Promises must be kept

Too often, product claims are not borne out by consumers’ experience. Is a lack of communication between designers and marketers to blame? asks Ian Whiteling

It is a sad fact that “easy-to-assemble” flat-packed furniture, despite having been joked about for decades, still arrives too often with inscrutable instructions, a need for considerable DIY expertise and, just to add to the frustration, a vital component missing.

This is just one example of how new products can disappoint as soon as the customer gets them home. The failure of products to live up to their promises is why the classic Ronseal line that “it does exactly what it says on the tin” remains so resonant, according to St Luke’s joint managing director Neil Henderson.

“Innovation is driving consumer markets and news grabs people’s attention,” says Henderson. “In order to demonstrate a difference between the old and the new, advertisers are driven to exaggerate a product’s benefits. In telecoms, for instance, people were promised easy access to the internet using WAP when it was anything but easy, and video clips which, in reality, are slow and prohibitively expensive.”

Such excessive claims are impressing ever fewer consumers, says Peter Matthews of brand experience consultancy Nucleus. “Products are increasingly disappointing consumers as brand promises are raised unachievably high,” he says. “Consumers are cynical of the promises products make. They are becoming more product-promiscuous and less loyal to brands as they are faced with greater choice and product intelligence.”

Better, not more

Things weren’t always this way. “Until the Eighties, everyone aspired to own products that we now take for granted, such as colour televisions, mobile phones, PCs and dishwashers,” explains Mike Pearson of product design company Pearson Matthews. “Today, we live in a ‘sufficiency culture’, where most households have at least one of these items. Rather than searching out new products, people are looking to improve on the ones they already have. Consequently, the relationship between consumers and manufacturers has changed. Design has become a tool for creating differentiation. However, if this is carried out in the absence of research into what consumers really want, it can result in overselling.”

This creates a feeling that most people are only too familiar with – the thrill of opening the box, quickly followed by the despondency of discovering what’s inside. What manufacturers forget is that while people may ostensibly be paying for an object, what they are really excited by is the whole buying and owning experience.

“Products are no longer just products: they are the tangible element of a brand experience that aims to achieve a level of satisfaction that will ensure customer retention,” says Phil Gray, founder and director of industrial design company Quadro Consulting.

“‘More chocolate than before’ and ‘washes whiter than ever’ claims really annoy consumers,” says Satkar Gidda, director of brand design company SiebertHead, “especially when they realise that the thicker chocolate, six months later, is back to the same level as before, and that the muesli bar that used to fill the wrapper has suddenly shrunk. Consumers are very brand- and marketing-literate – they know when they are being conned.”

Kevin Greene, director of brand design agency Path, mentions the consequences of a recent product launch that didn’t live up to its promise. “Coca-Cola underestimated consumers when it launched Dasani,” he says. “An attractive design, heavy promotion and reassuring (if ambiguous) claims such as ‘filtered’ and ‘pure’ created a strong proposition that appealed to consumers. Unfortunately for Coke, the ‘product truths’ were a PR time bomb.

“Honesty would have been a better policy. ‘Pure filtered tap-water’ may in fact have been a more credible claim than those put forward by a lot of other bottled water companies. Cokes’ damage-limitation exercise entailed pulling the whole brand immediately.”

If further proof is required of the need to make sure that products live up to consumers’ expectations, then it is worth looking at a few of those that achieve this aim.

“The Dove brand was built on the simple message that Dove soap moisturises the skin. This was delivered so well through a great product that the brand has now been able to extend the same proposition into a whole range of new product areas,” says Greene.

Apple of our i

Then of course, there’s the iPod – a perfect example of how a product should work, according to Henderson. “It is intuitive, sensible and truly delivers,” he says. “Lots of products have copied the look. They might be better off copying the usability of the operating system.”

The Dyson vacuum cleaner also has its advocates. “It’s a prime example of a product that fulfils its promise,” says Greene. “Dyson has used a unique functional innovation not only to produce a better cleaner, but as the core of a marketing strategy that communicates its unique selling point very effectively.”

But even these super-products don’t please everyone. Gus Desbarats, director of product designer Alloy, says: “With the iPod you still have the hassle of downloading the software. Meanwhile, the Dyson has lots of places where dirt can get trapped, and you still have to empty it. But these products are in sync with their brand and have created such a ‘got to have’ feeling that it makes it easier for their manufacturers to overcome any niggles.”

Alloy works on the look and feel of many of BT’s products, through its work with the company’s home communication – high street distribution division, which doesn’t manufacture products, but converts detailed customer insight into product specifications.

“BT concentrates on the user experience,” explains Desbarats. “It carries out extensive testing, including ‘unwrapping tests’ to learn what it’s like for customers to take products out of the box and set them up. As product designers, we’re exposed to a lot of customer feedback.

“Too few companies map the consumer experience of their products. You need to immerse yourself in what people want by looking at what happens at the point of purchase and at the point of first use.”

This then needs to be communicated effectively in the marketing. The secret is the integration of research, design and marketing.

“Research departments have historically worked in isolation from the brand, with a remit to innovate through technology,” says Greene. “Marketing has then had the job of taking that innovation and selling it. By building a team from R&D, design and marketing, with a common goal, brand owners can ensure that both product and pack reflect simple, realistic and relevant consumer promises.”

The consequences of failing to create a product that delivers on its promises are far-reaching. At best, companies that maintain this stance shouldn’t expect to engender great brand loyalty. At worst, they could be sued for making false claims.

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