The Impact of Design

Design. No matter whom you talk to or where you experience it, design is generally misunderstood and rarely implemented to its greatest potential. If you are a frequent traveler or inquisitive adventurer, you know great design when you see it. It stands out from the crowd, stops you in your tracks, steals your breath and makes you feel as if time has stopped. Without so much as a how-do-you-do, it amazes and delights, confounds and intrigues, startles and pro- vokes and talks to your soul.


When we think of design in terms of architecture, the Taj Mahal (Agra, India), Pompidou Center (Paris, France), Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao, Spain; also New York, USA) and Sydney Opera House (Sydney, Australia) are all spectacular, globally renowned, and praised as timeless wonders. From a more retail perspective, Apple’s iPod, Herman Miller’s Aeron chair, Bang & Olufsen’s stereo systems and the icon- ic Airstream trailer are all stunning examples of design brilliance.

When we study the great and enduring brands of the world, names such as Nike, Apple, Disney, Coca-Cola, Oreo, Harley- Davidson and Mercedes are just a few that have achieved tremendous success. It’s no surprise that each of these organizations invests heavily in design and have enjoyed the rewards that design excellence can produce.

From a marketing perspective, savvy brand owners understand that an investment in design is essential to long-term enterprise viability and profitability. According to the AIGA, the professional association for design, “Design is an investment in innovative thinking, positioning, branding and communication that creates value for businesses in terms of competitive advantage, customer trust and loyalty, and market share.”

Sadly, there are far too many business owners and marketing directors who do not clearly understand what constitutes good design or an effective marketing program. Competitive threats are not fully identified, a unique selling proposition (USP) is poorly defined or not recognized at all, and the costs of doing business (including marketing and design) are rarely projected or budgeted. All too frequently, their promotional products are produced at the corner copy shop or from the kid-wonder down the street. It’s not because the end result will be effective and satisfy a specific business agenda. It’s simply because the price is right, it’s easy to obtain and the buyer is grossly uninformed.

For businesses operating in developed Western countries, where the political and economic climate is reasonably well developed and stable, access to competent marketing services is easy. That being said, and depending on the level of creativity the company or individual they hire brings to the table, the impact of design can vary wildly. Needless to say, knowing how to find and qualify creative talents takes time and a clear focus of marketing and business objectives.

These are the principles that brand owners and managers wrestle with every day. It doesn’t matter if the company is headquartered in Boston or Belgrade, Seattle or Stavropol; the way in which their businesses function, the competitive challenges they face every day, and the marketing practices they employ are all surprisingly similar.

The Global Experience

I’ve taken great pleasure working with a variety of manufacturers and retailers, primarily consumer brands, all over the world. In developed Western markets, I’ve worked with pretty much every food item you can think of–from chocolate, hamburgers, beer, cakes and cookies to pasta, cheeses, seafood, nuts and spices. In addition, there have been engagements with toys and games, real estate, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

Lately, and as part of economic development projects sponsored by USAID (, I’ve focused mostly on agribusiness endeavors: I’ve visited fragrant chamomile fields, sweet-smelling impact-design-Bakery_Ouaga_BurkinaFasobakeries, pungent smokehouses, dusty grain processors, foul-smelling slaughterhouses, delightfully fruity orchards and earthy mushroom farms.

In some cases, I am helping well established brands expand marketshare domestically, penetrate new markets globally and facilitate enterprise growth overall. With other engagements, I am working in some of the poorest places on the planet, helping local producers better understand global best practices for marketing and how to piece together a competitive advantage.

In countries such as Burkina Faso, Guyana, Serbia and Niger (described asemerging economies), local operators are held back due to political instability, limited financial resources and harsh growing conditions. Under these constraints, they can only achieve modest levels of manufacturing proficiency and market penetration. While there may be greater volumes of raw materials and processing capacities available to support higher levels of output, these companies simply do not have access to the resources necessary to support expansion.

Additionally, and while opportunities for growth may be available, there are better funded and much more established global brands produced by the likes of Nestlé, Kraft, Unilever, Cadbury and Coca-Cola employing sophisticated brand strategies, packaging designs and advertising campaigns. Needless to say, the playing field is anything but level.

