This is the first in a series of articles on how better understanding your clients can produce better profits for you.
Whether it is a large business like Procter & Gamble or one of the millions of small businesses, one need stands above all other business needs – PROFIT.
As a graphic designer, you can be very sure that the client representative you work with knows a that a significant amount of their personal career progress and personal checking account are dependent upon the profit they contribute to the enterprise.
Having said that, there are many other secondary needs that contribute to the profit need. The next major echelon of needs below profit is needs like product, pricing, costs, and sales/marketing. This is where graphic design starts to play a role in directly meeting client needs.
In most of these areas, graphic designers play a limited role, but it can be a powerful role, especially in the two areas addressed in this article. For example, a graphic designer is not going to develop the product formulation or even the physical package, which is often developed with a specialty engineering company in coordination with internal manufacturing. But outside of the product performance itself, the next most important product success element is the label/branding area on the product. The second very important graphic design role is in the development of sales and marketing materials. These also become the face of the business to customers and consumers.
In my decades as a business leader, I have seen repeated examples of where exceptional label designs, sales materials, and marketing advertising at retail have been a significant contributor to brand and overall business profitability. Graphic designers who produced exceptional solutions in these areas were always first in line to get future important projects and were designers that I became loyal to. For those designers, exceptional results in these areas definitely contributed to their enhanced profitability.
There are many factors a client considers when it asks a graphic design company to design and produce a label. The most important of these, and one that is frequently overlooked, is that the client wants the label to be a competitive advantage versus some, most, or all of their competition. If the label is not importantly better than competitive labels, the client will find it very difficult to get consumers to switch to their product.
Please do not underestimate the importance of your client having a competitive advantage. The surest way that they can increase profits is by increasing sales. Increasing sales only happens in the vast majority of product categories when a competitive customer switches to the client’s product. Customers only switch products when they think the new one is at least better and often dramatically better than the product they are currently using.
You will do well to keep this critical dynamic in mind. While in this article I am addressing this dynamic in the context of a product label, your client wants to develop a competitive advantage with any graphic design project they assign to you. They may or may not overtly say this, but if it is going to be a successful company they need to think this way.
The dimension of the competitive advantage can vary dramatically between product types and products within a category. The area where the client wants a competitive advantage is dependent upon how the client thinks it can win versus some, most, or all of their competition.
For example, a client may want their product to compete in the higher-priced end of a product segment. To do this, the label needs to clearly signal that it is a higher quality, premium product. The “higher” is relative to all of the other direct competitors the client identifies.
Once you know this, your label design work should not begin until you really understand the competitive framework within the product category.In addition, conduct a search for brands in other categories that have very successfully positioned themselves as a higher quality, premium product.
Truly understanding the competitive framework is not as easy as collecting the competitive products and conducting a personal assessment of their labels. Developing this understanding typically requires a combination of qualitative and quantitative learning. Qualitative learning typically involves gathering the assessments of the client, your designers, and the opinions of people whose insights you respect. Quantitative learning is professionally conducted research among the right group of respondents. The client typically conducts this research.
From this kind of research you can determine general strengths and weaknesses of competitors and any of your existing product labels. This is a critical understanding since it gives you insights into how consumers evaluate these kinds of products. Ultimately, as a label graphic designer you need to be guided by these insights.
You also need to understand the design elements in other categories that have successfully positioned products as higher-quality, premium products. As any good designer already knows, color plays a critical role in signaling higher quality and premium pricing. For example, black and gold either independently or together are ways that color can be used to achieve the communication objectives. There also can be graphic devices like seals of approval or emblems.
As challenging as this dimension of label design can be, more important than communicating a higher-quality, premium product is getting the brand imagery right. For an existing brand, the latitude for the creative exploratory is usually fairly narrow, especially if the brand is experiencing any degree of marketplace success.
The existing customers for the product often find the product based upon its specific brand “visual signature.” They look for a color, shape, design element, etc. This is what makes it easy for them to find the product. Disrespecting the importance of this can have serious negative business consequences for a client. Just ask Tropicana of the negative consequences from their conversion of their orange juice packaging to a white bottle. Customers are only willing to search so much before they give up. If they search and find the product with a significantly different look, many fear that the product may have changed which can lead them to question their brand loyalty.
