Food Is Food Is Food. Or Is It?

Quick Read: Good design can drive a price premium –  and this adage could hold good even in a category like perishables. 

Have you heard of flour by Prada, infant formula by Chanel, coffee by Cartier,  fruits by Nike and pasta by Ferrari?

coffee1

(Source: Peddy Mergui: Wheat is Wheat is Wheat)

Well they do ineed exist. Albeit as exhibits by Peddy Mergui under his series titled Wheat is Wheat is Wheat. These funny and provocative exhibits challenge our notions of branding and perception by casting them against a category like perishables/food.

Eggs by Versace anyone?

Let’s drop brand names for a moment and see how else can a product possibly command a price premium. We know tons of examples across different categories where design has helped a product command a premium.

Now, could design play a prominent role in commanding a premium within a category such as perishables? These two examples prove this point.

1. Whole Foods: 

When it comes to applying design for selling something as commoditised as veggies, there’s only one name. Whole Foods.

Avinash Kaushik recently posted this picture and the following lines regarding what he found at a Whole Foods store.

Avinash Kaushik Whole Foods

(Source: Avinask Kaushik)

“Do we shop at Whole Foods simply because the produce is so exquisitely displayed? And we pay a premium?

I think there is something to that. Look at it! Everything so perfectly symmetrical and lovely. There was a sprinkling of mist on all the veggies, drawing out the color and freshness.

For an engineer, me, all this organization definitely had an impact. It looks good, it shows people care deeply about the food, they went into extra trouble, it must be all good (and it was!).

What a great way to get someone to pay a premium.”

His lines encapsulate everything in this context.

2. Nuna Ice – Cream:

Billed by PSFK as a molecular-gastronomy popsicle that is set to take next summer by storm, Nuna is a design innovation in ice-cream born at the intersection of disciplines such as architecture, design and science.

Nuna(Source: Nuna)

According to it’s spokesperson, the Nuna Popsicle is design innovation in a crystal/pyramid shape, and stands for the ultimate refreshment that reflects the sensation of ice crystals bursting on the tongue while causing a unique and intense tingling in the mouth.

While it is expected to have a soft launch in art openings, fashion shows and music festivals during 2015, Nuna – which got its name trademarked recently – is expected to contract with a major manufacturer soon. (source)

Now that’s form following taste!

(Featured Image: Tiffany & Co Yogurt byPeddy Mergui)

Remarkable And What Lies Beyond

When you look at a photograph, read a novel or eat at a good restaurant what do you expect?

A good capture of a single moment in time, a nice story and a decent meal. Right?

What if these expectations are messed up and you need to discover for yourself a whole new experience in consuming these products/services? Let’s start with Stephen Wilkes.

The Photograph

Each photographer tends to have an area of interest. i.e., a fascination of architecture or people or nature etc. But what if as a photographer, you are fascinated by architecture and people and cities and also nurture a love of ‘shooting history’? Stephen Wilkes is one such guy and has a way of going about it.

  • He starts at a vantage point that can afford a panoramic view of the location of an iconic land mark
  • Then he shoots what he calls the ‘naked plate’ – a shot of the land mark with absolutely no one in it – in other words  a completely deserted landscape of the location
  • Then over a span of over 12 to 15 hours from dawn to dusk in a day, he takes nearly 1,500 pictures of the same location from the same angle, while also taking mental notes of the shifting landscape and the random events unfolding below him
  • After this action at the location, he then selects about 50 final shots from which to over lay the final composite picture that seamlessly merges the action that had unfolded between dawn and dusk at that single place in a single shot!

Result – pictures of a place that are panoramas in ‘Day to Night’ that can throw your brain off the hook. Each picture in this series can look like a magical landscape suspended along a tapestry of time. Don’t believe me? Then let his pictures from his newest body of work titled ‘Day to Night‘ do the talking.

Shanghai

(Stephen Wilkes, Source, Shanghai, Bund)

Times Square

(Stephen Wilkes, Source, Times Square)

The November 25 Edition of TIME features a photo essay based on Stephen’s work. As the article puts it,

A lot can happen between sunrise and sunset especially when Stephen Wilkes is photographing it. 

The Novel

OK, so this is going to be difficult. For how do I write about a book that redefines the very experience of a book?

