Retail Design Rebranding – the added value of ‘service’.

Posted on in BrandBlab

Once again I heard a politician talking about innovation and design and inevitably shuddered at the cliché’s on its importance, lack of investment, etc.Politicians and public services have tried to show their awareness of acting in consumer interests since discussions on market forces and customer choice became acceptable mantra for such bodies and institutions.   

This has provided opportunities for the design industry and the concept of service design in various forms has developed accordingly. Companies have carefully re-branded their design methodologies despite the fact that ultimately there are clearly generic processes in solving any design challenge and solution development. However, reading different company’s approaches and philosophies, you are led to believe you have clearly missed something in assuming a good experienced all round designer could help in most cases. Apparently you need to use specialists in service propositions.

The design industry has always been adept at recreating itself and repackaging its services.Originally it was easy, you had specific disciplines defined by an individual’s training.  Whether a product, graphic or interior designer, everyone was clearly labelled to describe their role across different sectors – furniture, print, retail, hotels, residential, exhibitions, etc.Other creative disciplines such as architecture and advertising equally defined their services with differentiated sector skills and specialisms.However, market demands and opportunities saw the specific sectors increasingly determining the designer role as a collective offer.Retail design, for example, became a catch-all expertise demanding a range of skills working together across different disciplines to provide a coordinated offer involving typically physical, digital and communication media creativity.

Consulting disciplines have become increasingly blurred as the concept of branding as a multi-disciplined organisation activity has developed from its original packaging roots.Today
management consultants, architects, advertising and design agencies can all claim to provide branding consultancy.Clearly they do but obviously with a limited perspective based on their
core skills.  Management consultants are comfortable with figures and measurements of brand equity and potential sales values.Architects take on graphic designers and claim they then can offer ‘branding’ services to their building developments.Advertising agencies are comfortable with the marketing and profiling of companies and products but will offer environment design by taking on an interior designer.Designers similarly offer strategic services, audits and research to enhance their offer.Corporate identity is an example of a profession which is having to adjust to a changing market.Some companies still try to market it as a sacred expensive art form and link with other often dubious skills like naming which is often presented as a pseudo scientific process backed up by research processes to provide management insurance policies.Clients just need to know what they are getting and whether this will be ultimately good for their businesses and organisations, consumers and users.

All the disciplines – advertising, design, management consulting and architecture inevitably protect their territory by offering the vital generic ‘strategy’.Unfortunately the use of ‘strategy’ has sometimes become as devalued as the ‘designer’ label prefix to many pretty average products by its inappropriate overuse.By definition, good commercial design must be strategic, i.e. fulfilling defined functions – practical and emotional.There is still a stereotype image of design being a more ‘lightweight’ profession given its inability to talk and persuade with pure figures.Measuring quality, style, image and values is tough for finance directors, councillors  and public services justifying their existence.Accordingly ‘design’ has been surrounded by lots of strategic words and apparent added value services to provide more credibility.But ultimately, if the key requirement is to coordinate the wide range of influences that form an ‘experience’ for the customer, user or stakeholders, the essential core skill must be customer centricity – the basis of good retail design.Balancing the conflicting criteria of branding and operations, image and cost, for example, should be an intrinsic skill to ensure a retailer’s survival and commercial advantage.  

With multi-channel retailing, a broad approach to physical, digital and print design together with human and technical interactions combine to create a wide range of ‘touchpoints’ – those moments of truth that can make or break an image and reputation.The resulting ‘brand experience’ is the basis of good retail design and yet retail designers are not, it seems, first choice for the new ‘service’ sector clients despite the fact service has become the key differentiator for retailer brands.This is surprising as Banks have looked to retail and subsequently retail designers to help them become more consumer focused.

Banks discovered they had ‘customers’ rather than accounts some years ago and many embarked on creating a more retail driven philosophy – ‘stores not branches’ was a classic positioning.Trying not to be a bank has been an interesting trend, just like the estate agents who look more like wine bars than property offices to entice and stroke their customers.Whether consumers are convinced by such policy is a matter of argument particularly now when banks need to be easy, efficient and trustworthy. More than ever they need to go back to fundamentals and achieve the basics of trust, convenience and ease of use before embarking on perhaps unconvincing charm offences and visit ‘experiences’.Surely a lesson for some service bodies.The key point is understanding consumers, and who better than those who have had to do this from day one?  i.e. retail designers.   

In the UK retailers have been using design as a key component in their aim to differentiate their offers for many years. UK designers have therefore been in demand in countries where such retail skills have become relevant in new economies. At the same time the service component in design has equally been an integral part of the retail design process through providing appropriate environments and staff support facilities. This entails the combination of physical design and effective communication creating real and coordinated service across retail channel offers – stores, web sites and now increasingly social media messaging. So, the apparent late discovery and perception of government and public bodies that services need a specific branch of design consultancy seems odd and frankly misses the point. Good retail design principles and skills when applied effectively surely provides a core depth of knowledge which does not need such ‘re-branding’.   

But, maybe that’s the point. People are always attracted to a new packaged solution even if it really is just a new formulation of key ingredients that are already available. Clearly retail designers need to consider some ‘strategic’ re-labelling to compete and get some equal shelf space to their ‘service’ cousins.