David Blecken
Mar 17, 2017

Can agencies really produce meaningful product design?

Agencies and other industry vendors in Japan are stepping up efforts to develop their own consumer-oriented products. What’s driving it?

Naoki Ono displays Pechat at Hakuhodo in Tokyo
Naoki Ono displays Pechat at Hakuhodo in Tokyo

This week marks the 30th time for the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference to descend on Austin, Texas. As the conference diversifies (this year’s lineup included a panel on ‘compassionate disruption’ hosted by a Vatican priest), so do the advertising and marketing industries.

Campaign recently reported on Panasonic’s plans to showcase conceptual products at the event to gain a sense of their marketability. While it’s unusual for Panasonic to unveil unfinished products to the public, it’s not a major departure from the norm given that product design is the company’s core business. More noteworthy, perhaps, is the increasing presence of agencies and other service providers eager to show off their own products aimed at the general public.

This year, Hakuhodo is presenting a ‘wearable English teacher’ dubbed English Learning Intelligence (ELI). The device records Japanese conversation and creates English lessons based on the words the wearer uses in daily life. At the more frivolous end of the spectrum, McCann Worldgroup has unveiled a robot that’s supposed to help people meditate.

Next week at AdFest the production company AOI Pro is also showcasing its ‘Dream Match’ virtual reality baseball experience. These companies, among numerous others in the advertising sector, see proactive consumer product development like this as important to the future of their business.

Hakuhodo’s ELI is the work of monom, a division specialising in product design led by Naoki Ono. Ono started out as a spatial designer and copywriter, making furniture in his spare time. That personal interest evolved in 2015 to the formation of a team of 11 and the creation of a button-shaped speaker, Pechat,that can be attached to toys such as teddy bears to enable them to ‘talk’. Pechat debuted as a concept at SXSW last year. It’s a novel way for parents to communicate with their children: the badge-wearing plush toy delivers messages input via smartphone. Ono is unable to disclose revenue from sales, but says that at just below 5,000 yen, it has sold twice as many units as Hakuhodo expected. Monom now plans to develop an English-language version of the software.

Other recent examples of product design by agencies include Party’s ‘Disco Dog’—a smartphone-operated LED vest for pets—and the Panorella, an umbrella to which customers can upload and display 360-degree photos.

Are agencies credible product designers?

As intriguing as it all sounds, an obvious question is, why invest considerable time and money on projects unconnected to clients? Ono says an average project takes around six months. But he explains that monom’s proactive work supports work for paying clients. He sees Pechat and ELI as experimental initiatives that offer a learning experience in applying technology as well as attracting interest from outside brands looking for product design services.

Initially,” Ono says, “Hakuhodo only provided the concept, but now we’re getting requests to build things.” Monom has worked with clients in the home appliance, cosmetics and automotive sectors. It’s not clear how big monom will become, but Ono says it’s a serious part of Hakuhodo’s mid-term plan. In simple terms, Ono is motivated by two things: to explore new revenue streams, and to make advanced technology accessible to everyone.

Still, why appoint an advertising agency over a regular design company? Ono says Hakuhodo’s communications and consumer expertise mean it is able to market the product, not just create it. In the case of Pechat, he says, “I spent a lot of resources in researching what the consumer wants and how they want to use it”. He says a certain amount of creativity was required in each stage of the process, from promotional content to customer support to the instruction manual, which he wrote.

Owned products as market research

AOI Pro’s VR baseball initiative is somewhat different, but no less important a shift for a company that has traditionally worked as more of a supplier than an originator. It plans to sell the software to game and shopping centres and events for use by the general public. Again, it’s a case of technological experimentation in an area that it sees becoming a bigger part of its core services.

Takayuki Yoshizawa, the creative director in charge of AOI’s VR and AR team, says the company plans to develop original content and work with clients directly as well as working with ad agencies. A new product is in the works that’s unrelated to sport. He sees VR as a relatively untapped area for brands in Japan but expects it to grow once clients appreciate that the technology can deepen the experience between consumers and a brand and be a determining factor in purchase decisions.

At the heart of products like ‘Dream Match’ is data. AOI uses technology to monitor the reactions of participants when batting or fielding, and Yoshizawa says understanding emotional response will be an important part of its offering in terms of VR for brands.

It’s still relatively early days for product development in advertising, and it’s always tempting for companies to use this area as a vehicle for self-promotion. But as some of these examples show, there are valid reasons for wanting it to grow. In order that it does, agencies and other vendors will need to ensure they focus on ideas that are not simply novel, but fill genuine gaps in the market or advance their understanding of consumers.

Read our full interview on AOI Pro’s VR division next week.

Campaign Japan

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