S. – a novel by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, released on Oct 29th 2013 is a first of its kind experiment in book design, layout, narratives and structure. It is a book that stands out because of its unprecedented ambition, creativity and inventiveness.

For the first time you might actually feel a need for a ‘guide’ on how to read a novel! There are three enmeshing story lines in S. :

  • First you have the story in this book by name “Ship Of Theseus”
  • Second you have the mystery about the fictional author of this book by name V.M. Straka
  • And third you have the dialogue between the two readers of this book by name Jennifer and Eric, who communicate to each other via hand written notes along the margins and inserts

Designed by the New York-based design firm Melcher Media, this is a book that can easily be an inspiration for a generation of designers, writers, novelists, publishers and marketers to come for years! Read this FastCompany article for more details.

As the article says..

It’s difficult to decide exactly how to start reading S.–a sort of 3D Infinite Jest with a pop sensibility–and nearly impossible to imagine how it ever got written.

See this video to get a feel of what is inside the book

Trying to explain this book is like trying to explain the plot of ‘Inception‘ and raving about the genius of its concept. The only way to appreciate the ingenuity of this art form is to get a book and start reading. I – for one – cannot wait to begin my magical adventure with S. and discover a whole new experience of consuming a novel!

The Restaurant

Earlier this month, DiverXo has become just the eighth Spanish restaurant to win an unbeatable third Michelin star. With an unassuming kitchen that measures just 30 square meters, it is the only establishment in the Spanish capital to hold the honour. But that’s not the big deal.

The big deal is how DiverXo – led by the Spanish chef David Munoz – turns every single convention on its head as a restaurant.

  • For starters, upon entering, every diner is given a one page manifesto on how to best enjoy the food in the restaurant. All they need is to surrender every preconceived notion and suspend judgement and just do as they are told
  • Once seated, DiverXo offers a choice between a ‘short menu’ (7 dishes,  €95, lasting 2.5 hrs) and a ‘long menu’ (11 dishes,  €140, lasting 4 hrs).  Both menus are exquisitely choreographed as unprecedented gastronomic experiences by the chefs
  • For e.g., as per TripAdvisor,when a dish arrives on the table prepare to be instructed to eat with even a spatula!
  • And as per this AFP article, no sooner do you dig into say – a raw cod fillet drizzled with boiling olive oil and accompanied by potato skins and pickled chilies, don’t be shocked if a cook bursts in to you and lays on hot mayonnaise
  • Later, as you chew more another chef could arrive with a cream of cod and sea urchin

And the shocks and surprises continue.

rp-diverxo-1

(DiverXo, Artful dishes that push the limits of fusion cuisine, Source)

Besides, as per this AFP article ..

  • Even the design of the food can tend to defy expectation. For e.g., a fiendish ketchup of chili and tabasco makes the dish of duck dumplings and fried ducks’ tongues resemble a blood-splattered murder scene
  • The menu lists not ingredients but rather sensations: sweet, sour and, in the case of one star dish, the “Hannibal Lecter”, sharp

As the article says..

The self-proclaimed “brutal” approach of this tiny eatery, where the cooks rush to add ingredients to diners’ plates mid-bite, has made it one of the most unusual restaurants ever to join the world’s gastronomic elite.

In summary DiverXo is a first of its kind restaurant where the rules are simple: Come with an open mind, trust the chefs, expect to be shocked and prepare to be surprised as you embark on a culinary adventure like never before.

May be food is almost besides the point here. Or may be it’s all about the magically shocking experience of what a restaurant has never been yet!   

All about experiences that redefine the product, category and consumer expectations

So the next time when we think of ‘elevating consumer experience’, it could be worthwhile to remind ourselves of these extra ordinary examples that go beyond this ‘elevating the experience’ mould. Three brave, ingenious and creative examples where the very experience of the product has been redefined, our expectations as consumers defied and all norms of the category disbanded.

So now you know. What lies beyond remarkable?

Magic –  after all –  could indeed be serious business!

Soundscapes And Sonic Tapestries: Part 1/2

See: Visualize :: Hear: (?)

