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Step through the door at Pearlfisher’s studio in the Hammersmith area of London, United Kingdom, and you’ll enter a space full of optimism, progress and creativity. It’s bathed in natural light, there’s a bar with a concierge and a shelf is full of industry awards. With white walls and pale wood floors, opulent arches lead through to a gallery space, and there are botanical illustrations of cacti, aloes and succulent plants everywhere.

From left to right: Jonathan Ford, founding creative partner and chief executive officer; Karen
Welman, founding creative partner and chief creative officer; Mike Branson, founding partner
and chief executive officer; Yael Alaton, chief strategy officer; Sophie Maxwell, futures
director, global; David Jenkinson, creative director.

“This is some of the art that we produced to promote our garden at the Chelsea Flower Show,” says Jonathan Ford, one of the company’s three founding partners. “It was literally an immersive experience. We created the illusion that you were underwater, so it was like walking through a coral reef.”

It’s not really what anyone expects to hear when visiting one of the world’s leading independent branding agencies. With bases in London, New York, Copenhagen and San Francisco, Pearlfisher is known for its work boosting the desirability of iconic brands, like Cadbury, Starbucks and Target. But garden design? That’s new—something the Pearlfisher team immersed themselves in for a special, signature project last year.

In 2017, the agency celebrated its 25th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, its founders wanted to do something different—to make a real statement of intent. “We didn’t want to produce a book of 25 years of Pearlfisher. That was a definite no-no. We asked the company, and they said, ‘It’s all about looking forward,’” says Ford.

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Having designed a lot of packaging over the years, the staff at Pearlfisher realized that they have contributed to the vast amount of waste that modern society generates. So, for the company’s 25th anniversary, they decided to highlight one key issue—that of plastic in the ocean. Going back to the Pearlfisher name, which references the Japanese ama—women who free dive to find pearls—one idea was to create an ama statue out of recycled plastic and submerge it in the sea off Japan, where pearl fishing takes place. It would have represented how people can live in harmony with nature. However, the location seemed too remote, and Pearlfisher wanted to make a wider impact.

Then they hit on the idea of creating a specially themed garden at the United Kingdom’s number one horticultural event, the Chelsea Flower Show. Founding partner Karen Welman started sketching, a concept was developed and, sure enough, Pearlfisher’s application to the Royal Horticultural Society was accepted.

After a year of hard work, the company unveiled its creation at the 2018 show. Three cylindrical tanks containing live coral and fish supported a 20-foot glass disc filled with water. When people walked into the open space between the tanks and looked up, they saw a 3-D printed sculpture of an ama poised above the glass disc and appearing to be diving into it. The three tanks were surrounded by all sorts of plants, like cacti and Spanish moss, which were configured like a coral reef, and people could relax among the plants to experience a sort of dry land seascape complete with the sounds of the ocean. Surrounding the installation were 500 plastic bottles, representing the amount of waste plastic that goes into the ocean every 2.5 seconds.

Media outlets, including the BBC and Harper’s Bazaar, picked up on Pearlfisher’s unique contribution and spread the story to around 500 million people globally. The company also landed a gold award for the garden’s design—a unique gong to sit alongside all its Cannes Lions, Clios, D&AD Pencils and DBA Design Effectiveness awards.

But, more importantly, it helped Pearlfisher look forward. “In a way, the next 25 years is all about how to design ourselves out of a job,” Welman says. “We’re quite serious about that.”

It also set the company up with a platform for a new initiative it is rolling out to the industry. Lightweighting—a design concept all about sustainable design, taking responsibility, reducing waste and doing more with less—is being led across the company by Ford, Welman and Pearlfisher’s third founding partner, Mike Branson. The approach is being used as a basis for Pearlfisher’s own branding and packaging work with clients, and the agency is also sharing its thinking with other designers through talks, presentations, events and a white paper that can be downloaded from its website. By changing client and industry behavior, the hope is that consumer behavior will be influenced too and that the environment will be the winner. While thought leadership often doesn’t extend much further than writing a blog, at Pearlfisher, they really walk the walk.

We didn’t want to produce a book of 25 years of Pearlfisher. That was a definite no-no. We asked the company, and they said, ‘It’s all about looking forward.’”—Jonathan Ford

On the first floor of the company’s London headquarters, you’ll find the global strategy team, led by chief strategy officer Yael Alaton, along with the futures team, headed by futures director Sophie Maxwell. The second floor is home to London creative director David Jenkinson and a broad team of designers that includes conceptual thinkers, graphic and 3-D designers, and a group of production experts. The building that Pearlfisher has occupied for the last fourteen years used to be a school, which is entirely fitting, as constant learning is a big part of the company’s ethos.

