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Hero of the high-design headset

Plantronics is banking on a growing segment of the headset market to continue increasing revenues: Bluetooth headsets.
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

After breaking his back in a motorcycle accident, industrial designer Darrin Caddes became more aware of how people interact with products.

"I couldn't use a phone handset," he recalls. "I couldn't turn around easily or pick up a pen."

Today, the former automotive-industry designer — who has held top posts at Fiat, BMW, and Indian Motorcycles — says that his accident began a new chapter in his career.

"In a wheelchair, I was using headsets to make calls," he says, "and I realized it was an expanding market. And it also posed unique design challenges."

So in 2004, Caddes took the title of vice-president of corporate design at Plantronics. At the time, the company that was once focused on business-to-business headsets — they made the headset worn by Neil Armstrong as he walked on the moon in 1969 — was seeking to court the consumer headset market as mobile phones became increasingly mainstream.

Caddes' hire coincided with an announcement by Plantronics' Chief Executive Ken Kannapan that they would use design as a key distinguishing factor. In 2005, the design staff grew threefold, from five to 15 employees, and later this year, the company plans to open a new, 7,000-square-foot design studio that will accommodate twice that many.

There will be more room for the company's on-site rapid-prototyping machines and Plantronics' famous "ear wall" — a growing display of hundreds of silicone casts of human ears, representing different genders, ages, and ethnicities, and used to test early prototypes for wearability.

Appealing to women
Plantronics' revenue figures from before and after Kannapan's design-strategy announcement suggest the tactic is paying off. In the year ending March, 2004, the company's annual revenue was $417 million; by March, 2005, it had reached $560 million; and by March, 2006, it was up to $750 million.

On July 19, Plantronics announced that it had hit its goal for revenues in the first quarter of 2006: $148.9 million. While up from $131.4 million the year before, the figure was on the lower end of the $148 million-$153 million expectation. But the company is banking on a growing segment of the headset market to continue increasing revenues: Bluetooth headsets.

A June 22, 2006, survey from market researcher Strategy Analytics states that 33 million Bluetooth headsets for mobile phones were sold globally in 2005, an increase of 153 percent from the year before. The survey predicted that sales would grow 70 percent in 2006. Plantronics has ranked third in the global Bluetooth headset market with 12.3 percent of sales, compared with Motorola's 28.2 percent and the 16.3 percent of GN Store Nord's Jabra brand, according to the survey.

On July 27, Plantronics will launch eight new products, including the sleek little Discovery 655. "Bluetooth headsets tend to be gearlike, with brutal geometries," Caddes says. "They make the wearer look like an android or a robot." They also, generally speaking, look very male, he says. The 655 was consciously designed to appeal to women, an emerging sector of the market.

Some analysts say mobile-phone accessories targeted at female buyers might prove to be the next big wave, now that mobile-phone handsets geared for women are starting to prove their appeal.

Subtle statement
"Motorola sold 664,000 pink RAZRs so far. That's a lot of very specifically targeted handsets," observes Seamus McAteer, senior analyst with mobile-market researcher M:Metrics. "Potentially, there could be a huge market for headsets for women, too."

Despite the popularity of Motorola's pink RAZR phone, Caddes doesn't think the solution is to introduce models in pink — the strategy behind Motorola's recently released H700 headset. Jabra took a similar approach with its BT160 headset, which can accommodate 33 interchangeable plates in a spectrum of colors and patterns, like leopard print or flowers.

Caddes' approach is more subtle. The Discovery 655 avoids making the statement "I'm wearing a headset!" Like "a pair of eyeglasses," in Caddes' words, the headset is meant to be both a functional tool and a stylish accessory. To emphasize the latter, Plantronics staged a fashion show in Milan, Italy, in late 2005, with models sashaying down the catwalk wearing the company's headsets.

"Eyeglasses were once an innovative technology that helped people see better, or to shade their eyes from the sun," Caddes says. "Now they're seen as a fashion statement. And people have more than one pair."

Updated shape 
Caddes took the more subtle approach in part because the 655 isn't intended solely for women. No doubt this is partly because, according to M:Metrics, of the 22.5 million Americans who own Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones — the potential buyers of the Discovery 655 — 12.6 million are men, and only 9.9 million are women.

The 655 is actually quite similar to the Discovery 640 model that came to market one year ago and won a prestigious iF design award in early 2006. Weighing in at the same 9 grams and measuring the same 2 inches, the 655 is slightly more gracefully shaped than the 640, and its angle conforms better to a female cheek. That's the only difference, really.

Like the 640, the 655 comes with three different ear gels to customize fit, a cue to buyers that the device is intended for both larger, male ears and smaller, female ones. And like the Discovery 640, the new 655 comes with a sleek, pen-size charger meant to fit discreetly into a purse or briefcase. (Curiously, the charging cylinder for the 655 only provides 10 hours of battery time, whereas the earlier version could charge up to 15 hours.)

Angling for an icon 
While most Bluetooth headsets sell for $70-$100, Plantronics priced the Discovery models at $149, charging a premium for the elegant design. To make the headset feel more like a piece of valuable jewelry and less like a plastic phone accessory, Caddes didn't make the Plantronics name or logo a garish centerpiece. Although the company's name is emblazoned on the bottom of the device, there is nothing like Motorola's very visible "M" graphic. Instead, Caddes has followed an iPod strategy: brand recognition through iconic form.

"I want people to recognize the Discovery 655 as a Plantronics headset without seeing a logo," says Caddes, who drew on automotive experience designing iconic car silhouettes that could be recognized from blocks away. What the Discovery 655 does incorporate is a slim version of what the designers call the "power funnel" — a black graphic element that surrounds the power button and stretches down the length of the headset. This will appear on all devices as a signature design.

The Discovery 655 isn't a guaranteed hit, though. Stylish, design-conscious phone accessories don't always catch on. Notably, Aliph's sculptural, radically rectangular Jawbone headset, fashioned by industrial designer Yves Béhar, had disappointing sales after it launched in 2004. The problem could have been its too-dramatic redesign—or the above-average price tag of $150. Which puts the 655 on iffy ground. The key for Plantronics to keep growing revenues and attracting new customers will be to carefully balance its pursuit of elegance with the need to be affordable and functional.