Can you believe that there is officially no word in the English language that can encapsulate this? Doesn’t exactly do justice to our ability to invoke our mind’s ear to identify, create, re-create and remix sounds and thereby trigger emotions, memories and associations within us. No wonder, the aural realm remains an under exploited, and in some cases, under appreciated dimension to inform and enrich our perceptual experience. Take two of our most common habitats:

(1) Our Constructed Spaces (Architecture)  

So far the practice and purpose of architecture was anchored by the ‘eye’ and for the ‘eye’. Ears – apparently – were compelled to take a back seat and thereby had limited influence over design decisions (unless we speak about amphitheaters). Result –  offices, schools, homes, malls, restaurants and the list goes on, that are so poorly designed so much so that they actually do us more harm than any possible good! Not entirely convinced? See this TED video by Julian Treasure:

(2) Nature  

There was a time when wild soundscapes were considered just some exotic/charming artifacts of nature. But as it turns out,every habitat is believed to have its own unique sound signature – a sonic tapestry that can potentially convey an incredible amount of information about the present state and the future fate of any given place/habitat.

First a quick dose of general knowledge. A soundscape is made up of three basic sources:

  1. Geophony: these are non-biological sounds that occur in any given habitat, e.g., wind, water, waves etc.
  2. Biophony: these are sounds  generated by organisms in a given habitat at a given time and place.
  3. Anthrophony: these are sounds that we humans generate. e.g., our music, noise from machinery, automobiles etc.

So at any given point in time and place, anything that we hear is composed of these three kinds of sounds, and can be graphically represented in a Spectrogram – a graphic illustration of sound with time represented from left to right and sound frequencies represented from the bottom to the top, lowest to highest.

In an incredibly ‘earopening’ TED talk that is insightful, shocking, profound, inspiring and immensely thought provoking, Bernie Krause – a natural sounds expert –  proves that while a picture may be worth 1,000 words, a soundscape is worth 1,000 pictures. If there is one TED video that you need to see this week, let this one be the one – a must see:

In many ways these two talks could be said to be a call to action for us to resist our ‘natural’ instinct of zoning out most of the sound that reaches our ears and to start appreciating our faculty of hearing for how it can enrich our perceptual experience.

On a related note, let me submit my following hypothesis:

I started off by saying that in the English language we don’t seem to be having a word that can effortlessly fit in the following context

See: Visualize :: Hear: (?)

My guess would be that there might be some language out there (Chinese? Japanese? Korean? etc) that might have just the apt word for it. If so, my hypothesis would be that, such a country/culture must be having sonically richer traditions, must be producing relatively higher number of music prodigies and must be having general public with greater appreciation of sound and our faculty of hearing. And as an extension, I would also risk a bet that people from such a culture would also be adept at living in the now and here and appreciating everything about it.

Does your language have a word for this?

To Be Continued…

(Featured Image, Source)

Block By Block – A Consumption Focused Design Paradigm

It took more than a 100 years for inkjet printers to become commercially viable. The reason?

Severe interdependence of the components and underlying systems. 

For e.g., even with the slightest change in the chemistry of the ink, the composition of the resistors had to be changed, and this potentially impacted the physical layout of the circuits and so on.  The solution for this?  Modularity of design. 

Wikipedia defines modularity as ..

 the degree to which a system’s components may be separated and recombined.

Today most tools, gadgets, processes, systems, structures, designs that we interact with on a daily basis have modularity built from deep within. Right from the nuts and bolts of a system to the way it has possibly been put together on an assembly/production line, modularity is all pervasive.

In fact it is almost accepted wisdom now among designers and manufacturers that the speed at which an innovation can be commercialized is directly proportional to the speed at which the underlying design (of the system) and the process (of the assembly or integration) is standardized and modularized.

Now consider the above statement in conjunction with the following self explanatory paradigm of Design Thinking evangelized by IDEO, called the Desirability – Viability – Feasibility triad of innovation design. 

IDEO

Based on the above two, my hypothesis is the following:

While modularity in the context of production has almost proven itself to be a pre-requisite for establishing technical feasibility and – in many cases – for driving business viability of a given innovation , modularity in the context of consumption – if done right – can have far reaching implications in seeding the attributes of human desirability for the same.  

Three recent examples that seem to suggest the compelling potential for modularity in the context of consumption as a design paradigm:

(1) Phoneblok: Most of us, by now, would have seen this short video on the idea of building a phone with modular detachable blocks. This  presents the idea of Phonebloks –  hailed as a radical vision of what tech could be. The idea for me, is sheer ingenuity and insight. The possibilities  of such a consumer focused modularity in design seem to be truly empowering and liberating.

