The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Making Your Customers Sick – With Envy, Illness, Imitation, Fashion And Fear.
January 22, 2007, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Comment

I love the fact that people today are all going on about how important design is and then, in the majority of cases, they fall back into the tried and tested – citing some out-of-context research that backs up why they should stick with what they’ve been doing for decades.

I remember when Tango launched in black cans and the industry laughed at them because ‘BLACK’ was a colour synonymous with ‘being bad and rotten’ and as such, would not appeal to people looking for a tasty, refreshing drink.  The fact that Tango was all about ‘being bad’ was obviously lost on them because it went on to be a phenomenal success – helping differentiate the brand within the category whilst also embedding the brand personality into the minds of drinkers.

The thing is, we are living in a World of greater and greater parity.

The level of differentiation between products is becoming more and more negligible and whilst I will always advocate innovation – quite often it leads to either [1] expensive mistakes and/or [2] innovations that have no consumer benefit whatsoever.

Now I’ve been having a debate over at Gareth’s site about the importance of ‘consumer benefit innovation’ because there is a growing school of thought that the consumers simply don’t know what they want so you should ignore them and just do what you think is right. The example always spouted is Henry T. Ford’s quote of … “If I asked the consumer what they wanted, they would have told me to build a faster horse”.

Now whilst this is all well and good, this attitude bugs me, because all Henry Ford would have had to do was ask WHY people wanted a faster horse and then he’d of been able to see that people WERE open to a form of transportation that would get them to their destination point faster than conventional means.

It’s all about interpretation … then testing/questioning that interpretation … because only then will you ever get to a point where you feel you really understand [which you can later validate] what people think/want/mean and that will allow you to move forward in ways that may have otherwise been closed off to you. 

The reason for this is humans lie. 

OK … some lie with personal gain and/or malicious intent … however what I mean is that our brain continually tells us things that simply aren’t true. It’s an organ of ego – colouring our thoughts/memories/actions so that we always present ourselves [to others as well as to ourselves] in the best possible light. 

There is a great book on this area called ‘Mind Of It’s Own’ [by Cordelia Fine] which basically explains why anyone who takes people’s comments on face value is severely misguided.  The problem is, the interpretation phase of research is often minimised [if done at all] because …

1 Clients hear what they want to hear – and if it’s a favourable comment, they’re not going to really delve deeper to see if this is what was actually meant. 

2 Interpretation – if not done thoroughly – can be ‘moulded’ to justify pretty much anything – so in the wrong hands, it’s validity can be brought into question.

3 Many companies are so petrified of ‘missing the window of opportunity’ that they do not allow depth of research to be carried out. As long as they have findings that are positive, they go ahead because [i] they are under incredible pressure to deliver what is expected of them on time and on budget … and [ii] if things do go wrong, they still can show their superiors some research that validates their decision]

Don’t believe me?  Well how come we’re in a situation where more business is failing than at any other point in history even though we have more access to research, comms channels, products, consumer desire and cash than at any other point in our history. 

Please don’t read this as me being anti-research – I am wholeheartedly behind it – it’s more that I’m against anti-superficial research … where everything is taken on face value and no one picks-up/questions/listens to the subliminal ‘cues’ [be it words, behaviour, social background, possessions etc etc etc] that are being expressing which could lead to really fresh and interesting insight. [which of course then have to be explored and evaluated/validated]

Anyway … getting back to the point of design.

Well, as I said – I feel we are living in a parity World – and whilst companies talk about wanting differentiation, they do almost all they can to ensure they’re just like everyone else – which is why I believe design provides a link between convention and differentiation.





Sure, you can argue they all offer product component differentiation, but in the scheme of things, it’s not as radical as you may think/believe.  All of them have utilised design to express the brand ‘essence’ …

iPOD – Purity Of Music

Wii – Purity Of Gaming

Perrier – Natural

Tango – A Bit Naughty

Of course these are great examples – and there’s plenty of others – however one of the core reasons these work is that the design is inherent to the brand, they’ve not done it just for the sake of standing out – which is a illness many brands suffer.


