Nº 274

Show Them What You’re Made Of
Material macht Marken

Text: Karsten Kilian

Translation: Emily J. McGuffin

Brands are experienced. Most of them are graspable – in its literal sense. In this respect, materiality plays a major role. The nature of products provides brands with depth and contour.

In many cases, a unique materiality contributes to a clear differentiation from competition. It generates preferences among customers, resulting in greater willingness to buy and pay a higher price.


Brand Identity As Basis

The starting point for incarnating a brand is a clear brand identity with trim edges and corners. It is not innovation, quality or customer orientation that lead the way as they are generic and interchangeable. Instead, unique brand values that have a “CORE” are needed: the acronym refers to brand values that are concrete, original, relevant, and exceptional. They are meaningful and inspiring, justified within the organisation and in the materials used, significant for customers and, in comparison to competition, characteristic for the respective brand.

This does not mean that quality, innovation, and customer orientation are not important for the identity of a brand. They are. However, the abstract overall characteristics themselves do not really help. They are too general and need to be substantiated, for instance, with the help of brand scorecards, which itself involves a great deal of cost and time and thus is typically not implemented consistently.

Instead, it is necessary to anchor some aspects of the stated generic values as credibly related to the brand and convey them also by means of the material used. Quality, for example, can mean high-quality, durable, robust, with stable value, reliable or safe, figuratively also valuable or competent (in the sense of “he understands what it is all about”). With regard to food, additional meanings are, for example, natural, sustainable, healthy, tasty, and delightful. Therefore, it is always better to rely on a partial aspect of quality as a brand value rather than on “the big picture” as the latter offers too much room for interpretation and consequently does not create the necessary clarity or orientation within the company, let alone for the customer. Good brand values have strong profiles that make sense by themselves and can be understood by employees and customers without a lot of explanation and workshops or advertising commercials.



Identity Is More than Design

Numerous corporate identity manuals, however, rarely contain clear statements about the brand identity. They have the word “identity” in their titles, but are often in fact “just” design manuals. They give the brand creative contours without explicitly stating the underlying values and justifying these comprehensibly. Design is necessary and important, but without a clear verbal identity it is oftentimes not precise enough. Beautiful to look at is just not enough. Strong brands need more. They need to clarify what their design should express: the brand’s value system, the concentration on a few central values that generate differentiation from competition and electrify customers. The outcome is a brand identity that has a “CORE” that substantially simplifies and improves the selection of suitable design and creative elements.

To date, the focus lies mostly on visual design parameters, in particular on form, colour, and layout as well as on imagery, symbolism, and typeface. The other four senses are frequently only considered on the periphery, if at all – and even more rarely defined to conform with the brand. However, a product is not only seen by customers. It is also heard, for example, when a button is pressed. It can also be smelled, for example, when leather is used. In contrast, taste is restricted to food, although on special occasions, for instance, at fairs and company anniversaries, non-food manufacturers also like to offer their guests food and drinks. If selected wisely, they can highlight their identity this way, too. Sushi and Swabian pasta pockets are just not the same and they are not interpreted the same way. This similarly applies to inexpensive filtered coffee from Ja! (Rewe) compared to Jacobs Krönung.



Haptics As a Central Design Component

It often makes sense to also appeal to the sense of touch. Perception here is primarily tactile via the skin, in addition kinaesthetically via muscles, tendons, joints, and the tissue surrounding them. Haptic stimuli can be better perceived visually when it is a matter of form and size or coarse, visible textures. As opposed to this, the haptic perception of temperature, consistency, and weight is just as superior to visual perception as are fine, hardly noticeable textures.



It can be the material that makes the difference. It can define the brand or express the brand identity. In this way, aluminium exudes the lightness of products, leather lends elegance and high value, wood conveys naturalness, and metal – as opposed to plastics – reveals that it is a robust and durable product. Kahla, an East German manufacturer of “Porcelain for the senses”, for instance, was able to fulfil its mission and give credible expression to its Touch collection, which appeals to several senses. By means of a velvety soft coating for the otherwise cool porcelain, they created a unique selling proposition that simultaneously offers several added values. It is heat-insulating, noise-absorbing, and decorative.


In turn, shiny and metallic trimmings of car interiors have the effect that vehicles are estimated as being of higher value. Mazda’s findings showed, for instance, that the gear lever in the MX-5 with a length of 9.5 centimetres optimally conveys the characteristics of sportiness and control. At Bang and Olufsen, in contrast, weight plays a major role for the Danish home entertainment electronics brand for being perceived as offering particularly high quality. Holding the heavy, solid metal remote control of a Bang and Olufsen system directly transports the feeling of value. In advertisements, too, haptics can be addressed in a direct manner. In a BMW print advertisement, for example, the relief of the cabriolet could be felt, while Volkswagen was able to convey the meaning of the slogan “You can feel the reliability” on 200-grammes paper in a print advertisement. Apart from the surface, geometry, material, mass, and temperature are among the central dimensions of haptic perception. They can be experienced, for example, the uneven, grooved shiny paper packaging of Ferrero Rocher.


