Is this a product or an experience?

August 12, 2008

I got a great present from my wife the other day. It was a set of Bodum coffee cups. They are the double walled ones with a vacuum in between. Like a vacuum flask, they keep hot liquids hotter for longer and cold liquids colder. The revelation for me was how much better my morning latté now is. The old experience was a great first taste, where the coffee was at the right temperature, and then a steadily degraded experience with each subsequent sip. If I was particularly engaged in what I was reading the coffee would be cold by the time I got to the last few mouthfuls. With the new cup every sip is as good as the last and I catch myself savoring a mouthful of great coffee many more times a day. So the question I asked myself is whether the new cup is a great product or a great experience.

This may seem like an academic question but I don’t think so. When I received the gift I have to say that my first, fortunately silent, response was that we didn’t really need any more cups. We have drawers full of them. It felt like one of those unnecessary gifts that you feel guilty about and feel vaguely resentful for having received. I am pretty sure that if I had seen the cups in a store it would not have occurred to me to buy them. As a product they would not have been interesting or appealing but as part of my coffee drinking experience they are fantastic. This speaks to how physical artifacts are marketed and designed. I don’t know how successful these cups are in terms of sales but I suspect that they are not blockbuster sellers. I have a feeling that they are marketed and bought as products not as components of a great experience. In my opinion, the only products that deserve to succeed are ones that are key components of a valuable experience. If they are not designed to achieve that they will be irrelevant. If they are not marketed as an experience then consumers will miss their value and categorize them with every other product that has the same physical characteristics. Manufacturers must see themselves as experience curators not product makers. This is something I am reminded of every time I take a sip of coffee.