Design matters. I believe this with all my heart. In my 30 years of working with brands large, small and in-between have only deepened my belief in this simple statement.

Unfortunately, there’s too much bland design in the marketplace today… design that could and should be so much better. I’m talking about the kind of design that can turn an under-performing brand into a beloved winner.

Too often in business today, the story unfolds something like this: The R&D folks for a manufacturing company do a great job developing and perfecting a new product concept. The focus group and other research says it’s a sure winner. The marketing projections are through the roof and the sales force is pushing management to introduce it ASAP. With this “sure thing” in the works, everyone believes that good times are just around the corner. All that’s left to do is develop a great ad campaign that will introduce this groundbreaking product to the world.

Jump ahead six months after the launch. Orders have begun to slow and consumers have lost interest. The stakes are high and an opportunity to build a competitive and enduring brand is lost. What went wrong? Of the many boxes that have to be checked, many marketers fail to fully recognize that one of the most important boxes is the one for design. The role design plays in a brand’s success, from identity to marketing communications to packaging to retail presence, simply can’t be understated.

Try this little exercise… Quickly name three brands that stand out in your mind as leaders in their categories. Chances are that Apple is one of them. Or BMW. Or Nike. I’ll bet you visualized each one’s logo as the names came to mind. Now ask yourself what these three brands have in common?

The answer is that each of these brands has an established, well-designed marketing communications that stand out. Each has embraced design as a powerful competitive advantage that differentiates them from their competition. From their iconic logos to the thoughtful and often revolutionary design of their packaging to their web and even catalog presence, these brands are consistently identified with compelling, leading-edge design that commands the consumer’s attention, respect and loyalty.

Roger Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management, says, “In a global economy, elegant design is becoming a critical competitive advantage.” He goes on to note however that “… most business folks don’t think like designers.” And that’s unfortunate for them.

It’s long been an accepted statistic in academic circles that 90% of all information is visual. What makes this statement even more interesting and, ultimately compelling is that the human eye registers about 36,000 visual messages per hour. That’s 600 messages per minute… 10 messages per second.

Now consider that, according to Forbes, about 250,000 new products are launched each year worldwide. The Global New Products Database, which tracks consumer package goods, says about 20,000 products from 50 countries are introduced every month. Those are staggering numbers and you have to wonder how any brand can survive, let alone stand out in this crowded, intensely competitive environment?

According to Lynn Dornblaser, an analyst at market research firm Mintel, relatively few do survive. She cites an 85% to 95% failure rate for new product launches. I have to believe that some percentage of those ventures might have had a fighting chance if only they’d been introduced as part of a thoughtful, well-designed and executed marketing effort.

I mentioned Apple, BMW and Nike as examples of iconic brands whose logos have come to represent quality and status. These brands, and there are many others we could include as examples, have consistently set the design bar high and consumers have responded. Consumers know they can choose among any number of good computer, automobile and shoe brands that will meet their needs. Yet, each of these recognized brands have become so linked to quality and status that consumers are not only consistently willing to spend a premium for their products but eagerly await every new product offering.

I’m not suggesting that design can compensate for poor workmanship. A lack of quality can, over a relatively short period of time, do irreparable damage to even the best, most established and trusted brands. But I do believe that when great design and product quality are found together, they invariably create a powerful and profitable combination

And that brings me back to my original statement: Design matters. It makes a difference. It’s memorable. It connects. It communicates. It adds value. And marketers in the never-ending battle for a share of the consumer’s mind and wallet should know that every dollar spent on great design is returned many times over.

Lois Brayfield
Dean of Creative; Catalog University
CEO; J.Schmid