My challenge, regardless of geographic origins, economic conditions, depth of market penetration or sales volumes, is always the same– to help brand owners better understand competitive dynamics, evaluate go-to-market strategies and implement branding solutions that will, within budgets, effectively offset competitive threats and support growth-oriented business objectives.

 Design & Communications

One of the unfortunate dynamics in underdeveloped markets is that professional service providers, including strategic planners, graphic designers and copywriters as well as advertising and public relations agencies, are either poorly staffed, have not kept up with global best practices or are in short supply (if they can be found at all). Knowing that a vital step towards competitiveness involves market research, conceptually appropriate brand imagery and promotional messages that resonate and motivate target audiences, having a shortage of thoroughly trained marketing professionals represents a significant handicap.

While my overseas assignments typically focus on the sustainability, expansion and overall wellbeing of agribusiness brands, part of my time includes evaluation and capacity building within the creative service industry. In this regard, impact-design-Logos_WestAfrica_Designed_by_SPEARI evaluate local design firms and advertising agencies based on scope of services and depth of creative innovation, making sure the support they provide satisfies their client’s marketing and business objectives.

There are many times when service providers, while technically proficient, fail to understand the competitive dynamics linked to their client’s business and do not know how to craft conceptually and emotionally relevant creative solutions. In these cases, I conduct workshops attended by both client and vendor to enhance strategic insights as well as an overall understanding of the creative process. In other situations, brand managers are made aware of vendor shortcomings and prompted to discontinue relationships. With guidance, they subsequently enter into more creative and meaningful engagements with more established and measurably more competent providers.

 We’re not in Kansas

Whenever I enter new markets, or my clients express an interest in exporting to offshore destinations, I help them identify cultural and economic differences. In business terms, they have to make sure there is an urgent need and/or unfulfilled demand for whatever it is they make. Just because they have underutilized capacity, or the offshore market represents significant sales opportunity, these alone are insufficient reasons to invest in exports.

Developing an export program is a time consuming, detailed and expensive process, no matter where you are doing business. In many of the countries I visit, ranked as some of the poorest on the planet, the technical and financial support provided by USAID and other such international donor projects makes enterprise growth through exports a possibility.

Unfortunately, many of my clients fail to realize that just because it works at home does not mean it will work overseas. To begin, there are international regulatory and compliance issues, logistical and distribution challenges, financial hurdles and supply chain dynamics that must all be fully resolved before sales contracts can be pursued.

From a marketing perspective, accurate and appropriate communications is frequently overlooked and represents a large part of the guidance I provide. For example, in the United States, “hello” is not the only way we greet others. “Howdy,” “hi-ya,” “how’s it hangin?” “hey,” “yo dude” and “what’s happening?” are just a few of the alternates. Just imagine the regional or colloquial variables that might exist in Russia… or China… or India.

In addition, there may be cultural associations with symbols, shapes, materials and colors that mean different things as well. For Americans, red is the color for danger, love, stop and, when combined with green, Christmas. impact-design-EatingMantije_NoviPazar_SerbiaAlternatively, red is the color of good luck and long life in China and has varying definitions in other parts of the world.

Similar communication issues apply to packaging and label designs, brochures, websites, tradeshow booths and advertising. In global markets, where credibility is always at stake, details as small as the look and feel of a business card can influence how accurately brands are perceived.

Ultimately, and when marketing on foreign soil, obtaining experienced, competent and creative guidance from providers who understand regional nuance and are fully immersed in the culture is essential. The last thing my clients need, especially after substantial investments have been made in brand imagery and related promotions, is to learn their brand is not fully understood, communicates incorrectly or, worse still, is deemed offensive and/or highly inappropriate.

It is my job to bring global best practices to underdeveloped nations. Through seminars, workshops and one-on-one training, I have helped growers and manufacturers find new efficiencies in business; building new brands, expanding product offerings and attracting new buyers along the way. As a result of the growth they achieve, they are able to hire new employees, earn better wages and enjoy a higher quality of living. This is the work that I find most interesting and engaging and provides the greatest levels of satisfaction.


Article written by Jeffrey Spear

Studio Spear is a leading global marketing consultancy specializing in consumer products, based in Jacksonville. Jeffrey Spear can be reached at

Author: Arbus

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