Make it Better
Harry Rich, Design Council, London, Great
The title of the EDF conference “Image building strategies for competitive
companies” could suggest that image building is somehow a separate, stand-alone
activity within a company and that if a business can only find the right forms
of communication, it can build its competitiveness through its image. I want
to argue that the opposite is the case and that a starting point for competitiveness
is design, not communications. Design is different from communications and design
of products and service must come before communications in any business.
Even the most powerful communication of a bad product will ultimately fail.
Saddam Hussein’s regime devoted enormous resource to communicating with
the Iraqi people, but few would argue that this audience was convinced by the
rhetoric, statues, posters, newspapers or television.
I also want to look at other traditional ways of trying to gain competitive
advantage, like branding, market research, technology, and relying on heritage.
The conference programme asserted that “the economy in the final two decades
of the 20th century was characterised by enormous restructuring in the areas
of industrial production. However, to a great extent reforms to communication
and learning processes were entirely disregarded.”
I am puzzled by this suggestion that communications need reforming because
industrial production has been restructured in the past 20 years whilst communications
and learning have not. In reality it is clear that there has been much more
progress in communications over that time than in many parts of industrial production.
The web is only the biggest, most obvious and most dramatic sign of the revolution
in communications and learning. Think about cell phones, SMS messaging, interactive
TV, email, fax and so on and it is hard to argue seriously that communications
have not been restructured.
By contrast, large parts of industry – especially in Europe – have
tried for too long to go on producing the same old commodity products. They
based their competition strategy on cutting prices and costs instead of designing
products and services that contained real added value for users.
Doing Things Together
I am also worried by Dirk Baecker’s proposition quoted in the conference
material that communications should cease to be about “transferring information”
and be about “doing things together”. First, this is not new. It
is the oldest sales trick in the book: “Trust me – I’m not
selling to you. We’re exploring this together.” And second, it can
be a dangerous form of communication if it is abused.
I recently experienced a great piece of “doing things together”
communication in Marrakech. I visited a carpet showroom where the manager assured
me that he absolutely understood that I did not want to buy a carpet. But despite
this he thought I would be interested in the history of Moroccan and Berber
carpets and how they are made. So we looked at some weaving being done. Then
20 or 30 beautiful carpets were dramatically rolled out whilst he described
their tribal history. I learnt a lot.
Then came the participation – doing things together. My new friend wanted
to know which carpets I liked best. So, just for fun, he taught me the Arabic
words for ‘keep’ and ‘reject’. One by one I had to shout
out whether to keep or reject each carpet. Eventually we reduced the choice
to my two favourites. And then all I had to do was to decide which one to buy!
And I did!
This was very high quality communication. It was certainly not about transferring
information and was all about ‘doing things together’. So it is
not new and, in a commercial situation, it can be damaging. We do not need to
invent new forms of communication. What we do need to do is to be careful about
what communication we use when and for what purpose. What is appropriate depends
on the purpose of the communication. Sales communications become intrusive if
they pretend to be about ‘doing together’. As a consumer I want
information and then I want to make up my own mind. I don’t want to be
persuaded through ‘doing together’. There are only so many carpets
I can use!