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How innovative can design be?

How innovative can design be?

The design of an innovative product should be new, i.e. different from the existing ones, and add a new category to the “human filter”. There are rules that help achieve the golden fit between design and innovation.

by Prof. Dr. Thorsten Teichert, Andreas Aholt and Manuela Lange

In 1999, when Volkswagen was the first automobile company to launch a 3-litre model with a variant of the Lupos as standard on the international market, the signs of success were very good: however, sales were sluggish, and after only five years production was discontinued in 2004. In contrast, the Prius from Toyota, which follows similar customer needs, is a success story: since the introduction of the environmentally friendly car with hybrid technology in 2000, production and sales figures have been increasing, and there is still no end in sight to the market success.

The differing success of the two new vehicle types is by no means an isolated case. For example, flop rates of over 70 percent discourage the market launch of innovative products (study by Markenverband, GfK and Serviceplan, June 2006). The central question for innovative companies is how new products can be positioned in such a way that they perform better than products already on the market. A new study by the Marketing and Innovation department at the University of Hamburg, which was carried out in cooperation with the Munich design company FPM Factor Product Munich, provides an explanation. The scientists show that innovation is often defined too narrowly. Accordingly, practitioners and theoreticians often limit themselves to functional innovations.

On the other hand, design is a key success factor for the marketing of innovations, as the university study shows: Design signals technological innovation, so a fit between functional innovation and design should be sought. The importance of design for marketing success is obvious: the design of a product immediately catches the eye. Thus, consumers form their first impression of the design.

As the Hamburg study shows in an experiment with more than 150 participants, consumers already use this first design impression to decide whether a new product is a possible purchase alternative. The objects of investigation were innovative writing implements. Depending on the design, consumers expressed fundamentally different expectations of the functional properties of the new product: a thin line width and light weight were preferred for a writing instrument similar to a ballpoint pen, while a device that looked like a fountain pen, on the other hand, preferred a broad line width and a heavy weight. Similarly, a high-performance sedan can only be perceived as a sports car after a successful design migration (=further development of the design). The new Porsche Panamera is a prime example of how a new vehicle concept can be combined with a moderate further development of the design.

New functional product properties are not so easy to recognize for the customer. In order to find out about the performance of an automobile, even studying product brochures is hardly enough. Rather, customers rely on extensive advice, testimonials from friends and/or test drives. Such an intensive discussion requires time and concentration. Therefore, it is only understandable that consumers make a pre-selection based on the design. The decision for a specific product based on its functional performance is often only made in a second step. A technological innovation alone does not bring sales success. Functional innovations cannot be successfully marketed without being signaled by the design. The design must therefore be integrated into the product development as an innovation signal.

The university study reveals another important finding: it shows that the product’s design can convey to the customer that it belongs to the desired product category. At the same time, the design – unconsciously – creates expectations about typical functional properties. Fountain pens are expected to be thicker and heavier than, for example, ballpoint pens. Similarly, aerodynamic shapes in the automotive sector suggest high speeds. If these expectations are not met on the second – cognitive – filter level, the product is judged negatively despite the typical design. A positive example of this is the MINI Cooper. The wide wheelbase and the low seating position (=design) confirm the positive prejudice of a “go-kart feeling” (=function) when driving. The retention of design and function made the resounding success of this retro model possible.

A harmony of innovativeness in design and function can thus be described as a “golden fit”. The design should show the consumer which product group the product is based on and which new functionalities it has. Conversely, the typical design also generates concrete expectations about functional properties that the product has to meet. Neither will an environmentally friendly car be bought that is not recognizable as such by its design, nor will a “optical sham” without technical performance have long-term success on the market. For example, the Ford Edsel embodied a completely new design concept in the 1950s. However, the new design was not accompanied by any real functional advancement. The Ford Edsel became the biggest flop in American automotive history.

The aim must be to indicate the level of innovation in design. The design of a very innovative product should also be new and stand out from the existing ones. The human filter is reprogrammed and a new category is added. This makes it possible to solve existing ideas and force customers to take a “closer look”. If, on the other hand, an innovation is driven forward purely technologically without adapting the design, the product is evaluated along the lines of the “old” product category. Characteristics other than innovation will then be more important to the customer.

With this knowledge, the difference in the success of the Lupo and Prius can now also be explained: Volkswagen fatally fell back on the tried and tested Lupo design for its undoubtedly future-oriented technological innovation. Toyota, on the other hand, developed a design that looks just as futuristic as the technology it contains. The result is known. graphic

Authors: Prof. Dr. Thorsten Teichert heads the Marketing and Innovation department at the Institute for Marketing and Media at the University of Hamburg. Andreas Aholt and Manuela Lange support him in his work.