Five things marketers can learn from designers

Why are so many organisations bringing on chief design officers to drive brand strategy?

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, hired Mauro Porcini to serve as the company’s first chief design officer. The goal: To help Pepsi grow its core brands.

Venture firm, Kleiner Perkins, wooed designer John Maeda away from Rhode Island School of Design, where he served as president, to become the firm’s design partner. The goal: To help entrepreneurs and portfolio companies build design into their company cultures.

So why are highly successfully companies putting top-notch designers in key leadership roles? What are designers bringing to the table that marketers and other c-level players are not?

In today’s business landscape, where customer experience is the primary source of competitive advantage, designers have much to offer organisations. Although we often think of design as making objects more beautiful or functional, design now encompasses the broader strategic process of need finding and problem solving that tees up great products, services, spaces, events and digital interactions—in short, remarkable customer experience.

Related: What is design thinking and why is it time to apply it in business?

Rodrigo Martinez, who serves as life sciences chief strategist and senior portfolio director at design and innovation firm, IDEO, explains, “In the last decade, there has been a realisation that our traditional way of developing strategy, which focused on optimising resources from the company’s point of view, is no longer sufficient in and of itself".

"To be innovative, we have to work harder, taking a human-centred approach to strategy, asking ourselves, ‘What type of experience would it take to really engage our customer? What do we want this specific moment to be like for the people experiencing it?’” he asks.

Although these questions represent a new approach to strategy creation for many companies, they have been central to successful designers’ problem solving for some time. What is more, designers have developed methodologies for understanding customers that reach beyond traditional market research.

Ethnographic research, or direct observation of our customers and the context in which they are trying to meet their needs and desires, is one of the tricks of the trade. Why is ethnography necessary in the age of big data? Tim Brown, who runs IDEO on a day-to-day basis, explains, “The only way we can get to know [our customers] is to seek them out where they live, work and play”.

IDEO’s Owen Rogers: Human design is vital to innovation

While companies can know quite a bit about what their customers do through big data, they don’t know the larger context—why customers behave the way they do—which is essential to effective innovation and experience creation. This ability to observe and build context around demand offers new and valuable insight to organisations.

Observation alone isn’t enough, however. “People won’t give you the solution,” Maurio Porcini explained to Fast Company. “You need to observe them, understand them, then make arbitrary decisions and invent for them. It’s that fine balance that is so subjective and qualitative and is difficult to define. That’s why you need amazing thinkers in the different functions that together work to drive innovation in the company.”

Designers’ disciplined brainstorming processes are helping companies bring together people from across many functions to think creatively together, balancing their best thinkers’ highly developed analytical thinking with curiosity. Establishing non hierarchical-working environments that encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes free the creative juices of employees to explore truly innovative solutions.

A commitment to “learning by doing,” which translates promising insights and ideas into prototypes quickly, allows for quick iteration, bringing new ideas to life and—consequently—to market…fast.

These design-based skills are extremely valuable to organisations. Indeed, a study by the Design Management Institute found that in the past 10 years, design-driven companies have outperformed the S&P 500 by 228 per cent. Herman Miller, Coca-Cola, Ford, Starbucks, Target, P&G, Apple, Intuit and Disney are among these companies.

“We [designers] used to feel as if we were sitting at the kid’s table of the business world,” explains Tom Kelley, best-selling author and partner at IDEO (and author of multiple books on innovation). “There was serious business going on elsewhere—in the boardroom or a meeting room. The world has changed. Design and creativity are now central to what goes on in business.”

So what can marketers learn from designers?

  1. To look at the market through the eyes of our prospects and customers;

  2. To build a deeper context around our prospects and customers through which we can create more relevant experiences and learn about emerging and latent demand;

  3. To brainstorm and sort through options effectively with diverse people representing multiple functions and interests;

  4. To move quickly, testing ideas early and often to improve relevance;

  5. To keep our own creative juices flowing.

About the authors: Lisa Leslie Henderson (@ljlhendo) and Larry Weber (@thelarryweber) are co-authors of The Digital Marketer: 10 New Skills You Must Learn to Stay Relevant and Customer-Centric.

This article originally appeared in the CMO Council’s Magnified enewsletter, October 2014.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO Australia conversation on LinkedIn: CMO Australia, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on Google+:

Signup to CMO’s email newsletter to receive your weekly dose of targeted content for the modern marketing chief.

Join the CMO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Supporting Association

Blog Posts

Un-complicating multi-channel marketing: 5 actionable steps

There’s so much choice available that customers can pick and choose who they buy from and where, when, and how it happens. They want to discover, research, evaluate, and purchase on their preferred channel. Give them that option, and they’re more likely to choose you. That’s the whole point behind the multi-channel approach.

Aaron Agius

Co-founder and managing director, Louder Online

People in vegan houses shouldn't throw bacon

Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?

Abbie Love

Strategist, Ikon Communications

The role of the CMO is evolving: Are you keeping up?

My (amazing) vacation in the Galapagos Islands earlier in the year got me thinking about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. What does this have to do with the role of today’s CMO, you ask? Plenty.

Sheryl Pattek

Vice-president, executive partner

It’s excellent aiming to resurrect the complete within the hearts and minds of connected customers, moreover because the terribly relevan...

CMO Interview: How Kodak’s global CMO is bringing the brand back from the brink

Read more

Great to see ActiveCampaign's growth funded with some serious money.As a platform, it's up there with the usual suspects in terms of feat...

Lawrence Ladomery

CMO's top 10 martech stories for the week - 13 October

Read more


Kerry Edwards

Open Colleges taps into social for better student interaction

Read more

Or just go to sites like www.shopsthatshiptoaustralia.c... and others and be sure that the stores will send to where you live :-)


Why online shopping is like dating – RedBalloon CEO

Read more

Personalisation is the key. Customers demand a very relatable and well defined CX where the sincerity and understanding of their disposit...

Hitesh Parekh

In pictures: Improving cutomer experiences through smart personalisation

Read more

Latest Podcast

More podcasts

Sign in