For a new product and brand, there is significantly greater design latitude but there are still major client design requirements that define the exploratory’s boundaries. The client ideally has a combination of qualitative and quantitative understandings that they used to define critical communication and image elements they believe will create a competitive advantage for them.
Again, design should never be done in a vacuum. The goal of gaining a competitive advantage requires that designers be fully aware of a product’s competitive context.
During my career, graphic designers that designed to deliver solutions in a competitive context and capable of creating a competitive advantage were always the ones rewarded with additional work. The entire nature of the relationship changed from being a supplier to a business partner.
In future articles, I will address more important considerations in a label development. This is truly an area where graphic designers can make a big difference. It is also an area where they can disappoint and even anger a client with their work. There are some proven ways of developing and positioning a range of options that helps the client determine where their comfort zone ends and discomfort begins. While you need to give your client what they’re asking for, really good graphic designers also give their clients design options they could not imagine and that are far better than what they thought was possible.
Graphic designers are asked to develop a wide range of marketing materials, many of which end up being selling or sales materials. It is also an area where a designer that understands the bigger picture context of marketing materials can impress the client and help them meet their need for profit growth.
Competitive context and competitive advantage are also very important considerations when developing marketing materials. I will briefly address two types of marketing materials – those that are primarily seen by potential consumers, typically in a selling environment like a retail store, and those that are primarily seen by customers via sales presentations.
Marketing materials that are intended to persuade potential customers in an environment where they typically can buy the product, are very overtly advertising materials. As such, graphic designers will help themselves if they understand some advertising fundamentals.
Advertising is most effective when it communicates a specific, clear product benefit. While this may sound simplistic and obvious, it is shocking how often it is ignored or violated. The most common mistake is communicating a product feature instead of a product benefit. For example, if Gatorade said, “contains three powerful of electrolytes” the consumer would be left to guess how that benefits them. If instead, Gatorade said, “quickly replenishes and renews the tired athlete” a consumer would quickly and easily understand how it benefits them. Looked at another way, consumers do not need electrolytes but they do need replenishing and renewing. Benefits directly address how a product meets a specific need.
Another basic that is often overlooked is that the words and pictures need to work together to make a single point. This is especially true for marketing materials that are in a selling environment. The rules that apply to billboard advertising definitely apply here. You do not have a somewhat captive audience watching television advertising. Instead, you have a moving potential customer and at best you will get their attention for a couple or a few seconds.
Keep it simple. Get to the point quickly—3-5 words, for example. Absolutely make sure that the words and pictures are saying the same thing. For example, if the words talk about a refreshing beverage, then the pictures also need to deliver refreshment. As common sense as this sounds, the number of times that this common sense is violated by graphic designers has shocked me over the years.
Marketing materials that will be used by sales to convince customers operate in a different environment, but the same principles apply. Unfortunately, these kinds of marketing materials also make the same mistakes that many advertising materials make. Specifically, these kinds of marketing/sales materials often include feature statement after feature statement. Having seen these materials over the years, I sometimes get the feeling that the designer felt they were doing their best job when they placed the maximum possible facts on a page. Typically, facts are features, not benefits.
While sales materials do not have to be as quick and direct as marketing materials for potential consumers, they still are more effective when they are simple and direct instead of verbose and complicated. A buyer gives a sales representative 2-4 minutes to make a somewhat complex presentation. Again, the successful graphic designer is the one who understands competitive context, communicates benefits supported with facts, and does so simply and directly.
Graphic designers who truly understood the elements discussed here brought significant and valuable added value to the relationship I had with them. They were not just doing what they were asked to do. They embraced the need and added original thinking to their design work. These were the designers (and they were a small group) who were always first to get the biggest and most challenging future assignments. Maybe most important from a designer’s perspective, their proposed design solutions took on an enhanced credibility producing richer and more valuable conversations. Again, they moved from being a supplier to a respected business partner. When this shift happens for a designer, you can be 100% assured that the designer’s bottom line greatly improves.
In a future article, I will outline how you can really help client make their marketing materials more persuasive with consumers and customers. It is a thoroughly proven statistically and in the marketplace understanding about how persuasion happens through marketing and sales.