The Underbelly of Design: Brand Dilution from Sourced Products
A couple of months ago we had an open call for guest bloggers, we had a few responses with some great ideas. This week’s Design Article, written by MB, was one of them.
MB has written a very powerful article on a side of design and product development that the majority of the Brands practices but few actually talk about. I myself have had similar experiences and can vouch for much of his. I am surprised that such product development strategies are not covered in many design education programs. So sit tight and welcome to The Underbelly of Design.
I am a designer in a corporate consumer product company. A lot of my observations and commentary will be more on corporate design and product development. The business I work for has sadly become a commodity lately, driven by retailers forcing our company and our competitors into a price point erosion game. You would know these retailers I’m speaking of though they will remain anonymous. At this point of my company’s evolution, we are in a transitional phase with a lot of growing pains. Furthermore our new product gaps and business bandaging have led us to sourcing from China.
Product Managers, responsible for hefty financial goals amidst a recession and a reactive nature of our market, are sourcing pre-developed/designed products. This has become the go to thing for marketers, as it is a very efficient way to ship new products. Sourced products are often rich in value-add features that are purchased at very attractive margins. However, is this convenience worth the price of design cohesion within a product line or brand image? I think it is our job, as the liaison between engineering and marketing, to balance the feasible and push the business go beyond their comfort zone. We need to strive to find that next great feature, aesthetic hotness, or unique story so that we can be a marketing catalyst that boosts a product that breaks the price point paradigm.
Commoditization of products on price is why we should fight to keep the focus on innovation, design, and quality. It has been demonstrated that brands which take on a distinctive design image get the edge in the marketplace through recognition from consumers no matter which retailer they are at. (I wasn’t going to go here, but Apple is a great example). Cohesive design reinforces brand awareness on all levels.
As designers (from all disciplines), our profession has a visual impact on the brand where consumers see it first. So we are charged with either brand management grass-roots style or empowered to undertake a total refresh of the design language in a manner that can impact a company’s strategy. Unfortunately, the ownership of the business in my company is marketing, so as an Industrial Designer, I can only influence rather than direct.
At my company, we have a few key development/manufacturing partners in China that constantly sends us renderings or actual products that entice Product Managers to make a fast buck in their categories. This notion of “It’s a promo”, or “A short term thing so it will not affect our brand”, is a wound that never heals. Fortunately our flagship high price point products are developed in-house, but our lower end products seem to get thrown into this scenario. We should be vigilant and be constantly involved with other departments when these sourcing situations occur. The opening price point still bears the brand so the products need to be treated with consistency.
I have to admit though; Chinese designed products are getting much better as their designers have been observing more western design philosophies. There are a few design faux pas, but I think they have finally realized that their product development for western markets needs to take on western characteristics and culture. This makes their OEM products easier to integrate into many existing corporate product ranges. Still, it is not a replacement for a ground-up design program.
Our company has recently developed, and about to launch, a new design language for one of our premium brands. After debating exhaustively on our new brand image, we have managed to create a cohesive direction throughout our different product categories. It was a very tedious and complex undertaking, as we needed to get the buy-in from many people. Today we are managing just a few products that have been sourced and we are steering a slow, large ship of a company in a direction where design/brand language is more than just skin deep aesthetics.
Here are some of the learning’s in corporate design that I’ve gathered in my experience with these issues:
Design is more than superficial skinning
Quantify as much as possible, so that those who measure in quantifiable metrics can understand where you are coming from. For example relate design elements to trends and show how they measure up in the market. Consumer backed data is always huge (obviously). Inspirational image boards sometimes demonstrate the trends in a very concentrated and obvious way.
Quality is in the details
Flash on parts that users interact with, screw bosses, sink marks, and poorly resolved part lines on “glamour” sides of products are all details that we as designers should take some stake in not just the engineering team. Let the product manager (owner) know about these issues and educate them on reasons why it is bad for their products. I don’t always suggest a total redesign, but maybe look for opportunities to redesign parts of sourced products to fit more with the brand. This way it may be more fiscally viable for the project and you would have a more macro approach to implementing your design language. Sometimes, vendors are willing to take on the additional costs of re-tooling just to win your business.
I’ve seen other designers, and even myself, get caught up in implementing our version of a design language through individual projects. So be mindful of the strategy at large. Step back and evaluate what is really important. You don’t always have to design a homerun, but often you can hit a double to score a run later.
Understand the context of the product
In certain cases you will need to pick your battles. Yes, maybe it is a little against what I’ve just written above, but if it really is about a small specialty retailer in low quantities, the brand would probably come out unscathed. Letting the business know that even as a designer, you are taking on a bit of the fiscal responsibility is good for your credibility. Being big picture minded helps you implement the details you want later.
It’s very difficult for business leaders to see the return on investment (ROI) in design so you have to stay involved. I try to get myself involved as much as possible even in a non design functions. Sitting through boring financial/engineering teleconferences lets your colleagues know that you are serious about design as a real influence on the company’s growth.
MB works at a US based division of a large Hong Kong based holdings company with a portfolio of mainstream recognizable consumer product brands. The internal design efforts at his company are only 4 years old but the team has grown 3 fold. He is an ID Program Leader that manages design in a category of products with a team of designers.
This article has been edited for readability, grammar and spelling.