Biggest challenge facing businesses fighting in red ocean zone is ability to effectively differentiate. How does design help deliver business advantage?
By ASHISH DESHPANDE
“Differentiation is the essence of strategy, the prime source of competitive advantage. You earn money not just by performing a valuable task, but by being different from your competitors in a manner that lets you serve your core customers better and more profitably. The sharper your differentiation, the greater your advantage.” - Chris Zook & James Allen, The Great Repeatable Business Model in hbr.org
The air cooler market in India is estimated above Rs.3000 Cr and 70% of this is the unorganized sector. Soaring summer temperatures, longer summer months, rising aspirations of the Indian middle class & accessibility to global markets have made every appliance manufacturer turnout products, to take a share out of the air cooler pie.
Evaporative cooler technology, over years, has improved incrementally and relaxed Intellectual Property compliances makes it hard to place Air Cooler products that are differentiated from the me too & rip offs flooding the consumer space. In this context, how does an appliance manufacturer stay above the waterline? What role does design play in helping companies take a hard look at their product line up? An interesting case of design at work asElephant teams with Symphony Limited, world’s no.1 cooling company.
Customer focus ≠ Host of Features
Many cooler manufacturers believe that providing a host of incremental benefits is a way to the customer’s heart. Little more pad area, a few cubic feet of more air throw, a liter more of tank capacity is no better than running a race at the discount store.
Differentiation begins with empathy-based observations of what people do when they buy your products. Design team at Elephant spend hours observing people in their homes, looking at their habits and noticing their real time concerns. During one such visit, the design team observed that coolers were always being shunted to balconies, lofts or were pushed under wall units. People need space, and when they don’t need a product, they try and get it out of their way. Coolers not only consume precious floor space but also block airy windows in case of window mounted versions. Air Coolers inherently carry volume and are bulky. Instead of focusing on increasing air throw or the next best remote control, the design team focused on “reclaiming space” for customers.
Setting a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)
Once a challenge is identified, it ends up providing the design team with a sense of direction. However, challenges are not easy mountains. The design team at Elephant & Symphony set themselves a couple of goals.
First was to design a full size cooler that fits on a footprint of 1’ x 1’ tile. This was not as easy as it probably reads, since the entire air throw mechanism was to be reconfigured and reengineered to fit into a compact, yet, tall space. This itself was not enough since the product was to deliver a better cooling performance and air throw than conventional models.
Second was to free the window. Windows are a relief in urban apartment environments and the design team set itself the second challenge to create a product that doesn’t need window mounting. The product could be mounted high on the wall like a split AC. Again, this was easier said than done. The design team had to solve the problem of water tank, water filling and cooling.
Making it happen
When design team under takes new direction or challenge, they come across unknown obstacles. Some of them are known spoilers like weight of the product, cost of parts, number of parts, assembly, quality of manufacture and size for shipping. All these obstacles need to be sorted out from the regular functional issues before a cooler can be realized. As a new format of product that is deviant from the traditional, it is imperative that the product carries no bugs.
The development work resulted in two product formats.
First, was the creation of the ultra compact and tall range of next generation cooler range “DiET”. This product connected with people due to its floor saving footprint, low power & water consumption and was an instant hit. DiET today retails across 40 countries with over 1.2 million units sold. This product for its design & innovation quality was awarded the “India Design Mark 2013”.
Second, resulted in the creation of world’s first wall mounted air cooler, “Cloud”. A cooler that has completely freed window and floor space for people for whom space is luxury. This product for its design differentiation and innovativeness has been recently awarded the India Design Mark, 2016.
When development effort focuses on people, appreciates and acts on unsaid needs, product innovation can take place. The two efforts for Symphony are good examples of moving from a crowded orbit to an elevated plane. This orbit shift is what creates powerful brands, those that rise above the red ocean and make business sense.
Design led Innovation is a powerful tool however needs the courage from corporations and a resolute design team to undertake lofty challenges. Challenges that are not a figment of someone’s imagination or sales target but rather drawn from the latent needs of people.
All successful product categories get crowded, what matters in time is agile & continuous people based design & innovation effort.
ASHISH DESHPANDE is an Industrial Designer, Co-founder & Director at Elephant. An alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, he is a keen Design Thinker, a past member of India Design Council & President of Association of Designers of India. He has mentored several start ups, conducts Design led Innovation workshops and has worked on several design programs, notably, Titan Eye+, Ceat Tyres, Axis Bank, ICICI Bank, Symphony, Paperboat and works on medical & healthcare devices amongst others.