When US chemist and packaging expert Fred Baur died two years ago, some of his ashes were buried inside a Pringles tube. The gesture recognised the critical role the 89-year-old had played in revolutionising the snack category, by designing and patenting the brand's tall, lidded cardboard tube containers. Without his design brainwave, consumers may never have fallen for Procter & Gamble's stacked, curved potato-based snacks.
The Pringles tube achieved 'hero' design status because it struck a chord with US consumers. It highlighted that the product was an easy-to-eat snack with a unique shape, creating a real point of difference in a sector dominated by bagged crisps, turning it into a global phenomenon.
Pringles is not the only brand that has used design insight to provide consumers with an innovative product - brands such as Toilet Duck, with its bent bottle neck to reach under the toilet rim, and John Smith's bitter, with its in-can widget, have also struck a chord.
However, amid one of the worst recessions in living memory, marketers have fallen back to focusing on the bottom line, stripping costs out of production and packaging rather than investing in insight and innovation that offers an experiential benefit to the user.
Insight is key
'There are some simple inventions that change the way we live,' says Dave Brown, UK chairman of branding agency The Brand Union. 'Who would have thought that any self-respecting wine house would go for a screw cap? Yet everyone now accepts that it keeps wine fresher than cork.'
He adds: 'Brands that have a ceremony around the experience tend to heighten the enjoyment for the user.'
Brown argues that brands should be switching their focus away from what consumers 'want' to identifying what they 'need'. One way of achieving this is to spend time watching people use a product, analysing what they like and dislike about it.
Nick Dormon, managing director of brand and product design consultancy Echo Brand Design, says this is the only way that brand owners will get the insight they need to turn their product into a 'hero'.
'Marketers don't spend enough time thinking about it - there is too much emphasis on taking cost out, but it will be one of the most important factors over the next few years,' he says.
In 2004, while working at design agency Blue Marlin, Dormon headed a team that used a simple insight to revolutionise Cow & Gate's infant formula powder.
The product was sealed in foil bags, a format that owed more to production efficiencies than the needs of parents, but sales were falling. Following observation studies of parents using the product, the team uncovered concerns about hygiene and the ability to measure portion sizes.
The answer was a new can with a spoon built into the lid - a format that prevented moisture getting into the powder. It sounds simple, but the brand went on to record double-digit sales growth.
'Cow & Gate (had gone) bad because it took all the cost out of production and used foil pouches without thinking about the consumer,' adds Dormon.
'We did some observation of people making up this formula. Mums up all night with a crying baby don't want to be messing around with these pouches. Putting the spoon into the lid and having a scraper bar inside addressed all their wishes about usability and hygiene.'
Investment in this level of insight is laudable, and the benefits for the brand are clear. However, it takes a brave marketer to put their neck on the block and convince their board to sign off a radical change, especially in a climate where the focus is on cost-cutting.
Deborah Dawton, chief executive of the Design Business Association, says the reason there are fewer brand developments like Pringles and Toilet Duck now is that designers are not given the bigger picture.
'Brand owners are asking the wrong questions of designers,' she says. 'They need to understand that you can add value to a product and charge a premium for it by adding degrees of specialness and uniqueness. If people are commissioning a brand refresh, but designers aren't aware that the whole process is up for review, then it will just be a graphics refresh; but if you explain to designers what the problem is, they are capable of a higher level of thinking.'
Dawton says that 'short-term cost savings will inevitably lead to long-term problems', adding: 'It often boils down to whether you have the guts to do it. There is no excuse for not innovating because the talent is out there.'
However, consumer insight doesn't always lead to design changes that please everyone.
Dormon cites the example of Heinz's squeezy tomato ketchup bottles, which were designed to eradicate the problem of sauce becoming stuck in the bottle's neck, before rushing out in a large dollop. He believes the brand may have 'over-compensated' in its effort to solve the problem, as the squeezy version of the sauce lost the thickness traditionally associated with the product.
Ultimately, the success of any design change will depend on how well it meets the needs of consumers. It's all very well standing out on the supermarket shelves with eye-catching packaging that achieves a short-term sales spike, but to become a true hero, a brand needs to do its homework and have the confidence to invest in its idea - just like P&G with Baur's design.