How WD is making storage sexy again

Where do you go once you’re at the top and have been for years? For Western Digital, the only real option is to tear the rulebook apart and start over. There’s a need for change, even if you’re the best in the biz, and in a world soaked in selfies, self-made musicians, artists and countless YouTubers, change is only a good thing for an industry that’s viewed as a little bit too stuffy.

Storage isn’t, nor has it ever been, a sexy business. Nobody fawns over a portable hard drive or external storage unit; USB sticks have become so ubiquitous we even forget they exist, and talking about these black lumps of plastic in public is a surefire way to prove how uncool you are. That’s the trouble that WD faced. It may still be the largest and most successful storage company in the world, but its products were a necessity rather than something you’d actually want.

“You have to have the balls to say ‘we’ve gotta change’.”

“The first thing you have to be able to do is to admit that you need to change,” explains Sven Rathjen, WD’s VP of marketing content solutions, when I meet him at the launch of WD’s new-look My Passport and My Book. “Naturally, that means a lot of controversial discussions have to be had internally – especially when you’re already leading the market, have the highest share, and already clearly have a solution in place that consumers want. But there comes a stage when you have to have the balls to say ‘we’ve gotta change’.”

WD is in the rather comfortable position where everybody knows and understands the appeal of high-capacity storage. The trouble it’s having, however, was convincing a younger audience that its market-leading products were actually something worth having in their lives. Traditionally WD’s drives have been something you’d rather hide away behind your monitor or keep tucked in a pocket of your bag. WD’s portable drives were akin to the portable battery packs of today, functional rather than aesthetically appealing, a necessity you’d rather not have to put on display.

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“Our design was, to a degree, dated,” Rathjen admits. “It just wasn’t delivering the modern design aesthetic we wanted in order to reach a younger generation, a generation that has completely different expectations. They prefer a modern design, one that’s crisp and clean. We thought, after having seven to eight years of reasonably similar product design, we needed to make a significant step forward.”

That’s where the new My Passport and My Book come in. These product refreshes are simply aesthetic, done to help reinvent the perception of external storage. No longer is it something to be hidden away, ashamed of, if storage is an everyday pillar of your life. “The habits of how you use, perceive and engage with your own content is changing. [My Passport] is a lifestyle product that comes into people’s lives and should evolve to fit into your habits and daily workflow.”

By morphing storage into the lifestyle category, WD needed to make a product that was stylish as well as functional, ensuring people could still trust the WD name despite the new aesthetic. “The product itself is very clean, and you can feel so comfortable with its design you’ll put it on your table, your desk,” explains Rathjen. “Because it looks nice, people ask or wonder, ‘what’s that?’ because it’s deliberately different. But no matter the change in style, the basic benefits to you remain the same because it protects what’s important, and we all know what it means to lose your data.”

It hasn’t been an easy journey to today’s product launch. It’s taken WD almost three years, and countless hours of focus tests, design drafts and product iterations, to settle upon a final version. Having worked with world-famous product designer Yves Béhar, the man responsible for countless Apple campaigns, Ouya’s sleek minimalism and Jawbone’s iconic styles, WD has finally made a product that stands apart from its contemporaries and oozes style in the process.

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“Design is a completely different aspect of people’s lives. I do believe the design we’ve chosen fits a completely different generation and we’re evolving [storage solutions] into an emotional connection about what matters to you. It’s a totally different way to look at things.” WD picked Béhar and his design agency Fuseproject because “he has a feeling in design, an understanding of where culture is going and how people are engaging and evolving products to fit their own needs”.

Much of the rebrand push comes in-store, in a bid to shake up the drab shelves found in electronics retailers across the world. The new colourful yellow-and-white packaging, along with the six bold colours of red, blue, yellow, orange, black and white, wouldn’t look out of place in Urban Outfitters or adorning the shelves of an Apple Store.

There will definitely be people out there – namely staunch WD advocates or those who prefer their products functional, rather than flashy – who aren’t pleased by the My Passport or My Book refresh, but these aren’t the customers WD is aiming for. If you love WD’s portable or external drives, then you’ll still love these ones – they’re exactly the same. With these new lines, WD shows that it isn’t just resting on its laurels: it’s always ready to shake things up, and this time it’s making storage iconic rather than something a fifty-something dad would use.

The real question everyone’s wondering is, which colour would Rathjen buy? “I’m still debating with myself over which colour I should pick,” he admits to me.

“I’d probably go for the blue, or perhaps the white. Although the red does have something to it – it really pops!” In the end, it appears that even company VPs have something in common with the indecisive millennial market they’re targeting.

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