Form or function? Well, yes.


We were working for a technology client during the formative years of the online communication and information explosion, (so “formative”, in fact, that the internet was not yet in general use…hard to imagine). Let’s just cleverly disguise the product’s identity by calling it “Widget.” This was a truly groundbreaking product and every time we ran into the EVP of Marketing, whether in a meeting or just passing in the hall, the first (and sometimes only) thing he would say was “Widget is…?” That was always followed by an expectant pause, waiting for us to tell him how he could, in three, or two, or possibly even one word, communicate the product’s key deliverable that captured its value to the target.


We knew what he was looking for was the essence of his brand. Not the product definition, not the category definition or generic, not the brand positioning. He was looking for the trigger phrase that would create an instantaneous visceral connection with his target. It could be rational, it could be emotional, but it had to define the role the brand could play in the target’s life…and do it spontaneously without a lot of thought.

That challenge is as relevant today, if not more so, than it was when he posed it. We live, and market, in a sound bite world. For instance, political campaigns that used to hinge on substantive platforms and issues are now won or lost in the media where sound bites are key. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many consumer decisions, both trivial and significant, are based on much less than a thorough understanding of the product’s rational delivery of what the consumer needs. The instantaneous reaction to a brand is often the deciding factor (and sometimes the only factor) influencing the customer’s decision. Our approach to this dynamic is an exercise in what we call “form vs. function.”

The marketing goal is to balance the “form,” the driver of the target’s visceral reaction to the brand, and “function,” the brand’s rational delivery. It’s a challenge that brands have to manage to succeed and it remains a moving target. There is little doubt that the balance of power between form and function has shifted dramatically over time. “Form” would appear to be playing an ever increasing role. And while we are used to “form” being a major factor in certain categories, like cosmetics, entertainment and beverages, for example, traditionally “function” driven categories, like technology, pharma and finance have seen the role of “form” grow significantly.

We’ve spent a lot of time, and have learned a lot, about uncovering the “form” factors and identifying the critical “function” of a wide variety of products and categories…and we’d be happy to share that knowledge. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned about managing a brand’s “form” and “function.”

It’s a balancing act Form follows function? Function follows form? Philosophies abound. We’ve found that the only rule is “there is no rule.” In most cases we’ve found that the best scenario is one where they each play a meaningful role. In general, the “form” captures the target’s attention and imagination while the “function” provides rational support for their decision process. The unique situation of each brand, inductively analyzed, will dictate the balance and the lead element. Getting the target’s perspective on each factor and to the inter-relation between them has been, for us, the key to finding the ideal balance and flow.

Educate ‘em or go with the flow? New Yorkers will remember Sy Sims, the retail clothing pitchman, telling viewers of his commercials that “an educated consumer is our best customer.” And it seems that many brand teams have agreed, sharing the belief that if the target knew the facts they would opt for the right product, their product. This is where we’ve seen the form/function dynamic undermine the basic strategy. Often, the warning sign will be the target irrationally choosing an inferior product despite the best efforts to educate them. This may indicate the need to find, and put more emphasis on, the more visceral aspects of the product or message. Harnessing the target’s natural momentum for “form over function” could be the answer.

Switch ‘em up At times we’ve found it very effective to bring “form” to the forefront in “function” categories and bring a “function” focus to “form” categories. For a pharma brand, as an example, where the functional benefits have always been the main message, we did an in-depth investigation of the impact on the sufferer’s self-image and desires. What emerged was a belief that they had the potential to live a more fulfilling life and that the right treatment could make it possible. The messaging was refocused on the patient’s “potential” as the “form” factor with the product performance in a supporting “function” role. The results were breakthrough on both message impact and sales.

Form as the tiebreaker Form can often play an important role in substance driven categories. A flood of contradictory facts and rational arguments can often blur the difference between products. Just look at any cell phone 4G coverage commercial. Who really has the better coverage.? Depends on who you listened to last. We’ve seen these kinds of “claim wars” have the interesting effect of paralyzing consumer demand rather than spurring it. When it gets too confusing or contradictory they just defer the decision until it makes more sense or becomes easier to choose. In those cases, while the “function” is the primary driver, setting a brand apart with an added element of “form” could be the tiebreaker. Wouldn’t be the first time we heard a consumer say, “I can’t tell the difference anyway so why not just go with the pretty one.”

Substance as the permission Let’s take the other case. Form driven categories where people are drawn to the product for visceral reasons, but are hesitant to commit. The pattern we’ve seen emerge is that hesitation in “form” categories is similarly driven by psychological rather than rational factors. It could be a sense of irresponsibility, or self-indulgence, or impracticality. More often than not, these people are looking for permission to indulge their decision, certainly not looking for support for their rational hesitation. We loved the Ferrari owner who shamelessly claimed that he bought a new one because it got better gas mileage than his old one. We’ve found that offering “form” driven customers “function” support we have been able to get them over the hurdle time and again.

So for today’s Strategy Break here are a few questions to help you get a sense of whether “form” and “function” could bring some new perspective to your brand:
  • How many words would it take to express the “form” aspect of my brand? How few?
  • If I ask 100 people on the street what my brand stands for – will I get a consistent, concise answer?
  • What is the balance of “form” and “function” in my brand strategy and messaging? Is there an opportunity to adjust the balance for greater effectiveness?

Deciding that a deeper examination of “form” and “function” could uncover new opportunities for your brand, is the first step. Discovering and leveraging your brand’s unique form and function elements is the next step. If you’d like to toss around some thoughts on how to get there, give us a call. We’re ready to take those steps with you.

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