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.

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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.
Macro design
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.
Be holistic
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.
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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.

5 Comments
  • Mario Vellandi

    September 9, 2008 at 2:06 am Reply

    MB, thanks so much for your story and perspective.
    At a few previous employers with production ops in China, we had a strong design department here in the U.S. that was very customer-focused. In the case of hypermarkets though, of course price points were the sticky issue. Luckily we had enough experience with private label & licensing programs and highly flexible sourcing/manufacturing, that our innovative designs and low costs won the appeal of many buyers. But, this approach combined with a diverse category portfolio, led to a brand name known only within the retail trade…never to the public. Our products were thus innovatively designed commodities. Upon later reflection, I appreciated our company’s employee culture, forward thinking, and deep customer attention. But in the end, nearly everything was cheap chic…and that wasn’t satisfying.
    Your comment on Chinese design & manufacturing getting better is definitely true. Designers and their product marketing contemporaries must be very mindful of a concept’s strategic fit with the brand. Like you said, the company’s name is still on the product. Even if in limited retail distribution, it still affects consumer brand perception. The unfortunate effect of big box high-volume sales lure is that established brand or not, while the portfolio mix may be healthy, an increasing low-end products’ percentage of total sales can erode brand equity.
    Anyway, thanks again for your important contribution!

  • Raj

    September 10, 2008 at 12:44 am Reply

    MB, Thats awesome info and citation. Being a middle weight designer(thanks to DT , i guess i fall in this cadre), i need to still go a very long way. Some information like this is really imporatant when i look into the growing stage of my career.
    thanks,
    Raj

  • MB

    September 10, 2008 at 2:11 am Reply

    Thanks so much for reading.
    This is my first stab at such a commentary. I have been observing these issues for awhile in my career and realized a lot of designers struggle with why their roles in product development in corporate design get stifled with the bottom line. I think its been a growing frustration of mine and DT gave me an outlet to voice it! I strive to run my life and job with the notion that its all larger than myself alone.
    Mario: I totally empathize with your “cheap chic” comment. My company’s brand is pretty much America’s brand. It deserves better you know? I wish the same type of brand equity for your company in the future.
    Raj: Thanks! I don’t really see myself as a teacher of sorts but just posting my own observations. I was hoping it will help! Good luck with your next step in your “life cycle”.

  • […] impact your brand in the long term. Check out a recent guest article on this strategy at “The Underbelly of Design: Brand Dilution from Sourced Products” for a more in-depth […]

  • Wizardofid

    November 29, 2010 at 3:34 pm Reply

    Lets face it. The (design) world is polarized. One the one end we have large scale manufacturers who have capitalized infrastructure and facilities for mass production and have much greater control over both development, production, and importantly, price. If you dont have similar facilities, you cannot compete with them on price. As a brand all that you might have better is distribution, and that is why opportunistically sourcing a pre-designed product, however suboptimal it might be, makes sense for both brand marketer and manufacturer.
    On the other end you have people who undertake serious effort (call it R&D if you like) to create a product from ground up, or challenge the status quo (call it ‘innovative’ if you like). This requires the capability to sink in lots of money, and time, and manpower. If it clicks the returns are 100s fold. But it is still risky. Learnings from both poles flow to the other, and each gets better at what it is doing.
    It is clear that if you are in the middle in this polarized situation, you are not going to be around for long. You either need to be doing something no one thought about before (and get known for great design and so on), or be the one that controls the cost chain, if you want to be making any money.

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