13 November 2006
Karen Webster, Strategic Leader for Fashion, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia
Karen Webster, Strategic Leader for Fashion, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

We are returning to an era of product being the hero rather than the catch phrase or promotional tools used to endorse it, if the product looks better, feels better, performs better, then customers will buy it despite what trademark logo is hanging off it. In the past ten years many design industries have been caught in the spiral of marketing bravado presented in the guise of branding, while the craft of creation has become secondary. But, according to RMIT's Strategic Leader of Fashion at RMIT, Karen Webster, there is hope for the future.

Webster told an international conference that design had been undervalued for the past decade with marketing, promotion, image creation and branding the focus of creativity within product-focused organisations.

Webster was speaking at the Fifth European Academy of Design Conference in Barcelona. Here is an excerpt of her speech:

Marketing research, as opposed to design research, is considered worthy of investment because it is seen to directly increase sales and profitability and is a measurable investment. Ironically designers have not been in a position to drive the development of product; this control has been at the hands of marketers who believe they define the markets and link to the consumer.

The three core sectors of activity within any organisation that develops product are: design and product development, sales and marketing and production. All three areas should function effectively as independent concerns while being able to operate harmoniously as a team. With the phenomenal growth of branding, the sales and marketing component of the equation has not only increased in significance but has taken precedence over the areas of design and production.

The question now can be asked; in this era of branding do companies even have to bother with what they design anymore, has the product become so undermined that the image it represents by way of advertising and promotion outweigh everything else? As an eternal optimist, I believe that not all hope is lost.

In the past ten years, the consumer has become accustomed to the bombardment of advertising and marketing propaganda that surrounds the purchasing of product. The phenomenon of branding has become commonplace. I believe the brand bubble is about to burst. A new era is evolving; the cash registers are not singing the merry tunes as they were ten years ago. As branding becomes more intrusive, the more the consumer becomes immune to it.

I hope to reinvigorate an interest in design and creation. Innovation must happen on many levels but first and foremost with the product itself. There is a perception within the commercial world that you cannot create an interesting product without a viable sales and marketing strategy, as this provides and opens up the distribution channels to the consumer: this is without question an acceptable notion.

BUT equally it should be heralded that one cannot establish an effective sales and marketing strategy without viable product to accompany it. In the past decade, we have been driven by marketing and branding and not enough consideration has been given to product development and design innovation. The two areas of marketing and design should be intrinsically linked with a concerted effort being applied to both areas. The formula for success in creative organisations has to be the two working in tandem. A successful organisation requires instigators, innovators and astute marketers.

The future of design is bright; a well-designed product can fulfill its promise, that is; it simply is a well-designed product. We are returning to an era of product being the hero rather than the catch phrase or promotional tools used to endorse it, if the product looks better, feels better, performs better, then customers will buy it despite what trademark logo is hanging off it. No longer should organisations be mono-focussed on the brand being the be all and end all. To quote Martin Raymond, editor of Viewpoint: "... raising false expectations lays advertisers open to criticism, especially if the products they push end up being nothing special."

Before there are celebrations in the streets of design centers around the world, designers beware; this will not be a license to create more and more product in the hope that organizations will yearn greater profits. Currently the public sees the stores full of 'stuff,' overloaded shelves, and bulging racks and the constant screaming sale signs, this is not positive for anybody in creative industries, whatever role they perform in the supply chain. As price gets driven down, within design industries, companies need to assess whether it adds any value to their merchandise. Cheaper does not equate with more sales but more 'stuff' clogging up retail outlets.

Customers may very well ask themselves, "Do we have enough stuff, why do we need to buy more?" Two-dollar stores around the world have a lot to answer for. The cycle of excessive consumption has been forced down the throats of potential customers and they are starting to respond with boredom and complacency. Mass production has brought speed, efficiency cheaper prices but it also has brought diminished standards, and the strategy of most companies appears intent on chasing the mighty dollar, which can sacrifice the ability to truly profit.

