Design Plus: New luggage brand packs high-tech punch
by Mark Tungate (@MarkTungate) Travelling should be about new people and places, rather than stress and hassle. With this in mind, Buenos Aires startup, Bluesmart, is creating “smart luggage”. These connected cases may make at least part of your journey less painful.
“Until recently, the last big innovation in luggage was when they stuck wheels on it,” observes Ale Sarra. And he should know, as he’s head of industrial design at Bluesmart, the Argentinian startup that has set out to revolutionise luggage.
As its name suggests, the company is all about “smart luggage”: connected bags that tell you how much they weigh and where they are, among other things. [At the time of writing, only a compact carry-on was available, but Series 2 is now available on preorder at Indiegogo. — ed-at-large]
“This began three years ago as a conversation between myself and two friends who travelled a lot for work,” says Alejo Verlini, co-founder of Bluesmart, who ran his own design agency at the time. “We all agreed that travel was a wonderful thing — because it opened your mind to different cultures — but that the journey itself was often a hassle.”
Stories about lost luggage
They all had stories, he said, about lost luggage. “We realised that, while there were many products that were using new technology to meet the higher expectations of consumers, there had been no real innovation in luggage.”
Straight away, they began exchanging ideas about a high-tech suitcase that could signal its location anywhere in the world, link to the airline to provide updated flight details and even send alerts about gate changes. “There were a million possibilities but, in the end, we decided to concentrate on a few realistic pain points: lost or stolen luggage, paying for overweight luggage, and devices with dead batteries.”
Having raised some capital from friends and family, they went to China to find out how they could bring their idea to life. “We realised that the luggage supply chain was very old-fashioned; the guys who make bags and wheels and handles don’t speak the same language as the guys who make phones and tablets. So our first challenge was to bring the worlds of luggage and electronics closer together.”
They also tore apart “about 250 bags” to find out how they were made and what customers liked about them. Finally, they produced ten working units, choosing a carry-on model because it was the most-iconic product among their target market of “super-frequent travellers”. The model and a related video became the basis of a crowd-funding campaign that generated preorders worth US$2m in 20 days.
“That’s when we said to ourselves, ‘This has become a reality now.’” So they set up shop in Hong Kong and went into production, shipping the preordered units nine months later. As of May 2017, they’d shipped more than 40 000 units all over the world.
The Bluesmart suitcase links to an app that enables the user to track it via GPS and check its weight. It automatically locks if you walk too far away. And, when you walk back again, you can use it to charge your devices as you’re waiting at the gate. The case is approved by all the major airline associations, and compliant with FAA, DOT and TSA, so while it attracted a few strange questions in the early days, it’s now a more-familiar sight on x-ray conveyor belts.
Tech meets luxe
Design-wise, the sleek case deliberately makes a statement. “It’s a conversation starter,” says Verlini. “Our customers love other telling people about it, because what they’re actually saying is, ‘I’m a modern traveller — so I’m investing in the future of travel.’”
In other words, the case is a self-branding device, like a luxury fashion item. No surprise, then, that it’s available at high-end stores such as Saks in New York and Selfridges in London. It also won the Red Dot Design Award “Best of the Best” category in 2016. Style-wise, it can compete with most of its non-connected counterparts.
“We wanted a product that expressed the technology without looking like R2D2,” Verlini explains. “So we were very careful to mix polycarbonate with fabric. The fabric adds a sense of style, and the pouch at the front enabled us to show just how easy it is to remove your laptop, which is vital for our customers.”
The handle’s blue bars create a standout effect to get that conversation started. The blue wheels are the final flourish. “Every traveller loves wheels; they are an icon of movement. So we decided to make our wheels special. They literally elevate the product.”
The company does everything in-house, from design and manufacturing to marketing, which relies largely on word-of-mouth. “The community is always helping us,” says Verlini. “Because of the app, we have a direct relationship with our users. We can reach out to them anywhere in the world, anytime, and ask them very specific questions. That’s the strongest source of knowledge we have.”
Social influencers and mainstream journalists have been quick to pick up on the product. “It’s because they can approach it from lots of angles: technology, design, travel, fashion — there are stories to tell and content to create.” Sports stars such as runner Usain Bolt and skateboarder Tony Hawk have enthusiastically adopted the product, with no prompting from the company. Hawk even posted a jokey film of himself chasing a Bluesmart suitcase on his skateboard. At the end of the clip, when allowed only one carry-on item, he chucks his board aside.
Bluesmart owners tend to be male — 70% of them, to be exact — but the company is working on ways of attracting more female customers. “In terms of the colours and the lines, our cases are quite masculine. Unfortunately, this is still something very common with technology-oriented products. But now that we’ve created this new category — smart luggage — we can create different interpretations of that.”
The company’s ultimate vision is that “everything you carry with you should be connected”. He adds with a smile: “Once you know that, you can imagine how far we could go.”
Mark Tungate (@MarkTungate) is the editorial director of the Epica Awards (@EpicaAwards), the only global creative prize judged by the specialist press. A British journalist based in Paris, Tungate is also the author of seven books about branding and advertising, including Adland: A Global History of Advertising and, most recently, The Escape Industry, a journey through the business of travel. Over his 30-year career, he has has written for leading newspapers and magazines in the UK, France and the US.
In this series of articles called Design Plus, Epica highlights creativity in the design field.