Influential Branding and Design

While there may be many brands competing in any given space, usually there are only one or two major influencers who define the space. The influencers may not necessarily be the most successful, but they make the decisions and release the products that push their industry forward. Today, we’re going to take a look at what makes a brand influential, with a specific focus on the design space.

iPhone 4S vs. Samsung Galaxy III vs. Nokia Lumia 710
iPhone 4S vs. Samsung Galaxy III vs. Nokia Lumia 710. The influence of the iPhone is clear on Samsung and Nokia’s competing phones.

For our first example, let’s take a look at cellphones: Before the iPhone, Nokia and Motorola were the big influencers. Now, for much of the public, every phone is either “a real iPhone” or “something else”. Not that the iPhone is the biggest seller, mind you. Android has a much larger market share, but the iPhone is the influencer. It set the bar for what a modern smartphone should do, and how it should look while doing it.

Tesla Model S vs. Nissan Leaf
Tesla Model S vs. Nissan Leaf. Images courtesy Tesla Motors and Nissan, respectively.

Right now a strong influencer in the automotive space is Tesla Motors. Although they are a (relatively) small car company, they entered the space with the goal of delivering the best electric cars in the world. With their uniquely futuristic designs, and a small, focused line which consists of the Roadster (sports car), Model S (sedan), and Model X (crossover SUV), they have set the stage for a revolution in automotives. Only the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf have managed to gain as much traction in the mindset of the public, and neither have the ‘cool’ factor of Tesla’s models.

What Makes a Brand Influential?
Or rather, how do brands become influential? Let’s take a look:

  1. Fight For Strong Brand Values.
    It’s not hard to see how a Brand with strong values can become an influencer. The key here is that the values need to be stronger than those of others in the market, or at the very least, the influencer is more determined to uphold those values. A willingness to push to be the best, and not settling for ‘good’ are what set influencers apart.
  2. No Compromise. No Committees.
    Brand influencers seem completely unwilling to compromise not only on their values, but also on their design. An example here is that while Dell and other hardware manufacturers, in an attempt to hit every possible demographic, offer a multitude of choice when it comes to computers, Apple offers an iMac (consumer model) and Mac Pro (professional model). It continues into the mobile sphere as well, with MacBook and MacBook pro, as well as the iPhone and iPad each only having one model. The belief that there’s only one best way to do something, sticking to that belief, and ensuring that it is the best are what separates those with strong values from those with the follow-through to make them reality.
  3. Break The Rules.
    Give your brand community less choice. Don’t pander to every demographic. If you’re sure you’re right (and you’ve done the research to back it up), stick to your guns. Common sense in an industry can often amount to “This is the way it’s always been done” with nothing more to back it up. Challenge ingrained notions if you think you’ve figured out a better way. The risks may be great, but the rewards greater.

The companies we’ve looked at so far have studied these guidelines and stuck to them. But what can happen when they lose sight of them?

Past Influencers Can Fall
When a brand loses sight of what made it an influencer, they can fall from the top, and often fall hard. Let’s take a quick look at a couple brands who’ve failed to hang on to their influencer status.

Sony was once a major influencer in home electronics, from the Walkman to their Home Stereos and Televisions, but have lately been overshadowed by Apple and Samsung, who’s Galaxy line of smartphones and tablets give even Apple’s design a run for their money. Sony’s retail stores, called Sony Style, have suffered as of late, and “Sony Style” has picked up the colloquial meaning of “having too many buttons and dials”, a brand-killer in this age of touch screens and simple lines.

RIM was another great influencer, the original smartphone manufacturer who defined the enterprise sphere for phones through the late nineties and early 2000s. Unfortunately, their designs stagnated throughout the mid-2000s and Apple leapfrogged them with the release of the iPhone in 2007. RIM has yet to recover.

Becoming an influential brand can be tough, especially when it comes to design and technology, but if you’ve got the core values, as well as a willingness to stick it out and fight to the top, your brand can become an influencer too.

Are there any brands that you think are on the verge of becoming influencers? What brands do you think are losing their influential status? We’d love to hear your comments.


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