Superficial Is Not Superficial

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Superficial is not superficial any more. People make decisions based on their senses and not just on features, pricing, etc.

Superficial is not superficial

Design is emotion. Finish is feelings.

Consider the Maruti Ritz. Ostensibly it has been designed for a slightly more practical and “settled” audience than its older sibling – the Maruti Swift. Yet it has a quirky touch that recognises the youthful character of even its more practical buyers. This is a separate pod for its rev counter perched upon the top of the dashboard. Why has this little touch been added to a model that seeks to appeal to a more “sober” audience? Does it really make a difference? Why the dashboard and not somewhere else?

Maruti has become increasingly innovative and adventurous when it comes to automobile design. It took a big risk when it launched the Maruti Swift. The car was not the most spacious. The all-important back seat felt a bit claustrophobic with the small rear windows. It didn’t have the most practical boot. Yet what it did have was a lot of “attitude” – a bit like a modern interpretation of the classic Mini. The difference was made with numerous little touches. The way the roof apparently “sat” on top of the car with the pillars that supported it blacked out. The curvature of the rear hatch and the chunky rear lights. The flared wheel arches and the mischievous “face” of the car with its curving headlights and almost dome shaped bonnet. The net effect was a car that looked sprightly, full of energy, crouched to take off yet very confidently planted on the road. It was the closest thing to a “hot” hatchback in India.

In the entire description above there is not mention of BHP, engine configuration, mileage, interior dimensions, etc. In fact the first response to the car is usually entirely visually driven. This is not a niche car. It has been one of the hottest selling models for Maruti. Is it the most practical? Not really. Does it have competition? In terms of category it certainly has, but in terms of pure visual appeal – not really.

So coming back to the Ritz and its unusual pod. What the Swift did was to underline the power of imaginative design. A lesson Maruti has taken well as its latest cars show. When it did launch a fairly plain and “practical” car, the Zen Estilo it met with scant success (ironically the little box had advertising that claimed it was a contrast from other econo-boxes!). So even the Ritz,  a so-called “practical” alternative to the Swift, has small touches that give it a distinctive character because in a country with an average age approaching just over 26 years no one wants to feel “average” and a car is no longer viewed in purely practical terms. So while “The Ritz is designed to reach out to those who want practicality and comfort, the Swift to the younger and sportier of heart” (Autocar July 2009) it still presents an imaginative “face” to its driver. And that is why it is a masterstroke to put the quirk right there in front of the driver’s face while keeping the rest of the car quite practical. It is also interesting that the maximum external design elements have been reserved for the rear of the car – a view that most will see when stuck behind it in one of our ubiquitous traffic jams.

The crucial lesson here is two-fold. First people in India are becoming increasingly more attracted to imaginative design. This is not a niche trend but a mainstream one. if you have doubts just look at what has happened to the “mass” 100cc commuter motorcycle market. Even the highest selling Hero Honda Splendor keeps being refreshed and was a design leap forward when it was first launched. The softer more flowing lines contrasting well with its more angular supposedly “muscular” competition. And these smoothly flowing lines mirrored the legendary smoothness of the bike itself. When you have a piece of plastic or metal to turn into a product you can make it dull and straightforward or you can shape it imaginatively and probably create far greater attraction. Even the Tata Nano – which despite being the world’s cheapest car did not look it. Interestingly “Among the three variants of the Nano car, the base version accounted for 20% of the bookings, followed by the CX variant at 30% and the remaining 50% for the top-end LX variant.” (ET 16/7/09). So the car looked good enough for people to opt for the top of the line options and not the cheapest one. Clearly the imaginative design has helped to bestow greater attractiveness to the car. The weakness for the Nano has been more to do with positioning than the product.

In other categories as well the looks of the product makes a big difference to its perceived value. And that is not surprising for two reasons.

