Today it's become the norm for brands such as Google and Apple to delight consumers with human-centred technology and larger-than-life experiences. But this wasn't always the case. Arguably, one of the first brands to engage in smart disruption and make consumers sit up and take notice was Virgin.
Right from the get-go, Virgin has been a trailblazing challenger brand. Since the 70s, the company has positioned itself as the underdog that takes on category leaders and questions why money should be made at the expense of the consumer. Sir Richard Branson himself took on the role of consumer champion, disrupter and philanthropist. His aim was - and still is - to change business for the better. And he does it in a way that provokes, inspires and is always delivered in irresistible style.
In early 2013, The Jupiter Drawing Room was invited to pitch for a project that would see us help shape design principles for Virgin Global. Our challenge was to create a set of guidelines that would inspire Virgin companies as they developed their own identities, communications and brand experiences.
Bearing in mind, however, that the group is involved in everything from travel, leisure, entertainment, finance and health clubs to space travel, entrepreneurship centres, green initiatives and more, whatever we came up with had to be "stretchy" enough to adapt to each different business sector.
So, taking a leaf out of Virgin's book, we said "screw it, let's do it", took a deep breath and dived right in. Our approach paid off and we were awarded the business.
Our process took the better part of a year and we approached the job in three phases, namely immersion, collaboration and execution.
Immersion: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. During the immersion and auditing phase, we recognised that, although there were some brands within Virgin that needed more guidance, there were several companies that perfectly understood the Virgin brand and its values.
So, from the outset, we saw our role as curators. To this end, we created Facebook and Pinterest communities where the different Virgin companies could contribute work, their understanding of the brand and their interpretation of brand values, which helped us catalogue and sort the bad from the brilliant.
Collaboration: Putting our heads together to search for new ideas. A key focus for us was to ensure that the Virgin brand expression was a multi-dimensional and sensorial experience. As part of the exploratory phase of the project, we held a creative bootcamp in Cape Town.
We invited five global "sensory experts" to team up with Virgin creatives from all over the world to explore new ways in which the brand could be expressed. The experts included Andrew Shoben; the German scent guru Sissel Tolaas; the UK's Joel Gethin Lewis; the Dutch food experimenter Marije Vogelzang and the South African artist Willem Boschoff.
The bootcamp was particularly inspiring. Not only did we get to play with some of the best sensory experts in one room, but we also got to witness the natural interaction among the Virgin creative directors as they shared their expertise, stories and insights into the daily problems they face with the brand. We were struck by three things: how much talent lies within the Virgin network, the untapped opportunity to harness this collective creative energy and how few of the creatives had met one another prior to the camp.
Execution: Allow for obsolescence-proofing. Our concern was that most traditional identity manuals date, and many disregard inspiration as a central tenant of the creative process, favouring a set of imposing rules. The Virgin team fortunately didn't see it like that, and we were tasked with developing a creative "playing field" that would allow for a cohesive freedom of expression across all Virgin companies.
Our solution was to create an online interactive platform that guides users through inspirational mood boards that reflect the different expressions of the Virgin brand. This means that creatives are first presented with inspiration on how their brand could potentially look and feel - before delving deeper into the guidelines on how to bring these to life using different brand tools.
The boards showcase both the best Virgin work and draw on international design inspiration. What's more, they can be easily curated and updated by Virgin's creative directors, ensuring that they are always fresh and relevant.
While the mood-board project has only just launched, initial feedback is highly encouraging. For a company that challenges the status quo, a set of design principles that is only 10 per cent rules and 90 per cent guidelines has been welcomed by those free-spirited thinkers who want to flex some muscle on a great brand, while clearly understanding which aspects of the identity are sacrosanct.
For us, it has been an incredible journey and we would like to think that a healthy dose of that irresistible Virgin magic has rubbed off on us along the way.
Joanne Thomas is the design creative director at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town)