Should Designers be Sector Specialists or Does Success Lie Beyond the Niche?

Simon Wright, MD, Greenwich Design and Co-founder of The Chemistry Works

We’ve always had a varied client list, but lately we’ve won a number of projects in what is a fairly new area of interest for us – the luxury sector. When I think of luxury brands, images of stylish opulence and iconic design come to mind, but when I started talking to luxury marketers about their needs, it became clear that they were looking for a different way to set themselves apart.

That was certainly the challenge for one of our clients, a high-end electronics and tech supplier to the Superyacht set. When they approached us to look at their brand design, part of our appeal was the variety of experience we have across many sectors–luxury or otherwise. They appreciated the freshness we brought to the work that other design agencies hadn’t been able to find. This got me thinking about the pros and cons of having an established niche. You may be the first point of call if you’re known for work within a particular area, but can being too mired in one particular area blind you to what makes a brand stand out? All brands need to be loved, so it’s all about knowing what the triggers are that make that happen, both new and old.

If you’re approaching a project from outside the sector, the advantage is that you don’t necessarily know what the norm is and are therefore not restricted by traditional thinking. Of course, you need to do your research to make sure you’re not coming at it from completely the wrong angle, and you also need to make sure it’s not so different that the client is going to reject it.The challenge is finding an approach that represents the brand, its values and its customers while injecting a unique sense of energy and excitement into the sector.

Our work across industries has proved invaluable over the years. We were once tasked with designing ready meal packaging for an oil company – a brand that didn’t sit comfortably within the food industry – to be sold at their service stations.  We were able to combine our experience of working with high street retailers with our longstanding knowledge of the client to provide packaging that felt fresh, appropriate, yet totally in line with the brand’s values. (We took it as the utmost compliment when another high street brand came out with almost identical packaging for its own ready meals!)

This cross-sector experience allows us to approach the brief in a slightly different way. Our ethos is to look at everything with a fresh set of eyes so that we challenge conventions. Think of Walkers, who turned the widely accepted convention that Cheese and Onion crisps should be in a green bag and Salt and Vinegar in a blue bag on its head. Sure, there may have been dissenters but it certainly hasn’t done any harm to the Walkers brand.

When we worked on an aviation project we deliberately avoided planes and the sky because that’s what all the client’s competitors were doing. It was a calculated risk that paid off. Of course, it also helps if you have a client who is willing to be open-minded and take some risks. We’ve been in a situation where we’ve presented a selection of designs to a client who hated them all, but when presented to their bosses, who were one step removed from the process, they loved them precisely because they were so different.

So how do you combat ‘better the devil you know’ syndrome? When trying to convince a client to go for something really different, you need a strong rationale that explains why it’s the right thing to do. Generally, we try to offer one safe route and two more risky options – then we encourage the client to take that leap of faith – even with a rationale and evidence to support a change, it does still require a leap of faith. It doesn’t always work, but nine times out of ten, if we can explain the thinking behind the design and demonstrate why it has the potential to be more successful than a more pedestrian option, our clients are willing to listen.

Returning to luxury brands, my dream brief would be to shake up the perfume sector, which hasn’t really moved on for decades. With celebrity perfumes in decline, it’s the couture, luxury brands that are keeping the industry afloat, but despite the expensive, quirky TV ads, there’s no sense of surprise – you know the ad’s for a perfume within the first couple of frames. The designer who dares to turn that upside down by convincing a client to do something completely unconventional will not only separate the brand from the crowd but will also have the opportunity to redefine the whole sector.