In the trend towards design harmonisation of products, says Laura Mazur, multinationals would do well to remember that the more we are the same, the more we love our differences.
Design harmonisation of products is clearly high on the agenda of companies operating in international markets. A few multinationals began the process at the end of the 1980s. Perhaps inevitably, they were US companies. Castigated when they first entered Europe in the 1950s for arrogantly treating the region as one block, they are now more admired than despised in the 1990s for emphasising cross-border similarities instead of being daunted by cultural differences.
One of the most high-profile cases, and perhaps a landmark on the road to design harmonisation, was the brand realignment which Mars carried out in the early 1990s. It simply and ruthlessly dropped well-established brand names in local markets and replaced them with what it decreed would be the American versions. In Europe, of course, the chocolate bar, Marathon, became the horrendously named Snickers. Howls of protest followed from the public and press at this monstrous example of US imperialism. But ultimately protesters buckled under because they knew a good chocolate bar when they tasted one, whatever it was called.
There are a number of reasons for the trend towards design harmonisation. First, and probably foremost, companies are continuing to look for ways to drive out excess costs. Organisational structures, which once included a manufacturing unit in every main market to produce localised versions of the same brand, have been severely rationalised, as have the operational systems which supported them. Likewise, multinationals of every hue are consolidating their promotional strategies into fewer advertising agencies, so it was inevitable that companies would begin to appreciate the benefits of rationalising design inconsistencies around the world. As Richard Williams, founder of UK packaging design specialists Design Bridge and now an independent consultant, puts it, 'If you can mastermind the brand centrally, you can reduce manpower and cut production costs'.
This clarion call for centralisation has its dangers of course. The challenge is knowing just how far to go, since the more we are the same, the more we love our differences. The Dutch love to smother their fries with mayonnaise (and a special type at that) - perhaps a tricky poser for the boffins in the Mayo Packaging faculty at McDonald's Hamburger University? The Spanish, on their idiosyncratic part, refuse to buy foam bath and shower gel in the same size bottles as the rest of Europe. The packaging for a frozen fish meal in Germany has to have to fish-topping lined up perfectly with the edge of the fish, whereas in the UK it needs to drip over the edge. The list goes on and on and on.
A multinational ignores these cultural differences at its peril. And there is another danger in adhering too unswervingly to the cause of consistency: global blandness. Sam Blass, planning director at design consultancy FLB, which has worked with companies such as Heinz and Spillers, argues that, 'If the lowest common denominator is used for packaging across countries, it can become quite passive - it has to rely on advertising to give it character. This can leave the door open for an interesting domestic product to nip at its heels.' And if you don't watch out, today's awkward Scottish terriers can turn into tomorrow's corporate Rottweilers.
Finally, before you even so much as think about harmonising design, make sure you understand how you want your corporate name (as well as your product) to fit into the international 'big picture'. Companies need to be perceived in the 'right way' internationally - and not just for the benefit of the customer. It's also necessary for the workforce, wherever they are and whatever they do, so that they know 'who they are, what they do, where they are going and how they are going to get there', as John Sorrell, chairman both of the consultancy Newell and Sorrell and of the Design Council, rather neatly puts it. This (of course) is all just common sense - after all it is the corporate name as well as goods and services that is crossing borders. But not thinking clearly about the basics is perhaps the biggest mistake companies can (and still do) make when it comes to harmonising design.