Steven Sterlacchini, Director of Brand Britain, on Bruce Lee, branding and briefing

Brand Britain’s Steven Sterlacchini talks creativity, branding and packaging.

I just had a quick look at your website – love it! Very striking which, I guess, is important when you’re a branding specialist. So… Who are you and what do you do?
Thank you! It’s difficult to answer that question without sounding like we’re reading straight from our company credentials presentation…

I’m sure that’s interesting enough to start with…
In essence, Brand Britain is a creative graphic-design agency. We primarily specialise in branding and packaging for games and toys; food and drink. As you’d expect, our website showcases some of the stuff we’re really proud of – but it’s only a snapshot to be honest. A lot of the projects we work on are still a closely guarded secret!

We provide strategic design at every level. From the embryonic stages of game development, working with new-product development teams and even directly with inventors on some occasions, all the way through to packaging design, in-store POS, shopper-marketing assets and trade comms. How’s that? Can you guess which bit is from the creds?

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
You should have finished on the bit about closely-guarded secrets… Packaging design over a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma! You’ve been going a while?

Yes – and funnily enough, we were going through our archive of work only the other day. It’s nice to look back. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. After a glance back at thirty years in the industry and ten years growing Brand Britain, the whole team was like: “Wow! We must be one of the leading design agencies in the toy and game category.”

Well, let’s talk about that; let’s start with creative packaging. How do you even begin to develop distinct, brand-flavoured packaging around a product?
We start with the basics. How does the brand wish to be perceived? Who’s the audience? How is it going to be supported? What are the routes to market? What’s special about the brand, or product? Because there’s always something… Real nuts and bolts stuff.

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
And this isn’t, presumably, just through the lens of what you find new or interesting in the office?

No; we approach every new project through the eyes of the consumer. We get what a product needs to communicate on the shelf. We understand how to excite shoppers. If there’s insight and statistics to steer us, it’s advantageous, but we can also work without a net, employing the instincts we’ve honed over decades of experience. Also, we prefer to really work with our clients… We like to involve them in the creative process – and this effects how we present our ideas – rather than going away and returning with a fait accompli.

And once you’ve come up with that first glimmer of where to start, what’s your creative process?
We try not to impose a rigid process on our clients. Every client works in a different way and each project has its own challenges. In the words of Bruce Lee “Be like water”…

“Each project has its own challenges. In the words of Bruce Lee “Be like water…”

Water in a glass, though, surely? There’s got to be some structure?
Well… We do tend to begin by rewriting the brief, simply to strip it down to the core objectives and unearth the essence of the brand. I’m often referred to as Captain Bullet Point in that respect. My superpower is conciseness! That then gives us something to refer back to during the creative process. It’s healthy to go off at tangents, but you need a touchstone to refer back to.

So you’re there: Captain Bullet Point. New brief in hand… Then what?
Once we’re confident in the brief, the creative team sits down to discuss our first impressions. We’ll bring any additional research, references and thumbnails to the table, before we decide which routes are worthy of pursuing and sharing with the client. Once we tap into that magic ingredient a game has, that something special, we turn up the volume on it. Then we scrutinise all over again. Does it pass the squint test…

The squint test?
Yes – is it so distinctive it’ll be recognised through half closed eyes?! Similarly, will it give a good account of itself, in a crowded fixture where the average shopper finds, evaluates, and chooses products in as little as seven seconds – or the e-commerce scroll-by equivalent.

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
Gosh, yes. And at some point, presumably, you have to go back to the client. Is that with prototypes? Or a very concise Powerpoint? Or just sketches?

It could be as simple as some good old-fashioned pencil sketches, yes… But it depends on the client. Some prefer us to share ideas in a full exploratory presentation. Others want to ‘cut to the meat’ and expect a finished visual that can speak for itself.

Great. In terms of that much-used, little reified phrase, “It’s about telling a story”, what must brands have when they come to you? And what will they always have when they leave?
I’m not sure it’s about telling a story as much as it’s about making a human connection. Making sure that the brand, or product has a personality. A ‘story’ is only worth telling if it’s credible and authentic. That’s why one of the first things we do is discover the brand’s persona.

And can you give me an example of that?
Sure! It’s a cliché but, if this brand or product was a movie star, who would it be? If it were a car, what make would be? That sort of thing…

“A story’s only worth telling if it’s credible and authentic. That’s why one of the first things we do is discover a brand’s persona”

Got it!
In that respect, it helps if the brand already has a good understanding of where it is and the direction it wants to go. Often, it’s just not possible for large companies, with fluid teams, to familiarise themselves with every one of their brands. Occasionally we’ll work with them to help define their brand’s personality.

