Transform Your Marketing With Design Thinking

Transform Your Marketing With Design Thinking

As I write these words, I’m currently deep in my latest class for the European Institute of Design (IED) in Milan, Italy, where I’m a yearly International Instructor of Branding. Usually, I’m actually in Italy, mixing business and pleasure—coupling relationship building with tasting mouthwatering Barolo’s, all while engaging in the art of fare niente (doing nothing). Not this year, though!

Although my instruction always centers on the business of branding as a broad topic, I took a different approach this time and introduced a concept I’ve used extensively the past few years, working with AV brands. It involves a strategy that marketing departments should immediately adopt for their business. Allow me to introduce you to the Five “Ps” of Design Thinking, showing you how they can improve your marketing and creative output.

Design thinking, in its simplest form, is the process of using prototypes to work through creative challenges to solve a problem. You might define it as “thinking by making.” It has three steps: knowing, making and doing. By adding the middle step of “making,” we’re able to bring forth surprising options that might otherwise have stayed hidden or unexplored.

Within the AV industry specifically, marketing is full of polarity; we’re constantly switching between spec sheets and award-winning creative experiences in the same breath. What works for one brand and its audience won’t work for another. A good way to understand what truly resonates is to push out marketing touchpoints quickly, assess the utility and respond accordingly. In order to bring forward the best ideas possible to connect with your audience, it’s necessary dive into that audience’s psychology—to understand their wants and needs.

Let’s delve into the Five “Ps” of Design Thinking, as coined by the great brand strategist Marty Neumeier from Level C, and see how this approach can positively affect your marketing strategy and thinking moving into 2021.

First ‘P’: Problemizing

Every piece of marketing that your organization pushes out essentially amounts to words and pictures that explain how you solve a problem. But how do you know that you’re solving the right problem? That is where problemizing comes in. We want to look past the surface and see what the crutch of the problem is. That is what we have to be communicating.

Too many times, marketing departments spend precious time trying to solve the wrong problem, only to end up at a dead end because, ultimately, there were different problems to solve. Problemizing will allow your marketing department and your organization to have a top-down view of which problems are truly affecting business (and which are not). And, while we’re in problemizing mode, remember to resist the temptation to bring forward a possible solution. We’ll get to solutions later in the process.

Second ‘P’: Pinballing

Like a pinball that bounces through one of our favorite games, we want ideas, too, to pinball. We’ve come to understand which problems are worth solving—so, now, how many different ways can we solve them? Which ideas are worth fighting for? Which should we throw away? What unique and differentiated strategies can we bring to the table to achieve our goals for marketing and business?

Oftentimes, when I work with brands, I like to gamify this part of the process. What kinds of unlikely scenarios can we conceive? How can we take the problem and reverse all the assumptions, so as to see the problem in a different light and come up with new ideas or different campaigns? How can we reward creative thinking and really bring forth a culture of innovation?

Third ‘P’: Parallel Thinking

With new, fresh ideas, your team and you can begin to look for possibilities. The concept of parallel thinking really came to life as a collaboration tool through Edward de Bono’s book, entitled Six Thinking Hats.

The six thinking hats technique is a simple one. Members of a think tank or team think in the same direction at the same time. It’s almost like herd thinking, as you take an idea from the pinballing stage and view it through a series of different “hats” or perspectives. Further details are as follows:

  • The white hat is for looking at information—sales patterns, competitive analysis, marketing data, customer data and industry trends—in a way so that you don’t suggest any solutions but, rather, only look at the facts.
  • The red hat is for emotion. How does this idea make you feel? Are you nervous about it, or are you overwhelmed with excitement? Are you skeptical that it’s the right path to go down, or are you encouraged and happy? When describing the emotion, keep it at exactly that—a description, not a judgment.
  • The black hat is for disagreement and caution. This is where we get to ask what’s wrong with the idea and consider the reasons it might possibly fail. Although this comes naturally to most of us, the black hat calls for us to play devil’s advocate actively. The idea is to get it all out into the open, poking as many holes in the concept as possible.
  • The yellow hat is reserved for sunshine and positivity. This is where we can futurescape the awesome, positive outcome that we’d like to see. Think of it as the hat of the wishing well. Moreover, it’s where we begin to set some key performance indicators (KPIs) and goals.
  • The green hat is for creativity. This is where we foster positive ideas only. No naysayers in the green-hat zone. Ultimately, we’re trying to turn black-hat worries into green-hat solutions.
  • The blue hat, finally, is reserved for the facilitator who is leading the group. Often, when I work with an organization, I wear the blue hat so I can keep the group on course and focused on the right activities.

Fourth ‘P’: Prototyping

This is what makes design thinking as powerful as it is. The making step, which lies between knowing and doing, is the difference between a “me too” product or campaign and something that’s groundbreaking. It’s the difference between following the pack and choosing to pave your own, different road.

A prototype, put very simply, is a rough approximation of an idea, a product, a service or a process—whatever it is you’re inventing. It could be a sketch, a mockup, a campaign model, a story or a set of wireframe. The goal is to keep it simple and be nimble. Put it together fast, test it and learn from the results. Then, you can apply what you’ve learned to the next prototype and then to the next, round after round.

It’s incredible what happens when ideas are made visible and brought to life. Ultimately, you end up seeing what works, what doesn’t work and where to make improvements. You understand pretty quickly which ideas are worth pursuing further.

We use the prototyping stage all the time when we look at campaigns or bring together multiple touchpoints. For example, back when in-person trade shows were still a thing, a marketing department had to think about booth design, collateral, digital funnels, email sends, social media and public relations. Given all those touchpoints, creating prototypes of what a customer journey or funnel would look like proved an efficient way to check validity, without having to make a major investment.

Fifth ‘P’: Proofing

“Assumption is the enemy of strategic thinking.” That’s one of my favorite lines. And, although we’re no stranger to making assumptions—we all seem to do it often—they’re frequently blinding to innovation and progress. By proofing your prototypes, you’re on the fast track to making sure your assumptions are grounded in reality.

To get the most out of this phase, it’s best to proof more than one prototype against each other; doing so can lead to a richer discussion around the positives (and negatives) of the competing ideas. Don’t just settle for a “yes-or-no answer.” Make the prototyping and proofing stages part of an ongoing conversation.

Think of new ideas. Make prototypes. Test them. Be quick and nimble. In the digital advertising world, we used to say, “Launch fast, fail fast, adapt faster.” The same is true here.

It’s time for marketing departments to start to think like disruptive and fast-moving startups. It’s time to create marketing strategies that connect in a modern-day way, as opposed to the same boring tactics “that we’ve always done.” I hope you start with design thinking. I’ll see you with my green hat on.

[Originally appeared in Sound & Communications October 2020 issue]

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