February 3, 2005

Samsung competing with Apple

I was at the local Apple store this evening and I met these two guys who were there to pick up some wi-fi gear. One of them spotted the Shuffle and within minutes he was buying it. His friend couldn’t resist and picked one too. And while the cashier was preparing their bills, another man rushed in and grabbed one. I guess it is a good time to be an Apple dealer.

Last night we were talking about Apple stuff and we were wondering if there was any other company that can match Apple in designing great stuff. Sony seems to running out of steam. In the competitive mp3 player segment, Creative Labs is trying to fight by fattening their gadgets with features, a trend that contrasts Apple’s mantra of simplicity” .

If I had to name a company that comes close to Apple today in design and branding, it would be Samsung.

From a recent issue of Economist: Brand new https://www.economist.com/leaders/2005/01/13/brand-new

In the midst of this frenzy of new and unfamiliar gizmos, product features would seem to count for everything. But companies in the hypercompetitive electronics industry are discovering something unexpected, and curious: brands matter almost as much as dazzling new technology.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this is South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, which made a big splash this year in Las Vegas. Samsung was once best known for making things like cheap microwave ovens. In the past few years it has transformed itself into one of the “coolestâ€� brands around, and is successfully selling stylish flat-screen TVs, digital cameras and mobile phones. After a record-breaking year, it is poised to overtake Motorola as the world’s second-biggest maker of mobile phones. And it is snapping at the heels of Japan’s Sony for leadership in the consumer-electronics business

Samsung has won a total of 19 Excellence Awards. Guess which is the only other company to have won that many?

Businessweek had an article titled Samsung Design last year that covered the importance Samsung gives to product design.

The office park in northern New Jersey hardly looks like a place that plays a role in cutting-edge design. Hard by a highway interchange, the two-story building is about as distinctive as white rice. But climb the stairs to the second floor, and you’ll see designers from Samsung Electronics Co. studying in painstaking detail the American consumer psyche. There, engineer Lee Byung Moo watches from behind a two-way mirror as three women and two men stuff a stainless steel refrigerator with the contents of a half-dozen bags of groceries. After the five have finished and given their opinions on several potential configurations of drawers and compartments, Lee and two others rush into the room to take photographs and note exactly where the shoppers” have put the ice cream, chicken, beer, milk, and other food. We want to know the tastes of American customers because we need to develop products that fit their lifestyle,” says Lee.

The change started in 1993, when Chairman Lee Kun Hee visited retailers in Los Angeles and saw that Samsung products were lost in the crowd, while those from Sony Corp. (SNE ) and a few others stood out.

The boss spoke. Samsung listened. And the company’s design push was under way. To attract better, younger designers, Samsung in 1994 moved its design center to Seoul from sleepy Suwon, a small city an hour south of the capital. That same year, Samsung hired U.S. design firm IDEO to help develop a computer monitor — the first of many such collaborations with IDEO and other leading consultancies.

Then in 1995, the company set up the Innovative Design Lab of Samsung (IDS), an in-house school where promising designers could study under experts from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., one of the top U.S. design schools. Samsung designers were dispatched to Egypt and India, Paris and Frankfurt, New York and Washington to tour museums, visit icons of modern architecture, and explore ruins.

Many of the new design ideas are coming from outside. Last year, Samsung started sending designers abroad to spend a few months at fashion houses, cosmetics specialists, or design consultancies to stay current with what’s happening in other industries. Lee Yun Jung, a senior designer who works on colors and finishes, spent last autumn in residence at a furniture designer in Italy.

So Samsung must continue to reinvent itself. In the past four years, the company has doubled its design staff, to 470, adding 120 of those just in the past 12 months. And since 2000, its design budget has been increasing 20% to 30% annually. To keep an eye on trends in its most important markets, Samsung now has design centers in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tokyo, and this year it opened one in Shanghai.

The article also links to an interview with the head of Samsung’s Industrial Design team Chung Kook Hyun.

Tech Korea

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