Product design concerns both functionality and aesthetics. With a few notable exceptions, it often seems as though manufacturers have neglected one in favor of the other; few products score well on both. The idea of combining great design and great function seems to have begun with modernist designers of furniture and cars, eventually spreading to consumer electronics, athletic equipment, and consumer products in general.

Firms that do manage to get both the aesthetics and the function right become synonymous with great brands: Apple, Bang & Olufsen, Braun, Herman Miller, IKEA, Nike, Nokia, Philips, and Sony. The secret is to start thinking about the branding and design early in the development process. What values and benefits should the customer expect? What cultural standards will the customer use to judge the product? If answers to these questions are agreed upon early, the design process will yield much more satisfactory results.

Samsung is a textbook example of this approach. In the late 1980s, this Korean company was manufacturing undistinguished, commodity electronics. Worldwide sales were decent, but price pressure was so intense that profit margins were slim. Samsung decided the answer lay in solving the mystery of design, and set out to find what would appeal to global consumers.

The company’s first step was to send designers and engineers around the world to learn about what appeals to different cultures’ tastes, and to try and grasp exactly what distinguishes original and innovative design from the generic look that is typical of commodity electronics. This exploratory learning period lasted many months. Largely as a result of these efforts, trying to see design through the cultural background of their prospective customers, Samsung’s high-tech electronics business was able to grow and innovate at a rapid rate in the 1990s and 2000s. Interbrand named Samsung the fastest-growing global brand, with a valuation rising 96.25% from 2001 to 2004.

Nokia, ranked by Interbrand as one of the top 10 brands worldwide for several years in a row, has also built its brand largely on the strength of its product design. Motorola, which lagged behind other cell-phone makers in the early 2000s, was able to revive its fortunes by overhauling its product design. In the meantime, other cell-phone makers that had been market leaders dropped off the chart, or, like Sony and Ericsson, were forced to join together in order to survive.