The power of design and how to use it to achieve greater success in the marketplace is currently misunderstood and undervalued. This paper discusses four principles that will help companies recognize the value of design in the 21st Century and how to successfully integrate it into a wider business strategy. The four concepts discussed are as follows: Design Identity, Design Strategy, Design Equity and Design Differentiation.
DESIGN IDENTITY - The face of a company's brand and strategy
Mission statements that provide direction and inspiration are becoming common practice within organizations. Compelling visions nurture cultural alignment, which in turn can lead to the development of a strong internal brand. Similarly, organizations should actively seek to ingrain a coordinated design identity within their cultural fabric. Every visible representation of the organization and customer touch point should powerfully convey the company's design 'DNA.'
Brands build power through consistency and awareness because contrary to popular belief, people like the familiar and the known of a relationship. Naturally, a desire always exists for the next new thing and there is a pressing need to stay prevalent with current design trends. However, many companies make the mistake of having a multitude of design messages sent out at one time without any coherent connection. Design is a way to carry a brand's heritage into a new service or product offering while simultaneously presenting a unified message. It is quite incredible how much a design can be recalibrated and be injected with fresh ideas, yet still retain its fundamental soul and recognizable as the original face of the company's brand. When this is done well, the design confirms and strengthens a relationship with the customer, saying essentially, 'What you know and like about this relationship, you can count on'.
As brands experience rapid globalization and try to extend across cultural differences the need for a vehicle that can consistently convey an organization's core values and defined associations becomes increasingly pressing. Design has this power. A common look and feel among the products, graphics and environments that represent a corporation's vision can create unified cultures and consistent customer experiences.
Virgin excels in this category. Virgin has a very clear and compelling design DNA: fun, edgy, innovative, approachable and personal. Its logo, a handwritten signature at a rakish angle, is the design glue under which span a host of different services and products, from record stores to airlines to clothing to colas. It is extraordinary how far the Virgin brand has been successfully stretched. A significant anchor for these sub-brands is Virgin's unmistakable design identity and how this design DNA successfully thrives within every new venture and expansion. A customer always knows when they are experiencing or buying a Virgin brand.
A clear and strong design identity can represent what an organization wants their brand to stand for now and in the future. Design can provide an external picture for customers and can act as the internal face of business strategy.
DESIGN STRATEGY - Direction and innovation through design
Design is currently undervalued in its ability to help define strategic thinking and illustrate ideas. Very often, if you can understand and see what the dream should look like, then the steps required to make the dream real become clear. A metaphor expressed through design can be a very effective way of conveying the promises and perceptions you want your customers to feel about a product or service offering.
The mysterious quality that makes something excell in the marketplace is often intangible, and how people connect and convey this quality differs significantly. It is therefore extremely useful to quickly come up with an image that captures the essence of what a range of different departments and people within an organization are trying to say. For example, when Starbucks was initially trying to create a coherent design vocabulary, it came up with the image of the Siren or 'the White Goddess,' as she later became known. Sirens carry strong connotations of mythology and story telling, both of which lie at the heart of the coffee house experience and the Starbucks brand. Today, whenever you intercept the Starbucks Brand - a coffee mug, a bag of coffee, a CD - you will encounter the same distinct visual and graphic language.
Designers themselves have an innate talent for making connections and distilling information into its essence. They are often dreamers and visionaries who are natural drivers of direction and catalysts for solving complex problems. The nature of their work is conception, development and implementation. The good ones know how to ship innovation. Designers are also very often the customer's advocate and should therefore be allowed a stronger voice as the champion of the user. Organizations wanting to leverage these skills would benefit from becoming become more active in including designers in the strategic and developmental processes. In addition, designers are very often given second-handed insights to work with, which have emerged from the conceptual stages of a project and required to work with this information to generate the finished product.
Two major problems can arise from this pattern. Firstly, it can be hard for the designer to tap into the soul of the product or service because they were not a part of the team that established the core needs, values, target audience etc. This in turn can lead to lack of consistency - and economic synergy - between overall strategy and design identity. A vast amount of time and money is then spent trying to marry the two. This can feel like trying to fit a circle back into a square and thus the project often ends up back on the drawing board. A solution to this problem is for companies to actively appoint a design strategist, a person who acts as a bridge between the designer and strategy team. Design should be at the heart of a holistic, organization-wide strategy.
Design is regularly used as band-aid that is added at a completion of a project. Often when one element misses the mark, the weakness will be camouflaged with beautiful design. More to the point, by not fully integrating design into the strategic process, many companies are not taking full advantage of the serendipitous discovery that happens during design. The tangible quality of design gives people the feeling of possibility that something really is going to happen. Does it not therefore make sense to generate something visual, even if it only communicates the first stage of the strategic process to create momentum?
