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Choosing a chart that fits the message (Bain example)

by | Jun 12, 2021

Bain uses proper slide structure and draws attention to the insights, but a better chart could have made the slide stronger.

The slide I’ll be reviewing today is from a presentation called “2011 China Luxury Market Study”, which you can find on Bain’s website. It’s all about the Chinese luxury market back in 2011, and although it’s a bit dated, the slides themselves are great examples of what you might see in a real client presentation.

This slide in particular follows a well-worn format with a chart on the left, and bullet points and a quote on the right. Overall Bain does a good job communicating insights through the slide content, but they aren’t without their imperfections. In this post I’ll cover what they did well, what they could have done better, and what can be learned from how they approach slide making. 

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The title for this slide says, “Brands continue to expand aggressively in 2010, however, some slowing down evidenced in 2011”. So far its off to a good start – having a simple but complete title like this makes it easy for the audience to understand the background for the slide, which is exactly what you want the title to do. So now as I read through the details I can put them into the right context.

Bain slide column chart explanataion

“2011 China Luxury Market Study” Bain & Company, December 2011

The overall layout of the slide is pretty common, with a chart on the left and supporting bullet points on the right. Sometimes you might also see these switched, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. We tend to read slides from left to right, and I personally would prefer my audience to read the bullets first so that they know what to look for in the chart, but usually the chart is so eye catching that regardless of where it is, that’s what the audience will see first no matter what you do. And I think that’s the case here as well.

But let’s talk about the bullets first. To me they look pretty good – they’re spaced out well, they’ve got some subtle bolding to help make the key ideas stand out, and there’s not too many of them. I think where they could have improved is just the amount of text they use. They could have definitely cut out some words here to help the audience focus a little better.

When you’re designing your slide you want to make sure everything has a purpose, including each of your words. Too many words and your audience could get lost. There’s no magic number for how many words you should have of course, because it very much depends on the situation, but you want to be aware that everything on your slide is either supporting your message, or taking away from it.

Bain slide column chart explanataion

I like the quote down at the bottom because it provides really good support for the message of the slide about how brands are slowing down their expansion, and it does it in a way that’s clear and easy to understand, but just like in the other slide I reviewed from this presentation, the quote doesn’t stand out enough.

I don’t think it should be the most attention grabbing thing on the slide, but it just blends in too much with the bullet points. A box around the quote or even just some color behind it could have created the right effect here.

Then there is the chart on the left which is really the main focus of the slide. It’s a stacked column chart that shows the total number of stores that were opened by each brand up through 2011.

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With Armani for example, you can see that they’ve opened 104 total stores, and with each section of the column you can get a rough idea for how many they’ve opened each year. It looks like they’ve opened the most in 2010 (which is this black part), but then much less so far in 2011 (represented by the blue part).

There are some ways in which I think they’ve made some mistakes with this chart, but first let’s talk about the things they’ve done well. One thing is that I think they’ve done a good job drawing attention to what matters on the chart, and drawing attention away from what doesn’t matter.

The simple way to do this is to think about what information is insightful and connects to your message, and what information is just supporting details and context. So for example, the title “Store count of select luxury brand by end of September 2011” is supporting information for the chart, so they’ve kept it simple and out of the way. Then the axis labels and data labels are also just plain and simple numbers that don’t attract any attention. They’re there if you need them, but they’re not distracting.

But then look at the dark grey callout box. This is where the insights are – it’s showing that the number of store openings grew in 2010, but that so far in 2011 it looks like store openings are slowing down. This is the crux of the entire argument for the slide, so they want to make sure you see it. They do that with the shape, size, and color of the callout box. Plus they bold the numbers as well.

Bain slide column chart explanataion

Then of course the color on the chart itself is also eye catching, showing you which year represents 2011, the year in question.

Another thing I think they’ve done well is to put the actual logos on the chart. It’s so much easier for me to recognize the logos then if they would have just used plain text, especially for well-recognized consumer facing brands like this. The risk here is that the logos become too distracting, to the point where they take away from the insights in the chart, but they’ve mitigated that by making them all black and white. Well done Bain. 

Where I think they could have done better is in their choice of chart. They chose to use a stacked column chart, which puts an emphasis on the total height of each column, while giving a breakdown of the columns for context.

Bain slide column chart explanataion

For this dataset that means that the focus is on the total number of stores opened by each brand. Burberry has opened 56, Coach has opened 52, Prada has opened 18, etc. Then the number of stores opened each year by each brand is also shown, but with much less emphasis. So much less emphasis in fact, that you can’t even see the exact numbers or compare the years with each other very well.

Let’s take Coach as an example. 52 total stores have been opened, but then you don’t get a breakdown for how many have been opened for each year. It looks like 2010 has the most store openings, but then what about 2011? It already looks close enough to 2010 as it is, but remember that this is only up through September, so you have to visualize another 3 months on top, which makes it a little tricky. Yes there are brands that are a little more clear cut, but overall it’s hard to see.

And remember, this is the main message of the slide: Brands expanded aggressively in 2010, but they’re slowing down in 2011. It’s not about the total number of store openings.

Bain slide explanation

In other words, Bain made a mistake here by choosing a chart that emphasizes the number of stores opened by each brand, and not the difference in new store openings between years. They have a callout that shows the right information, but it feels a little disconnected from the chart.

Another thing about this chart that you may or may not have noticed is their decision to use a column chart rather than a horizontal bar chart. These two types of charts are largely interchangeable, but sometimes one makes more sense than the other.

Typically a column chart is good when you’re showing changes over time, and this is because our minds naturally think of time as moving from left to right. When I first looked at this chart and noticed the columns, it seemed like they were trying to show me that something was declining over time. Especially when I saw the words “slowing down”.

Bain slide column chart

Of course once I saw the labels I realized what the chart was about and it was no big deal, but it’s still good to consider little things like this that you might not be aware of as you’re building the slide.

Then one other minor reason why a horizontal bar chart might have been a little better is it would have been easier to put the company labels in neatly. Rather than working within the space constraints of each column, or in this case rather than having to tilt each label, you can keep all the labels horizontal and perfectly aligned with each bar.

Both of these are small considerations, and the column chart still works fine here, but a bar chart might have been just that much better.

So what kind of chart should they have used instead? Well, there’s not a perfect solution here, at least not one that I could think of, but if they just want to stick to the slide’s main message all they really need is a simple column chart that shows the total store openings by year (note how this column chart shows change over time).

Bain graph

This puts an emphasis on the steady rise in store openings, with an expected decrease in 2011, which is exactly what is referenced in the title. And the key drivers on the right still work just fine. The obvious downside of the chart is that it doesn’t show the breakdown of each brand, which is not part of the overall message but might still be important information.

To address this they could break each column down by brand, but of course that gets a little messy. Another solution would be to reduce the number of brands down to 10, or even 5, just to keep it simple, since this is not a comprehensive list of luxury brands anyway. Or they could combine some of the smaller brands together. And if none of that worked then they could always add a table below the chart to show the details, or include it in the appendix.

Overall Bain made a pretty good slide here, with clear insights and a good structure. A chart that better matches the slide’s main takeaway would have served them better, but overall the slide is clear, the takeaways are simple, and the overall look is professional. 

You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

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