Material Is More than Design

For brands like Barbour and Rimowa the material not only gives expression to the brand identity, it also makes a substantial contribution. Only the use of wax fabric made the Barbour jackets weatherproof and at the same time gave them their unmistakable appearance. On top of this, the brand today is considered to be elegant and a British classic as it was initially worn primarily by British aristocrats while hunting. For Rimowa, in turn, the parallel grooves of the aluminium structure derived from aeroplane construction gave the brand its unique character. Rimowa is both light and stable. Skilful product placements and co-operations with celebrities have made the aluminium look of the luggage line today a synonym for chic and style. Contributing to this is the fact that the suitcase from Cologne with the grooves can still be recognised by everyone owing to its special material.


The ten selected examples show that material makes a brand. It can lend products a long-lasting unique character.


Material Also Indirect and Surrounding

Only digital solutions, for example, streaming services and online shops, are devoid of any materiality – one might think. Since, as shown, materials can also be perceived visually, for instance, fully visible surface structures. A Rimowa suitcase does not lose its unique grooved structure in the visual depiction in an online shop. Appropriate staging of the image, ideally with a zoom function, can also familiarise potential customers with the materials online. Conveying a purely symbolic impression of materiality is also possible. Presenting down feathers, for example, can symbolically impart a feeling of lightness or softness.

Similarly, services seem free of material only at first glance, because they almost always appear in a physical environment, like in salesrooms, where the brand identity can be materially conveyed by the nature of doorknobs, floors, chairs, and sales documents. This also applies to packaging. The fascination inherent in unpacking new products is a mass phenomenon today. The search term “unboxing” shows 69 million hits on Youtube, on Google even 98 million. The product itself, but also its material environments or packaging, exerts a considerable influence on the brand perception.


Material Protection and Eponyms

Besides this, materials can be subject to legal protection in certain cases, primarily with the help of utility models and patents. Think only of the patenting of Teflon in 1962 or of the Tetra Brik in 1990. Also design protection primarily referring to colour and form or registration as a brand, in particular as a “three-dimensional design including form” (article three of the German trademark act) is possible. This is how Rimowa, according to the company, has permanently had the groove structure of its luggage registered as a 3D brand. While protection for utility models amounts to ten years, for patents 20 years, and designs 25 years, the period for brand protection is unlimited, provided the protection is renewed every ten years. In 2013, the company even had the claim “Rimowa – The original luggage with the grooves” registered as a word mark.


In a similar way, the materiality of numerous brands has also greatly shaped the name, in particular for food products. Orangina displays the orange fruit in its name just as obviously as Beef in Bifi and Rahm [cream] in Rama. For Em-Eukal, the material basis menthol (in short “M”) and eucalyptus is less obvious. This also applies to Milka, a combination of the initial syllables from Milch [milk] and Kakao [cocoa], Hanuta as a short form of hazelnut bar and Bionade as contraction of biological lemonade. Apart from food and beverages, the names of numerous other products have taken their cue from the material components, like Aral, whose fuel comprises aromatic and aliphatic compounds; Persil, that mainly consists of perborate and silicate, and Osram, whose tungsten filament – at least until recently – was primarily produced from the two metals osmium and wolfram. The thermos jug manufacturer Alfi again refers to the original corporate name Aluminiumwarenfabrik Fischbach, WMF is the abbreviation for Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik, and Zewa is short for Zellstofffabrik Waldhof. In individual cases, brand names can also be found that compare themselves to another materiality, for example, Vileda (“like leather” in German), or exclude ingredients, for instance Sinalco (“without alcohol” in Spanish). Sometimes a brand name can even be successfully established as a synonym for a whole category of material, like the microfibre non-woven Alcantara (commonly known as synthetic leather), the waterproof textile fabric Gore-Tex (W. L. Gore and Associates), the acrylic glass Plexiglas (Evonik) and the plasterboard Rigips (Saint-Gobain).

The scope of opportunities to make brands unique with materials is considerable. It is thus of central importance to begin with the brand identity and then select a material consciously and in line with the brand. Most of all, it is essential to investigate how the special characteristics of a brand can be optimally embodied by selected materials. For it pays off, materially, too.

Karsten Kilian is marketing professor at the University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt where he heads the master programme brand and media management. With the Markenlexikon he has developed the largest brand portal in the German-speaking region. In addition, he has advised various ncompanies for many years with regard to their brand strategy. He is a member of the Brand Award jury, a member of the editorial committee for the advertising journal Transfer, and founding member of the Expertenrat Technologiemarken [expert council on technology brands].


Nº 283
The Power of Design

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