(2) NoFlo – A Flow Based Development Environment: The philosophy of Modular Programming is the default standard in most coding systems. But this modularity was mostly – for lack of a better term – limited to the realm of abstraction and ideation, since the corresponding code nevertheless lends itself as ‘strings of spaghetti’ and presents challenges for debugging compilation and logic errors.   With NoFlow as a development environment, modularity can be made more tangible and actionable in order to help inform, structure, design, test, debug and implement a complete software package.  The following is the video put together by the team for their Kickstarter campaign to raise funds (the funding was successful!).

(3) Modularity in content consumption: Unleashing the power of modularity in the domain of content consumption is in fact the name of the emerging game. Platform agnosticism is one of the many ways in which modularity lends itself in the consumption context for services like Amazon, Youtube and now Dropbox.  The latest edition of WIRED in fact features a fantastic story on  Dropbox’s radical plan for a future where “the gadgets are dumb, the features are smart, and data trumps devices.”

Dropbox

So there we have, emerging examples of modularity in the context of consumption (as opposed to only production) and how they promise to pan out in mobile, software design environments and cloud based architectures. Something for the technology powerhouses to sit up and take note? In fact in a recent interview with Forbes Clayton Christensen worries about Apple saying Modularity Always defeats Integration! 

Even in life as usual as we know it, no matter what we do from fixing a meal, concocting a cocktailassembling a piece of furniture, to laying out our Google Newsfeed, there’s always been a sense of joy, an inexplicable sense of desirability that we had for our stuff, for after all, it was our creation.  Step by step. Block by block. Isn’t it?

(Source for the featured image)

Adjacencies and Algorithms

30.56 degrees Celsius.

That’s the temperature at which fungus is normally known to thrive. Now, since fungus is the staple diet for termites, even in the scorching heat of Sub Saharan Africa, they are known to meticulously maintain this constant level of temperature within their mounds.  But how do they pull this off?

The answer for this question has been the inspiration for the design and construction of Zimbabwe’s largest commercial complex – The Eastgate Centre. Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication.

During a Formula 1 race, a car sends hundreds of millions of data points to its garage for real-time analysis and feedback. So why not use this detailed and rigorous data system elsewhere, like … at children’s hospitals?

These tangents of thought are some of the several examples that stand out for the power of combining seemingly different ideas to  arrive at breakthrough concepts and revolutionary designs.  Frans Johansson calls this The Medici Effect in his insightful book by the same name – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of creativity, innovation and ideas. This is very similar to the concept of The Adjacent Possible that Steven Johnson speaks about in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.  

Essentially it is about two things:

  1. Identifying seemingly different or intuitively unrelated ideas and
  2. Combining them together in new and unexpected ways to yield  actionable insights or practical – yet unforeseen –  solutions to existing problems.

One related concept of The Adjacent Possible is what could possibly be called as Meaningful Adjacencies.

Two very interesting ways in which the application of this concept has panned out in the recent past. One in the field of stylometry and the other in ‘commemorative design’.

(1) The Algorithm that declared “It’s J.K. Rowling” 

When The Cuckoo’s Calling – a detective story was released earlier this year, the novel has received lavish praise and the writer one Robert Galbraith was marked as someone to watch out for. But, reportedly The Sunday Times believed that Robert Galbraith was just a pen name for an author who could possibly be a bit more familiar. So on July 11, Professor Patrick Juola received an interesting mail from The Sunday Times. The task? To verify that Ms. Rowling was indeed the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling!

So what did Prof Juola – the stylometry expert do do?  He deployed a computer program called the Java Graphical Authorship Attribution Program (JGAAP) that he had designed to recognize writing styles undetectable by human readers.  He loaded the e-version of The Cuckoo’s Calling into JGAAP, along with several other texts, including The Casual Vacancy, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter novel, set the program running and sat back to watch the fun.

Essentially, the JGAAP algorithm works by comparing the following variables in each of the book within the comparison set:

  • Word-length distribution
  • The use of common words like “the” and “of”
  • Recurring-word pairings and
  • The distribution of “character 4-grams,” or groups of four adjacent characters, words, or parts of words.

