Innovate don’t imitate

Good design is not just about the look of a product, or winning awards. Innovation only happens when every part of a brand is considered, from design, through to parts manufacturer, to resellers and the customer

When the transparent iMac first appeared it was an immediate hit, and like any good product, it inspired many copies. But the companies that strove to imitate Apple’s design failed to enjoy the same success. This is partly because by copying, they were missing the chance of creating their own brand identity, which, in the long term, is a more valuable commodity than any individual product.

Then again, Apple also appreciates that the success of the iMac is not just the result of innovative design. As Gus Desbarats, chairman of product design and branding specialists Alloy, says: “The media tends to focus on the product design story and ignores the excellent brand management that runs alongside it.”

Gavin Eccles, senior marketing consultant at management development consultants MSB, says: “The challenge is to use design that delivers a competitive edge. An edge that is built on insight, rather than the sole purpose of winning a design award. The challenge of launching a product is to deliver the brand successfully, as well as meet the needs of the consumer.”

Despite inhabiting different parts of a product’s route to market – Alloy in the design field, MSB in marketing – both appreciate that a product must send out the right corporate message as well as satisfying the customer. Effective brand communication is necessary from concept to launch to make sure design and marketing are in step. This process will often involve several departments and, in many cases, external companies and agencies. If one element misses the point, the product will suffer.

Desbarats says: “If there are discrepancies between what the actual product is and how it is described this will perplex consumers – at best creating indifference, at worst a sense that the company lies. The better the advertising and the worse the design, then the bigger the perception of untruth.”

He gives the example of Ericsson Mobile Communications, an engineering-led company that spent a lot on advertising to promote itself as approachable and friendly, but continued to produce square machines with small displays and large antennas. As Desbarats says: “This led to a message clash between nice photos of people and big advertisements saying things like ‘LIFE’ and a product look, feel and behaviour that triggered all kinds of other associations. It’s worth noting that ultimately the product design expressed the more powerful message.”

Getting the product design wrong creates a double negative. The perceived “real” offer is bad and the possibly excellent media advertising is so out of touch with the product reality as to be unethical. Desbarats adds: “Ethical branding is not just about saving the rain forest. It’s about delivering your promises.”

Returning to the iMac, the rash of transparent PCs that flooded the market following its launch failed because the iMac design only works within the context of Apple’s overall brand expression. “In fact, in Silicon Valley, to iMac became a verb [meaning to copy another product rather than create your own original]”, says Desbarats, who believes that one of the inherent problems holding back UK manufacturing is a lack of appreciation of brand value in product design.

So how can a company make sure its product is a reflection of the brand? First, it is necessary to recognise that every action it carries out affects customer opinion – from the concept of a new product, through to the point when it hits the market and beyond. This means that everyone involved in every aspect of product research, design, development and delivery must be clear about the essence of the company brand. The core corporate message must be communicated clearly to each individual. Brand understanding must also be spread to any external companies involved. This is often the case if a company is using outside marketing or advertising agencies, but external (and in some cases internal) designers are frequently omitted from the loop. However, it is critical that brand responsibility is extended beyond marketing.

London brewery Fullers not only uses market research, direct marketing and advertising agencies when launching a new product, but also has the brewers themselves – who design and prepare the new product – and external packaging designers to take into account. Fullers head of marketing David Spencer says: “Thorough briefings ensure everyone is in tune with Fullers’ corporate objectives and the product’s marketing position, which must be reflected in the design. Fullers wants its new products to add to, not dilute, the strength of the brand.”

Ethical branding

Third-party manufacturers

producing parts for products are also often overlooked. MSB’s Eccles says: “In these days of growing corporate responsibility, a key part of many companies’ brands are ethical concerns, which need to be communicated to third parties.”

This is particularly important if parts are sourced overseas in unfamiliar markets, which may have exploitative regimes. One slip-up in this area could not only damage the product, but the company as a whole, and can often come back to haunt an organisation years later.

Kept in the dark

Eccles points to yet another area that is frequently neglected – the operational side of an organisation. These are the people who are part of the delivery process, who service the market. As a result, their insight is based on practical experience and can prove invaluable during the design and development of a product. Eccles says: “Keep the operational side in the dark about product design and resentment will build up if service staff feel that the customer knows more about the product than they do.”

Furthermore, any practical problems with the product will have to be dealt with by operational staff initially, who will feel that the situation could have been avoided if they had been consulted during product development – and in many cases they will be right. Eccles refers to triangular relationship linking customer, employee and company that all organisations should bear in mind when producing a product.

In fact, in many markets there is often little to choose between two similar items other than brand influence, and the service delivered before and after purchase. BMW, Mercedes and Audi compete directly against each other in the luxury car market, while maintaining three clearly distinct characters. In each case, everything that makes an impression from dealerships to the look of the body, to the feel of the steering, jointly communicates the brand. Brand commitment inspires engineering design before it inspires the advertising. Research and development creates detailed offers that deliver the right kind of meaningful, brand-building experiences. In turn, this creative diligence frees advertising to make inspirational promises that can actually be kept.

Companies using external organisations in the product design and development process can make production management easier, by choosing ones that understand the value of reflecting a company’s brand. Desbarats warns that “this shouldn’t be taken for granted.” He adds: “Look for product designers which have the creativity and empathy to visualise the kind of customer experiences that are wanted, and the creative discipline to co-ordinate their work with past projects or with other disciplines like advertising. Look for a track record of brand comprehension. Don’t overlook technical expertise either. In our field, a lot of my time is spent working with engineers to ensure that branding priorities survive development intact.

Once the communication channels are open between all those involved during product design and development, the right product can be produced in the right way. Carried out successfully, a product launch should help to establish a brand, with each new product further developing and building on it.

Toshiba approached Alloy to design a mobile phone that would build its brand in the European market, where it has made little impact. Toshiba head of mobile communications marketing Charles Baxter says: “Toshiba approached Alloy because it has experience of designing products for the European market. The research Alloy carried out helped Toshiba to find out how the phone should work and feel. The end product, the TS21i, is everything the European market likes – it oozes high quality, looks expensive and feels good. Toshiba wanted this to be the first in a range of products that you could take the name off and people would still recognise as one of our products.”

Product management

Consumer strategists, Link, led a campaign for Kellogg that illustrates how the right product management, which mixes marketing knowledge and brand appreciation at the design stage, can establish a brand in a new markets. Link managing director Louise Southcott says: “Kellogg reworked a confectionery product for the UK, which is produced by another company in the US. But the product design had to take into account that Kellogg could not be associated with confectionery because its brand has a far healthier image that could not be undermined. As a result, the product was given a higher fruit content and healthier appeal, positioning it in the growing health food/cereal bar market.”

Six months later, Kellogg’s Fruit Winders is exceeding the company’s expectations and has developed and extended the reach of an already established brand.

Any company that manages its product design within the context of its brand and market can achieve the same – and not make the same mistake as those who, by imitating instead of innovating, succeed only in flattering and promoting the rival brands they copy.

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