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December 4th, 2009


Rob Brady Discusses The Business Of Design With CEOwise


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CEO wise LogoRob Brady sits down with Sean Burke from CEO Insights to discuss the business of design. This interview originally appeared as a podcast on CEOwise.com. In this interview with Sean, you will hear Rob discuss: what it is like being in the “eye candy” business; the increased importance of design in business; how design is used to create a competitive advantage; the definition of Total Brand Synergy; how he determines if there is a market for his innovations;  and much more. We will be presenting the podcast transcript as a 2 part series.

Welcome to this edition of CEO Insights brought to you today by Six Disciplines, Tampa.  Six Disciplines helps companies validate their strategy, create balanced plans and execute more consistently.  The end result is increased organizational performance.  Enjoy the podcast.

Sean Burke (I)
Today we’re with Rob Brady from ROBRADY design.  He is the president and design director.  Thank you for being with us today, Rob.

Rob Brady (R)
Thank you very much for the invitation.

(I) So you’re in the eye candy business.  Tell me about that.

(R) Well, I think that was a phrase that was coined quite some time ago.  I’m not sure who owns that one, but we’ll certainly take it.  The eye candy business, what that is: that’s a way of producing typically two dimensional artwork that shows the end game.  If you’re talking about a boat or a motor cycle or a new consumer product, if you can truly visualize what looks to be a photo-realistic image on a piece or paper quickly and then have multiple versions of that, it’s a pretty powerful and compelling argument whether you’re trying to raise funds, get people aware of your product or just basically flush out some ideas.  We use this with a lot of our clients that will come to us and say, say an instrument manufacturer, we want to sell an instrument to the such-and-such road company instead of just selling them an instrument, we’ll actually design an entire cab interior from an illustration standpoint and then when they walk in the door to sell instruments, they’re not showing instruments, they’re showing the future of that particular company’s interior.  Basically their cockpit.  They grab the attention right away.  They look at a solution like that and it’s a very compelling reason to meet and talk with that individual and, oh, by the way, these are our instruments and this is how we can more easily slide into a conversation about that particular product.  Its like the difference between selling the steak and selling the sizzle. You’re not selling the steak, you’re selling the sizzle and the sizzle sells.

(I) So how is design playing an increasingly important role in business today?

(R) Well, perhaps I’m biased because I don’t have the vision of the last 50 years with this, but it seems to be that everybody is talking about design.  And I think Apple is certainly on the forefront with making that a compelling argument.  Design sells.  Why does it sell?  Well, I think the technology, the way it is today, I think most people have products that are very similar quality and performance levels so what’s going to separate your product from another one?  In many cases, it’s the design.  And so we see design as a differentiator in the market and it’s a powerful component that can help the public choose your product over somebody else’s.

(I) How should design be used as a competitive advantage?  And can you give me some specific product examples.

(R) Yes.  We often say the design center companies out-imagine their competition.  We do things like going beyond what’s called the knowledge economy to the creative economy, creating not just consumer experiences but actually the product at large; and so when we’re working with our various clients, we’re looking to not just sell them a product but, rather, a product experience and some of the cases could be Parker Hannifin as an example.  Now for those of you who know Parker Hannifin, it’s a 10, $11B industrial motion control type company.  What do they have to do with design.  Well, they have envisioned that design is a compelling part of the decision making process and they wanted to not only design their products so that they have a cohesive flavor but also because they could to establish brand recognition.  And with brand recognition you get the synergy of the entire corporation working for you every time you’re going to promote a product and certainly going into new markets, I think Dewalt is a great example where you — once you buy a couple Dewalts you’re really compelled to — you’re locked in.  You’re compelled to buy the rest of the series.  I buy them obviously because I think their ergonomics are great, they work fine and the esthetic is not only pleasing but it’s cohesive with all my tools.  So it works really well.  We’ve done the same thing with Segway.  When we’re developing new products for them, they’re looking for return on investment and so we’re developing solutions for them that make sense from a monetary standpoint but at the same time having aesthetic quality that makes the public think twice and really look hard at your product.