I’m struck by the number of times your answers are about fluidity and flexing to the clients needs. Do you, though, have any golden rules you work by? Things you always do, or things you never do?
We always keep it fun. It should be a positive experience for everyone. We’re selling entertainment. Also, we’ll never stay quiet when we believe a mistake or misstep is about to be made. And we always produce at least one design that is ‘off brief’, often waaay off. The well-trodden path rarely leads to new discoveries. It’s our job to bring the unpredictable human element into the creative process.

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
Great answer! It strikes me, then, that a very clear brief is at the heart of your work. What advice do you give people about briefing?

Personally I like an abridged overview, that can sum up a project in one page. And preferably in a large font – with lots of line spacing. Then – if it’s available – I like them to include supporting material such as market research, insight, consumer pen portraits, and samples of ‘preferred’ visual routes.

And what happens when the client isn’t equipped to do that?
We’ve helped brands to write and develop briefs – that can be a project in itself. We’ve also received briefs that were as simple as “Hey Brand Britain, what do you think about ‘this brand’? Send us some thoughts for the end of the week!” There’s something liberating about being given a very open brief, though. Working without boundaries ultimately helps us take the client into unchartered territory and that can really light the touch paper of innovation.

And when developing a chocolate bar, say, or a new cereal, is it ever too soon to start thinking about the branding?
Yes, we can’t begin until we understand ‘why’… Why does this brand or product exist? Once we ‘get it’ we become personally invested in its success.

“Once we understand why a brand or product exist, we become personally invested in its success.”

Great answer! So is your process different when you’re reinventing an old brand? I mean from the process you have when you develop a new one?
With an existing brand it depends on the reason for the development. Is it because the brand is failing in some way, or needs to reposition itself? Or does it simply need a refresh to re-establish relevance and reimpose its shelf position? The main concern with an existing brand is how much of the brand equity and visual collateral needs to be retained and recognisable.

Interesting – what sort of thing would be a consideration there?
An emotional connection with the audience… We have to consider that: are there any distinctive elements that have already formed an emotional connection with the audience? We have to protect those memory structures that already exist, so that people instantly connect with it.

That’s fascinating. Not a problem for new products…
No. When we’re designing something completely new, we can just let our imaginations run wild – within reason! The name of the game – no pun intended – is to make an immediate impact. Get those early adopters on board at pace, and gear up to make it an icon of tomorrow.

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
There’s a pull quote if ever I heard one! What one piece of work do you think best represents your work, and why?

That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I’d have difficulty answering it. As an external agency, discretion is essential. Most of the brands we work with have approval systems for use of their intellectual property, by external agencies, for promotional purposes. Even for a simple mention of project in an interview, we’d find it best to follow the old Yorkshire saying “If in doubt – say nowt”.

That must make it a little frustrating to put yourselves out there?
It does make us feel a little like the industry’s best kept secret, but I believe it’s necessary. A good example of a project, which we’ve cleared for discussion, would be something like Game of Life. I think it sums up our agility and involved us working closely with Hasbro’s internal design team. We looked to establish the correct approach for developing that iconic brand, and then helping roll it out across multiple games.

Sounds challenging…
Looking back, it really was an incredible achievement. The design has evolved past our original contribution, but the original DNA, which we helped define, is still very visible.

You have clients in a number of fast-moving consumer product industries. Are there any areas in which you would love to work, though?
It’s great to be considered an expert in a particular sector… And toys and games do make our reference archive a fun place to visit, we’re creative people at heart. I don’t think there are many areas where we wouldn’t want to flex our muscles… Graphic design is simply visual communication which has the goal of making a tangible connection with real people. Many of the skills involved in one sector are transferrable. And finally, of course, it’s not so much about the brands themselves, as the teams responsible for them. Happily, the clients we have love the way we work.

Steven Sterlacchini, Brand Britain
Brilliant. Steve, we’re going to have to wrap this up but I want to thank you for your time… Final question: what’s the weirdest thing you found yourself doing for a brand?

I think all designers have projects that make them think “Hmm, so this is what I do for a living now!?” Like running around an old steel mill in Rotherham, filming people act out a toy blaster battle royale, or watching our creative director doing a back flip onto a Twister board for a sizzle… Not so much ‘weird’ perhaps, but definitely out of the ordinary!

Lovely. Thanks again, Steve; much appreciated.

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