By Gerrit Terstiege.
When we think of Braun, these days the name conjures up more than just high-quality electrical appliances – it also represents impressive designs that display unique clarity. Gerrit Terstiege met up with Braun’s Head of Design, Oliver Grabes, in Kronberg and talked to him about the Braun brand, brand values and the challenges of the future as Braun prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021.
Mr Grabes, it was almost ten years ago to this day that we had our first conversation – at that time you had just started as Braun’s Head of Design. How would you weigh up the past decade?
Back then we had just started down a path that is now clear to see: we have regained the design quality that is so strongly associated with Braun products. We also know the reason why we do what we do. Our designs follow a clear trajectory, and we deliberately ensure that nothing is polarising. And we are once again presented under a uniform overall image, despite having so many diverse product categories – especially through our collaborations with licensed partners.
How has Braun’s brand image changed over the past decade?
I think that today, for example, a Braun razor can be clearly distinguished from other brands. The same applies to household appliances. When I started in 2009, this was not always the case. At that time there were differing interpretations of what the Braun design actually was. In certain cases, the products were often very well designed and also successful on the market, but they often reflected the design idea of the individual designer rather than that of the company, which did not communicate a clear brand image across the different segments.
There was no uniform understanding of what we stood for and how we expressed it. Equally important, though, is that once you decide to stick to a “family idea”, for want of a better term, it is important not to stop, but to develop it further. You have to keep questioning yourself, and you have to keep an eye on the future.
Is this kind of development process, i.e. the classic design management task of setting the “broad brush strokes”, something that you as Braun’s Head of Design can determine alone? Or do you have to get marketing and other departments on board as well?
As a design team, we can determine this ourselves – perhaps also because, after many successful years, we have proven that we are on the right track. Internally, I am confident that we are taking the steps that are necessary for us to remain relevant. Of course, we can always wrangle over the details. But we are not a niche brand that can afford to present any polarising extremes. Today, we design for large, international markets. This means that factors such as uniformity and a clear brand image are critical to our success.
These days, how much time do you still spend working as a designer, and how much do you dedicate to being a manager?
I dedicate about half of my working day, together with my team, to the actual design work, and the other half to the implementation, planning and strategic positioning of the design within Braun, Gillette and Procter & Gamble as a whole. This includes, for example, the transfer of knowledge: i.e. the transfer of our experiences and insights to the various teams at our locations in Geneva, Boston and Cincinnati. This can include questions such as which structural team constellation works best for us, or which processes or software have given us the best results.
Let’s move on to the not-so-distant future when the past will play a special role: in 2021 the Braun brand will be 100 years old. Can you tell us anything about how you plan to celebrate this anniversary?
We are currently in the middle of talks. Nothing has been set in stone yet. But naturally for us, this is an opportunity to look back and at the same time connect the past with the future. This, of course, stirs up big questions about how we should prepare the centenary theme in terms of the content and visuals. Our values will certainly be the basis for everything we plan and convey in connection with our 100th anniversary – but the way in which we present them must be modern and exciting. And like nothing we’ve ever done before. But if our values did not come across in our communication, that would be a great shame.
We are not a niche brand that can afford to present any polarising extremes.
In recent years, the significance of the past has become increasingly important for Braun. And Dieter Rams has experienced an enormous boost in personal importance – due to the success of Apple’s design, which he influenced. From the design legend to the shining light, so to speak. Though in fact, the current Braun brand values differ from Rams’ “Ten Theses for Good Design” of the early 1980s.
First of all, I think Rams’ theses have become popular again, and rightly so. The clarity of his theses is unique, which explains their great appeal and relevance even in the present day. Apple has shouted this understanding of design loud and clear around the world – and that helped us find our roots again. If Apple uses this kind of design and achieves such success with it, then this path cannot be too wrong. At the beginning of the 2000s, the situation was very different – and Apple products also looked different back then. But today Dieter Rams’ theses are more relevant than ever, precisely because they take environmental aspects into account.
In reality, of course, putting things into practice is not so easy – this was as true back then as it is now. As a guide, his theses are still very, very important to us today. But you referred to the differences. I have to say that these days we use very different methods and techniques, but we are also dealing with quite different problems from those of the early 1980s, when Rams formulated his theses. For example, people are more aware of the problem of microplastics, and this brings with it a greater sense of urgency. In terms of repairability and recycling, we are in a different place today than we were almost 40 years ago. And we are trying to respond to environmental issues with the possibilities we have at our disposal today.
What special challenges do you face at the moment as Braun’s Head of Design?
Of course, I have to make sure our products stand out in today’s brand environment, which is heavily influenced by online-based purchasing decisions. We have to make it easy for people to understand why our products are so good. These days we have to convey our brand identity both virtually, and then in a completely different way at the point-of-sale. As designers, we can contribute a lot in getting this sense of value and quality across. Compared to Rams’ era, we have a larger product range and deal with a larger global market. This means we are operating on a completely different scale in terms of quantities. But this also increases our responsibility as designers. Compared with before, today we definitely have a stronger general appeal – because back then our products had very stark brand images, but they also polarised.
Of course, I have to make sure our products stand out in today’s brand environment, which is heavily influenced by online-based purchasing decisions. As designers, we can contribute a lot in getting this sense of value and quality across.
Who decides on new product categories these days? Who said, for example: We need a new line of Braun speakers, like the LE series that was presented at the IFA last year?
It is actually the design department that comes up with a lot of the suggestions. The revival of the audio line of business you mentioned has been on the cards for some time now, because it makes perfect sense to continue this great tradition. With our British licensed partner Pure, we had the opportunity to re-boot Braun Audio with high-quality, modern technology and an enduring design. It was also important to us that our Braun Design team here in Kronberg should take over the design.
How does this revival affect the brand as a whole?
As a brand, this is certainly a step towards increased visibility, because speakers have to work in any kind of living environment, they are what you might call “technical pieces of furniture”. And nowadays, Bluetooth boxes are also lifestyle products to a certain degree – at least more than an epilator or razor would be. This is why it was important to us to find a timeless, serene and enduring design solution. And we would, of course, use this as an opportunity to make a statement about Braun as a brand, as a whole – based on design elements that people already associate with us, but which we have now re-invented. We are talking about creating products for today’s world, about being a step ahead.
Interview: Gerrit Terstiege