“It’s all about understanding consumer needs,” said Mark Cowan, Managing Director of Cowan Design in Melbourne. “At Cowan we use a staff mix of marketers, who provide the strategic input, and graphic designers, who give us the creative leadership.”

Cowan believes that the design consultancies who have strong communication skills will pick up communication opportunities for clients that were previously serviced by advertising agencies. “Clients are looking for a range of specialised communication partners and the advertising agency is only one of these.

“Ad agencies are in decline generally and many big agencies are buying up design consultancies because they recognise them as strong communication partners.”

Cowan sees a window of opportunity for design companies to take advantage of the ‘changing landscape’ and become, to a greater degree, a key partner with their clients, where they lead the campaign process. 

Cowan Design, with offices in both Sydney and Melbourne, is arguably one of Australia’s biggest packaging design companies. They put together much of the product packaging we choose from the shelves of our local supermarket.

“The tight constraints of FMCG packaging make it a challenging discipline, but often solutions involving multiple constraints are the most innovative,” Cowan said. The FMCG campaign and brand development is about totally integrated marketing solutions.

Cowan believes Australian packaging design combines the best of American and British skills.

“In Australia we suffer from a ‘star’ complex about the work of some of our international competitors and a degree of this puts a halo around overseas packaging design. British packaging design is conceptually more idea-driven and more about the big idea. US design is strategically very strong. The best of Australian packaging design combines both.”

With a background in retail marketing, Cowan says his fascination with consumer behaviour and his experience as a buyer has given him a great insight into the consumer psyche. Cowan refers to the ‘emotional and rational’ when describing consumer needs and behaviour.

“It is fascinating to watch consumers, and I was able to do that during my time in retail. If you understand how a consumer shops, you have a much better chance of selling to them.

“In the FMCG industry, downsizing of marketing departments means that they are time poor and are increasingly looking to communication partners like Cowan to help them develop strategies and campaigns for their brands.

“Globalisation has radically changed the FMCG industry. The marketing function in a global organisation has to have – as its main priority – maintaining the value of the international brand, which is worth millions of dollars. 

“In Australia, FMCG marketing priorities are often affected by the short term issues.

“With only a small number of big retailers, if one decides to ‘delist’ a product, this can have a huge effect on sales and in turn drastically increase the sales of a competitor. This is only a short term issue, but it always takes priority over the long term issues.

“FMCG companies closely monitor every point of market share and have to react quickly to solve short-term fluctuations. Cowan always consider the long term as part of the immediate response.”

Cowan suggests the average brand manager stays in their role for an average of fourteen months, which makes the campaign approach very challenging. Market research is now a big part of the FMCG marketing mix.

“Our own research shows that many FMCG companies regard market research consultancies as their most important communication partners. To me, that is a tiny bit scary,” said Cowan.

“Market research will only tell you what consumers already think. The prize for a brand is not just understanding consumer sentiment but shaping it. I believe a good design practice is better placed to perform this function.

“In the past ten years the graphic design industry has developed from a ‘cottage’ industry to a profession of business consultants. It is an exciting time to be in the graphic design industry right now.

“But the graphic design industry still has a long way to go and must become more accountable and better at strategic development and management.”

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