Designing in Success

Germany is a major market for consumer goods and one that foreign ­manufacturers are keen to crack. But brands beware! Only products that follow the right design ­principles will satisfy the discerning German consumer.

February 2019

Germany is one of the largest consumer markets in Europe. With a population of almost 83m and a spending power which ranks among the highest on the continent, it is an Eldorado for foreign companies looking to sell their products. By the end of 2018, Germans will have spent €1.9 quadrillion on consumption, living, leisure, and savings, says German market research institute GfK – an increase of 2.8 per-cent on 2017 – while approximately a third of all expenditure is attributed to consumer goods.

Unsurprisingly, many foreign companies are queueing up to get a foothold in the German market, but not all of them will be successful. Only those who understand what kind of design works in Germany will have a chance of survival. Due to the size of the population, German consumers are very diverse and have different needs and values. “There is not one German customer. Selecting the relevant ones leads to a valuable context for the design,” says Janine Budde, founder and managing partner of the Munich-based design agency Budde Burkandt Design. However, from a meta­perspective, Germans do have certain preferences in product design that uniquely characterize them as a people and these can be summarized in three guiding principles:

1) Functionality

Form follows function: the credo of the Bauhaus era of the 1920s is still just as relevant today. Stripped-down design shapes the products of many German companies; it is also a principle that many famous and successful foreign brands adhere to, because they know that Germans like products that are reduced to the essentials. “The Bauhaus style has influenced products in Germany for decades. The Germans are simply used to it,” Florian Schaake, creative director at the design agency Peter Schmidt Group, says. Straight, unemotional, minimalist, Bauhaus design also resembles the character of German society. “That’s why it works so well here,” Schaake states.

Functionality also includes convenient handling. “This is very important for German consumers,” says Gunnar Spellmeyer, professor of product design at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Esthetic details are arguably important, but functionality tops it all. “The product has to work. It does not matter if it’s blue or red ultimately,” he asserts. “Products must also have a meaning. Otherwise they will not work in Germany.”

»Design is about more than shape an outer shell. ­Rather, design is an economic ­discipline.«

Florian Schaake,

creative director at Peter Schmidt Group

The showroom of Vitra Campus, a furniture design company based in Weil am Rhein, Germany, with contemporary domestic designs by Vitra, Moebel, and economy. © Gregor Hohenberg/laif

2) Transparency

Products are made to be used, that much is clear. But one critical question for Germans when making buying decisions is: does it do what it says on the label? “As I see it, Germans mostly focus on the functional benefit they gain from a product,” says Budde. It is therefore all the more important that products deliver on their promise. Product designer Schaake adds a word of caution: “If companies don’t fulfill what they said they would, Germans can be very resentful.”

Transparent products also help consumers to understand and use them easily. User guidance and intuitive handling are of utmost importance for Germans. “They like to know what they can use the product for,” says university professor Spellmeyer. The functionality of the product also supports this aspect: simple, stripped-down design makes products understandable.

EXPERT ADVICE

The Principles of Good Design

Dieter Rams is considered one of the most successful industrial designers of our times. He sets down his top ten commandments for good design.

Good design is…

Innovative

User-friendly

Aesthetically pleasing

Easy to comprehend

Unobtrusive

Honest

Durable

Consistent down to the detail

Environmentally friendly

Uses as little “design” as possible

3) Quality

The “Made in Germany” seal of quality is appreciated worldwide. It is therefore hardly surprising that Germans have high standards and attach great importance to high-quality products. The bottom line is that foreign manufacturers must ensure their products and packaging give the appearance of quality, value, and authenticity. For example, the kitchen utensils manufacturers Alessi from Italy and Rösle from Germany are both successful in the German market. Alessi stands for playful and emotional design, whereas Rösle focuses on a pure minimalist approach.

In recent years, German consumers have become more quality conscious, if anything, not less. The VuMA Touchpoint study, which is conducted by the German market research institutes GfK, IFAK, and Ipsos, reports that 42 percent of the sampled population stated that quality was more important to them than price. In contrast, only six percent chose price over quality. In 2014 by contrast, 41 percent said they preferred quality over price. Foreign manufacturers must never assume that what works in their home market will work in Germany.