Take a position: Product functionality is the key to brand success versus product design is the key to brand success. The “form versus function” debate applies in many arenas, including marketing. Some marketers believe that product performance is the end all and be all. Other marketers maintain that the looks, feel, and other design elements of products are what really make the difference.

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Read the article "The Effect of Visual Product Aesthetics on Consumers' Price Sensitivity" (2015) by Yigit Mumcu and Hailil Semih Kimzan to learn why, in a very technological world where all optics are possible, functionality will definitely make a strong statement as far as product design. However, when it comes to marketing and sales, functionality needs to come hand-in-hand with aesthetics and looks.

Here is what the article states, which we could agree with whether we read it or not: When a good design is created with functionality in mind, the product will undoubtedly sell, no matter what it looks like, because the product is primarily created to solve a problem, ease lives, or help people. With this in mind, the product will undoubtedly sell ... at first.

However, in a growing market where product aesthetics and optics marketing help people develop their own personal style, there is no doubt that form will follow function—and surpass it—for the sake of sales.

This other article explains as much: modern technology offers way too many opportunities to make products vibrant, dynamic, and beautiful. Who would pass on the opportunity to purchase an object that can be both functional and optically pleasing?

Think about the following products, and notice how their form, not entirely their function, has undergone a number of cosmetic and aesthetic changes that make them more appealing to the public while performing the same task.

  1. USB sticks used to be plain and rectangular. Now, they are shaped like superheroes, cartoons, cameras, and some even have added (and not necessarily necessary) nightlights.
  2. Yoga pants used to look like yoga pants. Now, they are designed to be worn with suits and professional attire.
  3. Running shoes are becoming more appealing to be worn with professional attire—similar to yoga pants—while continuing to do the same job: they are still running shoes.
  4. Toilet seats now come with night lights, cushioning, temperature control, music, and contemporary designs—all added options to augment form, while the functionality remains the same.
  5. The iPhone and Samsung rival phones- these contraptions are shaped differently from time to time to meet the needs of those customers who like jumbo-sized screens and those who prefer regular-sized screens. Same product, slight changes, but different in design.
  6. Tupperware vs Rubbermaid products continuously battle it out in the aesthetics field while continuing to do the same thing: storing food. However, modern marketing will end up selling the product that is more compact, light, and cute to take to work for lunch.

We could apply this same argument to other everyday items, including:

  • makeup brushes are now available in interesting aesthetic choices, from epoxy to vegan.
  • wine glasses
  • reading glasses
  • wigs
  • drinking tumblers

All of these items, as different as they may be, have one thing in common: they have performed almost the exact same job they were meant to perform when they were first created. Moreover, they are also highly functional and necessary to some buyers' markets. Personally, I've owned at least 10 of these items, and I continue to replace them from time to time.

Why would I replace them? It is not because they stopped doing their job. I replace them, as a customer, to meet the modern looks and aesthetics that make this functional product LOOK like it's brand new and not outdated. Aside from the looks of it, they continue to do their job, fair and square.

As far as performance goes, these items continue to do the same thing, generation through generation. They have proven beyond a doubt to be functional. They solve problems, ease people's lives, and happen to be quite helpful.

All these said, let's take the position that once a product proves its worth in the functional world, the one thing that will make it marketable will be product aesthetics and "form." Product aesthetics constitute the key aspect of effective marketing. Form will make the difference between a product that sells and one that does not.

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In many products, form and function complement each other. Take the example of a fast car like a Ferrari. The car is designed to be aerodynamic and reduce drag as one speeds down the road. That’s why it accelerates faster than most cars. The sleek body design contributes to the car’s functionality. Another example is that of modern phones. Nowadays, smartphone manufacturers are focused on creating products with two to three cameras because they believe that is what the market wants. The manufacturers can’t just put the cameras anywhere; they have to make sure that design and function complement each other if they want to sell their products. However, if I have to choose between the two, I would go for design over functionality.

If you want your brand to stand out in a competitive market, you have to make sure that it has a unique design. We live in a society that’s obsessed with image and beauty. That’s why social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat are so popular. People are not going to pay attention to your brand if your products are not physically appealing. Your buyers want to purchase something good-looking so that they can show it off to the rest of the world.

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Form, functionality, and price all contribute to the success of a product. As for which one is more important, it depends on the particular product and market segment. For example, Apple products tend to have a cult following, concerned with prestige and design attributes, and they tend to command a premium price, being more expensive than similar products with greater amounts of memory or processing power. While some people are willing to pay more for aesthetics and prestige, others looks for pure functionality, and might prefer, for example, Android phones or Windows-based computers.

The issue is additionally complicated by the problem of functionality not really being something fixed and beauty being in the eye of the beholder. For example, some people might consider a "functional" car one that can drive far faster than the legal speed limit while others are concerned with off-road capability or towing capacity or gas mileage and reliability. I personally consider large, hulking SUVs ugly, but other people may consider them aesthetically appealing.

Next, markets differ. For example, someone buying jewelry or a prom dress is primarily concerned with design, as this type of product doesn't really have a function. On the other hand, someone buying drain cleaner or motor oil is entirely concerned with functionality. Most products are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Thus rather than thinking of design versus functionality as a simple binary opposition, it might be better to suggest that markets are segmented, with different groups of people looking for different things. Successful companies either choose to focus on a specific niche or offer a wide range of products to cover multiple niches.

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Whether a product's function or its appearance is the selling factor has been a long standing debate. Ultimately, in the longer run, a successful product has to have both a good appearance and remarkable performance (think of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic). Personally, I would pick functionality and performance over the looks/design of a product. Consider that Sony and Samsung make better designed smartphones and a whole range of them too—however, it is Apple's iPhone that sells much better, even though one has to learn a different operating system and the "Apple" way of doing things (different connector, etc.). The iPhone consistently beats Samsung and Sony in sales. Similarly, Dell and HP manage to sell many more laptops than Apple, because you can get the same features for a much lower price than Apple (which is kind of the opposite of the smartphone market). The products from Dell/HP are average-looking, while Apple makes "good-looking" (in Steve Jobs' own terms) Macs.

There are a number of factors other than performance and design, like brand loyalty and value, that need to be considered as well when formulating your sales and marketing strategy. 

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Of course, the best products will have both form and function.  However, if I had to pick one that is more important, I would argue that it is function.

There are many products for which the function is much more important than what the product looks like.  For example, Toyota's Prius is not a notably good looking car.  But people like the fact that it gets good gas mileage and that it makes a statement about being "green."  As another example, iPhones are not all that good looking.  But people like the variety of functions that they can perform so they do not worry about having to hold this rectangular thing up to their face while they talk.

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