Product design and marketing - the odd couple?

16th October 2019

Product design and marketing - the odd couple?

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 the long term issues that form the basis of a thorough approach to marketing. 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”


Kotler’s approach to marketing suggests that to limit design involvement to logos and colour is, at best, missing an opportunity, and at worst, wasting the investment. So, what should the designer’s role be in the marketing process?

It is over 50 years since Theodore Levitt, one of the other gurus of modern marketing, proposed that the

“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 all round role of coordination and integration that the architect plays in 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 such issues has been well illustrated in recent years by companies like Dyson and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).

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 bold engineering innovation and the lack of conformity. Similarly, JLR have developed an incredibly strong brand – based on engineering and design quality – from the shaky foundations of the original Land Rover and Jaguar marques. The turnaround has been remarkable, and shows what can be done with any manufacturing business when high quality products are developed.

Dyson and JLR are also pretty good at utilising one of the most significant roles for the product designer in marketing – product differentiation. To quote Levitt:

“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.”


The role of the product designer in the creation of distinction may be nothing more than surface appearance, but the real benefits come from innovation and the addition of value. Once again, this comes back to the creative inputs that designers can make, 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.

Exploring market opportunities and anticipating trends; brainstorming ideas and acting as facilitators to marketing and technical staff; developing brand expression throughout your company; and helping you make your product really stand out from the competition. Is this how you are using your product design consultants? If not, you may be missing a very important trick.

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Crucible Design Ltd, Boston House, Grove Business Park, Downsview Road, Wantage, Oxfordshire. OX12 9FF