Personally, I’d never want a BREITLING watch, but when you see the case you get when you buy one, you know this is a watch with real purpose, credentials and uniqueness. It’s not a pretend watch – it’s the real deal – which cements the BREITLING brand personality/credentials deep into the minds of the consumer.  A brilliant piece of design that also acknowledges the ‘box’ is as important as the product it contains.


Now here is an example of not-so-thought-out design … where the idea is to obviously be talked about, regardless of whether it is positive or negative comment.

This is a new bookshop in Singapore with ‘wonky shelves’. 

Now whilst it is all aesthetically interesting, when you enter that section [Creative Arts] everything is at such contrasting angles, your brain feels confused and you actually feel sea-sick – which is hardly conducive to you reading, let alone buying a book.  Hmmmmn, I wonder how long it will take till they realise no one is buying books from that department?

Ahhhhhh, LG Mobile … one of the most ‘interesting’ [read: horrible] clients I’ve ever had the displeasure to work with.

Anyway, following on from Apple’s iPHONE, they’ve come up with a similar looking device in a partnership with PRADA. 

Now 10 points to them for being so quick in recognising and developing an iPHONE lookalike, however amongst a plethora of issues, two that specifically stand out are …

1 LG and PRADA are about as good a fit as Asda and LV [apparently the phone will have no LG branding at all!]

2 Given LG is obsessed with being seen as an ‘innovator’ … creating a phone that’s so much like one of the most anticipated phones in the World, is probably not the smartest move on their behalf.  Sure it’ll show the World they are able to copy things really well [which is how most Asian companies operate] but it won’t do their ‘independent innovation’ credentials much good.

I know I said design can differentiate a company – but it also has the power to undermine them if they’re not careful!

I saw this photo of Kylie – and yes, she is wearing ‘high pants’ because apparently they are the latest trend to hit the street.

Fashion … or should I say ‘high-end fashion’ … is one of those industries where being different is a necessity.  It has nothing to do with ‘elegance’ or being aesthetically pleasing’ … it’s all about being dramatically different to what has gone on before, even if you end up looking ridiculous because of it.

Look at Vivienne Westwood – hardly Ms High Street – but she thrives because she gives people [rich, fashion-focused people] the ability to show the World they’re ‘in the know’ – even if they look like fashion victims to all the ‘plebs’ out in the real World.

The Fashion industry has to continually innovate because technology allows their creations to be copied and sold for a fraction of the price within weeks … so for them, design is the only way they can stay infront – even if it does result in many of their choices being executed because it’s different rather than because it enhances a look.

So what is all this about then eh?

Well, as much as we all know differentiation is a vital characteristic for many brands/products continued success [not all, because some categories embrace this strategy to great effect] in many cases, the level of differentiation is nothing more than a token gesture.

For planners, creatives and media specialists to now do their job properly, they cannot ignore this discipline – they have to embrace it and accept it’s role and it’s potential to help fulfill their clients business goals.

I am not saying ‘design’ is the be-all and end-all [some of the above examples show that] but with understanding, appreciation and foresight … it can be as much a provider of brand impression as traditional advertising – and in an ever-growing cynical consumer World, it’s the brands that ‘live’ their beliefs rather than the one’s who simply ‘express it’ that will triumph overall!  [putting aside those important issues like distribution etc]

With that, I leave you with this bloody scary poster for the Asian movie, ‘Colic’ … where all the elements of communication are coming together to form one delightfully horrifying [brand] image.

Lets hope the film meets the posters disturbing tone.  Though I won’t see it … I’m a scardy-cat, ha!

12 Comments so far
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Great post Rob,

A lot of what you said – especially in reference to brands that “live their beliefs” – is part of a model of thinking from my previous employer and something I wholeheartedly agree with you on.

They called it BE Branding, and it’s made up of 3 elements.
1. A strong and proud BElief in what they stand for as opposed to the competitive set.
2. The BElonging instilled in their staff (and those who WANT to be staff) and across ALL levels of the business that communicate throughout the company and beyond.
3 Finally resulting in the BEhaviour of the company and consumers towards it.

