Simon Ward, chief executive of brand consultancy Holmes & Marchant explains why an agile approach is as important for branding as it is for development.

Things are changing in the world of brand marketing and design as businesses look for ways to strengthen their brand performance while minimising risks and giving consumers what they want. Taking its lead from Darwinian philosophy, where the most successful species are those that are quickest to adapt, it all comes down to a little agile thinking.

Instead of asking brand marketers to take a ‘leap of faith’ in coming up with a brand proposition that will stand out and win consumer support in an increasingly fast-moving and competitive global marketplace, an agile approach calls for something different. In essence it requires responsiveness along with a healthy smattering of consumer insight to guide the brand on a journey of continuous development and enhancement.

Confirming the importance of agile thinking, Marc Pritchard, global CMO of Procter & Gamble, has described it as the “new must-have skill for marketers” while Unilever’s chief executive, Paul Polman, said: “(We’re)…reallocating budgets to enable us to make content in an always-on world. Agencies need to organise themselves around the consumer, not the client.”

From a marketing perspective, agile thinking can be applied to some specialisms more readily than others. For example, activities such as optimisation in digital-media planning and social media community management are very reactive by nature.  However, companies are increasingly putting agile thinking into practice at a strategic level too.

Agile branding

Agile thinking and processes can be applied to a wide range of brand design activity – from corporate branding, retail environment and innovation projects, through to brand packaging and employee engagement projects.  Such thinking affects the way that initiatives are developed and brands are managed. It may mean developing more creative directions, in various formats, and at an earlier stage in the design project.

It will also require testing to ensure faster feedback from real consumers as part of a ‘test, learn, commit’ design process. Importantly, such processes can also be repeated, several times if necessary, to ensure that the concept is as market-ready as possible.  

Ben Terrett, who has been recognised for his award-winning work as head of design at GDS (such as the government's Gov.uk site), is a leading example of applying agile to the world of digital design.

Ben and his team are responsible for the simple and seamless user experience designed into the organisation’s web site. This is more complex than it appears, given there are literally thousands of different ‘transactions’ – such as getting your road tax updated online being a single ‘transaction’ – which need to be carried out at the site. To achieve progress is this scenario, they deployed an agile approach, developing designs and releasing them early for consumers to test, then learning in real time and adapting to improve.

Agile design

This approach to design requires a different mindset and organisational culture – for example, a faster, lighter approval process – but rather than restricting designers, it can actually have a liberating effect.

In a recent comparison between traditional and agile processes for developing a brand packaging graphic, we saw the latter was faster to market, with higher ROI. This was due to a 100 per cent faster project turnaround, on-going responsiveness and the potential for 20 per cent lower investment. The design project itself is also more likely to be successful because the process uses more options, more testing and close consumer involvement at different stages.

Adopting an agile mindset doesn’t have to be difficult either. It starts by encouraging marketers and designers that it makes sense to take smaller, incremental steps to strengthen brand position in response to sometimes quite subtle market shifts. After all, agile design processes are faster, more efficient and more likely to succeed.

Simon Ward is an agile branding expert and chief executive of Holmes & Marchant.