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Brand Association Isn't Enough — You Need Design Thinking

My daughters are fluent French-speaking wonders, and they’ve taught me something amazing about linguistics and communication. French speakers implement a specific salutation for different people holding different stations within society . It seems obvious, and there are some remnants of it in English, but we might have forgotten the lesson it was supposed to teach us.

Consider who you’re speaking to when crafting the message.

I recently saw an advertisement from a large insurer mimicking a self-recorded video in an attempt to create something authentic and relevant. The high production values, scripted language, and awkward talent told me all I needed to know. The insurer didn’t know who its audience was or what’s important to it. Combine that with a forced execution, and I was left scratching my head and feeling altogether uncomfortable and confused.

Marketing is a relationship. At its best, marketing makes us feel special, understanding our needs and communicating based on what the marketers know of us. At its worst, it feels like a tone-deaf opera singer blasting away in your ear.

Brands that are good at marketing are good listeners, constantly examining the conversation and looking for ways to connect more deeply. Brands that stumble don’t listen, a reality amplified by the sheer number of widely accessible listening tools.

Design Thinking Is the Next Frontier

The rapid advancement of design tech has changed the tools we use to communicate and what defines design. Marketing isn’t just a visual — it’s the behavior before, during, and after the message has been received. Brands should approach their marketing plans as they would develop any other product: with an understanding of the intended outcome as the driver for the design thinking that guides the development of the campaign.

The deluge of customer profile data, devices, modes, media, and messages requires the use of a design-thinking approach to effective marketing. Design thinking explores new ideas and puts structure into the development of new concepts.

Consider where the most interesting conversations are happening right now. Social media enables a one-to-many and one-to-one dialogue between brands and individuals. Wearable technology is the nervous system for making marketing and experiences intelligent — it provides a deeper, more intimate view into the behaviors, needs, and wants of every wearer.

Brand Association as a Standalone Tactic Is Done

Clearly, changing the game works. Marketing that doesn’t follow the rules expresses a deeper understanding of the problem space and how to address it. So forget about the old cliche “make the logo bigger.”

That approach means one thing and one thing only: that this product or service can’t stand on its own and needs the recognition of the brand to justify its existence. Platforms like Kickstarter wrecked the assumption that brand association is a critical ingredient. Learn what your audience wants from you and why. The best experiences blend brand and utility into one experience, making the product itself the marketing platform. Instagram and apps like it create their own marketing platforms through social interactions.

Design thinking in practice

I have walked a winding path over my career as a creative; leading in-house design teams at tech companies, experience teams at monolithic digital consultancies and nimble design firms. Each environment taught me a new way to understand the necessity of design thinking and new ways to apply this method to solve almost any problem it encounters. Design thinking is the equivalent of Henry Ford’s production line for the information economy. We use it as a method for the consistent pursuit, production and development of ideas.

Over the course of my career I have seen too many ideas fall short of their potential because they lacked the necessary process to ensure their production. Design thinking is a critical business function that improves the value of what we apply it to. Marketers can take advantage of design thinking and shape the way their teams work with each other and across the organization. Design thinking can be implemented in three steps.

  • Explore many ideas using the lack of time to your advantage. The goal is to generate different directions for future exploration. Guide your exercises with “how might we” questions , examining new points-of-view. Stanford’s D-School set’s the standard approach to open-ideation through their approach. Exploration is also the space where we demystify technology to better understand where the message will be received.
  • Experiment and make the idea real as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Marketing-led initiatives are the beating heart of customer experiences. Coming to the table with a developed idea serves a couple of really valuable purposes. Prototypes encourage a “show first, tell later” approach to sharing ideas while they help you think through the blind spots long before ideas are set in stone. Invision is a great tool for creating prototypes and accelerating the product and idea development process, enabling quick refinements throughout the process.
  • Validate everything and co-design ideas with your audience. Put the pencil in the hand of your audience and ask them to draw the solution. Your value is in guiding the process and asking the right questions. Put back of the napkin sketches, and early stage prototypes to good use by inviting audience participation up front. Ideas that fall flat get brushed aside while successful ones move ahead with additional investment.
  • At the end of a design cycle you’re left with tangible evidence of valuable customer-validated ideas. It gives you a powerful first step towards building the business case and the confidence to know you’re heading in the right direction.

    Here’s a snapshot of what that looks like in practice:

    Source: MU/DAI www.mudaidesign.com

    We’re entering an age of natural language interfaces and believable human-machine interactions. The rise of practical artificial intelligence is a gift for marketers. It creates opportunities to extend the voice and elastic nature of conversation far beyond the reach of any individual department. Learning how to use those tools will be the difference between marketing that feels like it understands its audience and marketing that is full of well-designed, perfectly written messages that are never actually read.