This paper highlights that the strategic use of design, a competitive pattern typically associated with creative industries, those creating and trading meanings, also characterizes industries that produce functional or utilitarian goods not typically considered creative. The paper explores the origins of this phenomenon in the context of three industry settings: cars, speciality coffee and personal computers. The analysis theorizes three distinct strategic paths that explain how design may become an institutionalized aspect of competition in industries that are not creative. We explain how ﬁrms link their products to the identities of their users, how design is linked to stakeholders’ emotions and visceral reactions to products and how intermediaries are relevant to enhancing attention to design. Illuminating these strategic paths allows harnessing some of the well-established understandings about competition in creative industries towards understanding competition in noncreative industries.