We are often asked if everything can be designed. Is it possible to differentiate a product, command higher prices, and build a brand through design in any type of product category? The answer is yes. All products, even digital ones, have a presence that people can feel and appraise. And not only does design act as a potential brand builder for all products, it’s probably also the most effective and cheapest—though obviously not the only—way to build a brand.
Take trash bins—a product category few would think of as designed objects of desire and beauty. But nothing could be more wrong. In fact, as far back as the 1930s, Holger Nielsen, a young man in the rural Danish town of Randers, founded a company whose sole purpose was to produce a beautiful bin.
To put the scale of his vision in historical context, Nielsen launched his signature product just five years after the Museum of Modern Art exhibited its landmark show, "Machine Art," which showcased all kinds of industrial contraptions in the same building that contained more traditional pieces of art. In curating the show, MoMA acquired hundreds of objects that became the basis for one of the world’s most prestigious design collections. Disgruntled art critics regarded the show with contempt, convinced that there was no room for industrial design in an art museum. The New Yorker described the show as "a hardware store run by Brancusi and Fernand Leger." Alfred H. Barr, the exhibition’s curator, wrote in the foreword to the catalog, that the exhibition was based on a platonic concept of beauty determined not by aesthetics but by the essence of the object.
Nielsen, a blacksmith by training, shared Barr’s notion of beauty and began to make a durable trash bin for his wife’s hair salon. It was a cream-colored enamel vessel, with a removable inner container, a handle, and a rubber seal around the top to keep odors inside. The Vipp bin became popular not just in the salon but also with local dentists and doctors.
For many years after Nielsen’s death, in 1992, Vipp sales remained steady but failed to grow. Then, in 1994, his youngest daughter, Jette Egelund, assumed control of the business and eventually decided to expand the Vipp product line with a toilet brush. Demand slowly increased, especially from the design boutiques that originally sold it. Today, the company is a global success, selling more than 50,000 bins a year despite a retail price of about $300. The company has since added a soap dispenser, and several other products are in the pipeline. All are designed by Morten Bo Jensen, the former head of design at Biomega and rooted in the company’s heritage of making built-to-last products of rubber, steel, and painted metal.
So what lessons can we learn from Vipp? It has its foundation in the design path followed by many Scandinavian and northern Italian companies and identified by Roberto Verganti as building sustainable competitive advantages through innovations that create entirely new markets. Vipp is also the story of how, by keeping the focus on your product line, you can create a unique and lucrative brand. For this to work, the product design must have a strong allure, so that even if consumers aren’t familiar with the brand’s funky advertising and goofy viral movies, they’ll still find the product attractive and come to see it as a symbol of the brand’s core values.
But the most important lesson from Vipp is not how to build a brand through design, but the fact that it is possible to do so in the first place. If a trash bin can become an object of desire, your product can, too.
Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.
Rasmus Bech Hansen is the London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.