Aesthetic design can be critical to consumer acceptance and the market success of a product. Apple’s iMac is a classic example of a successful product that used its visual appearance as the principal means of differentiation. In contrast, Ford’s unique-looking Edsel model, which launched with great expectations, was viewed as odd and was discontinued that same year at a significant loss to Ford. A product’s appearance can have a significant impact on its ultimate success or failure. As a result, firms take great care to understand and manage ideal product aesthetics.
In our recent article “The Effects of a Product’s Aesthetic Design on Demand and Marketing Mix Effectiveness: The Role of Segment Prototypicality and Brand Consistency,” published in the January 2017 issue of Journal of Marketing, we sought an answer to this very timely question: What is a product’s optimal aesthetic design? We considered how a given product’s design compares with the designs of its competitors and with the designs of other products in the same brand family, and we looked at how this affects consumers’ judgements. We also explored how product design can influence consumers’ responses to both price and advertising.
To answer these questions, we used advanced morphing technology to examine the designs of 202 passenger car models from 33 brands sold in the U.S. market from 2003 to 2010.The morphing technology allows us to identify key feature components of a car’s frontal design (e.g., grill, headlights, side mirrors, windshield). Moreover, it creates average looks, or morphs, of each brand and each product category (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Lexus LS Compared with the Average Look of the Lexus Brand and the Average Look of Luxury Cars in 2010
Optimal Aesthetic Design Relative to Competing Products
In recent years, car designs have moved in two very different directions. On the one side, we see cars on the road looking increasingly similar. Brands with typical economy designs, such as Toyota Camry and Honda Civic, do very well among mass consumers. On the other side, brands such as the Volkswagen Beetle rely heavily on a distinctive look for success. We find that consumers prefer designs that are neither too typical nor too unique. A product that looks too typical may be perceived as boring, and products that are more visually distinct increase consumers’ attention and perceptions of novelty. However, a design that’s too different from its competitors may make it difficult for consumers to associate it with its product category, thus creating confusion.
Take the Ford Fusion as an example: When considering a facelift for its new model, imagine three alternative designs: (1) Design 1, a boxy, muscular look that would make the car unique; (2) Design 2, a sleek look that is distinctive but less atypical than the first look; and (3) Design 3, a typical economy car look (see Figure 2). We find that the second design could help the Ford Fusion gain the highest market share compared with its current design. Consumers prefer this “winning” design because it is not too different or too typical.
Figure 2: Hypothetical Major Redesign for Ford Fusion in 2010
The Optimal Aesthetic Design Relative to the Brand Portfolio
In the context of a brand’s product line, some brands offer products with very similar designs, while others boast great design diversification. For example, Audi has adopted a “Russian doll” strategy, with all its cars looking almost identical, but for their size. At the other end of the spectrum, Mercedes Benz cars look very different from one another. Our research reveals that a certain level of design consistency in a brand’s product portfolio is very important. It encourages the creation and transfer of the brand’s symbolic meanings and helps develop brand images. However, the “Russian doll” strategy may have gone too far, as such a design concept fails to communicate a product’s excitement and innovativeness. We find that the optimal design of a product is one that is moderately similar to the typical look of cars of the same brand.
As an illustration, consider the grille: A key component of a car’s frontal design, the grille is a brand identifier in the automotive industry. Most Kia models, for example, have a “tiger nose” grille, a defining characteristic of Kia styling. If a brand such as Lexus were to take a similar approach and standardize the grille for all its car models, its market share could increase by 8%–13%, because the automaker would benefit from an increased consumer preference for a brand-consistent design.
Optimizing Marketing Activities with Different Designs
Our research offers a set of clear guidelines for manufacturers with regard to optimal product design: It is OK to try some new things and take some chances. But design aesthetics that maintain a standard of consistency within the brand portfolio and are recognizable to similar brands in the product category tend to reap the greatest rewards. This rule-of-thumb, however, may not fit your current brand portfolio, and changing a product’s design can be an expensive endeavor in the short run. Therefore, we offer some additional suggestions on how to improve profitability by optimizing pricing and advertising strategies given a car’s current design.
We find that a product’s design influences consumers’ responses to price and advertising. Consumers are more price sensitive to a typical-looking product because similar designs increase the perception of competition. When one product becomes more expensive, consumers are more likely switch to another product that looks very similar. Similarity in product design may also make it difficult for consumers to recall the particular product an advertisement is trying to promote. This confusion may actually backfire on the manufacturer and increase recall for the competitive products! When competitors also benefit from a firm’s advertising, consumers may switch to other brands, making advertising less effective.
When the designs of products within the same brand are similar, we find that consumers become less price sensitive. Brand-consistent designs both help consumers identify the brand and enhance their recall of these products at the cost of competing products. As a result, the focal product can demand a higher price, consumers become less sensitive to price hikes, and competitive products are less likely to be considered.
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Yan Liu, Krista J. Li, Haipeng (Allan) Chen, and Subramanian Balachander (2017), “The Effects of a Product's Aesthetic Design on Demand and Marketing Mix Effectiveness: The Role of Segment Prototypicality and Brand Consistency,” Journal of Marketing, 81 (1), 83-102.
Yan Liu is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University (e-mail: email@example.com).
Krista J. Li is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Haipeng (Allan) Chen is John E. Pearson Associate Professor of Marketing, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University (e-mail: email@example.com)
Subramanian Balachander is Albert O. Steffey Chair and Professor of Marketing, School of Business Administration, University of California Riverside (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).