Building a competitive advantage today.

Originally published in the Houston Business Journal, October 1993

Design: One of the few remaining Competitive Advantages a company can have.

Every company, large or small, has made use of graphic design at some point in their operations. Steven Sessions, president of the SessionsGroup, says businesses ought to rethink their use of design. Sessions says companies should think of design as a means to an end – increasing the Bottom Line.

Companies striving to thrive—not just survive—in the new millennium are beginning to recognize a neglected asset that, left undeveloped and unmanaged, is a liability to achieving their goals. And the more competitive their market, the more of a liability this neglected asset is.

Companies are discovering the bottom-line value of creating and maintaining a strategic visual representation of who they are and applying the discipline necessary to present it with consistency across all their communication materials, from business cards to websites, from employee materials to advertising. Think of Nike, Starbucks, Disney, Martha Stewart and you find what is appealing about each of them is not primarily their product features and benefits, but the set of values the company represents.

And intelligent, coördinated visual design is of critical importance in creating and maintaining that association. It is crucial to the creation of a preferred brand in any enterprise, whether consumer or business to business.

Avoiding commoditization is crucial.

These days, everything is being commoditized. And customers will not allow a company to make a profit on a commodity. But the same customer will pay a premium for a preferred Brand.

Starbucks was launched in a marketplace where coffee was frequently sold as a loss leader and often the second cup was even free. Imagine presenting a business plan to investors for a company, which sells coffee for 2 or 3 times as much as the competition across the street. Would you be excited about investing your money in that venture? Well, yes, if you understood that what they were planning to provide, while selling coffee, is a set of values and a specific attitude that would resonate with consumers in a unique way.

Sophisticated marketplace.

The marketplace is becoming more sophisticated and crowded with products, distributors and manufacturers. Every day, sales and marketing managers are confronted with the rapid leveling of the playing field. All is becoming parity with no real competitive advantage in conventional features and benefits. Even if an advantage is achieved, it is quickly copied, continuing the relentless marketplace pressure toward commoditization.

This has caused organizations to move from being ones obsessed with providing superior products, superior features and benefits, to ones obsessed with providing individually tailored customer solutions. Thus for the past decade, the focus has been locked onto customer satisfaction.

Yet even total customer focus, assuming it can be achieved and ingrained, is not the lasting answer to competitive advantage. Is there a firm that cannot, given enough time, effort and leadership, become customer-centered?

Just to survive, every organization will have to produce solutions for customers. Every firm will have to embrace customer satisfaction goals. If customer focus cannot be the relevant point of differentiation in the 21st Century, what will be? Differentiation by product features and benefits is a concept whose day is long gone. Modern electronic commerce nullifies Distribution as the answer. Promotions are easily copied. And Price is a losing proposition.

Established brands.

The more complicated the world gets, the more comforting the familiar will be, and the better it will get for brands” noted a Fortune Magazine article.

An established, preferred Brand creates a value which transcends price and the purchase itself. It entrenches relationship goodwill and loyalty, providing protection from the competition’s success in copying features and benefits and undercutting pricing. It supports credible new product and service introductions. And in addition, it mitigates the negative effects of product or service failure.

On that last point, the Tylenol poisoning and the Perrier benzene scare in the 80s are two good examples. Those two Brands each survived disasters that would have completely destroyed a weakly branded, or a non-branded, product. (Today we see Toyota relying on it’s brand position for support as it endures a product failure.)

How do brands work?

Brands are unique. They are the personification of the relationship the customer has with the product or service or company. They are what customers buy. They are what customers relate to. They are what customers value. They are most powerfully and efficiently communicated as images and within a visual system appropriate to the message.

Qualified graphic designers help create those images and manage those visual systems – those visual assets.

Assets and liabilities.

A positive Brand identity is an organization’s most valuable asset, because it is the only thing that is truly unique to the organization and its customers. It is the only thing on which a manufacturer can build ongoing, non-replicable, competitive value. The Brand is the only corporate asset that provides long-lasting returns in the marketplace.

Brand Equity is not built by default.

These powerful assets are not built by accident. They do not happen by default. They are built with well-planned, well-designed, well-executed total organizational programs that focus on customer value and customer relationships. A variety of talented people are necessary to create this situation.

Mature creative directors, graphic designers and art directors play a critical role since we live in an visual world and have short attention spans. Such a visual designer is in the best position to know what conceptual interpretations, through images, and shapes, and colors, and typographic elements, will best support a given brand strategy.

They are uniquely qualified as a result of their experience in coördinating the myriad of such elements that compose the countless moments of communication with customers, investors, regulatory authorities, vendors, etc. With an understanding of branding, knowledgeable designers will become more important than ever before in contributing to a company’s bottom-line profits. They are key resources creating sustainable growth and retainable income for companies competing in the 21st century.

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