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Revisiting Vacuum Cleaners: Postmodernism and Maximizing Total Addressable Market

Revisiting Vacuum Cleaners: Postmodernism and Maximizing Total Addressable Market

I was wrong about a British vacuum cleaner. I judged its looks too quickly and made false assumptions. It had a story to tell. The story is about the possibility of appealing to two very different markets: conservative and liberal customers, two groups that live apart, align with different brands, consume different media, and often buy different products. How is that possible?

A few weeks ago, I contrasted the product design of Miele and Dyson vacuum cleaners. I declared the Miele modernist, appealing to more urban liberal customers with abstract, minimalist design. On the other hand, the Dyson was deemed conservative with its hierarchical design cues and roots in founder Sir James Dyson’s conservative predispositions.

The image above shows the comparison from a few weeks ago. That comparison never sat quite right with me. I couldn’t help but feel a pull to put the Dyson in the middle, to declare it appealing to liberal and conservative customers. But I couldn’t articulate why so I went with an easy solution. I realize now that the pull to the center was correct. Here it is fixed:

From a product design perspective, the Dyson straddles liberal and conservative customer markets because it is neither traditional (conservative) nor modern (liberal) - it’s postmodern. Postmodern design has the potential to align a brand with the largest possible total addressable market: both liberal and conservative customers. So what is it about postmodernism that achieves this seemingly impossible task?

Let’s put postmodernism into context, which means revisiting modernism from the earlier article along the way. This time we’ll go just a little bit deeper.

Modernism, as an intellectual movement, emerged as a response to events and changes taking place toward the beginning of the twentieth century. The Second Industrial Revolution transformed society by creating a new separation between urban and rural populations with the development of electricity, steel, and machines.

These dramatic changes, combined with World War I’s devastating impact, inspired the need among mostly urban intellectuals to seek new answers to make sense of the world. “Make it new” became the modernist slogan from poet Ezra Pound.

New ideas meant rejecting the status quo - tradition and the associated hierarchies - in favor of seeking new universal truths. Modernism is centered on having “grand narratives” that create common ground for everyone, derived from the notion that there can be absolute objectivity and rationality. Having shared objectivity and rationality is what inspires liberal customers to have more egalitarian values - those values that both strive to make everyone equal and at the same time reject strong leadership.

As a result, modern art, architecture, and product design view decoration and ordered visuals as artifacts of tradition and hierarchy. Decoration and order get in the way of seeing universal truths. It’s why the modern aesthetic favors abstraction and “clean” design, as well as a focus on the inherent quality of materials.

The Miele vacuum cleaner is a strong example of modernist product design - it’s devoid of decoration and is “elegant” in order to reveal the simplicity of what it accomplishes. As a result, it’s also a design that appeals far more to more urbanized, liberal customers.

One of the most iconic modernist brands is Apple. Here’s author Walter Isaacson talking about Apple and Steve Jobs:

“Its guiding tenet was simplicity—not merely the shallow simplicity that comes from an uncluttered look and feel and surface of a product, but the deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.” As the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure proclaimed in 1977, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Early success for Apple drew from younger, more urban customers who are more liberal. Certainly, Apple’s success today goes beyond these customers, possibly by becoming a premium, status brand. Yet out of the gate Apple had a strong alignment with an urban modernist market that is also predisposed to early adoption because liberal customers are more open to change.

Now let’s think about Dyson and postmodernism.

Postmodernism rejects modernism and the belief that there is an ultimate objective reality or grand narratives that unify humanity. Postmodernism, as an intellectual movement, started gaining traction toward the end of the 20th century from the work of French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Postmodernism rejects the notion of universal objective reality in favor of reality being heavily influenced by culture and subjective interpretation. Postmodernism is about relativism - that truth may be more a matter of perspective.

Expression of postmodernism in culture challenges the simplicity and abstraction of modernist design by mixing sensibilities. If it’s all relative, why get hung up on one sensibility or the other? Postmodernism also rejects the seriousness of modernism and its quest for ultimate truth by injecting intentional playfulness and a recycling of sensibilities. This includes mixing what may be considered “high brow” (sophisticated) with “low brow.”

An early example of postmodern expression includes the Beatles, who bent the pop genre by integrating classical music into their work. Quentin Tarantino is considered an iconic postmodernist filmmaker who once said, “I steal from every movie ever made.” Sampling as recycling in hip hop music is another example of postmodern expression.

According to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), postmodernism in architecture employs one or more of four qualities: Bright colors, playfulness, classical motifs, and/or a variety of materials and shapes. These qualities are a foundation for bending genres, recycling sensibilities, and mixing visual cues in a manner that can combine elements of traditional and modern architecture and design.

Do these four qualities ring a bell? The Dyson vacuum cleaner ticks all of these boxes. Dyson products consistently employ a palette of bright orange and purple along with gray. The designs are playful. There are even classic motifs in the form of cathedral-like cues.

Here is the Dyson vacuum cleaner next to examples in architecture showing the four qualities from RIBA:



Traditional, modernist, and postmodernist - all three are product design sensibilities, and they are also ways to think about business and markets. Today all three sensibilities coexist within markets. Traditional customers are more conservative, modernist customers are more liberal, and postmodernism can lean in either direction or attempt an equal mix.

The challenge is to determine the best strategy for growth based on how your chosen market thinks. For example, does your market skew more modern (liberal) or traditional (conservative)? Is there an attractive competitive opportunity with one or the other? Is it essential to simultaneously appeal to liberal and conservative customers with either a segmented or postmodern approach?

Worldview alignment between a brand and its market today tends to result from happenstance. Success may be partially the result of a lucky alignment between a founder’s worldview and that of the market. Or the opposite is true - there is misalignment, leading to diminished growth and confusion as to why the market isn’t more receptive.

The Dyson design and brand were born out of a founder who studied industrial design and sought to solve a simple problem with vacuum cleaners - they lost suction when scooping up dirt. The products are innovative, and the brand appeal is wide-ranging through its design. It’s also safe to say that Dyson probably didn’t drive into work one day thinking to himself, “I think I’ll do something postmodern.” Yet he hit upon a design that can’t help but work for a lot of people.

When a new brand emerges from an urban environment declaring itself the “modern version of X,” you can bet its appeal will be with more urban and inner suburban liberal customers. You can also bet that the product will strive for the same modernist simplicity as Apple. That’s fine for attracting early adopters who are more open to this sensibility and change. However, it may or may not be fine to scale a business. If the product has inherently conservative market appeal and your product is not as innovative as Apple’s, then growth may stall.

The cost of evaluating worldview alignment with customer markets is very low. It often requires just a small amount of research and a few meetings to see if there is an opportunity for growth and efficiency. If there is, and the odds are there is, the cost of testing and implementation is also very low because there is nothing new to buy. You are simply adjusting to how your market thinks.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter, Red and Blue Customers.

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"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company