The first is that our emotional responses play a far greater role in the choices that we make than we accept. In fact it is well-known that the rational mind evaluates choices but the emotional mind takes decisions – finally decides which one we will go for. In a world of increasing product performance parity the heart often becomes the engine for differentiation. Hence choosing between TV, washing machine, motorcycle, car, credit card, hotel, school and sometimes even hospital brands boils down to emotional factors such as trust, status, enjoyment, pride, etc rather than rational factors such as performance and capability. Often rational factors are used to justify what are essentially emotional decisions. “The latest findings in neurobiology appear to show that consumers are overwhelmingly motivated by sensory-emotive responses to advertising and products. Consider the following statistics:

95% of thought is not fully conscious

over 50% of the brain is devoted to processing visuals

emotional responses to anything new in the marketplace typically happen within three seconds which is 3000 times faster than our conscious, rational response
(10 Rules For Marketing To The Senses, Dan Hill Sensory Logic Inc., Admap Magazine June 2004, Issue 451)

The second is that our responses are often driven by our senses and not just sense and rationality. “Most semioticians will tell you straight away that the branch is the Western world’s increasingly visual culture, in which everything is reduced to appearances, in which we have raised entire generations who are visually extremely literate, can see straight through advertising and can concentrate on video games for hours on end, but cannot finish a book, in which first impressions matter more than ever, in which elections are won and lost on techno-savvy and telegenic appeal, in which your photo travels more than you do, in which your very existence, in the end, is a matter of how you were seen.” (Futurology through Semiotics, Dr Rachel Lawes, Lawes Consulting, Market Research Society Annual Conference, 2009).

“While branding elements clearly have a key role to play in building and sustaining intensity, at the heart of the majority of these relationships sat an intensified product experience, often described in polysensory terms. Touch, smell, taste, feel, appearance, sound, great design – these are the modalities that frequently drive a great brand relationship, either separately or in powerful combinations. Above all, these consumers were focused on the product experience first, the brand relationship second. Apple revolutionised its image in personal computers some years ago by bringing colour and radical design to its iMac series.” (Get Real: The Return of the Product – Greet Sterenberg, Research International’s Qualitatif, Malcolm Baker, B/R/S Group Market Leader, Issue 30, Autumn 2005)

If you think this only applies to luxury, high precision or high tech products think about what the Maglite is to the humble electric torch, what a Zippo is to a cigarette lighter or what Gillette has done with a simple razor blade.

Clearly what has been viewed as “superficial” in the past is no longer so. Apple does not just make computers, phones and MP3 players that work well, but also that look and feel good. The decision to choose an Apple product is more often than not at least equally driven by quasi-emotional reasons such as aesthetics and styling as by rational ones such as product specifications. Ignoring this results in poorer return. Part of the reason that the Tata Indica has to be sold at less than a premium is because once you sit inside it the fit and finish is appalling. Bits of plastic do not meet other bits, fasteners are clumsily placed and exposed screws give the feeling that the car is literally screwed together.Take a look at the Mahindra Xylo and the Toyota Innova. When you sit inside the Xylo the absence of detail attention to fit and finish is glaring. When you look at it from the outside the strange styling is striking and not necessarily in a positive way – the word “oddball” comes to mind. The Toyota may have fewer features and be far more expensive but the difference in quality is apparent. So the Mahindra Xylo has to be priced extremely keenly to fight against the Toyota Innova. The top end Xylo has a multitude of bells and whistles in its top of the line version and yet is priced less than the mid-level model of the Toyota Innova. It is easy to claim that it is purely because of the Toyota brand. If that was the case then in the entry premium car market a complete unknown brand, Skoda, should have never met with much success. So it has to be more than just “branding” – in any case a brand is the distillation of many experiences of which aesthetics forms an important one.

Superficial is not superficial any more. People make decisions based on their senses and not just on features, pricing, etc. Attention to detail can most often deliver superior value, greater attraction and eventually, more powerful loyalty and conviction. The next time there is a bit of plastic that does not quite fit, or a napkin with a patch or a badly printed form or manual remember someone is looking closely at you and judging your product or service by just such details. The next time you are designing anything think about the little sparkles of imagination that you can inject even in the most practical products or services. Often that is the most powerful secret for success.

This article was first published in

Founder & Managing Partner
Beneffect Consulting, India
Anjana Nair (Guest) "Superficial is not superficial any more. People make decisions based on their senses and not just on features, pricing, etc." I completely agree with this statement.
15 Mar 2016 Reply
Meena Sanghi (Guest) People no longer care just about the accessibility or necessity. Nowadays, they also take into account the looks and style.
15 Mar 2016 Reply