While the first two variables are more distribution and frequency related, the last two are adjacency related. Now this was an insight for me-

– that a set of adjacent words / characters / or even part of words can potentially have a unique pattern of their own so much so that they constitute a distinctive signature of their own and can thereby possibly bring out unique attributions to a specific author!

So in just 30 mins, Prof Juola’s JGAAP did confirm J.K.Rowling as the ‘suspected’ author and to his delight the conclusion was later confirmed by Rowling herself!

The interesting question that this now begets is – Should we teach literature students how to analyse texts algorithmically! Well, if an author’s literary signature is hidden deep within the recess of adjacent characters and words and if algorithms can squeeze out meaning from these adjacencies – then, I’d say Why Not?

(2) The ‘Commemorative Calculus’ Of The 9/11 Memorial

Nearly 3,000  men, women, and children were said to have been killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993 on the Twin Towers.  In order to commemorate them, the 9/11 memorial has a very unique feature – the names of every person killed inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the 9/11 Memorial’s twin pools.

National-9.11-Memorial-4a-Credit-Amy-Dreher

(Image Source)

As Michael Arad – an architect of the memorial puts it “(the idea of having the names of all the 3,000 men, women and childen) allows families’ and friends’ stories to be told.” He says “the river of names, without other identification (like age or title or company affiliation), was meant to convey simultaneously a sense of individual and collective loss.”

But it’s here that it gets interesting. These names on first look, would seem to be randomised in their grouping.

However on deeper inspection it becomes apparent that this grouping has been the result of some truly complex set of algorithms based on the concept of Meaninful Adjacencies – whereby each name has been meticulously mapped to each other on the basis of specifics like location, floor, company of a person and laid out in relation to other people based on relevant relationship contexts .

The result?  An intricate mapping of names that commemorates those laid to rest in a deeply compelling way by reflecting thousands of complex interpersonal relationships among them – and thereby telling a story with a real emotional impact.

193921

(Image, Source)

So there we have it – an analytical process that brings in a new twist to the adjacencies of words inherent in an author’s writings and a design paradigm that is predicated on bringing out narratives based on adjacencies of the underlying elements. 

So the next time when someone tells you that new ideas thrive at the intersection/adjacency of seemingly different concepts, tell them that it can literally be the case.

(Featured Image, Termite Mound in Namibia, Source)

The Wabi Sabi Edge

The Ise Grand Shrine – a Shinto Shrine – in Ise, Mie prefecture in Japan has been preserved exactly like it was around 2,000 years ago. Despite such a rich legacy, the UNESCO has refused to list the shrine in its list of historic places.

Why?

Shinto Shrine

(Shinto priests walking beside the Ise Grand Shrine, Japan. Source)

This is because the shrine is not built of a ‘permanent structure’. The ISe Grand Shrine is built of wood and hence it  gradually loses its structural integrity over years. So the Shinto priests have a solution;  every 20 years they tear down the structure and rebuild another – in an adjacent plot –  in exactly the same specifications as the original using the wood from the same forest that the original structure was built from. Result: the shrine  is  forever new,  ancient and original! The present structure, dating from 1993, is the 61st iteration to date and is scheduled for rebuilding in 2013!

A centuries old Shinto belief of death and renewal of nature and the transience  of all things called Wabi- Sabi underscores the philosophical and artistic significance of this shrine. To quote the wiki  page ….

Wabi Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Burning Man

Further to the west, in northern Nevada US is the Black Rock Desert –  an open swathe of desert land where a week long annual cultural festival called Burning Man is held every August/September. This iconic event is described as an annual experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance – a week long celebration of extreme creativity, art, spirituality and innovation. Often compared to TED for its potential to provoke, inspire, connect, indulge or just ‘let be’, Burning Man regularly attracts stalwarts like the Google founders, Eric Schmidt, Chip Conley among many many others. But what makes Burning Man stand out as an exceptional event is the fact that it is transient by nature. The whole venue, the structures and the shelters for the event are practically built from scratch and again torn to dust without leaving a trace at the end of the week!

See below the time lapse video of 2011 Burning Man to appreciate the ‘dust to dust’ cycle typical of the Burning Man.