(I) So you shared with me a term that you use called total brand synergy.  What is that?

(R) It’s an element of design that I’ve gotten in over the last year or two, heavily.  I think — I didn’t realize I was into it before, but total brand synergy is taking product design and bringing with it a service design.  Now as a product designer I’ve been developing products for many, many years.  I get the product side.  And for many of those years I don’t know that I put my finger on as to why certain products work so well and others didn’t.  And I think part of it now has come down to the idea of called service design and I think it’s important to realize that service design is just as important as is product design and I think that with all the products that we’re doing today, when we look at product design we not only look at the design of the product but also the brand message, how is this going to carry across other products, but with the brand umbrella, it’s not only the product itself but the service.  Here again, I know I’ll be pointing to Apple a couple times.  I think they do an off-the-charts execution on total brand synergy where it’s not only buying the product that’s a great experience but if you’ve ever opened up an Apple product, the way it’s presented and the way you go through and it communicates, they’ve really spent a tremendous amount of time on the user interface and it shows.

(I) Even from the packaging to the product.

(R) That’s right.  And it makes people want to come back to that company.  And any company can do the synergy design.  We’ve done some pieces for General Electric where they’re selling security systems where our demo kits have the same graphic flare and communication style as does their flash site.  So a customer can be looking at the flash site to get initial information and then when the salesman shows up with our sales kit, they can see the synergy between the two pieces, they can understand the system a lot faster, they get it, and then also of benefit to General Electric in this sense is the person that you’ve sold to is also one of the best champions you could have or your product.  He can take the website and send it off to somebody else and have them begin to do a tour and quickly become familiar with the product at their own leisure and then call back to General Electric when they think they’ve got the right time to buy.

(I) So what companies are balancing both the product design phase that you just spoke about and the service design phase effectively?  I know you mentioned Apple, but are there other ones that you think are doing a really good job in balancing those two areas to reach that synergy?

(R) Well, I wish I could point to more.  I used those two because I think they’re the best two and they’re certainly the ones that people will recognize.  I don’t think it’s out of the realm of anybody developing products.  I think people are trying to do that now and what we’re doing with a lot of our clients and some of them are Fortune 700, certainly Fortune 500’s, as well as start-ups, is to realize that there is a connection between the service and the product side and the service side, a lot of it has to do with how you reach the customer, which can be website, voice, phone, any brochures, any medium that you do there, but also packaging is a huge and compelling component of that.  When someone calls your company either for service or for inquiries, how do you script that, how does all that work?  And you work that all underneath the brand umbrella.  And so some of the programs that we’re working on right now I don’t know — from a confidentiality standpoint, let me be a little bit more general about this.  But we’re looking to do a particular product that we’ve done in the past many times.  And I’m not interested in doing any more.  But we’re taking this product and service component together and so we’re saying well, with this particular product — it’s a powersport product — what if we married it with an entire event, so we’re not only doing a product but the product combines in multiple combinations to be an event and the event is a whole new way to market the product and have people aware of the company, you become — well, for me it’s a much more interesting and compelling opportunity.  So I’m up for it now.  Now I want to do it.  So if you’re out there and you’ve got a particular product you want to bring more energy to it, think about the service side because inherently the service side will influence the product side and then when it’s doing that, it will also influence what we call the brand and then it builds up to the total product synergy.

(I) Yeah.  I know I see — that’s interesting that you bring that point up.  I see a lot of technology companies and health-related companies now have these traveling toolboxes, where they actually go to smaller markets and share their products and services directly with people and it just seems they make that circular route where they’re north in the summer and they come down in the south.  And they’re linking those together as an event.

(R) What incredibly valuable from a consumer side, they get to experience the product one-on-one, so you get to touch people and let them experience your product and its features, benefits and attributes but also from the company side, you’re getting voice of customer feedback on an ongoing basis, and I would not be surprised that as that vehicle travels around displaying their product, those products are switching and they’re changing out, and it’s an incredibly powerful piece of any product development process to have good quality customer feedback.  Because at the end of the day the customer will tell you if you’ve done it at the right price point, if it worked right way, if I’m every going to buy this thing again, if I’m going to buy it the first time.  That is by what you will be graded.  If you can answer those questions at the beginning of the project before you’ve sunk a tremendous amount of capital it, it will either tell you don’t waste your time sinking capital into this market or it will say if you do that, do it this way and do it at this price point.  It’s something that we seek out and we’re trying to do it in many different ways to get that feedback.

