Foundation of a Feeling

As the differences get smaller, the purely functional reasons for premium goods fade away, and instead they are purchased for the reason we’ve always purchased luxury goods: because of how they make us feel, not because of what they actually do. The fur coat is not warmer than the down jacket, it’s merely harder to acquire.

That’s a snippet from a recent post by Seth Godin.

There’s a lot of truth to this. And it’s for this reason—people purchasing based on feelings rather than for function alone—that brand identity and marketing are such important factors in business. How a brand resonates with its would-be customers is just as important as the goods and services it offers.

Recollecting my two most recent posts about SAAB automobiles, I stated that despite its failures, I still have a great appreciation for SAAB cars. That’s because to me SAAB successfully created a positive impression. In its early years, SAAB also maintained an air of intrigue; a feeling of, “Yeah, other car manufacturers do it this way; we’re going to do it differently.” A lot of head-scratching mechanics can attest to that. Better or not, it was different; and that brings a lot of appeal.

Feelings have to have a foundation. Some foundations are built on how things look; some on how things work; some on how you’re able to live now that you have the item—or a combination of all of these things. People have different criteria that they use to sift through what they buy and don’t buy. You can accomplish about the same with a Windows OS as you can with an Apple OS. You just go about it in a different way. But the difference in experience creates a feeling that customers swear by.

Like Seth said; sure the down parka and the fur coat both keep the wearer warm just the same. But the fur coat offers a solution that the down parka can’t: the richer image associated with scarcity. To some this is unimportant; but to the one wearing the fur coat, it solved a particular problem.

So ultimately it’s the perceived worth of a thing—what it offers in addition to itself—that forms that feeling, bolsters it and drives purchasing decisions. That’s why brands aren’t just selling a product. As Seth accurately states, it’s not just what the thing does. Coffee to some is just burnt water with an energy boost. But take that black liquid and put it in a white mug on a table surrounded by friends and family with a crackling fire in the background—now you’ve got a feeling that connects people to the coffee more than the coffee could ever draw buyers to itself. While a company sells a product or a service, a brand is in the business of selling a feeling, an experience and a lifestyle.

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Designing Under the Radar

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Graphic designer David Airey recently wrote a bit for the BBC about why Helvetica has stood the test of time and become a staple for designers all around the world.  His words, especially those he paraphrased from German industrial designer Dieter Rams, really inspired me to write on the subject as I’d been thinking about the same things as of late.

According to David, Dieter has stated that good design is unobtrusive and long lasting.

Interesting words aren’t they?  It’s a bit strange to think that being a good designer means your designs should not attract attention.  But I agree.  Obviously he doesn’t mean going completely unnoticed.  He’s saying that good design doesn’t have to vaunt itself.  It doesn’t force itself on anyone.  Those who appreciate good design appreciate unobtrusive design; those who are otherwise minded don’t take notice.

Design that’s more discreet usually stands the test of time and therefore proves its own worth despite seeming to slip under the radar.  It outlasts design that, for lack of a better expression, strays too far to the left or to the right.  Such design might be wildly popular due to sheer novelty.  But novelty intrinsically wears off and loses attention; and when it does lose its steam, it tends to go completely by the wayside.  It’s sort of like the goofy articles of clothing we wore in the past; we get out the photo album and can only laugh, saying, “I can’t believe I used to wear that!

Inconspicuous design may not take the world by storm; but when the glitzy alternatives have withered away, it abides.  This ultimately makes subtle design more useful because one of the chief fundamentals of utility is long service life—which equates to a good return on your money.  It’s like that stone dishware you use every day.  There’s really nothing special about it, you don’t make it a point to admire it every five seconds, but it serves its purpose well and you’ve had it for twenty years.  Therefore, it’s valuable.

It seems like people can only handle the loud, “look at me” things for so long.  This is seen in genres of music and styles within the fashion industry for example.  Such fads seem only to last a decade at most, only to be recycled and repackaged later on.

As designers, we should be focusing on making things memorable rather than showy.  Shock value is of little value.  But the design that is simple, clean and instantly recognizable—despite however “bland” critics may paint it to be—is what we should aim for.  Sort of like the Samsung logo.

Samsung_Logo

Nothing very special; the only real accent is the cross piece missing from the A.  But it’s instantly recognizable and serves its purpose.  That’s why companies oftentimes opt for simple wordmarks.

Avoid the superfluous.  Trim the fat.  Focus on function.  There’s a recipe for longevity; and that’s advice you can apply in almost any field.

Strategy AND Identity – You Need Both

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I do a lot of talking about brand identity, but seldom do I discuss brand strategy so I’m eager to delve into that topic today.

To be frank, a graphic element that serves to identify a brand is essentially worthless if the brand has no value in itself.  A brand identity’s job is to point to the brand.  But using a well-crafted design to point to a business which has no real goals for success is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound; it’s just not enough.

Identity and strategy go hand-in-hand in that both require a great deal of creativity—creativity that leads to the common goal of standing out from the crowd.  Just as hours and hours of labor are poured into the creation of a business’s visual identity, the brand itself must be developed in such a way that the good design is associated with good business.

I very much enjoy inventing.  While designing, I’m often thinking of ways a new invention could make this or that task easier.