As Business Strategy

Transience as a method, an approach or a strategy is not just  an expressionist arts style or some exotic charm of a shrine.  It also has far reaching implications on contemporary business strategy. The June 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review features an interesting article by Rita Gunther McGrath on what she calls as Transient Advantage. She argues that  in a world where competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year, companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy. She introduces what she calls as The Wave of Transient Advantage and explains its ‘curve’ (below). Companies possessing this edge constantly start new strategic initiatives, build, exploit, re configure and if need be even actively disengage from an initiative as a means to reprioritise, reinvent and renew their approach to growth.

Transient Advantage

(Wave of Transient Advantage, Source)

She posits that the thinking in this field “has reached an inflection point” leading to an acknowledgment from a multitude of strategy practitioners that “Sustainable competitive advantage is now the exception, not the rule. Transient advantage is the new normal.”

The latest post in the Gaping Void newsletter by Hugh Mac­Leod pays an artistic tribute to this concept through this delightful piece of ‘office art’.

permanent_state

(You must subscribe to his newsletter, sure to make your day!)

Essentially from which ever perspective you look at it – artistic, personal, emotional, professional or even strategic, the ability to accept transience as the new normal, the ability to let go of the status quo to rethink, re-invent and renew our  approach forms the bedrock of the new competitive edge – The Wabi Sabi Edge.

On Looking Back To The Future

Have you ever thought about looking back to the future?

This is not about the acclaimed 1985 Academy Award winning American Science Fiction Comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg – which by the way is a must see.  The question is whether you have ever thought about the notion of ‘looking into the future’ as akin to that of looking back.

Let’s talk about the Aymaras

Apparently this tribe of indigenous people in South America called the Aymara have an unusual way of referring to the future – when they talk about the past, they point to the space in front of them and when they talk about the future, they point behind them. Wonder why?

As Austin Kleon succinctly puts it …

The reason they point ahead of them when talking about the past is because the past is known to them — the past has happened, therefore it’s in front of them, where they can see it.The future, on the other hand, is unknown, it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s behind them, where they can’t see it.

A very thought provoking concept if one begins to think about it.

After embarking upon a mini thought + search experiment, I have come to appreciate that looking back to the future can be more than just a conceptual metaphor of the Aymara’s. My three riffs on this concept:

1. First a relatively straight forward one –  in a very practical sense, the notion of looking back into the future can be said to be closely related to the concept of Retro Innovation. Think about it. Isn’t it? More about it here.

2. We have heard about Chris Anderson‘s concept of The Long Tail. Of comparable significance is Bill Buxton‘s concept of The Long Nose of Innovation – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of Innovation and Design. Flip through the following slide deck to get a gist of what he meant by this in just under 50 – 60s.

He makes a strong case that – any technology that is going to have significant impact over the next 10 years is already at least 10 years old. And thereby says The Future Is History and goes to conclude with the advice –  “Use history to evaluate new concepts and ideas instead of only gut feel”.
So may be next time we ideate within a category/segment for innovation ideas, it might be worthwhile to look for trends that go back to nearly 10 years from now for a change.

3. Lastly, in many ways the concept of looking back to the future could also be related to the idea of photography as time travel.

Irina Werning was a virtually unknown photographer till she embarked on a project called Back To The Future in 2010 (and subsequently in 2011) and the rest as they say is history, with her photographs going hugely viral – even becoming Internet Memes and her project becoming a big sensation. Read more about Irina’s obsession as a photographer to take her subjects back and forth in time through her unique project here. Enjoy the behind the scenes video of the project here.

I find the idea of looking back to the future hugely fascinating and as Austin Kleon says, the Aymara’s way of referring to the future continues to blow my mind no matter how long I think about it.

And you thought History and Innovation make strange bedfellows?

Growing The Core – Innovating With Constraints

In his latest book called Grow The Core, David Taylor makes a definitive case for companies to bring back  focus to their ‘core’ business and thereby SMS (Sell More Stuff that is already being made). He identifies 3 key drivers for this ‘core growth’:

  • Distinctiveness: Creating a distinctive marketing mix for the core to strengthen and drive brand salience
  • Distribution: Boosting distribution / ‘go to market’ via new and relevant channels
  • Core Range Extension: Launching value added extensions to the core-offering

This ‘back to basics’ exposition has been featured as cover story in the latest edition of Market Leader magazine. Don’t s miss it.

