In a great essay for Core 77 ("Stepmothers of Invention: Branding Firms Enter the Industrial Design Fray"), Carl Alviani describes a trend that has been emerging for a while now: Not only do digital agencies like R/GA enter the branding domain, branding, marcom, and advertising firms also round out their services portfolio by adding product design capabilities. Alviani expects that "a lot more branding firms will be hiring product designers over the next few years, just as ID firms hired lots of media and identity specialists a decade back (and continue to do)." John Winsor director of strategy in product innovation at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, an ad agency which now bills itself as a "factory," reckons that "Product is the ultimate communication tool. To me, branding and ID are different sides of the same coin. We're both satisfying the needs of the customer."
And indeed, Alviani observes that "In the last few decades, 'product' has become a word that can describe a toothbrush, a piece of software, or an advertising campaign with equal justification, and this trend of metaphor-as-synonym shows no signs of slowing."
But he does not just simply buy into the song of creative discipline convergence. His view is much more nuanced. While he acknowledges that "branding agencies are just as good candidates for performing product design explorations as design firms at this point," Alviani questions whether real break-through innovation will ever originate from branding firms: "When we look for examples of 'authentic,' 'innovative' design, (...) we're almost always looking at a different sort of team. The current poster children of innovation-spawned market success--the Wii, the iPhone, the Flip video camera--emerged from large groups of researchers, designers, engineers, programmers and manufacturing specialists who worked together for a long time, and knew both their brand and the applicable technologies intimately. This type of work cannot be emulated by assembling a team or hiring an agency and handing them a brand bible, no matter how good they are at their jobs."
For the most part I would agree with his conviction that it's one thing to tell the story (even across different technologies and consumer touch points), but a very different thing to create it. Branding firms may consider product design simply as a means of brand extension. But then again, what is chicken, what is egg? I remember how Eric Feng, Chief Technical Officer at Hulu, emphasized in a presentation at the Milken Conference that it was critical for them to start with a clear understanding of what the Hulu brand should stand for -- long before they drafted even a rough concept of the actual product.