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How design thinking drives brand marketing and engagement

Marketing best practices require collaborative approaches that often involve interactions with consumers in product development and marketing processes. In my column of last month, I discussed how storytelling – a practice as old as human existence – remains a strategic consumer marketing tool. In fact, Fortune 500 companies continue to utilize brand storytelling in their marketing communication to considerable success.

Finding effective ways to interact with consumers to better understand their needs, drive innovative solutions and meet the brand’s objective is an approach or process that uses the elements of design thinking. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, a global design company, has defined design thinking as “a discipline that fuses the designer’s sensibility and ideas with what is technically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

The first exemplification of this concept in this article would be the art of brand storytelling, mentioned above. Coca-Cola’s “Liquid and Linked Idea” is a storytelling marketing strategy, which the global beverage giant designed to drive consumer engagement and boost its brand value. Therefore, it can be described as design-driven storytelling.

Design thinking was first mentioned as a way of thinking in the 1969 book, The Sciences of the Artificial, by American economist and cognitive psychologist, Herbert A. Simon. Since then, the concept has become increasingly popular and broadly gained currency as a human-centered approach to problem-solving. In the field of marketing communication, design thinking is considered an optimal process of consumer engagement.

Companies such as Alphabet Inc – Google’s parent company, Apple Inc, The Coca-Cola Company, Uber Technologies, and countless others use design thinking to be at the cutting edge of innovation and generate innovative marketing ideas. In using design-driven approaches, brands seek to find out what is most important to different groups of consumers. They test different ideas sometimes on a small scale before full deployment. The idea is to find the most effective solutions for business and consumer needs. Usually, this process requires thinking outside the box or thinking without a box at all.

Design thinking for a beverage manufacturer, for instance, may involve a series of visits to hotels, restaurants, bars, parties, supermarkets, and other customer contact points. These visits, which can be outsourced to experts, would enable the brands to collect information from which they can seek out more insights on perhaps emerging or changing styles and patterns of consumption. Data obtained from such interactions with consumers would guide better decision making by the company.

Following its acquisition of SABMiller in 2016, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing company, launched its premium beer brand, Budweiser, in Nigeria in 2018. There were reports the company took eighteen months to gain market insights from the crowded Nigerian beer segment before launching Budweiser. AB InBev already had some beer brands in the Nigerian market that are about 40 percent cheaper than those of its rivals like Heineken’s Nigerian Breweries and Diageo’s Guinness Nigeria. But the company controls a smaller market share compared to its Nigerian competitors. To introduce Budweiser – AB InBev’s leading brand globally – in Africa’s second-largest beer market to compete with the likes of Heineken, Star, and Guinness certainly required some design thinking.

Uber, the global ride-hailing company based in San Francisco in the United States, has operations in over 750 cities globally, including Abuja and Lagos. Using mobile and web applications, a new ride-hailing industry was created by providing a unique value proposition. The company has since diversified its operations by introducing Uber Eats, an online food ordering, and food delivery platform. The Uber model has been successfully replicated in other segments with the introduction of players like Gokada and Max.ng, the leading motorcycle ride-hailing companies in Nigeria.

Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (also known as the Stanford d.school) proposed what is now widely known as the five-stage design thinking model. According to the leading school in design thinking, the five stages of this model are empathized, define (the problem), ideate, prototype, and test.

As the first stage of the design thinking process, empathy is needed to get more understanding of the problems and the audience. An empathetic approach enables the brand to explore the human context in getting solutions to the consumer needs or enhancing the user experiences. The information gathered at this stage would help in defining the problems in order to appropriately design solutions.

Having understood the audience and their needs, the third stage of ideation is simply for formulating workable solutions by brainstorming and using other techniques for generating sound ideas. During the prototyping phase, the team of designers is required to bring into reality the ideas, insights, and solutions generated. It is also known as the experimental phase because it provides an opportunity to screen the identified solutions and drill down to the best options. In the final testing stage of the design thinking model, the identified solutions are tested and refined to provide the optimal resolution of the problems.

In a nutshell, at the heart of the concept of design-driven approaches to problem-solving is the need to improve the user experience and make products and services more attractive. The concept also promotes collaboration amongst stakeholders, which include the consumers; design thinking outcomes also include innovation and increased productivity in organizations.

Through the application of design thinking, Apple was able to pioneer pre-charged batteries of smartphones. The company discovered that consumers were not so pleased when they had to take several hours to charge batteries of new devices they purchased before they could use them. And since Apple started shipping battery-powered devices pre-charged, it has become an industry-standard adopted by all smartphone manufacturers.

According to the McKinsey Design Index (MDI), design-inspired organizations perform much better than their peers in terms of revenue and total returns to shareholders. The report, released on October 2018 by McKinsey & Company, highlights the importance of design thinking and it rates companies by how efficiently they harness designs to boost revenue.

Apart from the inherent power of design thinking to inspire performance in organizations, this discussion also underscores for brands the growing importance of consumer engagement. Hence, there is a need for more Nigerian brands and marketing communication professionals to take advantage of design-driven experiential marketing to achieve the desired brand experience.

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