Grown Not Made

Successful companies are seen to be doing this really well. For example Kethcup & Sauces with sales of more than $5 billion globally (FY ’12) constitute the ‘core category’ for Heniz (source). In the 2012 Annual Report William R. Johnson CEO of Heinz proudly states (as if to prove the theoretical underpinnings of ‘Grow The Core’ framework)

Notably, we are proving that Heinz® Ketchup is far from mature after 136 years. In Fiscal 2012, our Global Ketchup business delivered excellent sales growth of 9.7% through innovation, increased distribution and continued expansion in Emerging Markets. 

Implication for Innovation 

The key insight for me here is about the possible implication that this “Focus & Grow The Core” strategy has for ‘innovation’. I guess focusing on the core and driving its growth needs an innovation strategy that is driven by tough and uncompromising choices. Tough choices based on questions like:  “What should we stop doing?”, “What should we further strip away from our new offerings in the pipeline”, etc. This might require what is called as “Innovation with Constraints”.

2 Examples:

1. Lego 

lego-story

A decade ago, Lego‘s balance sheet was in ‘red’ and part of their problem was doing too much – Lego had over diversified by moving into theme parks and clothing. And the once primary coloured bricks now came in a palette of 100 colors.

In 2005, one of the first questions the new CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp asked was,“What should we stop doing?” Lego sold the Legoland theme parks and halved the number of colours of bricks they were making. They began asking their designers to innovate with constraints, but to leverage those to become even more creative. Lego returned to profitability that same year. (source)

2. The Economist

With the advent of  iPad (and tablets) while many magazines were quick to launch their iPad Apps that were decidedly rich in their interactive multimedia possibilities (videos, hyperlinks, gifs, dynamic graphs, audio etc),  The Economist tok  a dramatically different approach to appeal to its target group – The Mass Intelligent.

They defined their strategy as Leanback 2.0 and went about designing a magazine App for iPad  that facilitates a real, simple, unfettered ‘Lean Back’ experience for its readers. What does it mean? Andrew Rashbass  –  CEO of The Economist Group says this meant  a conscious editorial decision to strip out even the their basic web innovations from their iPad App (let alone introducing something new).

The Economist(Source)

 Result: A reading experience that is more focused,  uncluttered and distraction free. Go through this insightful presentation by the CEO and read how radical simplicity and ‘finishability’ constitute the cornerstones of their Leanback 2.0 digital strategy.

Do you know of any other examples where a brand chose to focus on its core and made tough choices on its offerings or where a brand innovated within constraints to remain truthful to its core?

‘Method’ to say ‘Hello’ or ‘Help I am Horny’

There have been countless comparisons between how Microsoft ‘speaks’ via design and how Apple does.The best example is this classic  parody on Microsoft designing an iPod packaging.

Obviously neither of this is necessarily an always right/ always wrong approach to designing a pack or a pack  copy: as that depends upon many factors like the brand’s positioning, its design philosophy etc. But the key point here is that whenever any brand comes with a more inclusive/friendly/simple/’or whatever you chose to call it’  kind of positioning and design, it often breaks the ‘category codes’ and thereby creates a distinctive identity and appeal for itself. Sometimes it could even inspire the existing category codes and set new benchmarks (the recent redesign of Microsoft page for its Windows phone is the best example of how dramatically it is shifting away from its ‘past’ towards something that seems to be inspired by the Apple iPhone page)

Examples for this abound – even in categories like OTC Medication, Oral Care and Household Cleaning, where a handful of brands are slowly but certainly inspiring fresh category codes with their new positioning and design philosophy. A quick look at 3 such brands:

Over The Counter Medication:

Stripping away complexities that typical medicinal packaging bombards patients with, help positions itself as a simple medicine for simple health issues based on its “Take Less” philosophy

Take Less

Each package bears a “Help, I…” line of text, such as “Help, I can’t sleep” for a sleep aid, or “Help, I have a headache” for a package of acetaminophen.The simplicity of the packaging matches the promise of the products, which feature no dyes, coatings, and aim to use only the main chemical needed to treat the patient. By the way –  their recent product is called “Help I am Horny” and if you want to use it, you would “need to fill an application to convince them of your sexual superiority”!

Help

Oral Care: 

Imagine:  an army of germs marching  into ‘whatever it is’ only to be attacked by a flood of chemicals leading to a squeaky clean aftermath. Seems familiar? Interestingly, this imagery could be easily applicable to two diametrically opposite categories: Oral Care and (surprise, surprise..) toilet cleansers!