Consumers today are offered the choice between commoditised volume product (focussed on price) and branded upmarket merchandise (focused on image). There lies an opportunity for developers of creative product to assess the viability of reinvigorating the middle market by creating product that is well designed, innovative and which offers good value. Value is a concept that shouldn t be automatically linked to lower priced merchandise. Fundamental to creative industries, success into the future is quality manufacturing and materials.

One of the major problems with the onslaught of branding is that many product categories started to work to similar formulas and the merchandise offered to the consumer did not have a point of difference. Clothing designer Paul Smith maintains: "It's the lack of individuality which is detrimental to design, because design is about an idea. These days, it's not about an idea any more, it's about marketing."

Style copying has been a phenomenon throughout the global design industries for a number of years. The consumer sees the same product everywhere and then hears claims that it is original, which potentially means that they only lose respect for all involved.

A consumer reaction to the phenomenon of homogeneity in product categories will possibly be realized in a return to design, an era is emerging that will see creation become important beyond adaptation, a time when consumers will seek out unique product. Creativity is returning to the domain of smaller independent design groups and the focus is moving away from the big brands that have dominated the scene for the past few years.

Designers have found themselves victims of a system ruled by consumption: coming up with new ideas on a constant basis for the sake of feeding the system. In this blur of free enterprise, it is time to stop the spinning wheel. David Shah who is the publisher of Viewpoint and Textile View publications claims that: "Designers are moving back to the notions of sustainable design value and meaning in products rather than planned obsolescence and novelty. Marketers are beginning to think once again in intellectual rather than celebrity and no-brow terms."

One potential area that needs to be considered in this environment is the concept of design that lasts - sustainable design. Customers will search out best friend products, items that we develop relationships with, trust and enjoy having around. This core trend will strongly influence product directions into the next five years. In the search for design that customers have confidence it means that certain product categories will thrive.

Firstly, the basics that represent functionality and no nonsense approach to product development; secondly, the classics, capturing our inclination for all things nostalgic while providing us with the comfort of what we know. The third and most vibrant category is that of unique product, the search for items with a point of difference that stimulate, excite and challenge the user.

In the search for unique product we will see a reaction to the frustration that has emerged with globalisation and consequently there will be resurgence in the appreciation of locally produced merchandise that reflects the peculiarities of its inherent culture. A concept termed by Faith Popcorn as 'Locouture,' she claims that it s sparking a return to old fashioned cottage industries, since the quantities are too small for mass production.

For global brands to survive during this period of individualism and personalisation they will need to rethink strategies. Customers are searching out product that offers integrity and value and this means more than buying into the promises implied by the logo. Product focussed organisations have now had to move on from the 1990 s notion of branding as the key focus. The modern consumer is now looking for multidimensional products that have to have soul, integrity and a philosophy, a concept that is not easily realised. How does a designer just whip something up that has soul, integrity and a philosophy?

Ederfield and Horton writing in the UK publication, FW claim: "What is happening is a literal back-to-basics and a doing away with advertising gloss in favour of more honest persuasion. Marketing is the enemy of authenticity, seems to be the message."

A new era is upon us and there are real opportunities for creative industries to grasp the moment to promote excellent design, quality production combined with a socially responsible infrastructure. It is as if a new word needs to be developed to capture 'branding' within this new context. Brands will have a future albeit a rocky one. By contrast, design that is well considered, innovative and socially responsible and which provides the consumer with a sense of fulfilment has a positive future. At last, the product will be the hero again what fun for all of us!

Karen Webster

Karen Webster is the Strategic Leader for Fashion at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia where she manages the fashion programs, from degree through to doctorate level. Karen is highly regarded in the industry as a consultant and public speaker. Her specialist areas of expertise include an in depth knowledge of trend forecasting, consumer analysis, colour trends and design directions.

Karen completed her M.A. degree, in 1997 and is currently working on her PhD, which researches whether fashion has a social conscience within our contemporary culture. Karen is the Australian representative for Paris based group; Studio Edelkoort, which publishes trend information under the company Trend Union and creates the publications View on Colour and Bloom.

Karen currently sits on the Board of the Melbourne Fashion Festival, and has served as a board member on the Australian Fashion Foundation, the Government committee for India Australia Education in the TCF industries and The Industry Development Board for Wool for the South Australian Government.