The idea is that when all 3 of these BE’s are aligned and “lived by” then consumers will naturally turn to these brands for (sometimes irrational) emotional reasons. They will support them, feel part of them, even openly defend them if need be. All of those brands you mentioned, including others like Harley Davidson or The Body Shop, or Max Brenner chocolate stores just to name a few off my head, all continue to enjoy success because they “live” by their BElief in who they are and what they do.

There should be more of these types of brands, or at least more that aspire to be.

ps. I’m not seeing Colic.

Comment by Age

Brilliant post. I agree with all the points about the need for design to ‘do something’ not just look good. In my experience, when it comes to doing what’s right instead of what’s cool, pure designers are far harder to persuade than traditional advertising creatives (yes there is the distinction still exists unforntunately).
I’m not convinced that high end fashion is about being different though. For most people isn’t it about fitting in with you’re chosen pack? Fashion creates the illusion of belonging to me. But one look at what I’m wearing today would prove that fashion is not one of strong points.

Comment by Northern Planner

You can tell it’s Monday. My spelling and detail are worse than ever. How did I last as a suit for five years?

Comment by Northern Planner

Hello …

Well I have to say what I’ve written is hardly new thinking – infact, as much as my designer-other-half Jill would like to take credit for helping forge this opinion, it’s been something I’ve been ‘infused with’ since I was at HHCL back in 1989!

Anyone who doubts packagings role in forging consumer opinion just needs to look at the Tiffany’s jewellery brand … because to a certain degree, the little blue box is deemed more important to recipients than the contents inside.

I had abit of a debate over at diablogue recently about this very subject because of a speech by Jim Stengel – Global Marketing Officer of Procter & Gamble – however, rather than go on about it, I suggest you check it out because I did find it quite an interesting debate. []

Age: I think you know I liked much of what your previous agency stood for – it’s just a pity they are [1] in Melbourne and [2] in Australia because as much as that country likes to propel the image of being a creative hub, the reality – bar a few exceptions – is quite the opposite. Infact, even though I started cynic in Sydney, it was Europe and the US that gave us our first real opportunities [bar things like Triple J and Guinness] because the Aussie market tended to be unbelievably conservative [and arrogant] in its thinking. I’m not saying it’s all like that, but I do believe if SEE were in the UK, they’d be more famous than they currently are.

And Mr Northern Planner … I so agree with your ‘fashion comment’ – but I’m talking about the high-end Haute couture fashion … not the more mainstream cat-walk … which then gets watered down to the general man and woman in the highstreet [excluding me – a man who has lived in Birkenstock’s for 8 years straight!]

And you were a suit? No wonder you are so bloomin’ polite!

Comment by Rob

fucking well said mate, if only there were more like you. k has just brought me in a steaming sausage sandwich, its officially the best way to start any day.

Comment by andy@cynic

Hello Robert, it’s my first time commenting on your blog because I’m always frightened Billy will try and ambush me but I had to say your views are a breath of fresh air and one of the reasons I wanted to join cynic.
I spent so many years in corporate agencies who all said they believed in holistic communication principals and yet when it came down to it, all they really appreciated were ads.
As you rightly say, it’s not just about design, there are lots of elements but underpinning them all is how consumers view things which is why in my few months here, I’ve learnt more from George, Andy and you than I did at my whole time at TBWA. This is not a creeping note, I just felt compelled to let you know it is this passion and view that makes me happier than I’ve been in a long time. Hope to see you soon but I still won’t turn into a meat eater. Even for you.

Comment by Angel

never fear billy my dear angel, his bark is worse than his bite and even thats not very powerful. glad to have you in the family, hope we can keep nurturing your talent

Comment by andy@cynic

Can I buy you a vegan sausage sandwich?

Comment by Billy Whizz

Sweet boy.

Comment by Angel

Hello Angel … you are a wonderful woman and we’re bloody lucky to have you. Thanks for the comment, thanks for the support, thanks for kicking arse where design is concerned. Virgin love you … Apple love you … we love you.

Christ, this has become one giant love in. Gotta go, see you soon I hope.

Comment by Rob

I’m not polite about Queen.

Comment by Northern Planner

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