3 Ways Marketers Can Use Design Thinking to Innovate

3 Ways Marketers Can Use Design Thinking to Innovate
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By: Katie Fiore

The pace of innovation and change has captured the attention of every business marketer I know.

Uber says it’s launching flying taxis intended for a mass consumer audience in 2020. A ride in one will cost the same as an UberX ride and, according to Uber’s Chief Product Officer, Jeff Holden, “will be the end of individual car ownership — it will turn it into nothing more than a hobby.” Concurrently, Amazon unveiled two private label furniture brands — Rivet and Stone & Beam — to be sold exclusively on Amazon.com and at a lower price than name-brand items. According to Wayfair’s Chief Financial Officer Michael Fleisher, Amazon is “obviously someone who wants to own all physical goods [in] e-commerce.”

Even if your company is not a car manufacturer, a retailer, or a consumer brand, it’s clear the future is now and no industry or category is exempt from disruption. It’s enough to make a body start to panic. In two years, cars will be flying by your window. But you’re still having conversations with your agency about the true value of buying your brand terms on Google. How can you address the need to aggressively move your business into the unknown future while still managing your day-to-day reality?

Use a design thinking approach to create marketing wins.

The design thinking method has been around for over 20 years but has only recently gained mainstream traction as major blue-chip brands incorporating it into their business practices, including IBM, Accenture, GE, MassMutual, Fidelity, Lowe’s, SAP and many others. Design thinking spurs creative problem solving by applying principles used by designers (developing empathy for your audience, ideation, rapid prototyping and testing) to solve business challenges. In this time of rapid change, it’s logical to adopt this powerful framework for innovation to help maintain your competitive edge.

Here are some quick and easy ways you can start using and seeing the benefits of design thinking right now.

1. Talk to extreme users to gain new, critical insights.

When was the last time you talked to your consumers? I mean really talked to them, got to know them and their motivations, understand what their lives are like, and learn their hopes and their dreams? Whether your answer is “six months ago” or “never,” this is your new top priority.

Talk to the people you are designing for and you’ll find insights that can’t be uncovered through data files or customer surveys — most crucially, the “why” behind their motivations and behavior. Yes, you can talk to average users — if you want to get average insights. But to get to the motivations and needs that no one else has solved for, challenge yourself to talk to the most extreme users — such as people who aren’t using your product in the way that it’s intended or former loyal users who have moved away from your brand. These conversations are about quality, not quantity, so have no more than six. And be sure to get to the “why.”

A client recently asked for strategies to introduce a new product extension to a new audience. In talking to some of their most loyal, long-term users, we found they were unaware of any offerings from this brand beyond the original product. Once they became aware, they expressed high interest in buying the new products. This insight uncovered a tremendous opportunity to reactivate long-term users as well as go after new ones.

2. Put together a team for inspiration and ideation.

A core principle of design thinking is to assemble a team with diverse experiences, because a mix of perspectives, expertise, and approaches produces the best results. A typical team will produce typical solutions, while an unexpected team will produce unexpected solutions. In this situation, less is often more — as in the less someone knows about a problem, the more curiosity and optimism they will bring in trying to come up with solutions, as opposed to reasons why ideas won’t work.

Once you have talked to a handful of extreme users and found an insight, gather your team (about 3-6 people) to brainstorm ideas for solutions. Grab the guy from accounting who is into old movies, the woman from your analytics team who has an amazingly mathematical brain, and the new receptionist who is young and knows nothing about business or marketing, and start brainstorming.

A consumer goods client asked us to come up with product solutions for their working mom target audience. Our team consisted of two moms, two young female professionals from different industries (not-moms), and a former CTO who had quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad so his wife could focus on building her recently launched start-up. Each person brought ideas and perspective that were unique to their specific experience and resulted in several ideas that are currently in development.

3. Prototype, test, and learn.

Now that you have an idea and want to understand how good it is (or isn’t), it’s time to prototype the idea and get feedback on it. A prototype is often put together with pipe cleaners and/or playdough and construction paper. Or it could be a storyboard, a mock-up, or a role play that you act out. The point is to put together something physical that can be used to communicate your idea. Once your prototype is ready, show it to intended users and find out what they think about it so you can refine or discard your idea. In design thinking, failure is a good thing because by identifying what isn’t going to work, you can focus on finding out what does work. The point is to fail fast and keep moving.

Marketing teams might a prototype a product feature, a service, or an idea for a campaign. We’ve successfully used this approach to identify new audiences, creative messaging and social media strategies. For a consumer brand client, we took our audience insight and turned it into a strategy to leverage a specific subset of fans as social media influencers. We prototyped it with our target audience, received positive feedback, and then refined it before we launched it with paid and natural SEO.

Get started now.

Use these three components of design thinking (talk to your consumer, ideate as a team, and prototype and test your idea) to give your business, and yourself, an edge. Get started now and the next idea will be coming from you, and not your competitor.


Katie Fiore is Head of Conversion Optimization at SYZYGY, a global digital agency based in Germany. She is passionate about creative problem solving and applying design thinking principles for business and social innovation. Follow Katie on LinkedIn or on her lifestyle blog, Brooklyn to the Catskills.

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