We need to talk about Value…
As creative professionals, we talk about value a lot during the design process, sometimes without even knowing it. Everyone has a different perspective on what value is and how to get it. We all know that perspectives are subjective, and subjectivity can be the enemy of a good and happy design process.
More importantly, values are emotional hooks for consumers, and as Douglas Davis says in his book, Creative Strategy and The Business of Design, “Values, at their core, are emotional. And emotions activate behaviour. Values have worth. Values go far beyond usefulness to have emotional meaning. They are different for every person, so values are personal. Values answer the question: Why should I care?”. Values are key to creating your products unique selling point, hooking a consumer to make a purchase.
So, How do we remove the subjectivity from the discussion of value?
First, we define what value is. That is the focus of this blog article, which will be the first in a two-part series. The focus of this first part is establishing a foundation of information about value, breaking down the subjective into objective, easy-to-understand parts, giving you definitions, value categories and how this relates to a consumer decision to make a purchase through building a value ratio and the big problem with the phrase ‘adding value’ when designing. The main goal of this blog is to empower you to talk more objectively about value.
Let’s start with the true definition of value. Many people believe value is about being cheap, getting the most bang for your buck, however this is a common misconception about value in design. The true definition of value is how much your customer perceives your product to be worth and not what it is actually worth.
As consumer we make ‘value-based’ decisions all the time when buying products. Why do we pick one product over another? A good example of this is the two smartphone giants Samsung and Apple. When you break down the products objectively, based on facts and figures on paper, nine times out of ten, Samsung wins! They’ve been market leaders in technology for decades - recently, Apple even bought their OLED screens for their iPhone X from Samsung. So why do some people still choose Apple?
Value can be broken down into six categories: Awareness, Performance, Availability, Sign Value, Symbolic Values and Confidence. In the minds of consumers, this reasoning can be both conscious and subconscious. Understanding these six categories is the key to understanding why consumers pick one product over another. So let’s break them down to get a better understanding of how they work:
Consumers can only evaluate products that they are aware of, which is the reason we have marketing. We can find out more information about products than we ever could, and this information is pretty much available all the time to a lot of people, since we have smartphones on us at all times. Normally, low cost items or short-term purchases are selected from a known product choice, like chocolate bars, and high cost items or long-term purchases are often thoroughly researched beforehand to confirm a choice. Just think about the last time you bought a laptop or a computer - how long did it take you to come to that conclusion, and how much research did you do?
Advertising is still the best way to raise awareness in the modern market, but this is changing, as we are becoming more connected and more focused on individualism - the old paradigm of ‘word of mouth’ is becoming more prominent. A good example of this kind of advertising is Netflix, which become more and more reliant on ‘word of mouth’ recommendations between groups. Think about it - do you remember seeing formal advertising for Bird Box, Tidying up with Marie Kondo or Conversation with a Serial Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes? I don’t. But how many of your friends recommended these shows to you, and how often did they pop up in your Facebook and IG feeds? It’s certainly true that Netflix fuelled quite a lot of the buzz initially, on their own social media channels, but once the first few people started watching, the memes spread like wildfire. Going viral is simply a technologically-powered version of word of mouth, and something to consider when looking at your product’s value to your consumers.
This category is one of the most objective ones. Consumers can weigh up the performance of product based on information such as reliability, durability, strength, effectiveness, weight, speed, noise, efficiency, and comfort (this list is certainly not exhaustive - product/service features change depending on the industry, and the product). A good example of leveraging value in performance to consumers is with household electronic items like fridges and washing machines. They seek to affect consumers’ purchasing decisions by providing the information that they know their consumers will want, like the energy rating or how long a full wash-load takes.
Sometimes, consumers will delay purchases to wait for certain products or features. A good example of this is buying a new car. You may decide to wait for your dealership to deliver the car to your specific desires, which could be paint colour, interior finishes, wheel trims, engine size or electronic extras. However, less important and lower cost products like snacks and drinks are based on immediate availability and short term gains, like quenching thirst or postponing hunger. Sometimes, your availability to make a choice may be limited, such as if you are on a flight - your choice is limited to what is available from the trolley. The audience of these sorts of products is what is known as a captive market. There is very limited choice, and these products usually come with an increased price tag.
We all prefer products we have confidence in, and the key to building confidence is branding. Confidence can be communicated through various brand values: quality, heritage, even reputation. Confidence building through branding is crucial for consumers to make that decision to make a purchase.
Every product has been designed using a range of established sign and symbols. These are sometimes subtle cues which are used to assign meaning and value to objects. This can be subjective and can very, depending on culture and popular trends. These give our designs status and meaning. Modern culture is driven by how we interpret these signs and symbols, with sub cultures being defined by our relationships to brands and products. Different cultures set their own boundaries of value, and understanding these boundaries can be the key to producing a best-selling product. A great example of this is how perfume and cologne companies operate, with their dependence on celebrity collaboration, elaborate packaging, and the ethereal ‘moving-moodboard’ adverts on television. The adverts may seem like nonsense, but they work - the fragrance industry is worth about $92 billion!
This is a pretty simple one: symbolic value is the value given to an object by a recognised authority. A good example of this is art - look at the rise in popularity and value of artists like Banksy. Another example could be how consumers want to own the same products celebrities use. This can be anything from cosmetics, clothing or even electronics.
Now we know more about the categories that make up value, think about the like-for-like products below. Which do you think has more value, and how have they leveraged these different categories for their products?:
We make these decisions everyday without even thinking about it. We weigh up all the values and then decide if the product is worth its designated price. That gives you what we call a Value Ratio, an objective way of looking at the subjective. It can be used to develop a more competitive product and improve the value in the minds of consumers. There are two ways to improve this ratio: the first is to reduce the cost of the product, and the second is to increase the consumer value perception of the product.
From a designer’s point of view, design can have an impact on five of the six values categories (the exception being availability). The analysis and development of functions, cost and value is called Value Engineering. Each part of the design is studied to see how that component is delivering value to the overall consumer need and desires against the cost of those components. These studies enable us to gain a true understanding of products current and potential value for consumers and most importantly we can pinpoint where designs can be improved.
For many, design has been seen as a way to ‘add value’, and it does, but in order to do that effectively and efficiently, you need to understand your consumers’ perception of value. If not, you will find your design will lack focus, and you will fall into an abyss of subjective development loops, making decisions that likely won't add value to your design. To understand your consumers’ perception of value, you need to know who your customers are, in as many ways as you can - this is where design and marketing start to merge.
Hopefully, now you can start to see a thread flowing through this article - how a detailed understanding of value categories, in relation to your own design, can allow you to understand purchasing decisions, which links to real consumer insights on how they perceive the value in your design. As a result, you should now be able to improve your ability to discuss and manipulate value within your design focusing in on values that resonate with your consumers.
As always, it wouldn’t be a blog by me without showing my research nudenotes, so here they are:
If you have any questions, leave them down in the comments, and I will answer as many of them as I can. In the second part of this series, we will take a look at some possible strategies you can use to manipulate value to the benefit of your customers.
I also wanted to say a massive thank you to all my sources of inspiration: The Futur Team, packagingsense.com, which is a great packaging blog by Lars G Wallentin. Plus, the countless books I have read over the last few years, especially Creative Strategy and The Business of Design by Douglas Davis. Not forgetting my old university lectures on design in business.