Sign Language

Design and marketing are often used interchangeably when talking about advertising but, while they complement each other, they have very different roles to play, says Ashgrove’s Terry van Rhyn

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to take this opportunity to clear up a common misconception around marketing, advertising and design agencies.

It’s quite common that work produced in the advertising industry is labelled “design” and often I hear Ashgrove described as a design agency.

Now, it is quite true that we offer creative design as well as marketing, branding and advertising services – it’s definitely one of our fortés. But it is not design in isolation.

A pure design agency will typically have a very narrow and specialist focus on a specific set of deliverables.

You would, for instance, engage and brief a specialist design agency to create packaging design for your product. If you then want to market this product to a specific audience and generate sales then you would need to engage a marketing or advertising agency.

The point I am making is that design is only one (although very important) part in the presentation of a product or service to its market.

Naturally, this “look” will be intrinsic to the brand positioning and value of said product or service. I’ve been very fortunate over the years that some brand owners have approached my marketing agencies at the early product development stage and engaged us as a trusted business partner to help assess where the product should be positioned within the marketplace.

That way we are able to coordinate all relevant R&D elements including packaging design, market research, product testing and such like. We are engaged from inception, can pool all that knowledge and learning, and become part of the architecture of the brand’s journey.

The benefit of this holistic approach is that the agency can also fulfil the role of guardian of the brand image. It is very rare that a client has the marketing infrastructure to protect the brand’s external integrity and image. Even if they do, it is always good to have an independent and objective perspective an agency is typically able to supply. That is, of course, if the agency’s opinion is respected and that they’re not simply a “yes-man” supplier.

It was the late Bill Bernbach, one of the most influential advertising people of the 20th century, who said that “advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

To my mind, advertising is about the art of persuasion. But, as a “practical art”, I’d argue that it borrows from both the behavioural sciences and liberal arts philosophies.

There are essentially two avenues to persuasion and the acceptance of the truth, and these are arranged around cognitive or emotional messaging.

Cognitive persuasion follows logic and reason to validate truth in an advertising message through rationalising a decision. That’s the more scientific take.

On the flip side, the emotional messaging is about how a brand makes you feel, and the trust that is established by consistently delivering on promise. That takes more of an artistic or aesthetic approach and seeks to express or illustrate certain traits and values.

In advertising we attempt to combine both these schools of thought in our messaging to influence the desired behaviour.

We create messages through powerful words, visual themes, symbols, signals, audio, and other media. Essentially we establish a short-cut for the consumer to understand what a brand stands for and create immediate recognition.

The study of signs and symbols, their use, significance, meaning and how it’s communicated is called semiotics. We see examples all around us every day, from traffic signs, coloured ribbons to signify a charity, warning signs on products, including brands with recognisable icons such as Nike, Apple, Bluetooth, the McDonalds arches, VW and so on.

This type of storytelling creates a theatre of the mind that makes the leap from seeing a very simple icon device to triggering a range of emotional processors in a matter of a fraction of seconds. As a result, these “badges” immediately link the brands to satisfying experiences.

But it’s important to have done the work to understand and underpin where the brand fits with these emotions. If people remember the compelling stories or the fancily designed image but not the brand name, then it’s a waste of time and money.

Creative director Von R Glitschka has illustrated this nicely with his remark: “Marketing without design is lifeless and design without marketing is mute.”

The two elements very much co-exist. And if you can get them both right, you are on to a winner!