Williams Murray Hamm might have the sort of corporate name that's expected of a big packaging design agency, but its creative approach is far from boardroom design by committee. The company is famous for its often radical reinventions of food brands and packaging - some big names, others less well-known - and boasts an incredible success rate.
Founded in 1997, WMH was created "out of a frustration and boredom with the world of brand design," explains Richard Murray. "We thought it had become incredibly formulaic. Most of our work with individuals had previously been in the supermarket, and if you looked around, you saw pizza brands that look like other pizza brands, coffee brands that look the same, and so on. The idea of formulas and category conventions had really overwhelmed the individuality of brands, so we decided to create a company that reacted against that, and tried to do things in a different way."
All three founder members of the company had "been around the block a few times": Richard Williams had previously set up Design Bridge, while Richard Murray and Garrick Hamm had both worked at various design companies. It was this familiarity with the design world, together with their experience, which convinced them they could make a difference. As Richard Murray puts it, "I think if we'd been 21 year olds, no one would have listened to us."
Innovate or imitate
Murray's own inspiration was summed up by a talk given by, of all people, Malcolm McLaren, who said that the two most important words in marketing were 'authenticity' and 'karaoke.' In other words, explains Murray, "Everyone is preoccupied with trying to deliver something authentic, but at the same time they're all obsessed with karaoke - doing bad impressions of someone else's original. I think it's a cultural thing - we live in a karaoke society. That's why The X Factor is so popular, we love copying each other."
WMH doesn't copy, it innovates. Its tagline, Creating Difference, is no mere marketing blurb; it's the core idea behind the company's design thinking. "Imitation or iteration is something we hate," Murray continues. "You want to try to create an original every time you do something. You don't want to re-present clichs, but you can sometimes twist them. The Hovis work is a good example - the idea of an all-over product shot showing a different product to what's inside the pack."
This, of course, is a reference to one of WMH's most memorable and successful campaigns, that of rebranding Hovis bread packaging. In one decisive action, the traditional, familiar but rather staid Hovis image of long-ago Yorkshire towns was swept away. The pack no longer showed bread at all, but was covered almost entirely with an image of baked beans or other foodstuffs that are traditionally associated with bread. In a way, WMH's formula is quite simple: it's a touch of lateral thinking, a dollop of humour, and respect for the consumer's intelligence. Murray thinks the latter idea is something that's mysteriously overlooked by many packaging designers. "I think people understand the way advertising works, and they like to be respected as consumers, and they like to buy nice things," he says. "When we redesigned Hovis, for instance, they received 5,000 consumer letters in the first month, which we were amazed at, and 97 per cent of them were very favourable. I think people felt that their intelligence had been respected - they liked that play of putting beans where you'd normally see bread. A lot of stuff plays to the lowest common denominator, and people end up designing for amoebas!"
But if the formula is seemingly that simple - albeit after the fact, as is the case with most great ideas - why does so much brand design look so dull? What makes Williams Murray Hamm stand out time and again? "It takes bravery on the part of the client to make sacrifices, which is what we encourage people to do," begins Murray. "Good brand communication can say one thing well. The thing is, people usually want to say ten things about their product. It's being able to persuade them that the more you say, the less you'll actually get through to the consumer."
This sacrifice is often necessary because much of WMH's work is with brands or campaigns that are struggling for one reason or another, and it's clear that some sort of reinvention is necessary. In addition, a potential client must be willing to take risks, or what at first seem like risks. "We try to attract like-minded clients," says Murray. "We don't want to work with everyone, because some clients aren't going to be culturally aligned."
Naturally enough, the first step is to determine exactly what the client's problem is. "We don't have a specialist planning function as such, we just try to employ people who are bright! It's looking at the world in a pragmatic way, as consumers, and figure out what a brand's problems might be, and agree a diagnosis with the client," he says.
Next follows a creative brief in which WMH articulates "something that absolutely crystallises what the commercial objective is, what they hope to achieve with the redesign". And for WMH, the briefer the better. "The most important thing is the brand essence, the capturing or describing what a brand means to people in two or three words. If you try to design against a shopping list of marketing terms, well, everyone has a brand vocabulary now, everything is meant to be 'reliable' and 'authentic' and 'quality' and all that. They're such overused words that they don't really mean anything."
He mentions their redesign of Jaffa Cakes a few years ago - a well-loved and well-known brand without a doubt, but in need of some new life. WMH decided that Jaffa Cakes were essentially all about self-centredness, so, says Murray, "The brief was, how do you celebrate that on packaging? So we come back with three or four ideas, and focus on one of them and develop it in line with comments, then it's on to production."
Not all clients immediately warm to WMH's ideas, particularly if they're radical revamps. But as Murray points out, packaging design is innately conservative - and strangely so, given the eagerness for outrageous PR stunts, enigmatic virals and challenging visuals in other areas of marketing. Nevertheless, WMH is unrepentant about its enthusiasm for original ideas. Murray explains: "Hopefully what we've done is set out our stall - this is the sort of work we do - to attract the right sort of people. We recently worked on a pitch where the client decided we'd taken the brand too far, and you just think, well fine - if you're thinking that then you're right to just drop it. We want to work with people who are really enthusiastic."
The company particularly enjoys working with smaller independents, owned and run by people who have invested much of their time and money into a product, as well as actively supporting Fair Trade initiatives. One good example is Clipper tea, which in 1999 was struggling to promote its ethical approach among a decline in tea drinking and competition from large multinationals. WMH's solution was to remove all the stereotyped clichs from Clipper's packaging - tea ships, plantations and so on - and replace it with modern, stylish information about the tea's area of origin, emphasising the Fair Trade aspect. Between 2001 and 2004, sales rose by 375 per cent, with no other advertising.
Many of WMH's designs incorporate the use of more typography, and text in general, than is often seen on image-heavy packaging. "It's interesting that in advertising, you have an art director and copy director working together, so the two have an equal importance," explains Richard. "In packaging design a lot of the time, it's more like an art director in isolation. A lot of our work does tell stories, we've just done a project for a juice drink called Sparky Brand. It's all misspelt, but you can still read the words because the first and last letters are correct. It's to show the power of a sharp mind. We like to use language not just to carry mandatory information."
Make consumers smile
"Innocent is the other example everyone talks about [though not designed by WMH]. They haven't had to put bits of fruit on the pack, the label tells funny stories instead. Ben & Jerry's is another classic example. It puts a smile in your mind, in the way that, say, Carte D'Or's tropical fruit punch does nothing" he laughs.
More than anything, Richard Murray and the other creatives at WMH are determined not to fall into easy traps, or rest on their laurels, even as they approach double figures. "A lot of companies that have been going for 20 or more years are on autopilot now," Murray adds. "They're prepared to go for an easy life, because there's not a huge amount of money to be had in design, and to try to do something that's different takes a hell of a lot of effort and cajoling."
And it's that very effort and cajoling that keeps WMH going, making a difference in the supermarket.
Contact details: www.creatingdifference.com