time for creativity

Everyone’s talking about the emerging role of design in business. It’s suddenly become glaringly obvious (to most of us) that you can’t package the same old stuff in a “cheaper box” or a “different color” and expect the products to fly off the shelves. The “customer experience” has taken flight as a concept that is important to every single individual involved in developing business strategy. Companies like Apple are having “I told you so” moments every day as they get more and more blog links, articles and word-of-mouth kudos for the elegance and sophistication they put behind the design of their products and several other companies have found another dimension beyond just brand recognition and a good distribution and marketing model – but creating connections with people through products that are flat-out cool.

And it’s not that good engineering, good marketing, good distribution aren’t important anymore. It’s just that without the insights that go into creating a remarkable product, a “lovemark” as Kevin Roberts put it, you can get by in the short-term but you will achieve only minimal success. As I read all of this “new age business talk” about Purple Cow’s, “Lovemarks”, the “Attention Economy” and the “Age of Design” I’m blown away by how natural all of the concepts seem.

– Don’t create the marketing until you’ve created the product.
– You can’t just kill people with ads and expect them to “get it” and love, or even like your product… you have to make something they will love.
– Designing a new product does not begin and end in the Engineering department.
– Create something that your loyal customers want to tell everyone about.
– Putting 12 people in a cold room with flourescent lighting in a chair at a conference table where they know there are people on the other side of a piece of glass watching their every move is a terrible way to see how what you’ve created will impact their lives.

I could go on and on, but they all seem so logical. I read Jennifer Reingold’s Q+A with A.G. Lafley of P&G and hear about how he has created a revolution inside the company known for branding by doing one simple thing – requiring them to focus back on the products themselves and making them more remarkable through design and I ask myself… “How could the biggest brand company in the world not know that? Why is that such groundbreaking news?”

I laughed out loud on BART this morning when I read Reingold’s interview with Claudia Kotchka where Kotchka talks about what would have happened to “Altoids” if P&G were to buy that product. (Actually, first I laughed out loud at her description of Altoids – “the scent of peppermint oil wafts ouf the box… the nostalgic typeface… the satisfyingly crinkly liner paper… even the hand-made mints.” Clearly, I’m not in Altoids’ “early adopter” group because I never really felt they created a revolution in mints. Sure, they’re curiously strong… but I didn’t have an orgasmic reaction to the liner paper inside… but it’s about the 3rd time I’ve heard Altoids described as such… so I relent). She characterized their old design approach in this way, “We’re gonna cost save on this tin. We’re gonna get rid of this stupid paper – it’s serving no functional purpose” and then she picks up a cheap plastic box with boring beige mints inside of it that taste just as good but are much cheaper to make.

And I realize, that’s what happened. Somewhere along the line, we got so industrialized that the ultimate goal in business was to find the balance point where the product that you may have spent years creating becomes a commodity that is completely indistinguishable from the next guy’s, but is much cheaper to make, or sold in more stores.

I guess the idea here was that people didn’t really care much for “who made it” or “what it looks like” as long as it was waiting for them where they expected to see it, more visible to them than the other 20 variations of the same thing, and they could afford it.

So American cars (like Ford which some could argue were a “lovemark” before Kevin Roberts was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye) – a symbol of freedom and the ability to “go wherever you want to go today” became faster, cheaper and smaller… and things break all the time. So you can go wherever you want to go but you might not be able to enjoy the ride because the motor in the radio antenna stopped going up and down and your back-right speaker is cracked – and why? Because they found someone that could make that little motor for $1 cheaper per piece and increase their profit to the point that they could price someone else on that model of car or pay for some more advertising. But if you’re like me, you’ll never buy another American car again.

To the point that today, very few owners of American cars really “love” their car (truck owners, but that’s a completely different type of person – and those cars are actually “designed” for the customer). Plenty of people choose a particular American brand, maybe because their dad drove one, or because they could unload their old trade-in and get a better deal than they could on a Volkswagen… but not because American cars are superior… and now look at them. Over the years, American cars have fallen from grace. They either have absolutely no personality whatsoever – and are designed to be “rental cars” or they have poorly executed “features” that don’t work like they are supposed to and break down long before they should. And someone at Ford or GM would probably tell you that they made more money by doing so… that somehow this approach has been better for business.

But American car manufacturers did something right, you can’t call them a bad… but you can’t call them amazing either. They aim for th e middle and they own it… they might not have lots of recurring customers (except rental car companies) but they have lots of revenue… and in that world, design does not have to take a front seat. If you are trying to sell something once, you don’t have to have a remarkable product… you just need a remarkable sales pitch.

What would happen if American car companies stopped cutting corners in their designs? Hopefully some of their cars would just disappear forever. The remaining ones would be redesigned and cost more and their distribution system might feel it for a while… but when people bought one of their cars and had a great, lasting experience… they’d buy another one. Maybe not as soon as Ford or GM would like, but they would because they would feel that their investment had been rewarded. Road trips would be enhanced with air conditioning that still works. Automatic windows that roll down and up. Door panels on their cars that don’t rattle when you go over bumps. They’d be like BMWs, VWs and Toyotas, Macintosh computers and I guess even Altoids and people wouldn’t mind spending more money. Short term profits might shrink and they might have to slim their operations down a bit… but we’d create healthier companies, better products, and a happier society.

I guess in the end, that’s the point of my rant on design. The implications of the design age are much larger than just the impact they’ll have on business. In fact, I suspect that it won’t change as much as all of us Fast Company, Purple Cow, Lovemark lovers would like. I don’t think we’re going to witness the downfall of the production line, or the “cheaper alternative to the same thing” but the markets are shifting and the big company with average products will have to share the market with the little guy with remarkable products.

Ultimately, I think it’s our analysis of them that will change with our new society. People want more. Not more products, more satisfaction with the products they have. They want to believe in what they spend their money on… that they are respected and appreciated for spending it and that it fits their individual need and “design” or rather “creative thinking” should be a part of the development of that product from day one.

I know I’m talking in circles… so I’ll go back and revise this entry later so that it’s a little more coherent. Right now I’m just enjoying having a place to blab.

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