Philippe and Romain A Clef

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Philippe Starck, one of the world's most ubiquitous designers, and Romain Hatchuel, former CEO of the Cannes International Advertising Festival, have partnered in the creation of branding and design consultancy The Key. The new venture is aimed at helping corporations establish, or re-establish, a complete brand identity, offering what the partners describe as trend spotting, brand architecture, strategic vision, product design and integrated communications. For Starck, most famous for designing high-end spaces, furniture and household devices, it's a chance to apply his strategic sense, as well as his design sensibility, to the big brand picture. For the industry, the move represents a greater awareness of the importance of design to a marketer's brand aspirations and the untapped potential of a new group of marketers.

In addition to undertaking branding work for European and North American clients in need of identity overhaul, the new company's primary target will be another kind of client-emerging Asian OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), which are, potentially, poised to make the leap from faceless gadget factories and subcontractors to the stars, to stand-alone power brands, marketing new lines of (possibly Starck-designed) products to Asian and world markets.

The Key was born from a social acquaintance between Starck and Hatchuel, both of whom had unique and valuable vantage points from which to observe shifts in the industrial and marketing landscape. Hatchuel ran the annual Cannes Lions throwdown with his father, Roger, from 1997 to 2001. During the younger Hatchuel's years steering Cannes, the festival evolved significantly, incorporating marketing disciplines beyond TV and print and better reflecting the realities of the marketplace. When he left the festival, Hatchuel moved into a role as global director of business development for Euro RSCG Worldwide. The new venture, he says, originated with several observations, including one about his new partner. "The first observation was about Philippe, who is not only a very talented designer, which everyone knows, but is a tremendously gifted strategic planner and trend spotter. This is a huge quality and talent he has not leveraged as well as he could have until now. It's not by coincidence that this guy, who is now 54, has managed to stay on the very edge of the newest consumer and fashion trends for the past 25 years, and often influences them and creates them."

From a diaper bag for the masses, designed for Target, to hotels and restaurants and residences for the few, Paris-born Starck has informed the mainstream perception of design as few others have. From his earliest environment design, for Paris club Le Main Bleue in 1976, Starck made a name in interior architectural space with designs for the Mitterand residence and the Caf‚ Costes in Paris, and went on to spearhead, with Ian Schrager, a whole new hotel esthetic-the hyper suave boutique. Starck's hotel credits, going back as far as 1988, span fashion eras and continents, including: the Royalton, Hudson and Paramount in New York; the Peninsula in Hong Kong; the Delano in Miami; L.A.'s Mondrian; St. Martins Lane and the Sanderson in London; and San Francisco's Clift. Industrial designs have ranged from an Olympic flame to toothbrushes, to now-familiar gadget designs for Alessi and accessories with Fossil. Lately, he's been working with Puma on a new line of footwear.

After a few decades of design challenges, Starck says he's more interested in "designing the future of a company, rather that just one or several products. In many instances, companies who came to see me for a design project ended up buying a full concept. Today, I want to make this a real activity on its own. These companies need big visionary ideas-we will try and provide such ideas. Design comes after, and may not always be required."

The Key partners' other founding observation, says Hatchuel, was simply that the services they can offer are missing from the marketing and design landscape-spotting and analyzing relevant trends all the way to making marketing communications recommendations, the latter belonging at the end of the process, he stresses. "First, there is helping companies define, or redefine a real, strong strategic vision, taking into account market facts and trends and people's tastes and expectations. Once this vision has been defined, there is creating a brand platform, which means making the brand and the name of the company and the logo and its graphical identity and its values fit exactly into the vision. Then it's making the product line-this is obviously central -and then it's trying to figure out how to get the message through to the consumers and maximizing the appeal of the products through marketing." And marketing, of course, doesn't necessarily mean advertising. "We have nothing to sell-no predetermined idea or discipline we want to push forward, whether it's advertising or direct marketing." The Key will not be in the business of implementing marketing communications ideas, and therefore will act as a potential partner, not competitor, to ad agencies, says Hatchuel, adding that a number of agencies have already approached The Key.

Starck and Hatchuel are joined by newly appointed chief marketing officer Gilles Mangin, who has extensive experience in Asian markets, working for LVMH subsidiaries in Singapore and Malaysia. Mangin had lately been VP, international marketing for Oregon Scientific, a maker of electronics like weather stations and clocks, and Starck had not only designed products for the company (pictured above) but also provided strategic concepts. Oregon Scientific is a holding of IDT, a Hong Kong-based LCD technology manufacturer.

Hatchuel says changes in the marketplace and in the companies themselves-their increasing size, a less fragmented manufacturing process and technology transfers-have made the Asian manufacturer a prime candidate for big brand initiatives. "Now these companies have the critical size, they have the technology they have the money and they're thinking about selling their products under their own brands instead of selling them for half the price under Western or Japanese brand names," he notes, pointing to Korea's Samsung and, more recently LG, and China's Haier as emerging brands previously largely unknown outside their home countries.

Starck takes The Key's positioning one step further. "The mission of this company is to help fix the fundamental imbalance, in our current industrial society, between big American/European/Japanese brands and nonJapanese Asian manufacturers. In most cases, the former have become paper tigers, virtual companies that are at best trend laboratories, at worst no more than logos on products. They have delocalized or outsourced almost everything tangible, particularly production. Asian manufacturers are the real companies of the future, but they are not fairly rewarded and we want to help them play the role they deserve."

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