Winning with dissonant design

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In New York's well-to-do neighborhoods, Bugaboo strollers are pervasive. Our sidewalks are congested with bug-eyed-sunglassed moms and Lacosted dads pushing these all-terrain vehicles from one shop to another. These stroller drivers are edgier and hipper than the parents I remember as a child-it almost seems these strollers have empowered parents to retain the avant-garde fashion that used to fade after having children. Bugaboos command $500 premiums over non-urban assault strollers. They, along with the other entrants in the "status stroller" market, earn these premiums because they feed their drivers' ability to self-express. While there is increased utility in these lighter, more rugged strollers, it's how Bugaboo owners believe their image is defined by the stroller that's the phenomenon. This "status stroller" says "I have made it," but it also says "I am young, urban, adventurous and athletic-being a parent hasn't slowed me down."

The transformation of the mature stroller category into an explosive new market was no fluke. The Bugaboo became a market-changing phenomenon because of its wholly unexpected design. The combination of Euro styling and ruggedness were completely unanticipated product attributes in a category formerly defined by utility. It used to be that a stroller only had to be lightweight and compact to be successful. By flipping the category's expectations, Bugaboo created cognitive dissonance for the product's observers between their expectations for the product category and their perception of the product's actual form.

Dissonant designs such as the Bugaboo not only create a product that advertises itself-a head turner-but also create evangelists who publicly rationalize their investment in the product while building their identities as trendsetters. In other words, the Bugaboo owner will convince you to buy a Bugaboo ostensibly because she loves how it works, but really because she wants you to know she is forward-thinking. By convincing her friends to follow her lead, she feels the emotional benefit of having converted others based on her foresight.

Enabling self-expression through design is now a product-marketing necessity. Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Graves and Martha Stewart have recently proven in their Target and Kmart product lines that mass consumers desire the perception of premium, branded products even if those products are mass produced.


Fashion and automobiles are no longer the only tools for mass self-expression. The growing mobility in consumer electronics, cellphones, MP3 players and PDAs also signal people's aspirational identities. Because consumer electronics prices are plummeting, consumers can afford to purchase luxury in the category. Where a consumer might not be able to afford a Paul Stewart suit, he might be able to purchase Paul Stewart ear phones. Buying an Armani suit may be out of the question, but buying a Motorola Razr is feasible. Consumer electronics products have the added benefit of giving more frequent impressions on product observers than would a suit or a suitcase because they are used daily.

With the explosion of mass conspicuous consumption, it is becoming more and more difficult to stand out. In response, consumers create increasingly complex identities to differentiate themselves from the stereotypes of their socio-economic stratum. They are expressing identity through products, clothing, food, automobiles and more. Consumers pick categories that most clearly define them and become "experts" by purchasing at the higher end of the category. By specializing in wine, I can become more than an average male consumer. I can unexpectedly become a wine connoisseur and give myself a more complex, differentiated outward identity.

Like the Bugaboo, companies can create self-expressive dissonance by redefining the product category through design that counters category expectations. But that doesn't guarantee sustained success. As Bugaboos have become pervasive, it is becoming more difficult to find a mom or dad who will freely admit to having purchased the extravagance. Most parents will only admit to receiving the stroller as a gift. This suggests that as more consumers purchase the Bugaboo, the form has become expected. When the self-expressive benefit dies and parents are left valuing pure utility to justify the premium, they begin to question the product's superficiality and therefore value.

In order to utilize dissonant design as a sustainable business strategy, companies can either redefine more and more new product categories with their unexpected design, or they can re-design a particular product category again and again. The former-applying the new design system across disparate categories-will ultimately build the most equity as the design language becomes increasingly identifiable as it's extended across categories.

If you don't follow, just think of Apple. The self-expressive benefit of the Apple iPod and its white earphone cords has driven record-breaking sales along with Apple's stock price. The iPod is a dissonant design because its form and aesthetic is unexpected within the product category. White and sleek without the knobs and buttons that traditionally defined high-end consumer electronics, the iPod rebels against the category's norms of design.


But why hasn't the fervor abated now that so many people have them? First, utility: Once the self-expressive benefit of ownership waned, the pure utility of the product continued to deliver. IPod owners realized that while the product's design has lost dissonance, the iPod still works seamlessly. Second, Apple frequently applies dissonant designs across new product categories which energizes the brand and creates a halo effect across the existing product base. By launching the Mac Mini, which countered the expectations for a PC's form and design, Apple rewards iPod owners for being a part of a family that continues to break the rules.

So what should Bugaboo do to fight the fact that their strollers are quickly becoming expected? Their best strategy seems to be doing an Apple-applying their design language across new and potentially unexpected product categories that will continue to enable consumers to define themselves as upwardly mobile and athletic. The brand now resonates with urban parents. Urban parents care for babies, but they also do a number of other activities, opening the opportunity for Bugaboo to enter the markets where Bugaboo owners purchase. Perhaps the next frontier for Bugaboo is in all-terrain carts for pushing groceries home, for example.

Bugaboo and other companies utilizing dissonant product designs have found ways to tap into on a basic need: self-expression. People are no different than peacocks. Self-expression fulfills higher level human needs across all social classes and as such will drive exuberant product adoption and premium pricing. Traditionally, product designers have relied on design consistency within product classes to create consumer acceptance-a new type of watch might keep time unlike any other watch has before, but the overall design felt very much like its ancestors. The watch company relied on advertising the new features to create product adoption and consumers bought the watch because it fit neatly into their prescribed stereotypical identity.

But today's consumers are constructing more sophisticated identities. They seek counterintuitive, inconsistent and disharmonious products-dissonant designs that rattle their observers' expectations-that let the consumers display themselves as complex and interesting individuals.

Stuart Hogue a program manager for Frog Design. Prior to joining Frog, Stuart was a VP-product development at Thomson Financial and co-founder and chief operating officer of Perquia loyalty marketing program.

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