Bugaboo is a buggy with a child-friendly name and parent-minded features taking design marketing to new heights.
The Design Academy of Eindhoven, the Netherlands, directed by trends guru Li Edelkoort, is a well-known talent brewer. Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders have studied there. And so has Max Barenbrug, the founder and creator of Bugaboo.
It was 1994 when Barenbrug was asked, for his final year project, to design a product inspired by the themes of “mobility and leisure”. To the commission’s utter amazement, Barenbrug turned up with a stroller.
Barenbrug had always found the buggy an interesting item, especially from the point of view of its design potential. It certainly is a mobility product, yet very few people would think of it in relation to the idea of being mobile and active. Quite the opposite, in fact.
For some reason, strollers would almost naturally bring about a link with slow motion, adventure-free experiences, and (let’s say it!) boring walks up and down the street.
Barenbrug was convinced that this perception was due to the fact that strollers had always been designed for babies rather than for parents. Yet, it is the parents who have to struggle with squeezing it into the car boot, opening it, getting it ready, fitting the child in it – sometimes in unfriendly weather situations – and pushing it.
And, if it is true that every object we carry with us contributes to the creation of our own “brand image”, a stroller certainly talks more about the parents who push it than about the child who is carried in it.
The result of these considerations was a complete turn around in the design approach to the buggy.
First of all, Barenbrug thought that a stroller should be conceived for what it truly is: a mobility product. Secondly, its design should be focused on satisfying the parents’ needs before those of the baby’s.
And thirdly, its aesthetic impact should be in line with the aspirations, aesthetic taste and life style requirements of contemporary parents. Basically, the buggy should become a sort of cultural statement about a “way of being (parents)”.
The concept that Barenbrug presented to the Design Academy was an innovative idea, issued from a “horizontal” approach to design (ie multi-disciplinary and free from traditional product categories).
The concept was characterised by great manoeuvrability on all terrains and by an array of cameleon-like instant transformations: with a series of simple moves, the four-wheel buggy would turn into a two-wheel pull carriage for use on sand or snow; or into a rucksack; or into a child carrier for bicycles (a very common and widely used item in Holland).
Typically, ideas that cross the traditional borders of product categories bring about great commercial challenges. Challenges that, sadly enough, many marketing people would rather call “problems”.
Where should such a three-faceted item be sold? In a parental, a mountaineering, or a bicycle shop? The several children’s products brands that Barenbrug approached did not have an answer to this challenge and refused to manufacture the concept.
History repeats itself. Like James Dyson before him, Max Barenbrug also had to face the disappointment of having his idea turned down due to the fear of risks. And, just like James Dyson, he decided to run those risks by himself.
Working in partnership with his brother in law, physician Edward Zanen (who had also contributed to the development of the original prototype), Barenbrug developed a more “commercial” version of the buggy, a product that could be sold in the infants’ market yet still retained its mobile character.
The first commercial buggy that Barenbrug designed was later named Bugaboo Frog – whereas Bugaboo was decided as the name of the company and the brand that Max Barenbrug and Edward Zanen finally founded in 1999.
What’s in a name?
Everyone, at Bugaboo, likes to remind you about the way in which Max Barenbrug chose the name of the company and brand. Looking for a suitable name of his product, Max was apparently browsing through a dictionary when he literally bumped into the word “bugaboo” (that, in his dictionary, was “strategically” located just above the word “buggy”).
Bugaboo is a sound more than a name, with an Indian etymology – it stands for infinite, borderless, that aims for higher goals. Obviously, Barenbrug loved it.
While it is intriguing and fascinating – hence, in commercial terms, rewarding – to have a brand name that requires some explanation and leads to a witty discovery, it is of utmost importance for product names to be immediately communicative to the consumer.
The idea to link products to the animal world was certainly a happy choice. Animals have ways of being and behaving, characters, and personalities that are very well known to us.
Thus the name of the first Bugaboo product – the Bugaboo Frog – is instantly connected to the idea of mobility, elasticity, versatility, adaptability and so forth. The name tells us that the buggy – this buggy – is not a static entity but a lively, mobile means of transportation.
While on the one hand the Bugaboo commercial buggies are closer to other products in the sector in terms of aesthetics, their functions remain nonetheless innovative, and inspired by the design philosophy of the original concept.
After Frog, Bugaboo has launched two other models – Bugaboo Cameleon and Bugaboo Gecko, which were launched in Australia this year.
