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How Design Gives You An Unfair Advantage Over Your Competition

Design is the single most important factor in determining your brand’s success in the modern marketplace. Look around, design has never been so prevalent – or so appreciated. It informs and influences every aspect of our culture from how we dress and what we eat to where we shop and why we buy. Modern consumers are more discerning, critical and design-centric than ever before. Brands must be as well – or face irrelevance. 

As a consumer, you are constantly engaged with design. Every time you open a dinner menu, walk into a store, log onto a web site or purchase a product somebody has designed the experience you are about to have. Whether or not they’ve done it well can have profound affects. Design determines outcomes. It improves, beautifies and uplifts by adding excellence to the equation. Great design enriches everyday experiences by going beyond the common denominator of mere functionality to make things look better, feel better and work better.

Designing “Better”

“Better” is generally what consumers are looking for, but “better” in itself isn’t a marketing strategy. Brands must demonstrate why they’re “better” – how they make life for consumers easier, safer, healthier, more fun or whatever their unique selling proposition might be. Leveraging the power of design across all aspects of your brand establishes and sustains your competitive advantage.

Clamoring for consumer attention is an overwhelming array of options. Amidst this clutter design offers differentiation. Does your brand connect with consumers on an emotional level? Do your products excite them? Does your service help them? Does your brand provide a positive experience that offers real value in their lives? Design determines those answers.

Getting it right means making design part of your brand’s DNA. It takes understanding – realizing design is the animating principle of your brand experience and not just superfluous decoration. It takes commitment, from the top down, throughout the organization. It takes time. You can’t expect results overnight. It takes money. Don’t be cheap. Cheap design is like a tattoo… once you get it you’re forever branded with it. View design as a capital investment, not an expense.

Build these beliefs into your organization – commit to being design-driven – and you’ll give yourself an unfair advantage over your competition. So, where do you start?

Branding 101

Begin by understanding that you don’t operate a business, you manage a brand. It’s a critical distinction. Why? Because businesses sell products and services but consumers buy brands – and they’ll pay a premium for a better brand experience.

Let’s clarify something. Your brand is not your logo. Your brand is an idea and a feeling about your company, products and services that lives in the hearts and minds of consumers. That’s why, and this is the rub, your brand doesn’t belong to you. Your brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what they say it is – and you’d better be listening, because they’re vocal.

Consumers decide for themselves what your brand means, how they feel about it, and if, when and where it fits into their lives. Ultimately, your products and services don’t matter unless consumers decide your brand matters. You can’t control how they feel, but you can influence them.

Design is influence. It’s how you form that idea in a consumer’s mind of what your brand is all about. You’re irrelevant until you can establish how your brand adds value that makes their life better. Great design demonstrates your brand’s relevance by creating value across every consumer touchpoint

How does your marketing engage with consumers? Does your advertising interrupt what they’re interested in or become part of their interests? What is their experience within your retail space? What is their experience within your social media space? How do they experience your brand within their personal spaces? Is your web site convenient or cumbersome? How do your products look? Do they work well? How easy is it for your customers to get support if they don’t? Across all these touchpoints, and more, the most important question is… do consumers feel better after experiencing your brand?

Realistically, the answer can’t always be yes. But, design allows you to shape those experiences and have some control over the outcome. Done right, it arouses desire, engenders loyalty and forms indelible emotional bonds. That’s the Holy Grail. Because once consumers are emotionally invested in your brand – once they’re convinced that they can’t live without it – you win.

But, the game’s not over. Brands must constantly adapt because consumers constantly evolve. Staying focused on the customer experience and designing outward from there to continually make their lives better is the only way a brand can remain relevant.

By the way, you have to make it look and feel effortless. Great design is, after all, simple. That’s why it’s so hard. There is no doubt that great results and great design are inextricably linked. Two high-profile brands illustrate what happens when you get it right or how everything can go horribly wrong when you don’t.

“Think Different”

Apple is more design savvy than perhaps any brand has ever been. Design is their starting point and always built in, never added on. Seamlessly integrating functionality and usability with elegant minimalism is their iconic style. At its core (sorry), Apple is a very “human” technology company. No detail is overlooked in their commitment to design the best possible user experience. Their products are portals to that experience.

