To make more of an impact, keep things as simple as possible when it comes to design, says Vicky Bullen
A recent experiment in 32 countries revealed that pedestrians all over the world are walking 10% faster than they did a decade ago. Another study found that there are 50% more brands in the average supermarket than 20 years ago. Walmart in the US carries no fewer than 500 brands of shampoo.
Yes the world is increasing in speed and complexity. Information, experiences and products are becoming smaller, faster and more disposable. As a result we increasingly consume culture in the same way we consume chocolate and crisps – we snack in conveniently bite-sized nuggets.
Brands have always needed to understand the culture they exist in. But now to stay relevant and stay in business, brands need to understand our culture and its accelerating rate of change more than ever before.
Much has been made of the implications of this shift to ‘bite-sizing’ on lifestyles, media and content – we eat on the move, we communicate in 140 characters and spaces and we buy music by the song rather than by the album. The question for cosmetics marketers is how to respond to these trends when it comes to designing logos, brands, packaging, portfolios and new products? This after all is what marketing is about, just as much as communications.
Leading brands are recognising that in this bite-size world, where visual noise is abundant and attention spans are not, they can create greater impact by returning to simplicity. In a cluttered world brands are shedding complexity and stripping down to their very design basics to achieve immediate impact and cut through – on-shelf, in-store, online and offline.
They increasingly need to use language, symbols and icons that cut through and get straight to the point. No clearing the throat, no curlicues. Just a clear message delivered with minimum fuss.
A striking example comes from This Works, the aromatherapy range developed by former Vogue Beauty editor Cathy Phillips. The brand has a direct conversational tone of voice and clear oversized graphics. The plain white label of its shower gel contains nothing but the words ‘This works. Deep calm bath and shower gel’. No logo, no explanation, no graphic devices.
Meanwhile US health care brand Help abolished product descriptors from its products. Instead it uses brief, engaging expressions of the problem. So its plasters say ‘Help. I’ve cut myself’ and its aspirins say ‘Help. I have a headache’. It’s not just about the number of words you use, but your choice of vocabulary, its simplicity and directness.
Another way in which brands are using stripped back language is the growth of brand acronyms. Play Station 3 has become PS3, and trainer brand Reebok has become RBK.
This is closely related to, but not he same as, the phenomenon of text speak. Even as venerable a brand as Kit Kat now uses it to communicate. A recent poster read ‘OMG. My chunky just got funky’, signing off with a smiley emoticon.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider that we now seem to have the attention span of an unfocused gnat; according to Nielsen, the average time spent visiting a website in March 2009 was just 56 seconds. With less time to get the message across and even less time to build relationships with consumers, we are seeing fewer words in marketing communications. Instead messages are increasingly hammered home through the use of a hybrid of illustration and typography, or illography as we call it. Remember the recent BA campaign for attractive prices using illustrated numbers?
Lessons can be learnt from leading brands in other consumer categories. They are responding to these trends by stripping back packaging designs to the core of their identity. Last year for instance, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk launched a heavily pared down pack design while Guinness has simplified its can to play up the role of the Harp. Coca Cola also redesigned its classic can, ditching background textures, key lines and drop-in shadows and stripping the design to its core.
Yet another response lies in the area of new product development and portfolio or ‘sku’ management. It is no coincidence that Walmart is cutting back its range of shampoos by 15-30%. It knows that a more complex product portfolio clutters the supply pipeline, creates less uniformity, builds more inventory and impacts efficiency. More important still, it confuses consumers. That’s why adjective make-up brand Benefit has started selling complete make-up kits containing everything you need for a particular task. So its ‘sexy eye & brow makeover kit’ contains “everything you need for that sexy, smoky look”. The company understands that it is easier to buy one product than six.
But simplicity is about a lot more than just editing. If people are to snack on your marketing, you have to make every mouthful, every bite as potent and meaningful as possible. You have to concentrate the goodness and make things really tasty, really delicious, really sweet.
That explains the phenomenon of the pop-up store in which brands like Ren Skincare, Prada and even Marmite create short-lived outlets as a way of creating intense newsworthy experiences.
So in a world of increasing speed and complexity, the most successful brands will be those that keep things as simple as possible when it comes to design, and develop clear, simple, single-minded visual properties. The key is that this has to be expressed in lots of little engagements over time rather than the old approach which involved a few monolithic set piece initiatives.