One of the most important things to consider after coming up with an idea is, “Has this been thought of before?”

Chances are it has, but the next question is, “Has this been implemented before?”  Sometimes I’ll find someone has discussed the idea of the invention somewhere on the internet, but has not seen the invention process through and marketed it as a product.

Then there’s the third question: “If it has been implemented before, how can I make it different and how can I make it better?”

Literally every facet of business should be thought of this way.

Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves constantly if what they’re doing has been done, and what can they be doing better than their competitors.  Differentiation is the number one advantage any business has over its competitors.

Branding specialist David Brier wrote about this very thing in a recent post:

Every brand, before it does anything else, must ask, “Why should anyone care about my brand?”

Seriously.

Your competition is just as convinced of their greatness as you are of yours. Really, they are. Even the inferior ones.

Then he asked the most relevant question possible:

It becomes a question of “How do we convey our differentiation instantaneously?” and drive a wedge between any apparent (or assumed) sameness in the marketplace.

That is very simple, but near-infinitely thought-provoking.  How many entrepreneurs would either abandon a business direction that’s doomed to fail, or find a way to cause their startup to thrive if they’d sat down and pondered those brief principles awhile?

In my review of the Nivea rebrand of 2013, I noted how Nivea made a smart move in its new identity’s direction because it differentiated from the competition in both its logo and product design.  Nivea dropped the shiny, metallic appearance that nearly all the competition employs in its design.  While I can’t speak for the brand as a whole, I can tell that Nivea’s rebranding decision was definitely a step in the right direction toward standing.

In closing, the main goal of this post is to inspire any who have their own brand to take some time to consider 1) if your brand is different from the rest, and 2) what can be done to ensure that it is.

This is a challenging prospect, one I struggle with as well, as it’s basically a call for certain minds to “out-think” the rest.  But thankfully, so far thinking is free and non-taxable, so it’s well-worth the investment of time.

Why Can’t All Products Be Like Barbasol?

Barbasol1My dad and I were having a conversation about business the other day.  We were discussing how companies of late are often putting more money into marketing sub-par products, than producing genuinely good ones.

I used to think the baby-boomer expression, “They don’t make things like they used to” was just a misguided product of good memories—after all, everything that comes out of your generation is the best, right?  But there is definitely something to be said for build quality in the manufacturing of yesteryear.

Even up until the mid 1990s, build quality in select vehicle manufacturers was at its absolute best—before stiff competition among other factors forced the majority of auto makers to cheapen vehicles in order to turn a profit.  One such example of a best-in-class vehicle was the Mercedes-Benz E-Class with the W124 chassis.  Rock-solid, safe and reliable; some automotive enthusiasts have dared to call it the “Best Mercedes-Benz Ever” and even, “The Best Car of the Past Thirty Years”.  I’m sure that’s a hotly debatable topic, but from the research I’ve done on the vehicle, and considering that ultimately what defines a good car is stellar performance in every testable category, I don’t think those claims are entirely misguided.

At one point in the conversation, my dad said, “I always say, ‘I wish they could make all products like Barbasol.’”  In case you’re unaware, Barbasol is a shaving cream that’s been around since the dinosaurs—well, almost: 1919.  Since then they’ve gained a reputation for having a quality product.  One thing my father noted about Barbasol is that it’s, in my words, the Maxwell House of the shaving world: good to the last drop.  The can doesn’t clog up and cheat you out of 25% of the remaining cream.  It goes until it just can’t go anymore.  An average-sized can lasts about four months when used every day, according to my dad.

Now, while I do use a Remington hair trimmer, I’m not the shaving type so I doubt I’ll be purchasing Barbasol anytime soon.  But the point is: Barbasol coasts on its quality, not its gargantuan marketing campaign.

Marketing works.  That’s why people do it.  The more people you can reach and the more corporate seeds you can plant in people’s minds in a short period of time, the more likely you are to make a sale.  The higher quality the marketing, the higher return on your investment—just like brand identity.  But marketing products that fail easily, or even are engineered to fail, is just bunk and purely disreputable.  Market your product: fine.  But don’t market a piece of junk that’s predestined for the garbage can.

This all leads me to something many brand identity designers may not consider.  With your designs that are intended to bring in profits to the company you’re designing for: have you considered whether you’re representing a reputable company?

I know it’s difficult to tell in many instances, and there are always mixed reviews on products.  (Just browse through Amazon’s user reviews of a Black and Decker toaster once and you’ll probably see everything from, “It burned my house to the ground” to, “I loved it so much I bought three as Christmas gifts for the grandkids!”)  And I’m not advocating buying the product you’re branding every time you start a project (although, that wouldn’t be a bad idea).  I’m merely pointing out that as designers, our goal is to represent these companies in a positive way, and point as many people as possible to them.  If we wouldn’t stand behind a bad product as consumers, it doesn’t make sense to painstakingly brand and inevitably promote a bad product!  A good graphic designer makes it clear to the company s/he is working with that s/he is there to help promote and bring recognition to the company.  But the good design becomes cheapened when it’s attached to a company that can’t match it in quality.

Let’s allow the bad products and services to fossilize and promote the truly good, useful ones.  Because let’s be honest: the products that are built to last, and the services that are genuinely helpful, are the ones that deserve to keep going.