When a great design becomes the icon of an era, the design becomes a brand itself. This has happened with several popular cars. The New Beetle and New Mini are examples of carmakers seeking to capitalize on the brand appeal of a particular model by reviving its design. (Interestingly, the New Mini was produced by BMW rather than its original maker, but BMW smartly made no attempt to link the little car to the BMW brand.)

Package design performs a vital supporting role. Sometimes, as with the BP oilcan, it becomes the product, more often packaging serves as a handy container and store sign saying, “Buy me,” but most of all, a package has to tell the customer what to expect: it has to convey the brand promise, not just in words and pictures, but also through the subtle suggestion of shape, function, materials, colors, typeface, and graphics. Design is also a key element of advertising, and of collateral material such as gift items and clothing. A marketing campaign must maintain a visual consistency across all advertising media—web, print, TV, outdoor— while also keeping a clear relationship to the product and its package design (which usually exist prior to the campaign).

Ad designs change more rapidly than product or package designs: each marketing campaign cycle is new and evolves to meet new expectations. This difference in the speeds at which the designs of a brand change can present big challenges to the brand manager, who must keep the brand meaningful and coherent.

Package design

Design development can take a long time. Testing is often done to determine whether the designer’s insights and hunches are borne out by contact with real customers in lifelike situations. When MinaleTattersfield were commissioned by BP in the 1980s to design a new plastic oil container, the process lasted six years.

The result was a good example of how a package can be more important than the product. Motor oil is fairly generic. I doubt if customers can tell by examining it whether it’s the right one for their car; labeling has to guide them. Motor oil is also rather messy, so a package has to ensure that the customer won’t come into contact with the product. With its clever drip-proof, drop-proof, leak-proof, and flameproof design, as well as its strong brand identity, Minale’s new BP oil container revolutionized the industry and immediately became the standard. The package had become the product. Most of the other oil companies soon copied it, but BP was ahead of the pack and the brand gained a lasting benefit from being a leader—six years well spent.

Product design

Money is the other thing, besides time, needed to achieve great design. Gillette invested around US$700 million on researching and developing the Mach3 razor, and hundreds of millions more in marketing it. Worthwhile? The Mach3 was popular and hugely profitable, earning Gillette hundreds of millions in worldwide sales during the years when it was their top-of-the-line razor. Any man who opened a packet of new blades and wondered how a few slivers of steel and plastic could cost so much gained an understanding of the role played by design and branding in product success. The Mach3’s appearance, and the way it works, didn’t happen by accident: it is a $700-million-dollar razor.