How Do You Express A Brand Through Product Design?

June 5, 2012

What makes your brand unique? How is it different than your competition? The brand is the most intangible element of any product or service. Each day the market is being flooded with new products, services, and ideas. In order to avoid commoditization, it is critical to integrate your brand into the product design. Every brand has a fundamental need to connect with their target market and express their company’s core values and beliefs through unique value propositions and experiences. Visual Brand Language (VBL) is a core part of product design where the abstract and experiential part of a brand is cohesively communicated through physical elements. The key to a successful VBL is in efficiently combining the tangible elements with the abstract attributes.

Products and services provide value through every aspect of its design; the look, feel, touch, sound, use of materials, overall perception, etc. Brand consistency is key when attempting to increase brand loyalty. With the right VBL, you can take abstract identities and articulate these on current and future products in a systematic way. When this is done right, the identity and brand message become evident to the end-user and it helps to create an emotional connection. In addition, a proper VBL helps optimize product line strategies, reduce manufacturing cost, shorten product development schedules, and enables companies to bring their product to market faster.

At the heart of every brand are its core values. When creating a VBL you can approach this in a four stage hierarchical process, known as the strategic pyramid, which consists of the brand personality, product attributes, design principles, and signature elements.

The Brand Personality encompasses the whole experience and the integrated mindset of an organization and should be communicated through all aspects, including employee actions, product offerings, company communications, etc. It gives a brand dimension and depth and connects customers emotionally to the products and services. This personality must reflect the perceptions, motivations, and values of its target market.

Product Attributes provide a visual landscape based on brand personality that describes the uniqueness of products. They are characteristics by which products are identified and differentiated—such as being durable, secure, or dynamic.

Design Principles provide specific directions and objectives a designer can follow while designing a product or a platform. They describe the product attribute as an actionable item. This is the stage where the abstract elements of the brand are converted into principles for tangible articulations.

The Signature Elements are a series of toolkits used in creating and translating the VBL. They include character lines, CMF (color, material, and finish), logo, UI, light, sound, etc. that support the attributes of a brand.

This strategic pyramid is used to create a style guide. This guide is not a stencil, but rather a reference system for designers, as well as individuals within an organization, to better understand the brand personality, brand heritage, product attributes, design principles, and signature elements of the brand design.

Translating a brand identity into a product design comes with a number of challenges. One of the most difficult is being able to implement a consistent look across different platforms, product proportions, and structural materials. Creating a VBL roadmap will enable you to define your product position that will be all encompassing with past, present and future product attributes. This is often an evolutionary process, and, as designers, it is important to show a vision of an integrated line of products to the client to better realize the end goal. Understanding your product development process and brand expansion strategies will help you in coming up with a systematic execution plan.

Often, the easiest and most economical solutions to implement are those that involve simple Color, Materials and Finish (CMF), especially when trying to unite a product family line without making any tooling investments. In a recent project, we created a CMF strategy by developing a simple warm color palette with three shades of gray and a yellow accent color. The shades of gray were used to break-up the form and create visual interest while the yellow accent was selected to highlight key touch points. The accent color was also selected because of its visual association with attributes that defined our client—specifically being rugged, industrial, and performance driven. With one consistent visual message a unified look was established throughout the line.

Another challenge is one of manufacturing costs, processes, and the materials and finishes that can be applied to a product design. Developing a VBL platform strategy is shown in our design of the Remington Flex 360°, a global line of men’s shavers with a flex and pivot technology. The design strategy focused on the creation of a modular platform that shares 70% of its components across three tiers of units. Each unit differs in features and is positioned at multiple price points. By adding different electronic features, materials, and finishes allows the product line to be streamlined for mass production and can be positioned with low-tier, mid-tier, and high-tier shavers. The subtle detail changes to the color, bezel design, and control features provide just enough differentiation to establish a product line with minimal manufacturing investment.

One of the most distinguishing and visually significant features of a brand is its logo. A well thought-out logo that is crafted in the right way by choice of size, placement, color, material, and finish will substantially enhance the brand perception and positioning.

In our design of the Brunswick Gold Crown V pool table, we incorporated a cast aluminum logo on all four corners of the table to create a higher perception of value and represent the classic Brunswick logo in great detail. This simple addition not only communicates the quality and craftsmanship of the table, but it also reinforces the Brunswick brand to the end user through sight and tactile feel.

Depending on the complexity of your product or its intended user experience, the essence of a brand must be strategically articulated on the cohesive solution and not just on its physical manifestation. For example, if a product has a user interface the VBL should also be expressed and integrated in the interface to provide a consistent message. The VBL should provide the basis for your product development guidelines and enable designers to develop solutions that are in alignment with the brand and its core values. It should also allow for consistent signature design elements to be repeated, but also enable designers to develop solutions that allow variation and constantly push the limits of the brand.

As product designers, we understand that maintaining or building the distinction of a brand is extremely critical and the brand personalities must add value and differentiation to a client’s product or service. One example of how great product design has differentiated itself since its inception is Ovation Guitars. If you’re a guitar lover (and maybe even if you’re not) and saw a round-back guitar or gull-wing head, you would recognize it is an Ovation merely because of the shape. The company has positioned its brand as providing superior projection and durability through its bowl-shaped body. If you remove the logo from the product, you still know it’s an Ovation—this is the goal of any brand. By distinguishing itself from the competition, the brand becomes recognized based solely on the product design.

By articulating the meaning and essence of your brand, and communicating it through its product design you can successfully provide timeless and impactful solutions. The way in which we define the final design’s functionality, experience, look, feel, and perception can all help to communicate the brand values and, in the end, fully express and deliver the entire brand experience and message.

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