(I) How do you determine if there’s a market for your innovations?

(R) That’s a great question.  It’s a great, great question.  We have a lot of history in doing that and we’re still learning.  We learn from our mistakes, we learn from our successes; and fortunately, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn from various other clients who have done that, been that and we’ve been a part of that and had front row seat.  So what I look to do is I look to humanize, visualize and commercialize.  Those are the three major steps that I look to do.  And when it comes to judging a new innovation — and we do that quite a lot; we’re at the point now where I would say at least a couple times a week we’re being approached with new projects or even new technologies in one form or another.  So how do we measure it quickly.  First of all, raw technology is not something that a consumer can embrace.  And if you can’t embrace it, they can’t embrace money from the wallet for such an idea.  So you really want to take the technology and humanize it and then with the humanization of that, you basically then move on to visualizing the technology.  What does it actually look like in the consumer’s hand.  And then from there what we like to do before you go on to commercialization, which is really the art of developing the product for market, we like to right after visualization, go into prototyping.  And prototyping at this point is really probably more logical to call it a mock-up because we’re trying to build something very quickly, we don’t really care about the aesthetics so much at that point, we know we can make it look good; that much is a given.  But can it perform right and does it meet the need that is intended.  So prototyping is a huge, huge part and we’ll prototype enough, go back and forth with our focus groups or user groups to get to the point where they have communicated to us that boy, this is really it, this is a nice product and the whole time we’re also looking at price point, what’s the MRSP on a product like this and then what’s the value chain, what’s the bill of material, if that can all make sense.  I refer to it as humanize, visualize and prototype, but — in this particular sequence, but it’s also do the math, because fabulous ideas that cost too much are no longer fabulous ideas.  And everybody who walks in the door with an idea assumes that it’s fabulous and that people will pay whatever; and ten times our of ten they won’t pay whatever.  They’re going to pay a certain price.  There’s a certain value.  If I show you a new design for a laptop, well that makes sense at one price but at a price ten times that, it doesn’t make sense any more.  So do the math is a huge part.  Once you have that where you can see the eye candy and you can see a prototype you can put your hands on and you also have the numbers next to it that say we believe we can hit this price point at such and such a cost; and if that all makes sense, by all means drive it forward; if it doesn’t make sense, keep working at that level until it does, don’t put any more capital into a program, stay small, stay focused.  At the end of the day if you can’t get it to work at that level, there’s no sense in going forward.

(I) Do you start with an MSRP, do you ask your client to say, look, what do you expect this thing to price out at before you even get into the design work?  Or where does that happen?

(R) It happens right at the beginning.  And you’re absolutely right.  That’s not the only core question.  It’s called a product requirements document that we create and it’s at the beginning of any project that we design and the product requirements document identifies all the parameters by which we’re going to be measured and if it’s going to be tested and what product variance might be coming off of this product.  And at the end of the day there’s also the value chain.  What is the bill of materials, what is the cost of goods, what type of tariffs, what type of shipping, what type of cost structure or sales structure are you going direct, one step, two step, is there some kind of bizarre marketing scheme that you’re working on.  And at the end of the day, what’s the MSRP.  If you’re got all those numbers in front of you, first of all does it make sense.  The thing is if you can give me your MSRP, I can work backwards to the bill of materials.  I you give me the bill of materials, I’ll work up to the MSRP and if you don’t know either one, we will make assumptions and we’ll put those numbers and we work it back and forth.  Like a two-way equation; bill of material has to be right and the MSRP has to be right.  And everybody has to get their cut that’s in the chain or else they’re not interested in moving it.  We work all that in the front.  And the nice thing about doing the comprehensive product requirements document is it’s one thing to know those numbers but it’s another thing to know those numbers based against what you’re going to be measured.  So if this is a highly tuned product that has incredible levels of quality control issues, you’re got the FDA, FFA, who knows that type of government agencies might be involved, and at the end of the day you want to, you need to sell this thing at the consumer level for 29 cents and you’re only going to be building 100 a year, those are radical numbers but you get the point.

