Product Expression

The space between the Symbolic and the Concrete.

Browsing through a cooking magazine, overhearing a conversation about the latest design trend, spotting an ad for a new Hybrid; it is all too clear that those qualities we refer to as symbolic (those not literally part of product appearance), take on increased importance in today’s market. In design and marketing literature, this trend is often traced to the fact that many (or most) products appearing on the market are very similar in function and price, making it hard or simply irrelevant for people to differentiate products on such primary criteria.proX1

As a result, products are ever more evaluated in terms of their experiential benefits: ‘What does this product say about me?’. ‘Is this really me?’…and so they need to have multiple solutions, each with its own revealing, value expressive quality.

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A recent study by Creusen and Schoormans confirmed such speculations by revealing that consumers’ preferences for product appearance are by and large motivated by symbolic meaning. Many people will pay more to wear designer brand. Of course, a designer outfit doesn’t keep you any warmer or dryer than an unbranded one, but functionality is only part of the story. Designer products say something about you – you are a trendy, sexy or sophisticated person. Brands help us to express who we think we are and who we want to be. Whether its jeans, or phones, we know the brands we like. These are more than products; they are symbols, or in other words, they are objects carrying meaning.

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Symbolic attributes of products affect their adoption and evolution. The idea that goods and services hold symbolic as well as functional value has been recognized for decades, but often, management practice tends to focus on business processes: the most efficient and economic way to deliver good quality, functional products. Branding is just one way of endowing products with meanings. But there are others, such as good product design or even process innovation, design that goes beyond ergonomics.

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Redesigning, rethinking.

The mere redesign of the outer shells of hearing aids – introducing sleek lines, translucent plastics and a range of colors and patterns instead of the usual flesh color – helped Oticon, a Danish leader in the production of hearing aids, relieve hearing-impaired children from the psychological burden associated with carrying a hearing aid.

Shoelaces Not Needed.A more perfect fit, designed for runners but this simple concept could easily translate into any footwear. This shoe uses a single strap that wraps around the entire width of your foot’s arch. By simply tightening or loosening a velcro strap, you achieve the perfect fit.

Cultural Captital. Infusing products with symbolic meaning.

In food and beauty, the products’ origin and specifically local origin (“teroir”) has become  a factor of differentiation and added value for companies. The so-called “terroir” indication can enhance the perceived quality and the inferences from the regional image on the product’s image. Perfect examples  are the Ahava products from the Dead Sea in Israel. The reference to a special “know-how”, “tradition” and “recipe” is important. A terroir product must not be produced elsewhere because it is linked to the history and culture of the region: something that needs time, experience, tradition that cannot be produced everywhere. Consumers try to find out products with a special origin, because they think the origin gives sense to the products.

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The Dead Sea region is shrouded in mystique and is a study in contrasts. Far from reflecting its name, the Dead Sea thrives with life-enhancing ingredients with proven regenerative properties.

The role of “cultural capital” (a special knowledge that some companies have about how goods are embedded in cultural conventions and expressions, and how they relate to consumers’ lifestyles.) seems to play a critical role in how businesses can understand the connections between objects and their meanings. You can encode meaning into products through careful design that will elicit certain interpretations in people.

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Some questions to think about:

What are the business processes that could enable this encoding to happen? And how can we increase the likelihood that certain forms will be decoded in particular ways? Can cultural capital be accumulated or deployed in organizations when designing new products?

What do you think?

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