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.

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