Apple Computer Co. has revolutionized the music industry through the introduction of its iPod. People now are able to and expect to download their music onto their iPod whenever and wherever they want. Access to tens of thousands of songs are available at a click of a button.
But it is to the iPod itself that people flock, with its contemporary aesthetic for portability, its simple lines and white plastic shell, and its intuitive and easy-to-navigate click-wheel interface.
iPods can be seen everywhere, each person having their own personal DJ that knows their music preferences intimately. It should, because people store their entire CD collection in addition to the songs they download on their iPod. At 6 ounces, it is light, easy to hold and fits in your pocket.
For the plastics industry, the iPod is an example of how material and, in particular, plastic can be core to a brand identity and extend into a larger trend in products. The characteristics of a product have become the core attribute of a branding message. The visual and tactile aesthetics and qualities are one aspect of the delivery of that message.
In the right combination with technology and interface, materials can drive new trends for consumers. They also have worked with aluminum manufacturers as well, in both separate and combined uses of aluminum and plastic that have created a unique suite of products with a clear brand message.
Apple has built its whole ``i'' series on pushing the use of plastics in the computer industry. The first iMac introduced color and transparent plastics into a dull gray industry. Competitors are working to get market share from Apple in the MP3 market. Most of the other companies want to have more options - for example, longer battery life - but they miss the point.
The concept of ease of use and joy are at the core of what the Apple ``i'' series provides. Loyal consumers feel that Apple connects to their own lifestyle. They openly parade their products as part of their extended identity.
The creative use of material has been the leading symbol of Apple's new identity and complements interface and internal technology. The use of plastics in all the Apple products requires an integration of industrial design, engineering and manufacturing. The ability to turn new corners in the encasing of technology with plastics is a major key to Apple's success and what other companies cannot copy because they lack the ability to integrate disciplines.
Apple succeeds by reading trends, and that ability can provide immense profit opportunities. The challenge for companies is how to translate such insights into products and services. Niall FitzGerald, of Unilever and Reuters fame, talked about trends as analogous to the ocean waves and companies as surfers.
He said in a Wall Street Journal article ``On Buy-and-Purge Strategy, Need to Keep Changing'' (May 24, 2004), ``You can be the best surfer in the world. But if you sit with your surfboard on a flat ocean, you won't go very far.'' The challenge is to find the waves and then ride them. The bigger the wave the harder the challenge, but the greater the reward.
As a first reaction to the idea of ``trend reading,'' many people assume that the task is to foretell the distant future. But the real task is to understand the present and near future. Given the increasing pressure of time-to-market and the increased speed in turning ideas into products, the idea of reading the distant future is less relevant.
We favor an approach called ``anticipatory design,'' used by cutting-edge, consistently innovative companies like Apple. In many cases, extrapolation to the future is straightforward after one understands the present. For instance, a well-known trend is the aging of the baby-boomer generation. There is both a short- and long-term trend with global aging.
While most companies are just waking up to this trend, Oxo International Ltd. has developed more than 500 products in the past decade based on understanding the impact of aging on the design of tools for everyday use in the home.
The key to Oxo was the realization that products could be enhanced through the use of neoprene. It used the right durometer of material that produced a handle soft enough to hold and hard enough to control and put in the dishwasher.
As an aid to identifying and understanding trends, we use a framework of three broad areas: social, economic and technological. The idea is that these three main categories are a dynamic window into what the market has and what it wants.
In other words, it helps you see where there are gaps between what products are on the market and where there are opportunities to introduce new products. We call these product-opportunity gaps.
The social factor looks at cultural, lifestyle and political aspects of a market. The economic factor focuses on the buying power and buying focus of a market. The technological factor summarizes advances in new uses for technology within a niche area. The social, economic and technological factors together summarize a given, often narrow, market segment or focus. They are dynamic and can be driven by or lagged by any one of the factors. The goal is for any company to constantly read these factors and look for opportunities to create new products. The power behind the factors is that they are constantly changing. The best companies read the factors in the present tense and react to changes as they occur.
Companies such as Apple and Oxo that consistently are able to introduce great products have learned to read those trends and are leaders of industry. Often, the products of tomorrow emerge from trends; at times they create the trends.
The iPod has done just that. Its aesthetics, enabled in the original by its use of plastics, has created a new expectation in personal products.
The implications of the iPod are significant in what people expect in a music product or service. Only the songs people want are downloaded. The need for a physical CD to hold gives way to choice and variety.
For those who download complete CDs, there are Web sites from which the CD cover can be printed. But for many, the album cover no longer is needed or desired. The social aspects of sharing move to a new level with international participation in shareware sites.
The iPod holds more music than most people own, and organizes it far better than most people organize their CD collection. The concept of portability has implications to producers of environments where people listen to music. Already BMW includes a connection for the iPods within some cutting-edge-performance vehicles: Customers can take their entire music collection into their car, play it over 10 speakers and then take it with them when they leave.
We believe that the core to a corporation's brand equity is in the quality of experiences consumers have with their products and services. The intelligent use of plastics to generate the right look and feel for a product can be a major component in making the core experience successful.
The connection of consumer insights in emerging trends and a seamless integration and translation by an integrated team of industrial design, engineering and manufacturing are required to achieve the level of success that Apple enjoys. The ability of plastics manufacturers and chemical engineers to partner with companies to generate new attributes for plastics, and the ability to push existing materials in new ways, are key to the industries' abilities to meet the challenge of the ongoing battle of material suppliers.
About the book:
The Design of Things to Come: How Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Products was published by Wharton School Press in June 2005. It has been excerpted here by the authors.
About the authors, who have been consultants to a range of companies:
* Vogel is director of the Center for Design Research and Innovation and a professor in the College of Design Architecture Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.
* Cagan is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
* Boatwright is an associate professor of Marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.