Design-led Marketing in the Digital Age

design-led brand

NZ Marketing looks at what it means to be a design-led brand and how marketers can leverage design-thinking to bolster their digital efforts.


According to popular understanding, there is a Chinese curse which goes something along the lines of this: ‘May you live in interesting times’. 

Well, 2020 is certainly that. In addition to the great upheaval caused by Covid-19, we’re also at a moment when the digital landscape is changing everything we know about business. Markets and industries emerge and disappear almost overnight; consumers have access to a world of products at the click of a button, and those customers expect premium experiences every time.

Innovation itself has changed, evolving from a process focused on engineering, product and marketing concerns, to a design-centric, user-experience focus.

For organisations trying to solve the ever-evolving problem of meeting the market, design-centric thinking helps. By focusing squarely on the user, design-led thinking helps businesses figure out who their customers are, what those customers actually want, and is an approach that can help find clever and unique ways to creatively meet the customer’s needs.   

And, for those who can realise the potential of design, the rewards are great. International megaliths such as Amazon, Pepsi, IBM, Uber, Netflix, and Nike prove as much. 

But what does it actually mean to be design-led? And how does it affect the way you do business? 

Well, it depends on who you ask.

“Design-thinking is about putting people and the needs of people at the heart of what you’re doing,” says Geoff Suvalko, principal at Michigan and Auckland-based design group, Thoughtfull.

“Then, it’s about creating tangible outcomes that make a tangible difference to those people in a positive way.”

“To do that, you need to deeply understand how they live, what they do, their behaviours, the challenges they face, or the aspirations they have, and then somehow work your way into those lives in a meaningful way.”

“It’s not just communications, it’s not just a term that you can suddenly apply to everything you’ve done, or repackaging what you’ve done to sound better, but it’s actually making a tangible difference to people’s lives.”

Steve McCarthy, director at Christchurch-based branding, design and digital advertising agency, McCarthy Design, says he looks at brands like Fisher and Paykel as a good example of leading by design. 

“All of their work is very design-led,” he says. “When it comes to something like a refrigerator, it would be easy to approach it from the perspective of, ‘okay, ‘we’ve got a fridge, it’s a white box, it keeps things cooler, we’ve just got to sell it’.”

“But Fisher and Paykel leads by design, so they ask ‘well, what can a fridge actually be? Can it be a drawer that fits under the bench? Can it do other things?’ Then when you look at the finished result, you see something that looks sleek and functional and led by design. 

“Innovation can too often be a result of thinking ‘how are we going to get that or that demographic? How are we going to achieve this specific result?

“But we try to almost disregard that in the very beginning, and instead seek to answer the question ‘how can we approach this in the most innovative way?

“We think by doing that the solutions will come,” he says. 

“When people, or organisations, say that they are design-led, what they are actually saying is that they approach the problem-solving process thoughtfully and creatively,” says Tom de Groen, Creative Director at digital agency, Octave. 

“Design-thinking is about building a well-articulated version of whatever problem you’re trying to solve and looking for things no one else has seen yet.”

de Groen says that digital insurance company Lemonade is a good example of a design-led approach, managing to completely rebrand insurance as a feel-good spend for the younger generation.  

“They took a product as old as time, insurance, and uncovered the enormous and ever-growing gap between what their competition is selling and what people want to buy – then just closed the gap.”

“It sounds easy but the trick they pulled off – which to me is the epitome of clever problem-solving – is they addressed the motivations and values of the customers they wanted instead of trying to do what everyone else was doing, but better.”

They also have a chief behavioural officer (CBO), says de Groen, “which is how they know their customers so well.”

Designing end-to-end

Design cuts through complexity and makes sense of it, creating a framework that lets innovators see the small details and the big picture at the same time. It’s also obsessively user-centric, meaning that solving business problems often means understanding user-experience across the value chain.

“When an organisation thinks about delivering value to the market, they need to understand all of the ‘users’ that exist along that journey,” says Suvalko. “You can create a product, but if the distributor isn’t in line with what your product is about or what you’re trying to achieve, they’ll become a barrier, and they’ll dilute that proposition.

“So you need to get the distributor on board, or you need to get the retailer on board, or you need to get that communication agency on board, you need to get the product development team on board. You need to get all of the different people along that process aligned with what you’re trying to do and for whom and how. 

“So design-led approaches are generally appreciative of the fact that to design a solution you need to be able to see all those multiple users, direct and indirect. If you can do that – and that’s not easy – you ‘clear the runway’ in a sense, and get everyone looking at the same thing and hitting it the same way.”

“And then, the output or the outcome can be very powerful.”

Often missing, says Suvalko, is a truly encompassing and cohesive vision of the project.  

“It’s easy to get these kinds of ‘teams’ and they’re all zeroed in on one part of the end-to-end experience that the customer goes through and generally need sort of a gap around who is gluing all of those together, so you don’t get fractures, disconnects, and dead-ends.

“It’s about asking how the end-to-end CX or digital CX strategy connects with the physical service experience. 

“That’s design at its best.” 

That makes a lot of sense, but what about inspiration? Is it really all about logistics and UX? Or is there an element of creativity and free-thinking? 

Is design-thinking an art or a science? 

“It is most definitely an art that is underpinned by science,” says de Groen. 

“The reason it’s an art is because, when it’s done well, there are no precursors. There is no amount of data or user insight that will point you to a solution that no one has thought of yet.

“It’s about exploration. Your map might tell you which way to traverse a jungle but it won’t tell you how to cross that river using only your Swiss Army Knife and some available branches. But more than anything else, it’s trial and error. The faster you try something and validate it in the real world, the further you will go.”

So, it’s a case of stepping away from market demands for a moment and letting inspiration take the wheel. 

