"Is your brand breakable?" That's the key, and most provocative question posed by Martin Lindstrom in Brand sense: Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound (Free Press; $26.00). While some people might immediately think that this is a book for people in product marketing—and it is—I would submit that it is just as much for designers and engineers, for the people who are responsible for creating products, as it is for people who are responsible for bringing those products to market.
The issue of breakability is a rather interesting one. In 1915 Earl R. Dean, a designer with the Root Glass Company in Terra Haute, Indiana, was given an assignment: create a bottle that is so distinctively shaped that even if it is broken someone would be able to discern what it is. Dean created the Coke bottle. Lindstrom takes that notion and proposes that products from other brands should be as breakable as the Coke bottle and still as readily defined. This doesn't necessarily mean smashing something to bits and then trying to suss it out, but something as simple as removing a logo: take that badging from a car, and does the vehicle itself say where it came from? To be sure, there are some vehicle manufacturers that have done a good job by protecting some discernable features and attributes so that their products are breakable. A good example—one that he doesn't include—is Jeep. The people who protect that flame ought to be given high marks.
His bigger argument is that companies should take a more holistic approach to product development and marketing, one that combines attributes beyond the visual. Coke not only has that bottle, but a distinctive taste. Lindstrom actually gives high marks to the auto industry for being pioneering in paying attention to various attributes, beyond simple appearance. For example, he points out that when Porsche introduced the 911 in 1963, the company was actually going to introduce the "901"—but "Peugeot owned the rights to all three-digit model numbers of any combination with a zero in the middle." He says that Honda engineers involved in developing the TSX "methodically refined the design of the door sashes to reduce high-frequency resonance when the doors shut. They also designed a special 'bumping door seal' that purposefully transmits a low-frequency vibration to the door itself, creating a sound of 'quality.'" Drawing from comprehensive international marketing research conducted for the book, he writes, "The way a car feels when we sit inside it and run our hands over the steering and controls is important to 49 percent of consumers making a choice. Less than 4 percent of the people surveyed suggested that the tactile feeling of a car is irrelevant." He reveals that "Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent reproducing the distinct smell of the 1965 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce" and that "Now, before each new Rolls-Royce leaves the factory, the unique smell of Rolls-Royce is added to the undersides of the car's seats to re-create the smell of a classic 'Roller.'"
While these and other examples are interesting, I wonder if they are essentially exceptions and not the rule. How many vehicle manufacturers provide distinctive, valued cues throughout their entire product line, not cheesy logos or add-on trim bits? I suspect there are many executives at companies who look at the so-called "jewelry" that they're now installing in interiors and calling it good. Sorry. That isn't it. Not by a long shot.
If you can't break it, then you're going to end up paying for it.