“Yesterday I was learning a 3-D program,” says Welman. “That is the future for designers. All of us need to be able to use a three-dimensional program. Whereas in the past, designers have been au fait with Photoshop and Illustrator, that’s no longer enough.”

By keeping up to date on new materials, such as plastics that biodegrade at a molecular level, Pearlfisher is continually ramping up knowledge about the complex issues of sustainable manufacturing. For instance, producing plastic bottles can mean they’ll end up in the ocean, but on the other hand, manufacturing recyclable glass bottles increases a project’s carbon footprint. Pearlfisher works with clients and suppliers on these tricky decisions. “It’s not just graphics; it’s the whole concept. It’s the whole item that you’re using or producing. Everything is changing,” says Welman.

And Pearlfisher is prepared for change. Its futures team devotes a lot of time and resources to understanding the key markets in which its clients operate. The team contributes to the company at two levels. First, it researches and produces reports on how key sectors—like food and drink, health and well-being, and luxury—are changing. Based on quantitative research that covers everything from surveys to financial and market statistics, as well as qualitative research into attitudes and trends, this work is fed through to Pearlfisher’s strategists and designers. Second, when creative concepts are developed for specific brands, futures helps ensure that the work not only has here-and-now value, but also will carry the brand into tomorrow.

“We don’t baton pass between departments,” says Jenkinson. “It’s as important that design is as involved from the outset as futures or strategy.”

Pearlfisher’s focus is on working with both challenger and iconic brands, and bringing a premium quality to clients’ brands in each category. The company is enthused by startups that want to create new market categories. For instance, it created a natural identity for Seedlip, a new nonalcoholic distilled spirit for people who don’t drink. Sometimes, Pearlfisher will even invest in a challenger brand alongside developing its identity. One example of this is The Clock, a high-end gym concept with time-focused workout equipment in luxury surroundings that includes a kitchen. Pearlfisher helped develop the identity, exercise equipment, décor and even the menu.

All of us need to be able to use a three-dimensional program. Whereas in the past, designers have been au fait with Photoshop and Illustrator, that’s no longer enough.”—Karen Welman

Equally, the agency loves reinvigorating category-leading brands like Jim Beam bourbon. In a market full of new entrants, craft whiskeys and flavor rivals, Jim Beam needed to future-proof. Pearlfisher asked if the brand was seen as too big, generic and mass-produced. “Together with our clients, we identified that there was the opportunity to be the global icon in bourbon,” says Alaton. “The name is synonymous with American history and a bourbon heritage with seven generations of distilling. We came up with the idea of creating the living legacy of Jim Beam, and that enabled us to take what was traditional and authentic about Jim Beam, but also introduce contemporary elements within that.”

To help facilitate this, the futures team studied how Jim Beam’s brand expression had changed over the years within the bourbon category, how the company had evolved and how other bourbons, as well as brands in other categories, signify their premium status to consumers.

The design team used these insights to reconsider the various ways in which Jim Beam communicated with its customer base. Giving an iconic brand relevance in a changing market has a “fix and flex” aspect to it, according to Jenkinson. “We work with the brand’s assets to make sure there’s a common, recognizable thread, but that there are assets within their toolkit so that when they need to flex—so that it’s not one dimensional, one size fits all—they can adapt to different needs.”

A whole range of little refinements was made, such as the fluting on the bottle, which gives it a more tactile quality. As you go up through the Jim Beam range, the bottle fluting becomes more detailed to express the premium quality. The broad, white label was maintained and simplified slightly to ensure that it still expresses the open and generous nature of the brand.

By applying its holistic approach, Pearlfisher generates desirability across the look, feel and narrative of each brand the agency works with. And it’s heartening to know that by following its Lightweighting concept at the same time, the company isn’t just striving to create desire for brands—it is trying to do so sustainably. Wherever possible, Pearlfisher is suggesting ways of reducing waste, and in doing so is becoming the go-to agency for brands that want to improve sustainability in their processes and message.

Pearlfisher is currently putting the finishing touches on some work for a major fast food label that will reduce landfill by millions of tons a year. So, watch this space—sustainability is going to be the theme at Pearlfisher for the next 25 years. ca

Garrick Webster is a United Kingdom-based freelance journalist, editor and copywriter who has been writing about and working in the creative industries for the last seventeen years. His favorite areas include illustration, fantasy art, typography and graphic design. In 2011, he helped create the Memories Book, a 172-page publication featuring 12 stories and the work of 144 artists and designers in support of Maggie's cancer charity.


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