Despite the overwhelming urge to break into my best Kermit the Frog impression, I resist, as I enter JKR’s office space in Camden.
Tucked in next to the Regent’s Canal, the building is the former site of Muppets creator Jim Henson’s “Creature Shop,” where he spent years bringing his TV puppets to life, like a kindly Victor Frankenstein.
Although no longer the home of Miss Piggy and Big Bird, the hum of creative energy still flows – it’s an incredible space, and walking through, I’m stopped by an unnamed face among 120, who tells me: “this is the greatest place to work on earth.”
JKR is a design agency spanning over a quarter of a century; from London to Shanghai; PG Tips to Budweiser. As an average Western consumer, there is zero chance that you haven’t unwrapped, unboxed or opened a product bearing a JKR design. But the company’s central philosophy hasn’t changed in that time, says global strategy director Chris Halton, who has been there since the first few months.
He quotes me Oscar Wilde – “be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” When re-branding a staple such as PG Tips, Halton says that “all you’re doing is refreshing it. If you’ve got it right in the first place, it’s really just about asking: ‘how do you keep it sailing and relevant?’ As with JKR, the spirit of the brand never really changes.”
A word Halton mentions throughout our conversation is “charisma”. He says that “every brand has their own level of charisma – a power that attracts and compels the consumer. It’s the confidence that comes from knowing who you really are, and behaving accordingly.” But how do you expose the right level of charisma in a brand, and how do you actually present it?
Using the example of PG Tips, Halton says that “they were in trouble, they needed to re-establish themselves – they were losing their share of the shelf to new competitors.” The old box design was overworked and cluttered, where over the years new elements had been repeatedly added to the point of hotchpotch. JKR focused on wiping the slate clean – “stripping all that back and focusing on what is distinctive to the brand, but still getting across the personality, the charisma.
“The challenge all the time from a branding point of view is how to unlock the brand again, so it feels and looks confident. We talk about being bold and simple; that is, stripping everything back to the elements that are pure and simple, really stripping it down, but keeping the spirit of the brand. A packet lives in a one second world – all that it needs is what you need to convey to get people to buy it.”
This focus on charisma, paired with bold simplicity, is prevalent throughout all of JKR’s work, from using data to declutter Domino’s pizza delivery boxes, to temporarily changing the name of Budweiser beer to “America”.
The latter is an especially clever piece of design from JKR that should have advertisers concerned. The actual design of the can didn’t change per se. The fundamental elements – its all-American charisma – remained. Alongside the name change, Budweiser’s motto was replaced with the lyrics to Star Spangled Banner; “trade mark registered” became “indivisible since 1776”. The result was a media superstorm – some 1.2bn impressions in 24 hours – more than twice as many as the last two Budweiser Super Bowl ads combined. Donald Trump even claimed responsibility for the name change.
With an established brand which isn’t offering anything new, how do you make people feel more confident about it? “Traditional ad agencies struggle with that,” says Halton, “they’re always thinking about the narrative, whereas we’re always thinking about the brand.”
In a world of constant advertising, brand identity is omnipotent, yet malleable, and after prodding him to admit it, I get the answer I know Halton wants to give: “branding is more important than advertising,” he says. “But the point is, you can’t fast forward it and you can’t delete it, it’s just there, it gets under the skin without people really noticing it.
“Both should complement each other. We talk about ‘brand ecosystem,’ and advertising is just part of that ecosystem. It’s not the central point. And I think that’s the challenge for big ad agencies, is that they’re used to owning all of it. Whether they like it or not, we have to be at the top table with them. Chief executives today won’t make a decision unless design is in the room.”
With such a prominent clientele, you might think JKR would reject smaller companies looking for branding. But it doesn’t, and once on board, there is no client hierarchy – all are treated equally. “We do with the little guys what we do with the big guys – we don’t treat them any differently, and that’s the difference between us and a lot of agencies. You can make the little guy the big guy if you treat them both the same.”
Such is the case with Hippea, which make organic chickpea puffs (“basically a healthy Cheeto”). It approached JKR with “nothing more than a clear poly bag of the product and a name,” says Halton. “We love natural challenger brands, so if a brand has got something that is interesting about itself then actually, it’s our job to give it an identity, a personality.
“Fundamentally, it gives us the chance to be really creative – they tend to be entrepreneurial individuals, so there’s not a lot of red tape – they can make decisions very quickly.”
When Hippea approached JKR it couldn’t afford an ad agency to run a campaign, so focused solely on branding, rather than advertising. Doing so provided them with not just a design, but the charisma Halton refers to. The repurposed hippie smile, the motto “give peas a chance,” the striking matt yellow and the brand’s so-called “snacktivism” are an identity. It’s clear that a good product, combined with a purpose sells itself. And the proof is there: “it’s been hugely successful,” he says, “it’s launched across the whole of North America in Starbucks – 18,000 outlets in nine months, from conception.”
Halton doesn’t take all the credit for Hippea’s success, but says “the power of distinctive design and charisma” certainly helped. “If they didn’t have the pack, they wouldn’t have got the distance they have – they’d have been selling a healthy Cheeto – not Hippeas.”