BBC’s The Apprentice is hurting design and branding professions


I have watched BBC’s The Apprentice for quite a few years now. I enjoy the problem solving aspect of each episode, perhaps because it mirrors the brief-to-solution journey we undertake in design, and I appreciate, much like any user experience designer, the feedback and analysis that takes place in the boardroom at the end.

The case of Everydog and how not to brand a product

Lately, though, I have become increasingly disillusioned with the show’s take on the proces of design and branding. I firmly believe that the show is failing to highlight the importance of things like thorough research, user testing, and just general brand-building principles.

I remember back in series 7 when one of the tasks for the contestants was to create, brand and pitch a new pet food product. The team that lost developed a dog food called Everydog, and the name selection and branding took place in the back of their car while stuck in Central London traffic. I am not suggesting that ideas only come when you are at a desk in an office environment – some of my best ideas have popped into my head while walking home or in the shower – but once the idea has arrived it needs to be developed, evolved, and tested for flaws. Calling a pet food Everydog goes against what everyone knows about pet owners – that their pets are often thought of as members of their family, and they buy food that they feel suits the personality (and dietary preference) of their beloved animals. The team wanted a product that would cater to as many dog breeds and sizes, but did they really expect a Chihuahua and a Great Dane to share the same diet?

English sparkling wine and how not to design a website

Then we come to last week’s episode of the The Apprentice, which I have only just watched on BBC iPlayer. The contestants were tasked with creating a brand and identity for a range of English sparkling wine, but also, wait for it…a website design!

I waited in anticipation to see how they would approach the design process. Would there be a session on defining the business goals of the sparkling wine company? Would there be a needs analysis phase to determine what the website needs to deliver to the user? Who exactly are the users? Would there be competitor research? What about a content strategy to establish how the content of the site will be created and maintained? Interviews with potential users of the site to see what they expect? The answer to all was NOPE!

The website design scene consisted of two members of a team sitting next to a designer pointing at stuff on the screen, and there were a few close-ups of the team sketching on paper with soundbites like “We’re going to need a home page, and a page for each producer, for the wines that they do”. That was it. The BBC has managed to portray the design process as going to sit next to someone who knows Photoshop and Illustrator and telling them what to put on screen. Ladies and gentlemen, it turns out we are all just pixel-pushers.

A new show format is needed

Alan Sugar has said repeatedly that he wants to show viewers how easy it is to start a business, but in my opinion his show is failing to highlight the importance of performing a thorough branding and design process.

The Apprentice is very much focused on being a reality game-show where contestants are kicked out each week, but do we really need another show like this? I believe there is room for a business-orientated show where candidates are filmed developing their businesses or products over the course of the series. Imagine each candidate working hard to last for as long as they can, and the survival factor depends on investment commitments that they must pitch for each week. Those who win investment have an advantage over their rivals and are better equipped at developing their products or services further in the next episode. Each episode could document the highs and lows of each candidate’s journey, and viewers will truly see what it takes to create a brand from scratch. There will still be a competition factor because those that don’t secure investment inevitably drop out of the race.

A format like this will mean the show’s editors won’t be forced to skim superficially over important scenes, like the research and user testing, in order to get an hour’s digest of what has happened in the week, and viewers will be better able to grasp the process building a business or product over the course of many episodes, from the perspectives of each candidate, with commentary from experts interwoven into the episode.

As a co-founder of a small business my experiences are far different to those portrayed on The Apprentice. I don’t live in a North London mansion, nor do I get free food, travel and fuel. And I certainly don’t get the chance to pitch to industry giants like Tesco, Sainsbury’s or John Lewis. Entertaining, maybe, but it’s totally unrealistic.

Photo: Copyright BBC.