Armed with this insight about the oral care category increasingly assuming the codes of ‘toxic weaponry’ portraying themes of war going on inside your mouth– that need to be eliminated, destroyed & annihilated, Craig Dubitsky created hello– a ‘Seriously Friendly line of Oral Care Products’.

With packaging designed by BMW group’s creative consultancy DesignWorksUSA, hello is an accessible brand for the ‘average consumer’ with the entire mix designed towards one purpose: bring in a fresh breath of friendliness to Oral Care.

HELLO

Household Cleaning

Speak of detergents, dish washing & household cleaning – and it might not always be the  most inspiring conversation and might not always bring a sparkle to the eyes or flushes of joy and excitement.  In 2001, Eric and Adam set out to change this – by creating cleaning products that “people didn’t have to hide under their sinks” and went on to become one of the fastest growing companies in the category. Read their story here.

Method

Method with its stylish, eco-friendly products has not only inspired legions of people with its products (did you hear of MethodLust – an independent blog titled as: “one man’s unsupressed lust for all things method”) it has also inspired people to start companies along similar lines (Craig Dubitsky: founder of hello – profiled above – was a board member for Method).

Speak about enlivening some of the most prosaic categories in consumer marketing.

Colors

Fiskars is the world’s No. 1 scissors brand. Visit its website and you would notice that the landing page features not the picture of its scissors, but just that of its handles – Orange handles, to be precise. Why?

It’s because Fiskars as a brand is synonymous with its flagship product: The Orange-Handled Scissors™ (yes, they really did trademark this name!). Known for its quality and precision the world over, this particular type of scissors has sold over 1 billion since 1967. What is interesting is that these scissors have become so popular that the company has actually registered its trademark Orange color by the name Fiskars Orange®.

(Image Source: Fiskers PDF – The DNA Of a Design)

Today it is one of the most recognized (and imitated) color for a pair of scissors across the world. So much for a color, you’d think?

On April 1, 2012, Seth Godin (author of the best seller: Purple Cow) wrote a blog post announcing that he would henceforth start filing lawsuits against people that use the color purple! He stated that his “lawyers were able to trademark the terms Purple® and Purple Cow®, and beyond that, to get a design patent on the idea of using Purple® in the marketing of a product”. Of course it was an April Fools joke. Interestingly, exactly 6 months after this blog post, this has actually become a reality. Only, it’s not Seth Godin this time. It’s the world’s 2nd largest confectionary brand – Cadbury.

The brand, which had used the purple for more than 90 years, has apparently been locked in a legal battle with Nestlé for the last four years over the use of this color. Nestlé’s appeal was overturned on October 1st 2012 in the UK High Court, where it was ruled that the color has been distinctive of Cadbury for its milk chocolate since 1914. Thereby Cadbury retains the exclusive use of Pantone 2865C purple. (Interestingly, a 2008 book on Cadbury by John Bradley was named: Cadbury’s Purple Reign)

(Image source)

So much for a color, you’d think?

Not till you realize that Purple as a color is associated with royalty, luxury, sophistication, creativity, mystery, and magic. Moreover, by some studies, Purple has been found to be evocative of ‘desire’ and proven to be a good choice for feminine design. No wonder then, Mondelez International – the snacks division of Kraft Foods uses purple as its signature color. (Milka, another major chocolate brand from Mondelez also comes in purple!)

Evidently, Color plays a very important role in a brand’s subliminal messaging and thereby heavily influences its consumers’ perceptions. So major brands significantly investing in owning colors, for all they are worth, has become a common phenomenon.

Luxury Brands are no exception too. For eg, the distinctive “Tiffany blue color” is protected as a color trademark by Tiffany & Co in a number of countries globally. Befitting its luxury credentials, the color is so exclusive that it is produced as a private custom color by Pantone, with PMS number 1837, the number derived from the year of Tiffany’s foundation.

Today it has come to exude the material symbolism of romance and evokes the emotions of care and pampering. In many ways it is associated with all things exclusive and personal – intimately evoking those waves of ‘free spiritedness’ from deep within a women’s heart. May be that explains why a number of luxury brands try their hand at using this iconic color in their branding.

Can you think of any other distinctive color that is owned by a brand?