Marketing as Design Thinking?

Why yes, of course! How many times have you seen an ad that simply “misses the mark” or a promotion for a new product that flops? I bet that you don’t even notice it anymore it has happened so often. But why does it happen? Why are millions poured into an industry that really isn’t that good at what it does? Are marketers really that bad at their jobs?

No, marketers are good at their jobs – perhaps too good. According to most of the business world, a marketer’s job is to: A) get your attention, B) get you to try something new and then C) get you to form a habit. Marketers have excelled in this. Look at all the habitual behaviors, or addictive ones! Everything from smartphone addiction to sugar and coffee, our world is run by habits designed by marketers. Or were they?

While marketers love to take credit for their clever campaigns, social behavior change is deeper than that. Social behavior change that sticks as a habit rarely has anything to do with clever marketing, but all to do with two things: 1) The core design of the product or service itself and 2) The community in which the product or service is introduced.

According to social psychologist and behavior change expert, Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr, the number one predictor of a person’s behavior is what their neighbor is doing. However, new behaviors won’t turn to habits unless the product itself serves a fundamental need, whether or not the consumer recognizes the need. We didn’t know that we needed smartphones, yet as I am undoubtedly addicted to the point that my thumbs hurt. We weren’t able to name the need, but we were able to name the needed services provided by the smartphone (camera, phone, calendar, LOL Cats Tumbler feed, and portal to endless Googleable information). Iphone’s stunningly artsy new billboard ad campaign for the iphone7 speaks to the need for human creative expression through photography.

Designing for the unspoken, unacknowledged needs is at the core of Design Thinking.   Human Centered Design (HCD), a Design Thinking methodology developed by IDEO, an international design and consulting firm is a method of problem solving that use empathy for understanding the context of a problem. Creativity is employed in identifying insights and possible solutions and rationality is employed in analyzing and planning various solutions.

The HCD process uses unique tools to capture the users’ perspective.  HCD engages direct participation by constituents early and often in the design cycle. Also, the process goes deep rather than broad. Instead of looking at averages, which often miss a large portion of user’s needs, HCD examines extremes.  

Below are the three stages start-ups and companies can engage in to produce behavior change that draws clients or customers to their services or goods.

HEAR: Social Listening (Market Research) 

Social Listening is an in-depth empathy-based market research process that goes beyond survey data by using various interview, shadowing and research techniques to understand the hidden barriers, motivations and worldviews of the constituency groups. In addition to using survey data for broad understanding, Social Listening develops a deep understanding and empathy for the user.  One can collect data on internal and external audience perceptions and hidden motivations in this effort.  Through this process a business can come away with a deeper understanding of the needs of their constituents, as well as the constraints and barriers to the design challenge.

CREATE: Design Collaboration & Brand Development

During the “CREATE” phase, businesses can translate insights about the reality of today into a set of opportunities for the future. With the understanding gleaned from the HEAR phase, businesses can brainstorms solutions for opportunities and can start exploring if some of those solutions are tangible through prototypes or beta testing.  The team can then gather feedback on their prototypes or beta testing from their constituency.  The intent of gathering feedback is to refine the solutions not to prove that they are the solution. The best feedback is that which has your team rethink and redesign.

DELIVER: Marketing Plan and Implementation  

Through the HEAR and CREATE stages of the HCD market research process participants can assess solutions through a desirability lens only, ignoring the lens of feasibility, which is the focus of the DELIVER phase. It is in the DELIVER phase where teams develop a financial model, identify capabilities, plan for growth, create an implementation time line, test with mini pilot projects, and finally evaluate effectiveness.  Essentially they are creating a marketing plan.  Another goal of the DELIVER phase is to create a plan for on-going learning and iteration so that your solutions can improve and adapt to changing situations.

Our team at Green Ideas employed this methodology in a rebranding process for Napa Valley Transportation Authority. To approve the strategic rebranding for Napa Valley Transportation Authority, the twelve agency board members consisting of Napa County municipal mayors and council members unanimously voted to approve the agency rebranding in 15 minutes.


“After all the years in government, I have never seen a political body make a unanimous decision in such a short amount of time.”  – Jill Techel, Mayor of Napa

The rebranding effort was so successful not by magic, but due to a six-month stakeholder engagement process we led, informed by the Human Centered Design process.

We regularly teach this methodology to our clients. Amber Bieg of Green Ideas will be co-facilitating with Deb LaSalle a mini-HCD workshop on April 10th. Join us to learn more about how effective this process can be!