategic or creative avenues that have been considered and rejected in the past? What are the milestone dates, and the ultimate deadline? Are there technical requirements for print production, or limitations imposed by manufacturing/operations, channel standards, or corporate policies? Does the brand have guidelines or other mandatories? 

G. Success Criteria/Metrics 

What does success look like? Failure? How will results be judged? At each juncture, what criteria will be used to move forward, including external (audience or stakeholder evaluative research)? 

H. Approvals  

Who within the client organization has the authority to approve the work? Has this person also approved the brief? 

A brief that covers all these areas, diving deep into both the business and design requirements can ignite and enable breakthrough creative; make sure it’s visually clear, verbally succinct, and substantive.  

Done right, this kind of design brief can be a powerful step in developing the shared vision and clear, open lines of communication you’ll need to succeed. The value of this important management tool is inarguable, and when it leads to the great creative, all stakeholders benefit: the design firm, the marketing team, and the larger client organization whose economic well-being spreads the benefits even further afield.

About The Author 

Michael Coleman is Managing Director in Anthem Worldwide’s Chicago office, where he leads branding engagements for FMCG And retail clients including Coca-Cola, ConAgra, True Value, Kimberly-Clark, and many more. He speaks frequently on branding and marketing issues at industry conferences, and has written extensively on topics of interest to brand owners. 

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        Briefly Put: One Key to Successful Design by Michael Coleman, Managing Director in Anthem Worldwide’s Chicago office is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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