Apple’s design-driven experience connects with consumers in seemingly spiritual ways. The faithful proselytize the brand with religious zeal. Devotees wait in line for days to be the first to get their hands on the latest iGizmo. Disciples wax dogmatically over Steve Jobs’ messianic MacWorld sermons, err… keynotes. Apple understands the pivotal role these brand evangelists play in perpetuating the experience and nurtures their devotion to strategic advantage.

When Apple initially prohibited third-party programs from running on the iPhone, hackers refused to be hamstrung. Rather than fight a losing battle the company opted to offer user-created applications for free and for purchase through their innovative online App Store. Forced acquiescence revolutionized the experience. Suddenly, consumers were no longer simply participating they now had a deeply emotional stake in actively designing the experience – and not just for themselves, but for others as well. The portal got a lot wider.

Apple launched the App Store in June of 2008. As of July 2009, 65,000 different programs were available and 1.5 billion (yes, billion) had been downloaded. Apple allows 70% of revenues from the store to go to the seller of the app, and maintains 30% for itself. Investment firm Piper Jaffray has predicted that the App Store could generate revenue exceeding $1 billion annually for the company.

Nourishing design as a strategic asset to consistently deliver better technology experiences has cemented Apple’s value in the minds of consumers. No brand is perfect though and Apple has had some missteps. Remember the Newton? Still, resoundingly, Apple gets it.

“The Heartbeat Of America”

Conversely, General Motors didn’t get it. From the design of their products to the design of the factories, policies and protocols they had in place to produce those products and get them to market GM cut corners and skidded into the most colossal corporate failure in U.S history.

Times were different once. Throughout most of the last century GM was a company focused on designing a better motoring experience. GM designed the first closed-body car. GM models were the first to replace ragtops with hard tops. They were the first to incorporate memory seat functions, wraparound windshields, shatterproof glass, fully automatic heating and air conditioning and much more.

Cadillac’s lineup once touted “designer-styled” bodywork (as opposed to auto-engineered). If chrome were a natural resource, GM would have exhausted it in the 50’s and 60’s. GM designs introduced words like “sweepspear”, “tailfin”, and “big-block engine” to the cultural lexicon. For decades General Motors more than anyone defined the American automotive mystique.

The post-war era brought unprecedented growth and global dominance to both the U.S. and GM. America’s love affair with the automobile shifted into high gear as the flourishing middle class coveted and consumed new cars. By 1954 there were 47 million passenger cars in the United States. In 1956 President Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act began to interlace the country with winding miles of smooth new asphalt on which to drive them. Times were good.

Somewhere along the way GM shifted it’s focus from drivers and the driving experience to simply manufacturing cars as cost-effectively as possible. To save money design took a backseat – and it showed in both quality and aesthetics. Eventually, federal fuel economy regulations enacted in 1975 opened the market for more efficient foreign brands. These smaller, sleeker economical cars connected with consumers in ways staid GM models no longer could.

By 1980 much of GM’s showroom luster had faded. Ensuing decades saw some innovation, reinvention and success – including the Keep America Rolling campaign, which is credited with jumpstarting the U.S. economy after the September 11 attacks. But the company never fully regained traction and their halcyon years were in the rearview mirror. General Motors would remain the best selling automaker in the world until 2007 but they were speeding headlong into a brick wall.

On July 10, 2009, a completely restructured and renamed General Motors Company emerged from Chapter 11. Rough road lies ahead, but I for one am rooting for them. Perhaps, I’m really rooting for design. Only a renewed commitment to a design-driven philosophy will put GM back on the road to success. Focusing on design to provide the best possible automotive experience once made General Motors the greatest auto manufacturer in the world. It can again.

Design Or Die

That’s what it boils down to in the new economy. Success hinges on building strong emotional bonds with consumers by adding authentic value to their lives. Design is the catalyst. You must ask “what is the experience we’re providing and how can we own it,” then harness design to define that experience in your brand image.

Whatever the size of your business, whatever products or services you provide and to whom, great design turns good companies into successful brands. Design is the single most important factor in determining your brand’s success in the new economy. Embrace that or you’re roadkill.

About the Author

Ken Peters is the owner and Creative Director of nationally acclaimed Nocturnal Graphic Design Studio LLC, a Phoenix-based strategic design firm specializing in brand development and brand launch.

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