Why Companies Build Concept Products

It's more complex than just brand recognition

Key Takeaways

  • Fujifilm’s new XF 50mm f1.0 lens is both an impressive tech demo and a real, shipping product.
  • Concept designs are rarely made only for branding purposes.
  • Even Apple used to make concept designs.
Fujifilm’s new XF 50mm f1.0 lens at an angle and covered in water droplets

Fujifilm’s new lens is a light-gathering, see-in-the-dark monster. It looks fantastic, but it might also be the camera equivalent of a concept car.

Many companies show off concept designs, or release products that are unlikely to sell in large numbers. These "halo" products can be fantastic, like Fujifilm’s new 50mm ƒ1.0 lens, or they can be pride-driven white elephants, like the 20th Anniversary Mac. They’re almost always interesting, but why do companies make them?

"In general, the design and production of a halo product is a calculated move to move forward the technology capability and brand image," John Carter, ex-chief engineer at Bose and inventor of Bose’s noise-cancelling headphones, told Lifewire via email. "But rarely, very rarely, is it just for the brand appeal. This is a common misperception."

Concepts and Halos

While it might seem like concept designs are made solely for positive publicity, it’s a lot more complex. Car makers may have an addiction to showing off hot-looking models that look like they came out of a teenagers’ sketch book, but even concept designs can have some clever engineering under the hood.

"The Fujifilm 50mm 1.0 lens will move the optical technology platform of Fujifilm forward because of the innovation pressure on the engineering team to create such a fast lens," says Carter. "They will use this to push forward the capability (in engineering and manufacturing) for all products."

Rearview of Fujifilm’s XF 50mm f1.0 lens

Sometimes, concept products are just that: concepts, or ideas, designed to test consumer reaction.

"In food tech, sometimes concept/halo products are helpful for a number of reasons," Morgan Oliveira of the Grounded PR agency told Lifewire via email. "For one, they can help gauge the public’s interest in a new, unusual food product." 

A halo product, or even a public concept, is also an excellent demo tool, she says. 

When Good Products Go Bad

Not all halo products are good. One excellent example of concept design that should never have made it into stores is the 1997 Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (TAM), an absurd concoction pushed by Apple’s then-CEO John Scully. To start, it finally went on sale a year after the actual 20th anniversary of the forming of Apple Computer.

The TAM had some genuinely impressive tech inside. It had an LCD flat screen long before they were common, a subwoofer built into the oversized power supply, and a cool 1990s high-tech design vibe. 

But it also had vertical floppy and optical drives, which didn’t work well back then, a radio and TV tuner, and a ridiculous price tag. When announced, the TAM cost $9,000. When it went on sale, this price had dropped to just $7,499, and came with a concierge delivery that included a full setup in your home. 

Apple’s labs are surely still full of concept designs, but these days they’re never seen by the public.

"In general, the design and production of a halo product is a calculated move to move forward the technology capability and brand image."

Looking Good

In Fujifilm’s case, the company is already an impressive design and engineering powerhouse. Over the past decade or so, it consistently has gone its own way, creating a large niche of well-designed cameras and lenses that photographers and reviewers both love.

This new lens, which can gather more light than most rivals, and yet manages not to trade this for image quality, looks to be equally innovative. This innovation can enhance the reputation of the company, and attract future employees. 

"[Prime lenses] (with no zoom capability) are popular with photo enthusiasts, including reviewers. This cutting-edge product has been reviewed favorably by the press and this will indeed cast a legitimate halo over the brand," says Carter. "The other reason this is done is for recruiting engineers. Engineers for consumer product companies are often enthusiasts and will be attracted to companies doing the most cutting-edge products."

Fujifilm’s lens is even more impressive because it also appears to be a genuine product that already is widely available in regular stores. "If it was just a CES launch," says Carter, "that can be a fishing expedition."

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