Of Branding and Vacuums

In this week’s New Yorker, John Seabrook introduces us to James Dyson (now Sir James), who is most famous as the designer of high-end vacuum cleaners. Vacuums were a low-priced, commodity business, but Dyson – who exploded the industry and became a billionaire – had a few key insights we can learn from.

  1. People will pay more for quality, if the category matters to them. In this Purell-laden, germ-phobic world (and I plead guilty), people are obsessed with cleanliness, and a dramatically better vacuum fits the bill. Especially if it can be justified by a primal desire for health or protecting your family from harm, the public will pony up.
  2. Play to your strengths. Dyson – quite proudly – is an engineer, not a designer. His machine wasn’t pretty, but it showcased its dirt-sucking competitive advantage.  Seabrook writes that an early model “looked as if it had been turned inside out: it wore its guts on its skin…Dyson let you see the dirt as you collected it, in a clear plastic bin on prominent display in the machine’s midsection.” That’s called proof, and chary customers were assuaged by their own eyes.
  3. Perceptions matter. Who wouldn’t want a nice, quiet vacuum cleaner? Sounds like a no-brainer…except it could actually undermine your brand. “According to a Dyson representative,” notes the article, “American machines are louder than the European and Asian models, because Americans associate noise with power and don’t trust a quiet machine.” Leaving aside the bizarre and troubling implications regarding our national psyche, there are some useful business take-aways, notably: you absolutely must understand your customers’ implicit attitudes and prejudices (focus groups help here, because no one will consciously admit to desiring a noisy machine or its equivalent in your product line).

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.