“People want a good design,” says McCarthy. “Yes, it’s about the language around it; yes, it’s often our job to simplify things, but it’s the whole package, and often that means finding that one simple truth at the heart of it. Then we go from there.

“It’s often just a gut feeling about what’s going to work. I think that these days, with all that marketing-speak, and all these expectations around what you’re supposed to do, you have to throw that out the window a little bit at the start. 

“Because it can be a really intangible thing to talk about. For us, I think it’s more of an attitude than a plan, per se. We don’t head down those usual routes, and I think that’s what gets us work.”

Case in point, McCarthy Design’s 2017 NZ Best Awards gold for the All Right Habit Sticks, a simple free device to help make habits ‘stick’. 

“I was using a Fitbit to help get fit,” says McCarthy, “and I thought ‘how can we take a digital tool for people who can’t afford a Fitbit that helps them with their habits?’”

So the agency created Habit Sticks, a simple free device to help make a new habit ‘stick’. Essentially, users were encouraged to write down a habit they wanted to change on a printed tongue-depressor-sized piece of wood. Each day the good habit was supported, users marked the stick with a tick. Theoretically, after 21 days of consistent effort, the user should be well on their way to forming their new positive habit. 

“It worked so well,” says McCarthy. 

“We gave away 30,000 of them for free and people really used them. It wasn’t a digital thing, it wasn’t an app, it was a physical tool based on real science: 21 spots for 21 days to make or break a habit.”

So it’s not just about the way things look? 

No, says McCarthy, but that part can certainly help, especially in the pitching room. 

“It used to be that the way you did pitches was, you printed off a bunch of A3s, you’d all sit around a table and everyone would go through it,” he says. 

“Then everyone moved to digital presentations and did the same thing on
the screen. 

“Now we’re trying to do presentations that are truly immersive experiences,” he says. 

“We certainly haven’t got there yet, but we’re not just going to send you a PDF. We’re going to provide you with something immersive, where every page is a moving, interactive experience.” 

Aesthetics and the digital age

When design meets marketing meets digital, problems get solved. 

“What design-led thinking does, is it unlocks two key aspects [of a product’s value],” says Suvalko, “the functional and the emotional.”

“You can design an app by following the functional roles, but that’s not enough to make people fall in love with that product. They’re going to fall in love with a product if it is part of an experience that they want in their lives, one that they want to engage with intentionally. That’s where you need to tap into emotive value drivers, as opposed to just rational. Design-thinking helps you understand both.”

It’s about delivering a product that expresses who you are and what your brand stands for, says Suvalko. And in the digital present – with its preoccupation with measurement, metrics, and efficiency – it’s all too easy to forget that presentation matters. 

“I think digital services now follow conventional patterns and conventional roles have become as dull as ditchwater,” he says. 

“No soul, no sense of who the organisation is coming through. I think there’s kind of a rush for ‘digital, digital, digital’, and everyone is clambering to do that, and perhaps the capabilities and the resources are still catching up. A lot of work that’s being done that is super generic.” McCarthy concurs. 

“I think we [in the industry] can dumb down the things too much, especially in web-work,” he says. 

The antidote? Challenging expectations – just a little bit. 

“We worked on a Christchurch festival website,” says McCarthy. “Of course there’s an expectation about how a website like that should work and what a festival website ‘should’ be.”

“So, it would be easy to just ‘tick the boxes’ and do the usual things in its design, but we tried to make it more design-led, a little bit different to navigate, a little bit of a different structure than you’d expect from a festival website; still simple enough to navigate easily, but different enough that the audience is actually engaged.”

“It’s about pushing the boundaries just a little bit further, and really thinking about the way people actually use the technology and applying that insight to the process.” 

The growth of consumer expectations

“In the current state everything is accelerating towards hyper-personalisation,” says Suvalko. “My view is consumers are going to start to expect a lot more of it.”

“Our expectations have been set by the best in the world in digital and our patience is growing shorter. We’re less tolerant of mediocrity. Expectations are going to lift significantly, users are going to have less patience with brands. They will want to know, ‘why don’t you know this about me? Why aren’t you acting on this? Why do I need to ask you to do this?’

“Technology is going to help organisations respond to this demand, but they need to get on it and not lose traction. It’s going to get harder and harder to build and retain products or services that ‘just work’. Rather, the designers of these experiences need to lift their game.”

The future is digital (but not necessarily exclusively)

With the potential of digital barely scratched, and with growing virtual and augmented reality capabilities, there’s still a lot of room to push the boundaries of what’s been done online. 

“I think augmented reality is going to be a big thing going forward,” says McCarthy, “it’s another great way to add that little bit extra.”

“But I think there’s still a little bit of a barrier there. You’ve still got to download something, you’ve still got to open an app, but there is potential. We’re at the same stage with augmented reality that we were at when 3-D movies came out. Is the tech quite there yet? Is it just a little bit of a step too far? Is it simple enough? That’s why we’re always trying to marry up the tangible work with the digital stuff, because I just don’t think digital is ever going to completely take over.” 

McCarthy says that while digital has its place, there’s still value in marketing in the material world .

“I think you need both sides of the picture when you’re marketing to people. I think there can almost be this ‘glaze-over’ effect with digital. We’re used to getting so much content thrown at us, that no matter how good [that digital experience is], we can still interrupt it with a physical object or printed piece. 

“That shows just how vital it is.”

“You talk to marketing managers and they say ‘Oh, you better use digital, because you need to be able to get that conversion data so you can tell what’s happening’, but I still don’t think you can beat the physical.

“I think it can get a bit hyped up and a bit overrated. Digital is good, but it’s not everything.”    


This article was originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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