How brand and product are intertwined
Product design and branding are ideally so closely intertwined and supportive of each other, that the brand helps to shape the design, and the product helps to shape the brand. At Whipsaw, brand identity, in addition to user experience and function, is what we call a “primary informant”. In other words, brand values should highly influence and sometimes even completely inform a product’s design direction. Even before considering look, feel or user experience, what the product does or why it even exists should be influenced by the brand of the company making the product. We think products should be indivisible from the brand, where brand perception and product design are so integrated that you can’t really separate them. Sometimes the balance is skewed, like when the product is the absolute star of the brand. In other cases, the brand is what matters most. This is especially true with luxury brands where the brand alone is the message, the meaning, and the material, all rolled into one.
How will you craft the design so it speaks to both its purpose and its brand nature?
Early in any design project, it’s important to think about which factors are most likely to drive demand. Is it brand, product function, features, ecological, cost, beauty, or all of the above? What should take precedence and how should you adjust your solution to fit that priority? How will you craft the design so it speaks to both its purpose and its brand nature? We think about these questions all the time. Given the diversity of product categories that we design for at Whipsaw, the priority setting between brand and product varies greatly.
For example, when designing for startups like Tonal, there was an opportunity to conceive and express almost every brand ingredient within the product itself, especially since there was no brand to begin with. You start by solving the problem well, and ideally, the design solution is what defines the brand. In the process of solving Tonal’s problem, we instinctively created an exercise machine that looked athletic, purpose-built, and simple. Every detail exhibited a commitment to quality. These design principles appealed directly to the target users who aspired to strength, quality of the workout, and confidence. The design fits user expectations so well that the design values of the product ended up driving almost every downstream brand decision.
Our Uber Beacon project took the opposite approach. Uber had just completed a brand makeover and our solution needed to snap to that new identity. As a result, the physical product design looked a lot like the website, app, and other marcom materials. It worked, but this heavy brand-down approach is risky because if you’re not careful it can compromise the product design. As a designer, the natural tendency is to design the best product possible regardless of the brand. This doesn’t always serve the client well. In the case of Uber, the brand is built on service, not physical products, so our design was intended to primarily reinforce the brand.
In most cases, our goal as designers is to thoughtfully blend products and brands. The Brita Stream line of water pitchers we designed is a good example of this. Brita had been making pitchers for over 50 years, so there was an abundance of brand equity to respect and leverage. To invigorate the brand they needed a novel new way to filter water, which ultimately became the “Stream” line of pitchers. Stream pitchers filter the water as you pour, unlike their previous filter system where you must wait to pour. Our design needed to emphasize that key differentiator but at the same time it needed to fit their established brand.
Realizing that the filter placement under the spout was very different from what consumers expected, we made it more acceptable and more adherent to Brita’s brand by making sure the pitcher design wasn’t too radical. This more accessible design approach worked to de-risk the new filter system. The product design, therefore, supported the brand while at the same time nudging it forward. That’s what we mean by a balancing act. Interestingly, the more radical designs we designers personally loved ended up on the cutting room floor because they didn’t quite jive with brand expectations. We sometimes wonder what a significant departure could have done to this market. Nevertheless, Stream became a major commercial success for Brita.
Our work for Google is another good example of a brand-product balancing act. When we started working with them a decade ago they had a strong brand and culture, but no hardware. Their brand was fun, quirky, and irreverent …and they were proud of it. The Google team admired Apple’s design but didn’t want their own products to be quite that “formal”.
“We were most captivated by how casual and goofy the Google brand was, so to match that relaxed mentality in our designs we…”
After many conceptual iterations and meetings with Google executives, we landed on a strategy that would allow them to express their unique brand values while also being simple and unbound to a strict design language. We were most captivated by how casual and even goofy the Google brand was, especially for a big company. To match that relaxed mentality in our designs we incorporated natural materials like wood and fabric and used laid-back home-friendly forms in many of their products including Chromecast, OnHub, Home, Nest cameras, and WiFi. The product-brand blend was seamless, so much so that consumers soon started saying “Hasn’t Google always had hardware?”. To us that was the ultimate understated compliment.
Whether documented or not, every brand has an “interest trajectory” that tracks how its consumers feel about their brand and products. That trajectory is always fragile, especially considering how fickle consumers are, how influential social media is, and how fast technology advances. Most companies aim to raise and stretch their brand interest trajectory with advertising and marketing but that story boost lasts only so long.
To dramatically enhance a trajectory with a sustained impact you need to improve the core product offering, and that’s what design innovation is all about. Design is a tangible, quantifiable contributor that makes immediate declarations about a brand. When you see the product, you should get what the company stands for, and when you use it you should be hooked.
Strategic design allows companies to contour a brand interest trajectory exactly as desired. For example, when a brand is plateaued or declining due to an aging product, design can lift the trajectory by offering something totally unexpected and exciting. When an interest trajectory is oscillating up and down from consumer confusion about a brand, new designs can level it out by reaffirming brand values. Our client work for companies like Dell, Tile, and TP-Link often falls into these two categories.
Sometimes market or technology circumstances are so antagonistic to a brand that the company must pivot hard to survive. Those companies that apply sound design thinking during a pivot are the ones that endure. Consider how HP swiftly transitioned their brand after a troublesome period around 2011 by redesigning their products and dividing the company into HP (computers) and HPE (business services) which gave them new focus; or how Microsoft used outstanding industrial design to pump up their software brand and to broaden their appeal in general.
When a company strays from its brand promise by unintentionally using cryptic or disingenuous messaging, the healthy link between brand and product disintegrates because the product has no support. American car companies infamously struggled with this condition in the past. They promised big with grand advertising and brand claims but fell short on product performance, safety, and customer satisfaction. It took decades for them to turn that around, and they finally did by embracing progressive design and engineering practices. Other brands like Palm or Kodak sputter and ultimately fizzle out due to the sudden arrival of superior technology. The only way to stave off this kind of dangerous brand backsliding is to always question your position, future-cast frequently, and create proactively.
When brands and products become so linked that they are perceived as one and the same, there is clarity in the mind of the customer. Clarity about product purpose, clarity about the purchase proposition, and clarity about what the brand stands for. Only then is there a much higher potential to reach more customers because you’re making a holistic and clear statement about what you as a company believe in. If that inseparably blended outcome of product and brand is consistently genuine and demonstrated through great design and messaging, you win customers for life.