Design. Daniel Pink, in a recent book, theorizes that design and design thinking will be the next point of significant competitive advantage. (He actually goes so far as to suggest that fine arts degrees will supplant MBA’s as the preferred business job qualification.)
I have my doubts. Among other things, seems to me, we’re awash in it. Everything you lay your eyes on has a visual candy look to it that just screams “designed to get your attention”, from the fascia of cars to the fine details of cell phones. It’s getting harder and harder to separate the product from the aesthetics of form.
Apple has made a pretty penny, as well as a significant social impact, with its highly recognizable design ethos. One of their software engineers put it thusly about the “look” of the software: “We don’t stop until it looks so good you want to lick the buttons off it”. Hmm.
From my limited (unhappy) experience of Apple computers, I suspect they don’t make a functionally better product, but the “look” of it makes you fervently believe they do. More power to them for building the brand to engender such ardent brand loyalty and belief.
Still, Apple is perhaps a special case of design-dominant marketing. Many others don’t fare anywhere near as well in the functionality department after the ocular entertainment has worn off.
I don’t buy the “next competitive advantage” theory. Nothing about developed economies gives them an edge in the design ‘ethos’ – interesting and compelling design can doubtless come from anywhere. Moreover, I think a push toward ‘eye candy’ thinking is diminishing the emphasis on meaningful technological differentiation. Stuff that “works” and keeps doing so year after year beats iterations of sizzle any day in my book. I prefer the steak.