Sometimes, What Matters Is Simple

Differentiation sure is difficult these days. Especially challenging is differentiation that’s so strikingly relevant, unique, and compelling that consumers will pay more for it.

I was at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference in Chicago last month, at which Kun-Pyo Lee, head of LG Electronics’ Corporate Design Center, showed an image, similar to the one below, in the midst of a talk on the industrial design challenges that his firm faces:

smartphones-image-june-2011-column

The illustration clearly highlights this issue. In a world where form factors have converged so dramatically, the opportunities for a global consumer electronics giant (or virtually any other product company) to define itself through its product design have become more elusive and challenging.

The challenge is not just with smartphones. Consider the hottest-selling televisions. The screens are black, featureless, and flat. The console that houses the screen extends perhaps an eighth of an inch beyond the flat screen and maybe has a depth of an inch and a half. And the optimal display of the monitor is wall-mounted, so there isn’t even a stand for industrial designers to play with. There simply isn’t much there.

In this environment, many try to become lifestyle brands and enter into a fashion-oriented rat race. But competing on a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately basis requires running ever faster and too often results in devalued products and costly falls. More futile yet is the fast follower route. Greatness doesn’t come from copying front-runners. Greatness begins with knowing who you are, what you stand for, and why people should care.

Conventional differentiators for electronics are disappearing or becoming table stakes. Relying on form factors is not impossible (see the Apple suite of products), but it’s not easy. User interfaces are becoming almost indistinguishable. Utility is uniform; access is ubiquitous. Increasingly, many leading smartphone companies seem to be outsourcing their principal innovation generation to an app ecosystem, populated by small, independent teams of outside engineers who effectively are doing the heavy lifting in creating the smartphone value proposition.

Perhaps the answer is simple. My company’s recent Global Brand Simplicity Index uncovered a host of insights about the dollar value people around the world place on simplicity. Among many other findings, the study showed that U.S. consumers say they are willing to pay a total of $3.4 billion more for electronics and technology products that are simpler to use. It also uncovered that, around the world, people between the ages of 18 and 24 agree that technology is the most effective way to bring simplicity to their hectic lives. Conversely, people older than 60 most often blame technology for making their lives more complex.

These conflicting attitudes suggest to me that the brand differentiation that people will willingly pay for should be rooted in simplicity. And, in the numbingly complex electronics space, connectivity between devices and integration of user experience represents the ultimate simplicity (Apple’s coming introduction of iCloud services indicates that it certainly understands the pain consumers feel from a lack of integration between devices and content). Form factors, interfaces, features, and functionality all should be thought of as dramatic and meaningful ways to keep a brand promise, not as ends in and of themselves. Product design focused on easing the pain of complexity will lead to experiences that consumers of all ages and countries will value.

In an era where meaningful differentiation is hard to come by, it’s all about the power of the brand, what it stands for, and the relevant stories that can be told around it. The organizations that recognize this will be able to deliver innovative, simple products and experiences that win the loyalty of their customers and the envy of competitors.

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