Dissecting icons

Dissecting icons

Exceptional products and services are rare. Products such as the iPhone, the Nintendo Wii or a Montblanc pen have come to represent much more than just excellence in utility. They represent a generational transformation in the way people use these tools. These brands and products established new benchmarks, new standards and new consumer aspirations. They didn’t just own the markets, they dismantled them.

Why were these products so powerful? How did they become symbolic not just of the consumers’ buying choices, but of their lifestyle itself? We asked three experts on the concept of greatness, what greatness means to them, and what great products they use in their daily lives.

What elevates some products and brands from the mundane to the exceptional?

KK: The brand is an idea, conviction or intention in the mind and heart of the creator. The product is a mirror that reflects the strength of this conviction: that’s what makes the difference palpable. Take the iPhone as an example. Steve Jobs believed man-machine interaction must be intuitive in usage and elegant in design.

That belief got translated into products that don’t need an instruction manual (iPod, iPhone) and a computer that started with a smiley and a “Hi" (Macintosh). The designer of the iPod (Jonathan Ive) spent weeks with the makers of the katana, the samurai sword, to gain insights into moulding metal, because the inside of the Apple machines had to be as elegant as the outside!

Is it merely a question of style and substance? In other words, is it what these products represent that makes them great? Is it how and with what they are made? Their design? Or is there something more profound?

The Nano reflects that idea, that intention. Of course, the design then has to break many rules to make the idea possible: aluminium engine, wheels at the extreme edges.

On the other hand, Enzo Ferrari intended to create a car that would beat Alfa Romeo, his former employer. “The public does not know what’s possible. We do." said Akio Morita, founder, Sony, and that’s how the original Walkman was born.

This intention, I think, lies at the heart of a great product.

Can this product and brand greatness be broken down into parts? If you can do this, how easy is it to repeat and replicate this?

AKS: Only a few products can make it to “universal" greatness every decade, while countless new launches take place across all consumer product categories every year. But once a company creates its first iconic product, it can encode this into the corporate DNA in some fashion. Suddenly, the company is able to do it over and over again, often innovating in non-linear, iconoclastic ways. This is whathappens in companies like P&G (Procter and Gamble), Gilette, Sony and Apple.

KK: However true any mimic is, he exists only because of the idea behind that first iconic original. So a competitor can sit down and reverse-engineer that product. But the idea will always belong to the original.

Though, that does not mean that a me-two or me-seven brand will not make commercial sense! Mediocre brands, like mediocre human beings, do not keel over and die.

They merely exist.

PS: Great brands are multidimensional. The advantage they garner over competing brands is through their superior understanding of the market and consumers and their overall value proposition. So yes, a good brand could become great by learning to do the same things. But it takes very long to get there. They have to keep satisfying their customers over and over again.

Iconic products often influence far more than just the market they are meant for. They come to represent certain lifestyles and aesthetic choices. Why and how does this happen?

For example, when Louis Vuitton made a lightweight and airtight flat-bottom trunk with trianon canvas in 1854, it became successful.

However, others were easily copying the product. To regain advantage, Louis Vuitton, changed the trianon design to a beige-andbrown- stripes design in 1876. Moreover, he expanded the business to other countries by 1885, and in 1888, the Damier Canvas pattern was created. It was in 1896 that his son Georges launched the classic Monogram Canvas and patented it. What one has to realize is that the process took nearly 40 years for the organization and two generations to achieve that iconic status.

What are some of the great products you use?

AKS: For me, personally, products that I find great are also a function of my own stage in life. Hence, in 1980, when I first went to the US for my MBA, my IBM Selectric typewriter was simply the greatest product. It was so fundamentally different from the mechanical offerings from Remington and other brands. In 1988, we got our first Westinghouse microwave oven in India, and that was “great", too—post- Westinghouse, many other brands came to the market. Nokia’s original phone designs were amazing—functionally and ergonomically, in the late 1990s. The iPod was my big deal in the early 2000s, since it allowed me incredibleflexibility in storing and managing my music.Right now, I find my Samsung Galaxy SII phone incredible in almost every respect other than battery life.

KK: I use a MacBook 24/7 and I’ve never had a virus problem or a hard drive crash. And I wear a Suunto watch-cum-computer on the wrist for my trekking and rock-climbing activities:it allows me to time my activity; and tells me temperature, pressure, height.

Both are reliable to the extreme.

Edited excerpts.

As told to Sidin Vadukut via email