Good design: moat against competition for brands

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There was an interesting discussion on what ails the design industry in India over at Storyboard featuring some industry insiders. Herewith some unsolicited thoughts on the subject:

Good design is the best, often only, competitive edge

The days of genuine, tangible product-driven USP are long over. Parity is the norm across brands in most categories. Price can be competitive edge in the short term but can be imitated and hardly sustainable in the long run. In today’s world of e-commerce this is even more apparent – there are multiple brands in a category which promise pretty much the same service or benefit. Invariably, the brand we spend more time & money with is the one who scores better than competition in design.

And I don’t mean design as logo or how the brand’s interface looks. I use design in the context of enhancing customer experience and delighting the user at every touch point. The best example I can think of: Cleartrip. I have been using the brand for ticket bookings right from the time the brand came into being, both on the web and the mobile app. I don’t recollect any mass media campaigns from the brand yet I have remained loyal. Meanwhile, competing brands have invested millions in mass media advertising which I have seen but have not been swayed. I have caught glimpses of competing brands’ mobile apps and thought the designs (how they looked) were nice but have not been motivated to download & use them. Cleartrip has built a deep moat in my mind which competing brands will difficult to penetrate. My preference to Cleartrip is driven by likability for the brand which has been built on the strength of its design. I cannot put my finger on a single design feature of the brand which created this preference – it is a combination of various factors. You can call it simplicity, minimalism, ease of use, looks, user interface…whatever. To me it is their design approach which earned my loyalty.

Another brand which with a distinct design advantage: Uber. I love the mobile app’s design and have had a mostly positive user experience even at the product usage level – be it the state of vehicles, driver behaviour etc. Sure, there have been hiccups too – drivers asking for the destination (would love it if they don’t), cancelling trips after getting to know the destination, shabbily maintained car etc., but I am willing to forgive these occasional blips and choose the brand over others on most occasions.

Apple is also an oft-quoted brand when it comes to benefits of design advantage. I am a huge fan of Apple products and can write reams on my love for the brand (and usually do!) which is primarily led by the design of its products.

The client conundrum and way forward

As mentioned in the Storyboard discussion, it is a pity that many clients see ‘design’ as logo design. The evolved ones invest in creating a brand identity and drive it through various touchpoints. Even among them, a TV spot is more ‘valuable’ as it reaches out to millions in one go. Traditional ad agencies who offer brand identity as a service often don’t have the right talent to create such projects. More importantly they don’t have the talent to package and ‘sell’ such projects. I have seen ad agencies present many options of a packaging design, one after the other to a client without any explanation of the business thinking, consumer understanding or design rationale. Specialist design agencies do this better – they explain the thinking behind the recommendations and present a case. Some clients see this as an ‘extra expense’ (going to a specialist design house) and then try to keep it to a minimum. I have met brand managers who question the need to pay a retainer fee to an ad agency (who in his mind is supposed to ‘everything’ for that fee) AND go to a specialist agency for design. Such a mindset leads to bargaining on costs across all fronts leading to design compromises.

The dominant imagery of ‘design’ seems to be equated with logos, brand identity and how things look. However, design encompasses so many other aspects – product design, for example which don’t get highlighted much. Folks who attend conferences like Kyoorius DesignYatra always come back with positive feedback about great content, great presentations and enriching learning experiences. The design industry can perhaps do a bit more in showcasing the business success of their efforts for brands. Ad agencies on their part can educate the client on the need to go to specialist agencies for design and not see it as a potential revenue loss (I doubt that will happen, though).

The consistent message which needs to be hammered to brand owners is that good design builds loyalty and can stave off competition.

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  1. The biggest challenge is when the creative team of an advertising agency is asked to design packaging and the poor souls have no idea on what goes into creating it on a realistic manufacturing process. They are all excited about creating superb looking mock ups which can not be produced because of limitations which they are not aware.

    Logo design – a job given to your retainer paid ad agency because what else do they have on their “plate” anyway.

  2. Very helpful. I’m just starting out and it’s cool to know there are some people out there who dedicate time to giving such helpful tips.

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