Finally, design is an excellent channel for risk taking and for rapidly pushing the barriers of an organization. Failure can occur quickly in the design stage, but in most cases the designer(s) will 'fail forward' - the mistake leads to learning, which allows the team to succeed sooner. One of the most powerful components of design is that people form fast relationships and responses to it, positive and negative. It is amazing how quickly cross-departmental teams can discard a design because it isn't quite working. This in turn enables them to move the ball forward and close the gap between the idea and the successful product/service. Design should therefore be viewed as a fast prototyping method that simultaneously raises the level of innovation within an organization and helps create a culture that achieves success quickly.
DESIGN EQUITY - The direct value of design
Design is undervalued in a lot of organizations because it is currently difficult to directly measure its impact. Naturally, companies know through sales when a product or service is successful, but how much analysis is done to measure the extent to which these results can be attributed to design. So, how could Design Equity be measured? It could be defined as the extent to which a brand is identified by its design fabric. The dimensions that David Aaker in 'Brand Leadership' applies to measuring Brand Equity could be applicable to measuring Design Equity: awareness, perceived quality, associations and loyalty.
Design Awareness: How familiar are people with the distinct visual and graphic language of the organization/brand? To what extent is design the face of the brand?
Perceived Quality: How accurately do people associate the quality of the brand/organization with the quality of the design?
Design Associations: What attributes, situations and connotations do people associate with the brand through the design? To what extent does the design connect the customer to the brand?
To what extent will a person buy a product or services purely based on the way that it looks or feels?
The value of developing distinct, clear ways to measure design equity is that valuations would highlight where companies are failing to connect with customers and where potential opportunity lies. For example, say an insurance company develops an umbrella as their logo with the intention that it conveys protection and safety, the essence of the brand (Travelers). Yet, a design equity survey reveals that customers associate the umbrella with rainy days and gloom. This may offer some form of explanation as to why the company is having problems selling the quality and safety of their service.
Designing emotions that make 'the difference' in the marketplace
As we progress towards an economy that thrives on personal and customer relationships, companies need to understand the value of design in creating emotional connections with customers. Great design can provoke new ways of thinking and feeling, and is often the most potent expression of a brand. Increasingly, the rationale behind purchasing decisions is less weighted towards function and more towards form and style. It is almost as if the more we are bombarded with coldness of high-tech and standardization, the more we crave personalization and a human touch.
Many companies today have yet to grasp the power of design as a strategic tool and as a direct vehicle for increasing sales. The famous designer, Raymond Loewy, once said, 'There is no curve as beautiful as a rising sales graph!' Contrary to popular belief, designers do understand the need for pragmatism and that design should be customer centric. They also understand that great design can go further in the sense that it can create yearning for a brand, self-confidence and security through ownership, and make us feel as if we belong to a larger group. Arguably, it is not just the design that evokes the emotion but rather the whole brand or image of that product. Design, however, is in essence emotional and there are very few elements of a brand that have the power to be as responsive to people's needs for sensory pleasure and to promises of delivery.
Design can define a relevant, differentiated and credible value proposition. Especially in markets where there is a high degree of competitive convergence, the visual impression is often the deciding factor as whether the customer buys your product or service or your competitors. Design can make the difference. Apple's iMac is a beautiful example of a product that entered an over-saturated market, yet managed to enchant customers and add a whole new dimension to the personality of a PC.
Research has shown that people relate to brands in a very similar way that they relate to people. They form relationships with others based on personality, appearances and trust. The same dimensions can be applied to brands. They project a certain style and image, have a unique name and personality and ultimately they try to engender loyalty through trust, aspiration and differentiation. Most brands' distinct DNA is channeled through design. Great design has real personality and we almost define the type of person we are by the type of brands that we buy.
In a marketplace where compelling messages, consistent delivery and emotional experiences are at the heart of a brand's success, organizations need to actively develop fully integrated and powerful design strategies. More research needs to be conducted on the ROI of design, specific measurement tools, and how it positively impacts the value of a brand. A shift in current thinking from regarding design as a soft service function to a cornerstone of business strategy also needs to occur. Design is an incredibly beautiful vehicle that has the power to tap into the emotional potency of products and services while simultaneously creating layered, textural experiences in our lives.
Contributor: Rachell Simmons
An artist at heart, Rachel is fascinated by the qualities of brands that emotionally connect with people. Her professional passion and focus is helping companies fully integrate creative thinking into strategic processes. A graduate of Oxford University, Rachel than went on to study and research at Harvard University on ways to lead innovation. She is currently working as a freelance writer and brand strategist.
Aaker, David.A, 'Brand Leadership,' (New York: The Free Press, 2000)
Bedbury, Scott, 'A New Brand World,' (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002)
Gobe, Marc, 'Emotional Branding,' (New York: Allworth Press, 2001)
Kelley, Tom, 'The Art of Innovation,' (New York: Random House, 1995)