Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

8 minute read

In A New Marketing World, The Product Is The Message

Dan Formosa, a veteran design consultant and the president of the product design jury at this year's Cannes Lions, reminds us that the Internet age has returned us to a time when product is the heart of a brand.

[Photo: Flickr user Michele M. F.]

Two revolutions in technology took place over the last 75 years that significantly affected our lives as consumers. They also had a huge impact on the meaning of brands, the influence of advertising, and the commercialization (and over-commercialization) of the world we know. They should come as no surprise—the first was television; the second was the Internet.

However it is not simply the invention of television or the Internet as a new medium that’s of interest; it is how television and the Internet transformed us as consumers. Marshall McLuhan fans will find this discussion familiar. The technology itself isn’t the key part of the story—it’s the effect the medium has on society. The medium is the message. While the effects of television, then the Internet, can be felt in countless aspects of our lives, I’ll confine this current conversation to the consumer-driven portion of our existence.

To start, a brand is, in essence, a promise. It represents a group of people (usually a group, sometimes an individual) that stand for something. In exchange for buying into that brand, the people behind it will deliver that promise. It’s that simple.

Billboard Painters: Everett Collection via Shutterstock

An ad‘s goal is to communicate that promise. It strives to effectively relay that message. A successful ad campaign clearly communicates the promise, doing so in a believable way and in a manner that is both captivating and personally meaningful. Sometimes the message is overt, sometimes it’s much less conspicuous. Either can be effective.

Creating and maintaining great brands isn’t easy. Scott Lerman of Lucid Brands has a good description of what’s involved. The establishment of a great brand requires unifying and leveraging "an astounding array of people—leaders, followers, scientists, artists, magicians (consultants), engineers, establishmentarians, and revolutionaries." Because of this, lots of brands are okay. Fewer are good. Relatively few are great. The hallmark of a great brand is that it makes great promises, then over-delivers. Only a small percentage can truly make that claim.

All promises, broken or fulfilled, establish a personal relationship. It’s no different with a brand than with a person. You may notice a difference in discussions with friends about the brands and products they admire. When talking about an okay brand, assuming that they talk about it at all, they’ll talk about the product. When talking about a truly great brand, one to which they pledge allegiance, they talk not just about the product, but also talk about the people behind it, regardless of whether they know who those people are. Because they know there had to be someone who was thinking, who understands us, who cares! The promise wasn’t just on target with their needs, the promise was exceeded. And we, as human beings, love that.

Virtually every brand started life with an elevated sense of enthusiasm—every company was, at one time, a startup. Which means there was a time in every company’s history when a person or small group of people developed a product that they believed in. Once developed, they needed someone to advertise, market and sell it. The sequence started with the product, and led to a need to promote it. Over time those companies grew. To sustain themselves they needed new and improved products to sell. Because of that this sequence was often reversed. To maintain their existence companies needed to advertise, market and sell something. They needed to maintain old promises, create new promises, or a combination of both. To do that they often needed to hire someone to create new products, and often that means a designer.

Can with blank white label: diplomedia via Shutterstock

The reversing of the original sequence accelerated rapidly during the 1950s. With the popularity of television a company was able to advertise a product not just by talking about it in a print or radio ad, they could also show the product in action. By the late 1950s everyone with a TV—and there were many—were seeing the same product at the same time instantly, countrywide. Advertising became persuasive for the consumer, with quantifiable results for the companies paying for those ads. Money spent on advertising resulted in money spent on products. The ability for consumers to become aware of the country’s best-and-brightest products created a wonderful win-win situation. Consumers could excitedly see what they were getting, and companies could more readily sell things consumers were seeing.

What was not so wonderful is what happened next. With the realization that advertising was persuasive, companies were in constant need to advertise their newest and greatest product. They needed to stay ahead of the competition, who were equally good at advertising. Before long the rate of new messaging increased at a pace faster than new products could be invented.