These buggies do not turn into rucksacks or bike seats, but with their ultra-light aluminium frames and foam-covered surfaces, they have the aesthetic impact of a mountain bike rather than that of a pram.
Like Frog before them, Bugaboo Gecko and Cameleon consist of a frame and some covering textiles. The same frame, associated with a different set of textiles, becomes a carrycot or a buggy seat.
The textiles are connected to the frame with a system of Velcro strips – an extremely simple way (yet also very safe) to put together the buggy or the carrycot; whilst the “interactive” mechanical elements (the ones that will allow movements to take place) are all white.
The frame that holds the carrycot or the seat has a detachable handle that can be used to guarantee a better grip when lifting it out of the main frame. The correctness of all operations is clearly announced to the user through a clicking sound.
If the seat is not properly clicked in, the buggy will not function. The seat does a ninety degree turn, allowing the child to be lying down and sitting up completely.
In the Bugaboo Cameleon, the child’s seat can also have a double function. When the seat is completely upright, it is possible to reverse the handlebar and put it on the floor behind the seat and let the child eat at a restaurant table at adult height (basically, the buggy can have the temporary function of a high chair).
The seat can also be taken out of the frame and set on the floor, as a stand alone “infant seat”.
The frame has four wheels: two pneumatic tyres (bike-type) and two swivel wheels. The presence of these two different sets of wheels, together with a reversible handlebar, provides great versatility.
When using the stroller in a city, the swivel wheels should be left at the front, thus allowing effortless 360 degree turning and extreme control of direction. When walking on an uneven surface, like in a wood, the tyres should be positioned at the front.
This shift is easily obtainable by switching the position of the handlebar from one side to the other, with no need to actually touch the wheels or bend over in any way. With the tyres in front, the buggy can handle any type of terrain, with minimal “bumping”, just like a mountain bike.
Thanks to the reversible handlebar, the child can be positioned toward the parents or facing the world. This shifting system can be used also to shelter the child from the wind or the sun.
Another important element from the original concept is the possibility to turn the buggy into a two-wheel carrier for use on sand or snow. The swivel wheels actually click onto the aluminium frame and thus “disappear” temporarily, while the whole weight is transferred onto the tyres and the handlebar.
Thanks to its ultra-light aluminium frame, and the use of the swivel wheels, the Bugaboo Frog is extremely light and can be manoeuvred single-handedly – even in a situation that is traditionally “difficult”, for instance when carrying two children, one on the wheeled board (that can be attached at the back of the buggy) and one in the seat.
Founded in 1999, the company and the brand Bugaboo have since grown all over the world and today it plays a significant trend-setting role in the market of children’s products.
As it often happens, the development of a good product is not solely responsible for such success. Unfortunately, the recent history of technology and design is filled with sad stories of good products that had the only fault of not being marketed properly.
On the contrary, leveraging on its good quality product, Bugaboo started investing on a series of branding exercises that truly helped in communicating a special flavour around their commercial products.
The first, most remarkable activity is the Bugaboo Daytrips: the creation of a series of “parent and child friendly” tours carried out in the hearts of the trendiest cities in the world, and freely available on the internet (www.bugaboodaytrips.com).
The concept is very simple, almost basic, yet it answers to a very clear need of a lot of urban travel lovers who do not like to give up city scouting when they have children. The tours have been developed by designers and artists who also visualised them on personalised maps (also downloadable from the internet site).
The other activity is more product-focused, yet also totally new and unheard of in the world of infant products. Bugaboo has asked young Dutch fashion designer Bas Kosters to decorate a white version of the Cameleon. This initiative is the first of a series
of “Bugaboo By...” limited edition products, sold with a retail price of 1,500 EUR.
At Bugaboo, they very much like to talk about themselves as a “design company”.
And actually, they are, in that they pursue design in the wider sense of the word – by designing their brand.
By observing the company, its products and the communication initiatives that it has carried out so far, the impression is that whilst the beginnings kind of occurred by chance, the follow up has been carefully thought about... products, services, communications, behaviours... Everything that makes up a brand is designed at Bugaboo – in the sense that it is the result of a conscious project.
The challenge, for such a young company, is obviously to live up to its expectations. With its products already being copied, what will still make the difference in the coming years is the perception of the brand, its capacity to live up to itself and to get fuelled with new products and initiative.
To continue to be “borderless, and aiming for the infinite” as its name states, Bugaboo will most probably have to create a new generation of “mobility products”, capable of disrupting the status quo.