Is design thinking the answer for the next generation of marketing?

Merryn Olifent

Merryn Olifent is a senior consultant at innovation and design thinking firm, G2 Innovation. She is a leader in marketing and communications for digital and financial services and is passionate about bridging the gap between marketing, technology and design to create meaningful customer experiences.


The speed and pace of change will never be slower than we’re experiencing today. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 50 million users and one quarter for iPhone X to be shipped to 12.7 million.

So in this era of unprecedented change, how can brands meet soaring consumer expectations, stay relevant and deliver differentiated and connected experiences?

Design thinking, human-centred design and design sprints have entered the professional vernacular in response. But more than being the latest buzzwords, they do offer real opportunity for marketers to accelerate innovation.

From campaign to customer-led

Marketers are now expected to not just to grow the business, but to change the business. Increasingly, this has seen CMOs step up to take on the role of leading customer experience and driving innovation. In fact, one-third of Australian CMOs now consider disruptive innovation one of their top three priorities.  

Disruptive innovation takes leadership courage and conviction. It means blurring the lines between marketing, product, sales and digital technology, focusing on delivering real customer value, and having the mindset and tools to make it reality.  

So what key elements of design thinking are required in order for this to happen?

1. Start with problems

Look at some of the biggest marketing disrupters of recent years – Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Alibaba – and you’ll find the foundation of success is the same. They understood customer frustrations and pain points with the incumbents in market and solved them in a way no one else had before.

Dollar Shave Club built its business on solving problems that category leaders of the day were happy to keep. They were good for profit margins, but not for customers. Dollar Shave’s launch video is pure gold in brand authenticity, too.

In marketing, we often focus on new product features as the pathway to acquire and retain customers and often forget just exactly what problem we are there to solve. The key to tapping into real customer problems is empathy: The ability to listen, observe and become immersed in the experience.

This means getting out from behind the glass panel at a focus group, ditching the online survey and engaging directly with customers and frontline teams. By using design thinking tools such as empathy mapping, customer personas and journey maps, marketers can uncover pain points and opportunities, then prioritise budget and resources in a way which can systematically shift the customer experience.

2. Unleash your inner creatives

By 2020, creativity is predicted to be the third most in-demand skill, so don’t outsource it. Coupled with insight, creativity is the cornerstone of successful innovation.

Building this muscle with your in-house team brings the agility that’s needed to imagine the possibilities of emerging technology and data. Most disrupters didn’t invent the tech that made them a success; they simply found a new and creative way to solve a human problem.

3. Experiment to learn and keep moving

Traditional marketing processes don’t lend themselves to speed. And when you’ve already invested time and dollars in an idea, it’s hard to walk away. Get faster by taking a ‘no regrets’ approach experiments. Ideas are cheap so your goal is to break them, find the problems and iterate to improve.

Design sprints can lend a hand here by ring-fencing time spent on idea creation and quickly moving you forward into test, learn and iteration. Plus you save time researching, briefing and pursuing ideas that don’t resonate with your customers.

Go to market with pilots, soft launches and beta offerings, and test and learn to gather more insight to fuel growth and scale. This also creates new opportunities.

Some brands have turned early adopters into exclusive member experiences. Take wireless speaker and sound system manufacturer, Sonos, which has turned it invitation-only private beta program into a badge of honour as a customer.

The world is not slowing down anytime soon. Design thinking offers marketers a way to keep pace with the expectations of their increasingly savvy consumer. Because brand loyalty will be forgotten if a simpler, faster and more convenient way to solve your customers’ problems emerges.

Tags: design thinking, customer engagement, customer experience management, brand strategy, human-centred design, sprints

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