(I) Right.

(R) There’s no reason to go forward.

(I) Why are we doing this.

(R) That’s right.

(I) So what’s the most exciting project you’ve ever done and worked on?

(R) Tough question.  I would have to say that the most exciting — you’d have to define that.  Perhaps some day I’ll figure it out.  But we’ve done so many products here on so many levels, and I refer to it as a journey because every time we do one, we get smarter.  I think one of the toughest ones we ever did — as a matter of fact, when I went to school at the Art Center in Los Angeles, to date for many years afterwards, that had been the toughest thing I had ever done.  It was the type of school that was very demanding and on top of that, it would take whatever demands you put upon yourself and the hold you to it.  So it was an extremely —

(I) You weren’t going anywhere.

(R) Yeah.  It was an extremely difficult curriculum and I was very proud to get through that.  For the longest time whenever I was thrown an assignment, it’s cigarette racing, you know, we’re finishing a 42-foot offshore performance boat and it’s 4:00 in the morning and we’ve got to finish it for a photo shoot that’s at 6:00am and lightening all around and there’s all this crazy stuff and I just think about some of the stuff I did at Art Center and go well, at least it’s not that bad.

(I) Right.

(R) The  toughest one is when we developed and produced with our partner, with our client Vetrix, we produced three electric scooter for a field sell show in Miami.  I think we worked on it for five months.  The last month everybody in the studio was working only that project, including yours truly, and we were working from 8:00am until midnight for the last month; and then the last week we were working around the clock, where the door wasn’t even locked.  And then in the last 48 hours were straight through.  And it killed me.  It put Art Center in the rearview mirror and it was the toughest thing we had ever done on so many levels.  There’s a tremendous amount of pressure because the investor community was adamant that we had to be there, there were still some question on were they going to be able to raise enough funds for us to finish the product; but, again, we couldn’t stop.  So we had to keep going whether the funds were going to be there or not, and we just knew we had a great partner and they would deliver for us if we delivered for them.  And so absolutely everybody was working on this project. I remember when we finally, at 10:00 on a Monday morning I think Monday or Sunday morning we were rolling these scooters into the truck to be taken down to Miami and I laid down on the cement out in my parking lot, and it felt so good to lay down.  So that was probably the toughest on multiple levels.  But this past year I think one of the most spectacular pieces that we did was for a show in Milan and it’s called EICMA, which is the motorcycle show, and for that show we produced our electric super bike.  We had lobbied to build this thing with our clients and our client and they finally agreed that, yeah, we need to have this product.  They weren’t exactly sure why, but we had sold them on the idea and it made such an incredible launch in Milan where the entire booth was crowded.  There was press going everywhere, the bulbs were going off; you’d think it was some kind of a paparazzi event, it was some kind of superstar.  And at that show the gentleman who was in charge of Ducati Motorcycles, Pierre Treblanche, was the type of guy that I would have had to try to seek out, say let me just talk to you about this item, can we ask you a few questions about wave design.  It was a reversal.  It was so popular and it was so big at the show that he came to the booth.  I wasn’t even at the booth at the time when he was there, but he said I’ve got to talk to the group that was involved in the design of this product.  And I had brought five of my guys with me, which to me was a personal triumph to bring those guys with me.  You know, success by yourself is just about meaningless.  But to have these other guys who had worked so very hard on the project – actually the whole studio did — these are the five guy I had to have at the show to do it, and here’s Pierre Treblanche coming to us.  What were you guys thinking when you did this, what did you think about that.  And he was telling people this is the hottest super bike at the show and it comes from a scooter company called Vectrix.

(I) How about that.

Part two of this interview will be posted, along with the audio podcast, next week.