Do you matter? That question—asked so often, by so many, in such varied contexts—is bluntly posed by industrial designer Robert Brunner and corporate consultant Stewart Emery in a new book of the same title published this month (FT Press).
The question, with the subtitle "How great design will make people love your company", amounts to more than designer navel-gazing. For the book's authors, it heralds a broader manifesto on the importance of design in creating products and services that not only sell well but also endear brands to consumers. Brunner and Emery aim to explain how companies such as Apple (AAPL), BMW (BMW), Ikea, and Target (TGT) use design to establish lasting (and lucrative) relationships with consumers.
Their theory is simple: Successful executives should treat design as more than a finishing discipline that simply improves products' aesthetics. Instead, design should influence every aspect of customers' experiences. For Brunner and Emery, design is an infrastructural element that helps define every aspect of a company, including Web site, stores, customer support, packaging, and messaging as well as products. "Design…can't be a veneer," they explain.
The King of Cool
On its face, the argument is not particularly new. What's more, the book's strongest example is also the most commonly cited, Apple. That company's leadership, they argue, has successfully imbued every department in its organization with a coherent design sensibility that carries through all of its efforts. This matters not only because Apple has become the king of cool but also because its emotional hold over customers means it can charge a healthy price premium over competitors.
The authors compare the once hot-selling Motorola (MOT) Razr phone to Apple's now ubiquitous iPod to underscore the fundamental impact of design-focused corporate strategies. Motorola executives could not build upon the concept of design as a wider strategy for growth. In the end, Motorola was unable to capitalize on the Razr's immense popularity, squandering a likely incalculable business opportunity. In contrast, the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player on the market, but its role as a gateway to a series of experiences and services, including the iTunes music, video, and movie store and a line of posh retail outlets drastically expanded Apple's business.
In returning again and again to Apple, the book tacitly admits that company CEO Steve Jobs is the movement's highest priest. Still, Brunner is well placed to tell the tale: He was the company's director of industrial design, establishing its pioneering internal design organization, Apple IDg, during the crucial intermezzo between Jobs' departure and his return to the company in the late-1990s. Passages like the one in which Brunner contrasts former CEO John Sculley—a design-savvy executive with a design-school pedigree—with Jobs, who puts an emphasis on overall experience as well as attractive form, are useful and compelling.
It's not all Apple, however. A number of less well known examples round out the argument. Harley-Davidson (HOG) is held up as the model of a company that strives to cultivate relationships with customers and which, more important, would be sorely missed if it disappeared. Its rider events are held up a kind of branding lifeblood: The company boasts revenues of more than $1 billion but spends little more than $2 million annually on traditional advertising. Jones Soda (JSDA), a small but hip soft drink brand with annual revenues of about $40 million, taps into the desires of customers by offering custom-printed labels and flavors, quirky as the results may sometimes be. Brunner and Emery take readers to the aisles of Whole Foods (WFMI) and Target, to BMW dealerships, and to OXO-equipped kitchen counters to show that other companies understand these principles, too.
Although some of the book treads familiar territory, it is saved by timing and utility. The global economic downturn promises to test executives' faith in the power of design. And in some of the book's most interesting passages, Brunner and Emery diagnose the ills of stumbling design-led stars like Starbucks (SBUX) and JetBlue (JBLU). (The former let growth impinge on the total experience, and the latter squandered customers' good will with a series of far-reaching logistics failures.)
More important, this book is insightful and emphatic without being polemical. Brunner and Emery are serious, confident, and seemingly comfortable talking to the executive class, something that is not always the case in similar books. Nor does either seem to have a chip on his shoulder about designers being less important than MBA types, making the resulting text a clear and useful read for the design neophytes of the business world. All told, asking the seemingly egotistical question "do you matter?" proves a compelling place to start a discussion about the role of design in any given business. Brunner and Emery aim to help executives lead the discussion onward from there.
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