No worries for the companies; many found instant solutions. We-the-people started to see broken or unsubstantiated promises. And often some outrageous claims. Advertising and marketing budgets skyrocketed. Designers were now being funded by marketing groups, and the field of design diverted its attention from innovating to giving the impression of innovation. If a truly new product wasn’t actually available, at least the illusion of new could be presented. Designers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were becoming good at creating sexy renderings of supposedly new-and-improved products. And they became great at rendering products with chrome, artificial wood surfaces, and the addition of artistic sparkle to the products they were presenting. Designers were charged with the task of creating "perceived value"—a term openly used at the time, referring to their goal to make a product look better than it actually was. Design research, by the way, was virtually non-existent. Designers sat at drafting tables, never actually venturing out to meet consumers or view their products in action. That was left to the marketing groups, who would just relay their marketing goals to design teams.

False promises abounded, and by 1960 the Federal Trade Commission had plenty to do. They faced a record volume of cases, with more than a 25% increase from the previous year. How outrageous were the claims? Check Colgate Palmolive’s Rapid Shave commercial from 1960, advertising having cream so amazing it could be used to shave a piece of sandpaper. (Not only was the claim not true, it didn’t make any sense.) Or Listerine’s claims about preventing colds and sore throats. Or General Motor’s now amusing claims in a promotional film for Chevrolet’s 1960 Corvair, showing among other things its off-road and stream-crossing capabilities.

Promotional film for the controversial 1960 Chevrolet CorvairVideo: via Archive.org, Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corporation

While the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies stepped in to curtail the amount of false product claims, we continued to be bombarded with deceptive "top down" promises. Big business owned the media. They controlled advertising in print and over the airwaves. When we wanted to learn about a product our primary source of information came from the companies who were making those products. Magazines providing much-needed objective assistance included Consumer Reports, which by 1950 had a subscription base approaching 400,000. But the pace of magazine publication meant reviews were few and far in-between when compared with the number of available products and advertising campaigns of the day.

A few decades later, enter revolution number two: the Internet, and especially the http protocol and the World Wide Web which meant companies could now display pages of information electronically. But one of the life-changing capabilities the Internet now provided was that messaging no longer just belonged to big business—we-the-people could now instantly communicate just as well, not just countrywide but globally. And one of the very early activities people took to on the Internet was advising others on all sorts of topics—person-to-person (or person-to-people) communication. As a result we discovered that we no longer needed to read print ads, product spec sheets or watch television ads to learn about a product; we now had each other. Today, we own the media, and it seems we’re very willing to talk (or write) about everything under the sun. We therefore don’t need advertising or brand names to gain confidence in our purchases, we can look to our peers. People like us are advising us on what to buy, based on their personal experiences with those products.

What does that mean for brand and product advertising? It means the product itself better be great. Not just good, but exceptionally great, because that’s when we make purchase recommendations to each other, or else forewarn others about an unfortunate purchase. As for brand promises, to survive in the critical arena of real-consumers-as-reviewers, products shouldn’t just meet our expectations, they better exceed them.

White Apples: Tim Masters via Shutterstock

Today we need to consider that advertising has expanded beyond its traditional boundaries. Our messages are no longer coming from the top down; that changed years ago. The broadened scope of messaging places a company’s responsibility for communication of brand promises on every touch-point a consumer has with that product, first awareness through final disposal.

The expanded scope of advertising is reflected on the 2011 name change of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity—"Creativity" was formerly "Advertising." The festival is the largest of its kind, in operation since the late 1950s. Last year for the first time they introduced product design as one of the award categories, highlighting the importance of the product in representing brand values.

Consumers control the media, which means companies need to communicate brand messages through their products and deliver on them. A great product sells itself, while reviews for a bad product counteract even the best advertising efforts. The inclusion of product design by Cannes Lions reinforces the idea that people designing products are, by default, in the advertising business. And while this phenomenon has been with us for some time now, some companies are much better at it than others. Each product and service is a representation of a brand, and even more than that a representation of the people behind that brand. Using Marshall McLuhan’s logic, the product is the medium—therefore, the product is the message.

Dan Formosa, Ph.D., is consultant in design. A member of the team that designed IBM’s first personal computer, he has developed products and services for companies in a wide range of categories, from cars to food, kitchen products to surgical equipment. In 1981 he helped form Smart Design and he recently established two design collectives—4B, focusing on design and gender, and Brainpool, focusing on perception and our emotional connections with products and brands. He is the newly appointed president of the Product Design jury at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity. Product Design entries are open until March 27.