Marketers close in on consumer-by design

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A product's lines and look, its feel and relationship to other surroundings-and in extreme cases, the entirety of its so-called industrial design-are fast becoming marketers' and agencies' most versatile and dependable tools for fixing broken products and services. They're also forging new possibilities for commerce.

Apple's eye-catching iPods and the plain, expansive spaces of its retail stores illustrate how sleek architecture can elevate a product to a brand experience for consumers.

It is a lesson not lost on numerous marketers-from candy makers and vodka producers, to manufacturers of household insulation-who increasingly recognize the potential of design to connect with consumers, from creating graphics and packaging to being the architect of a new machine or service. Agencies are answering the call to provide expertise in this burgeoning area long before any advertising is crafted.

`the new fashion'

"The new fashion in marketing will be product and industrial design," said Peter Arnell, chairman-CEO, Omnicom Group's Arnell Group. His firm was recently hired to design a line of products for Electrolux, the Swedish maker of appliances. Fast-talking, high-energy Mr. Arnell, is well-known for his connections to players in entertainment and media circles; his firm handles a hodgepodge of projects, from branded entertainment to design-and-identity to more traditional advertising. But his roots in design go back decades, when he studied architecture at Brooklyn Technical High School and later with architect Michael Graves.

Product and industrial design, he predicts, "will deeply contribute to a whole new mind-set in marketing and communications that will say, why not invest your money into building an asset instead of spending your money on advertising?"

Consumers, many theorize, relate to a product's design or package's appearance differently than they do to an ad. Design, maintains Toronto designer Bruce Mau, founder of Bruce Mau Design, is about selling on a subconscious level.

"Design, in general, can communicate a sense of beauty, elegance and prestige by triggering memories and emotions," said Gary Gonya, a Yale University School of Architecture graduate turned strategic planner at WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, New York. Sensitive to design's possibilities, he linked client Wyborowa vodka to Frank Gehry, hoping the architect renowned for his buildings would bring equal praise to the brand.

"Our product is sophisticated and different. We needed a look that would express that," said Christophe Lucas, VP-international marketing, Wyborowa. Signing up Mr. Gehry to design the bottle for the brand's U.S. launch became a deliberate and differentiating choice-not only because the bottle is unique compared to others in its category, but also because a personal component lends authenticity to the connection between brand and designer. As described on the bottle's label, Mr. Gehry is of Polish descent, making him a perfect match for the Poland-made spirit.

Mr. Mau, who in June sold a stake in his firm to advertising holding company MDC Partners, sees a corollary between design's current ascendance in marketing and the integration of products and services -which used to be very separate. "Now, companies appreciate that the two need to be connected to produce a relationship with the consumer," he said. In design, "what we achieve when we are successful is a very precise and controlled message."

That was the goal of Brand Integration Group, a unit of WPP's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in early 2004. Ogilvy client AT&T Wireless had developed a mobile text-messaging and instant-messaging device, and turned to BIG for help in finessing it. "We are not just communicating what the value proposition is; we helped to create what the value proposition is," said Brian Collins, senior partner, executive creative director, BIG. Designers developed a more engaging graphical interface, and hardware that includes plump keys and rounded contours. BIG also came up with the name, Ogo, which is aimed at youth.

`instant decisions'

"Young people make almost instant decisions about the relevance of a product and a brand based on how it looks, feels and operates," Mr. Collins said. Transparent packaging, also developed by BIG, is intended to suggest that Ogo has an organic-not a manufactured-heritage. In its package, the Ogo is partially viewable like a "a pod, or a transparent seed," he said. The idea is that in opening up the package, you might let the Ogo free.

Package design is relevant even in mundane matters such as package goods or dowdy ones such as home-improvement. Grey Global Group's G2 took note of a research insight that more than 40% of consumers nosh sweets in their cars and for client Masterfoods created a container that fits into the cup-holder in any vehicle.

Similarly, a study of how consumers used Dow Chemical's Great Stuff-an insulating foam that fills gaps and cracks in homes-prompted Atlanta agency Sawyer Riley Compton to redesign the can for Gaps-N-Cracks Small Jobs, reduce it by half-but without a change in price. It was sold in a 12-ounce, one-time application-only can, much of which routinely went unused, leading consumers to feel bad. "We found the consumer would literally pay a premium for the freedom from guilt," said Bart Cleveland, the agency's creative director. Consumer research also led a new label look, which eliminated meaningless or confusing descriptions ("They didn't know or care what polyurethane was," Mr. Cleveland said) and created a consistent color scheme on all Great Stuff packages. "We simplified our message: Our target doesn't want science; they simply want the product that will solve their problem," he said.

Some agencies are responding to clients' increased appetite for design-centric solutions by hiring executives with necessary expertise or upgrading the level of executives in those positions. Havas Arnold Worldwide in October brought on former Starbucks executive Robert Wong as senior VP-design director. At Starbucks, he was responsible for the look and feel of all stores worldwide, and led a 70-person design group that created all packaging and in-store displays.

At Arnold, he is charged with building the shop's design capabilities. "Traditional brand consultants drop off a logo and a set of guidelines," said Mr. Wong, and leave clients with having to figure out how to bring the brand to life. "How will the brand be experienced? Agencies already know so much about the brand. We can bring a unified, strategic approach to building the experience."

Ray Kuhar moved from the West Coast, where he was creative director at the Designory in Los Angeles, to New York, to head Grey Global Group's G2 Worldwide as senior partner-creative director. He is charged with making retail design-an expertise G2 uses for clients ranging from Absolut Spirits and Kmart to Aero Products-more multi-sensual and design centric. Said his boss, Steven Gilliatt, president, G2 Worldwide, the "experience in an Apple store, for instance, is very well-considered, thought through, mapped-it is that kind of ethos we're trying to create."

Mr. Kuhar, whose most recent experience was for client Nissan USA, focused on retail branding, noted that if a product isn't well-designed-if its touch isn't consistent with its look, "you lose some of the product's integrity."

Design, however, isn't a panacea. It doesn't deliver traffic, or move people to Burger King in droves, in the way certain retail-oriented TV spots can. That isn't what design is about, Mr. Mau said.

Advertising's essence, noted Arnell Group's Mr. Arnell, is to promote something that already exists. Consumers connect to the product, and its design. "If I like something, I tell my friend. I share it."

That's why his firm, and others, he said, will continue to broaden their focus beyond promotion to "developing a marketer's viewpoint, through a product."

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