Winning in the 'Pick' Economy

Designers Will See Opportunities in a Marketing Model Where Push and Pull Strategies Are Less Effective

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Patrick Hanlon
Patrick Hanlon
Designer Karim Rashid has his own Karim Rashid Shop where he sells vases, plates, watches. Obey Giant graphic artist Shepard Fairey designs, manufactures and sells his Obeyware direct to fans and specialty shops. Former Apple design lord Robert Brunner skips client middlemen and designs direct to the consumer.

These days it's not enough for designers to be aesthetes. Following the path of Leger plates, Tibor Kalman watches and Keith Haring's Pop Shop, the new designer/entrepreneur has become trend expert, product manager, sales rep and CEO combined. As liberating as this may seem, it brings a new rack of responsibilities. And it's good to be smart about the other side of the fence.

In the early 20th century, companies pushed products from their factories out onto store shelves. Later, thanks to radio and TV advertising that reached 80% of the population, marketers were able to pull customers into stores in search of their products.
Robert Stadler's mirror receives glowing SMS messages.
Robert Stadler's mirror receives glowing SMS messages. Credit: Patrick Gries

In today's world, media are fragmented, markets are fragmented. Skews of race, sexual orientation, work life, digital experience, marriage and child status, plus other sociological forces crosscut markets even further. We have microtrends, micromarkets and micromeals. Only in rare cases can products (such as oil and toilet paper) claim to be ubiquitous and necessary. These days consumers choose from miles of aisles of cars, clothing, electronic equipment, food, beverages and other staples. To push is dangerous. To pull is difficult. We are engaged in a revolutionary new marketing model not driven by manufacturers or their marketing partners.

In fact, it's not enough to consider consumer push or pull strategies, because today, the consumer picks.

Choose or lose
This new "pick" economy manifests itself with runaway success stories. Consumers pick new entertainment acts on TV shows such as "American Idol." Starbucks lets customers pick from thousands of coffee iterations. Volkswagen lets drivers pick their own colors and accessories on the web. Cold Stone Creamery lets you create your own ice-cream concoction. Second Life lets you construct an avatar, picking body and facial features (even features of the opposite sex). Cellphones let you pick ringtones. Medical websites guide you through your pick of treatment options. Sites such as Wikipedia let you pick a subject and even define it. Google, CNN, Yahoo and other news sources let you pick and sort information. Doodles, Buggs and Pomapoos even let people design their own pet dogs.

The democratization of consumerism and the internet go hand in hand. People vote heavily on the things they prefer and are moved to share with others their views on music, fashion, cars -- even personal finances. Peer-to-peer commentary is commonplace, if not obligatory. Websites such as the Consumerist and Digg and blogs such as Gizmodo and Scobleizer keep people attuned to the ins and outs and muck-ups of public commerce.

Online outlets such as,, Zappos and eLuxury let consumers splurge online, picking and sorting from online retail bins. That poses an interesting challenge for product designers who want to stand out.

A pull-down text menu, as just one example, doesn't permit sensory/emotional impressions at all. It's discriminatory (or even random) choice in sans-serif.

Patrick Hanlon is founder-CEO of Thinktopia, a branding consultancy with clients including Samsung and Best Buy, and author of 'Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future.'
Products can be shown aside their hardiest competitors. Such naked comparison, while seemingly always the case on store shelves, becomes startlingly brazen online and never serves middle-of-the-road designs well.

Arguably, consumers have always been able to pick and choose. Perhaps it has been only marketer ego and control freaking that has enabled concepts such as push and pull to exist in the first place. What the new pick model infers is loss of influence. If marketing departments once assumed they could determine purchase decisions through mass manufacturing, mass awareness and "understanding" their consumers, today those methods are ubiquitous, commoditized and even repugnant. The consumer has taken the lead, and it's time to look for new ways to make a difference.

So how can you help consumers pick you? Opportunities lie ahead for designers in the new pick economy.


The Dyson vacuum, the Michael Graves teapot, the Philippe Starck sippy cup, OXO kitchen utensils, Ikea water glasses (for 89ยข) and dozens of other examples have spread juicy design through all categories. With so many consumers grazing online, the instant eye candy of a well-designed product creates huge appeal.


An eye-popping new bottle shape. A clever package design. An exciting new taste. These have become obligatory parts of today's design mix. Take the 150-story Chicago Spire, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava (under construction and slated to be taller than the Sears Tower), or Chanel's $240 million store along Tokyo's Ginza strip, designed by Peter Marino, splashes of sense-tingling spectacle. Think Fuseproject's Perfume09 container, Studio Job tables and chairs, Buro Vormkrijgers' Overdose lighting or Spanish designer Jaime Hayon's cobalt-blue furniture.


Damien Hirst's head-banging "For the Love of God" is an 18th-century skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for $100 million. Stefan Sagmeister hand-cut type into his own skin with a razor blade (with help from a stalwart assistant) to produce his (in)famous Detroit AIGA poster. Spectacle sells.


Save the earth and save yourself. Products that help -- or at least don't harm -- our environment are experiencing a demand burst. Even the $100,000 Tesla, which goes from zero to 60 in four seconds and is not gas-powered but 100% electric is a hot item. Recycled paper, fabrics, locally grown foods and biosensitive processes are being chosen over their less sustainable counterparts. Places such as This Into That and Alchemy Architects turn used objects into reused and fabulous.


Chilewich Plynyl floor surfaces transform into table placemats. Holland Electro's wireless sound transmitters double as objects d'art. Robert Stadler's mirror design receives glowing SMS mobile-phone messages.


There is nothing like the delight of buying something you think you'll love and continuing to love it after purchase -- and not just because of the labels, pockets and other add-ins you discover afterward. The aptly engineered Toro lawnmower that starts on the first pull. The bed you can't wait to climb back into.


Ease of use has become a huge differentiator. Eighty percent of iPhone owners use 10 or more features. Why? Because friendly menu design helps find them. Chipotle menus are also deliberately simple to help customers create their own burritos fast and easily. Even banks are trying to simplify the designs of their loan forms.


America is buying smaller and smarter. The great new cars are eco-friendly Toyotas. At the same time, expectations are growing for getting more than what you pay for. Ikea, for example, offers big design for little money. Target's slogan nails it: "Expect more. Pay less."


No matter what your product or service category, consumers' real demand right now is the ability to choose for themselves. Don't stand in the way. Instead, encourage dialogue, think of more ways to be amazing, wow yourself. That way, you not only have a better chance of standing out. You have a better chance of being the one picked.
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