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Channel changing: What exactly is a product?

There's a saying I remember from when I worked in advertising; nothing kills a bad product faster than a good ad. That seemed to make a lot of sense when I heard it, but the more I look back I realize that it's defining things so narrowly as to be absurd.

By Nick de la Mare, Associate Creative Director, frog design

There's a saying I remember from when I worked in advertising: "nothing kills a bad product faster than a good ad." That seemed to make a lot of sense when I heard it, but the more I look back I realize that it's defining things so narrowly as to be absurd. What IS a product anyway? A service-based thing like a house cleaner or a mechanic? A single-minded tool like a cup or hammer? Something digital and deeply nebulous like a Wi-Fi network? And what does "kill" mean in a world of constant innovation and updates in both successful and unsuccessful products? To compound that, what role does traditional advertising have to play anyway, especially as word-of-mouth is becoming the TRUE definer of success for so many products.

We're now in a place where production costs are down and competition is up, products are networked into systems, and getting the actual thing into users hands is becoming more important than telling them how cool it could be for them to try it. More and more we're letting people form opinions of their own, and changing the product to better fit those opinions. Brands are alive and sales channels are as elastic as the products themselves. The desire to get product out to individuals and then iterate based on incoming data goes by many names; perpetual beta, direct sampling, open-source, etc., etc., but all adhere to the same core thesis, as Brian Collins puts it: "The singular is often the universal. The more an experience matters, the faster the word goes out in a zillion-channel world."

What does this do to traditional advertising and top-down branding? For one thing you're seeing more and more ad and brand agencies getting into the product game, and that scares the hell out of the traditional players. Carl Alviani wrote an interesting article about it a few months ago in which he states:

"Ad agencies designing products has a sort of apocalyptic ring to it for many traditional ID folks, who may bristle at the idea of product design as just another way of getting people excited about buying. The small mound of moral high ground product designers have seized for themselves over the years is largely composed of statements about making things work better, last longer, offer more relevance. If that makes them sell better, goes the argument, then great, but don't think for a moment that market appeal is the primary motive; that's what ad agencies do. This breeds wariness, and while it might have some justification, it's also a little beside the point: the marketing landscape has shifted dramatically since the claim was first made."

That queasy feeling of reaching too far into the marketing world extends beyond the insecurities of traditional ID'ers. What happens when marketing and product converge; does that change the very essence or power of a product? Does it become more superficial, designed to impress for an instant rather than live with the user for long periods of time? Is superficiality and the short attention span taking over the world? Are we doomed to a Wall-E or Idiocracy like future? Well, perhaps traditional product designers shouldn't be so scared, or better yet, perhaps they're scared of the wrong thing.

Just as the newspaper world was blindsided by digital (the original fear being short-form articles and color in print ala. USA Today), the product design world is about to get a smack-down. It's not from any singular new innovation, but more from the multitude of them. As consumers we're at a tipping point where we no longer need brands or other top-down entities to mediate our experiences for us. In an impersonal world we crave conversation and for the first time we can conduct those conversations with the things we use; whether that comes in the form of constant updates that simulate the back and forth of person-to-person dialog, or through communication between objects where we act as the intermediaries. Strength doesn't come from singular many-to-one messages anymore, it's user-defined, one-to-one and elastic.

Again Brian Collins, "Now, even the best-crafted messages are attenuating to the vanishing-point. Media have subdivided into capillaries, too numerous and often too narrow to measure." Apply those words to a product and you get the Apple App Store; fundamentally a tool used as an opportunity to present the essence of a company in bite-sized pieces, each designed and defined by users for users.

Last word goes to Russell Davis, who pretty much sums it up:

"The point I'm groping towards is that as objects informationalize communication channels are getting built in. And there are ways of doing this that are mass, cheap and easy. Printing. Paper. Ink. RFID. And cleverer phones will be the perfect things to interact with these clever objects. This is what advertising and marketing and media people really need to get afraid of. All this web stuff is going to look like a picnic compared to the horrors that will be dealt to the agency and media businesses when every product has a communications channel built right in. And I suspect it's a channel that most brand-owners will feel a lot more comfortable with. Marketing/advertising was always a necessary evil for most businesses. And  Something bolted onto the culture. And they've never liked ITV. And having to do all this social networking stuff gives most of them the willies. But integrating communication and information into the product is something they can get behind quickly and easily.

I think. I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this but I think it's interesting. I think there's a whole model here that integrates the conversation into the stuff, creating a much more natural relationship between people and things, with much less mediation in the middle."