As one of the very few product designers at the SuperHumanism conference, I was bemused by its strong, over-simplistic tone of demonisation: globalisation is bad, brands are bad, technology is bad, and consumers are powerless.
But what really disturbed me was that a gathering of communication professionals, supposedly people dedicated to defending the rich depth and diversity of the human race, seemed to be searching for nice simple glossy answers. Perhaps this was just a professional reflex.
The reality in my profession is that globalisation can be a powerful force for good as well as bad. Bad brand expression is, of course, clumsy and intrusive. But good brand expression is benign, even entertaining.
John Maeda of Massachusetts Institute of Technology also showed that technical knowledge doesn’t somehow disable our poetic and humanistic instincts.
Finally, consumers are most definitely king. There is no failure more damning than consumer indifference.
Besides, Naomi Klein defeats her own arguments on this issue: describing how mass indignation forced Nike to accept responsibility for the behaviour of its sub-contractors.
The grey answer to the black and white SuperHumanist question is that it is the culture within organisations, built on the ethics of individuals, from the top down, that determines if globalisation, branding and technology are forces for good or bad.
My view of this culture ‘from the inside’ has an ironic twist: I often encounter the arrogant belief that branding and packaging matter more than product and this fuels a reliance on classical ‘big budget’ media.
As a result, media spend diverts precious investment from the creation of the real tangible offer. Companies which behave ethically and make easy-to-use products tend to be those which make sure that ad and packaging spend still leave enough budget for product development.
They are companies like Apple, or Audi, where brand image is impeccably managed, but the product is king, and brand expression is all about delivering great customer experiences, not painting the town red.
The public has an intuitive sense of this. Nike’s experiences are no different to those of any brand when marketing starts believing the brand is bigger than its product. Nike-Town outlets might make buying shoes more fun, but that just makes them better shoe stores.
Maybe it’s time to talk about branding ethics: only make a promise that you believe you can deliver. Accept that Walter-Thomson was wrong: the brand is not more important than the product.
Tangible product look and feel is in fact the strongest, and most ethical form of brand expression. Maybe marketing departments and others could relieve their anxiety about the modern world by diverting resources away from the shallow, wasteful and intrusive media that get the bad PR and experiment with marketing strategies like the one used by VW USA on the new Beetle campaign, which says: ‘Show them the product and get out of the way’.
Alloy Total Product Design