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Thought Leadership

Coveting Cult Objects

Iconic products can endure for generations. So, how can inspired product design shape perceptions of your brand over time?

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How can it not? A well designed product is one that not only performs its function well, it makes a statement and creates an emotional bond that people identify with. People buy 4-wheel drives, not because they are going off road, but because it says, “Look at me, I am a free spirit, I can go wherever I like”. They buy an Apple watch, not because it tells the time, but because it says “early adopter” and they might buy an Swiss Army knife to say “I’m resourceful”.


The Cross & Shield logo is enshrined in boyhood legend, and the term “Swiss Army knife” has entered popular culture as a metaphor for usefulness and adaptability. As the original multi-tool, the Swiss Army knife is the cornerstone product of the Victorinox brand. Rightly an icon the world over, this product has become synonymous with, quality, functionality, innovation and iconic product design.

As a striking example of a product-led brand, Victorinox illustrates how sticking resolutely to core values can ensure longevity. When heightened airline security measures decimated the brands bottom-line sales in 2011, these closely held values successfully guided the brand into closely aligned product territories—such as professional & domestic knives, watches, luggage and apparel.


“There’s nothing you can’t do if you have a Swiss Army Knife a roll of duct tape and your wits.”

Fictional 80’s TV legend MacGyver


We have reached a point that, unless we are developing products with a totally new, never-seen-before technology, most have already been done a 100 times. So what does doing it again with possibly some extra functionality say about your company? The functions of most products are so refined, that in most cases we are only effecting minor evolutionary changes. What is left to differentiate them and what does this say about your brand and ultimately your company?

Image trying to sell the same kettle with a slightly better, possibly cheaper, cut-out switch; how would this sell higher volumes or say anything about your company?

Now imagine if industrial designers were involved and not just the engineering or marketing department. If, every time a customer picked up your kettle, it just felt so good to touch or pour and the styling, well that styling made them feel so good they wanted to put it as centre piece for all to see. This is Product Design making products that lead brands.

I once worked with a major appliance company that thought that if the competitor’s washing machine had 18 programs, they needed 19! Try as we might we could not convince them otherwise. They were driven completely by their sales department and were missing the point. They were trying to leverage existing branding and customer loyalty, but adding no value to the brand message.

All we were able to do, was create a more friendly styling and interface, but what was really needed was to make the machine simpler, reducing redundant functions and programs. Make the chore of doing washing a pleasant experience and have the machine say, “We understand all you want is clean clothes – we will do the work, you have better things to do.” If this project had been led by product designers this understanding would have been conveyed through a more integrated approach and encouraged the product to be a positive “spokesperson” for their brand.


“You don’t entertain, guide, play or work with your customers every day; but they do with your products.”

Apple is always the go-to company when illustrating what great product design can achieve. How it can set you apart from the herd. Make your brand desirable, credible, valuable, profitable. If you look a little closer you’ll notice that they have not always been the first or best with their products. They borrowed ideas or technology from others, but what they did was to embody their company’s ideals, vision, personality – their total brand – into their products.  They placed a high value on their product design department and its ability to deliver build their brand through coherent, inclusive design.

You don’t entertain, guide, play or work with your customers every day; but they do with your products. Your products are your brand spokesmen and ambassadors of your company. They shout out to the world what your brands and company stand for. Your mission, goals, values and ethics. Don’t let them sell you short. Use product design to lead your brands and you can look forward to becoming brand leaders.


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About the Author:

Gary Bortz

Gary is a Sydney based industrial designer and product innovator renowned for elevating everyday projects to benchmark level with his essentially human approach to product design. ...Read More