Betty Crocker and the iPhone

A box of Betty Crocker cake mix and the Apple iPhone share more than you may think.

When introduced, they both had a secret missing ingredient that would make the user experience more engaging, and the product more successful. For cake mix it was the egg, and for the iPhone it was the app.

As the story is told, the original cake mix developed by Betty Crocker failed. Housewives, the original target market, felt that it was just too easy. The original recipe lacked a sense of true accomplishment. The solution was to modify the recipe by requiring the addition of an egg, and a little more consumer engagement in cake creation. Sales took off.

Donald Norman, the Breed Professor of Design at Northwestern University and former VP of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, tells this story in the context of a speech on “co-creation”.  He speaks of the notion of traditional marketing being about,

“Consuming versus Producing: Spectator Versus Creator”.

And he is one of many these days who suggests that truly successful brands in the future will have a way of merging all of these things to create a tailored lifestyle, where the marketer is more often the provider of the tools and consumer is the one who assembles these tools to fit their unique lifestyle.

When the iPhone was introduced it was a great phone, really revolutionary in so many ways. But what now makes it indispensible is the app, allowing for a customized interface. Much like the egg in the cake mix, an app gives consumers the feeling of really baking the user experience themselves. Apple and the app developers provide the tools and the user creates a lifestyle.

But Professor Norman suggests, and I concur, that this kind of participation with brands and experiences is not new. He concludes,

“Consider an opera, a musical comedy, a Hollywood (or better, a Bollywood) extravaganza, or an amusement park. All of these are experiences that cut across the media: sight and sound, motion and emotion. But all of these involve a transmitter of the experience and a passive audience. Creation is not new. Artists and craftspeople create. Amateurs artists and musicians create. Game players create. But in all of these activities, there are still creators and viewers. Moreover, the creativity is often limited, much as it is limited in so-called “personalization” of software or IKEA furniture: it is limited by the desires of the manufacturer. What is needed is meaningful, thoughtful creation and participation.”

The next challenge for designers is to create what Norman calls “active, participatory transmedia”, and what I will call the convergence of a more interactive process where we are all consumers, producers, spectators, and creators.

As I mentioned in my last post, we are more and more a society and an economy based on ideas and not stuff. As David Brooks suggests, we don’t make stuff as much as we used to, we design “protocols”. In this kind of economy the distinction between the haves and the have nots will no longer be based on who owns tangible things, but who understands this interactive and transparent process of creation and consumption.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Design Criticism, Design Practice, Food, Packages Today, Packages Tomorrow, Retail Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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