Product design and marketing - the odd couple?

16th October 2019

Product design and marketing - the odd couple?

The relationship between product design and marketing should be extremely close, as it always has a profound impact on commercial success. Strangely, this is not always the case.

The marketing component of a product design brief will often only consist of a few corporate identity issues, colour choices and, if you’re lucky, an examination of the competition. These considerations are often short term, and are more to do with immediate sales objectives than an understanding of the market. However, it is all too common. To quote Philip Kotler, one of the founders of modern marketing practice:

“We’ve been talking about marketing for years, but very few companies really do it. A lot of Chief Executives are confused about the difference between marketing and sales. They don’t seem to realise that most of the impact of marketing is felt before the product is produced, not after”

A more positive definition of the marketing process, and it's relationship with design was proposed over 50 years ago by Theodore Levitt, one of the other gurus of modern marketing. He suggested that:

“Imaginative satisfaction of customer needs and wants, whether active or latent, should take over as the company’s driving force from the traditional approach of trying to sell whatever the company happens to produce”.

Two of the important keywords here are ‘imaginative’ and ‘latent’. Whilst conventional market research only identifies preferences between what already exists, imaginative marketing anticipates trends and identifies opportunities.

This is one of the areas in which product designers have a role to play in marketing – to ask the ‘what if’ and ‘why not’ questions that can identify or create new products. This role can be as simple as an afternoon spent brainstorming ideas or as complex as a detailed research project, but it is rarely time or money wasted. The crucial point is that these inputs need to be made before the design brief is written, not after.

Product designers have some unique qualifications for the role – they are usually from outside the company, so can take a fresh look at the market; they will have worked on wide variety of products, involving ideas which may be relevant your products; and they have a useful combination of creative and practical skills which can help find new solutions and opportunities. Above all, they can facilitate communication between marketing and technical staff, solving one of the primary problems in any product development team. This is a far cry from the stereotype of ‘designer as stylist’ and much closer to the coordination and integration that architects offer to the building process.

Another major role that product designers play in marketing is the creation of genuine differentiation between your products and the competition. This goes beyond colours and logos (though they are a vital part of the work) and extends into the brand itself – the values and qualities that your company projects into the marketplace. The role that design can play  in brand building has been well illustrated in recent years by companies like Dyson and Joseph Joseph.

Dyson has built up a wide portfolio of products since its original upright vacuum cleaner was introduced, and almost all of them carry the signature features of bold shapes and even bolder colours. These features have underlined the brand, emphasising the level of engineering innovation and the lack of conformity. Similarly, Joseph Joseph have built an incredibly strong brand - with a wide range of kitchen tools and gadgets - that all adhere to the same design principles and quality. These features enable their products to stand out, building brand loyalty and shutting out competitors. To quote Levitt again:

“The search for meaningful distinction is a central part of the marketing effort. Yet, in a crowded and increasingly global marketplace, the achievement of meaningful distinction requires a company to make all sorts of new connections.”

Some of the most important new connections come from innovation and the addition of value, and this is where product designers really come into their own, looking for new functions that can be added to a product to make it more attractive to the purchaser. To many designers, this is one of the most enjoyable parts of their job – adding value without increasing costs or finding new ways of doing things that save money and improve appearance at the same time.

So, are you using designers to explore market opportunities and anticipate trends; brainstorm ideas and act as facilitators to marketing and technical staff; develop brand expression throughout your company; and help you make your product really stand out from the competition? 

If not, you may be missing a very important trick.

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Crucible Design Ltd, 16 East Lockinge, Wantage, Oxfordshire. OX12 8QG