Joining People and Brands


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by Michael Eckersley, PhD

Design Management Review, Summer 2004

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Joining People and Brands

  1. 1. DMI DESIGN MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE ARTICLE REPRINT Design Management Review Joining People and Brands Michael Eckersley, Principal, HumanCentered William O’Connor, President, Source/Inc. Reprint #04153ECK60 This article was first published in Design Management Review Vol. 15 No. 3 Copyright © Summer 2004 by the Design Management Institute . All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be SM reproduced in any form without written permission. To place an order or receive photocopy permission, contact DMI via phone at (617) 338-6380, Fax (617) 338-6570, or E-mail: The Design Management Institute, DMI, and the design mark are service marks of the Design Management Institute.
  2. 2. MARKETING Joining People & Brands by Michael Eckersley s the focus of relationships that customers honor with pride A and loyalty, strong brands don’t just happen; they are designed and nurtured. In this endeavor, it is crucial that companies know their customers intimately. To get beyond the superficial, Michael Eckersley proposes—and Bill O’Connor illustrates—a “deep dive” research methodology that unveils the kind of thorough under- standing essential to building powerful brands. When was the last time you experienced Modern brands transcend any partic- a truly great product, service, or envi- ular offering. Think of them as meta- ronment? You know—something so offerings—embodiments of ideas and utterly useful or engaging that it simply values that attribute meaning to (and captured your imagination and drove derive meaning from) product and serv- you to tell others about it? This kind of ice experiences. Their intangible value thing doesn’t happen often, and the suc- ebbs and flows in the marketplace, but Michael Eckersley, cess of its appeal is almost never acci- there is no question that a strong, well- Principal, HumanCentered dental. Somewhere, somehow, a team of managed brand contributes valuable people created a standout consumer intellectual property to any enterprise. offering, and it found an audience eager So why do so many brands fail to break for more. through and earn a place in consumer Such extraordinary consumer offer- consciousness? ings are statistically rare and valuable. They attract people in ways and for rea- Causes of brand failure are always more sons that are not always apparent. To complicated and varied than are the rea- earn the attention of a sophisticated sons for success. But from our perspec- William J. O’Connor, consumer audience in today’s crowded tive as business-oriented social scientists President, Source/Inc. media culture is to beat the odds. Some and planners, it is clear that brands begin brands demand market attention on the and end with people, and that companies basis of thin rhetoric and lots of cash, suffer for lack of deep knowledge of the but the effects are usually short-lived. end customer—how she thinks, per- Sustaining earned market attention over ceives, and acts within a natural cultural time, with ever-new reasons for con- context. Confusion, faulty assumptions, sumers to stay involved—now that’s the and bad decisions are the natural conse- measure of a great, living brand. quence of that information deficit. 60 Design Management Review Summer 2004
  3. 3. Joining People & Brands Branding, at its best, is a science of artful conversation. There might be a feigned interest, attraction. Sensitive applied social-science tools but you get a clear sense that they’re simply not are brought to bear to uncover a wealth of built for input. Eventually, you walk away or contextually rich audience information. This change the channel. By the time they figure out information, methodically sifted and shaped, nobody’s paying attention, it’s usually too late; inspires the fertile minds of creatives and brand they’re out of business. strategists alike. The result? Integrated brand More than a few brands are conversationally meanings and architectural elements that challenged. Whether the problem is technical resonate with the right audience on multiple (you’ve started the conversation at the wrong levels. Though it’s still far from being a sure hit, place, they can’t hear such a brand should find the stars aligned for its success. you, or they’re simply the wrong audience), Branding, at its best, stylistic (your tech- is a science Brand Conversations nique is inapt or dis- “Know your customer” is still the first principle tracting), content- of artful attraction. of business, but it is often the first casualty of related (your message Sensitive applied growth and success. While standard market is irrelevant or uncom- research is good at capturing a 30,000-foot pelling), or some com- social-science tools market perspective, and “values and lifestyle” bination of these, it is are brought to bear research will get you closer, neither affords an best to remember that accurate “up close and personal” picture of the the currency of brand to uncover a wealth customer. Focus groups, used inappropriately, conversation—like lead to grotesquely skewed conceptions of “the good interpersonal of contextually rich mind of the customer.” Through this lens, the conversation—is gen- audience information. customer becomes a vague abstraction, a uine interest in what chimera, and it is spectacularly difficult to serve the other has to say. Such interaction fuels a customer nobody really knows. No wonder mutual interest, empathy, and even the possibili- brands get stale and lose their ability to engage ty of relationship. the customer in conversation. How interesting or relevant is your brand But strong brands are all about conversation, story to the dispassionate prospect? A good indi- and good conversation is two-way, lively, and cator is how personally invested you are in get- mutually rewarding. It is one of our most intrin- ting to know her, and the various layers of her sically human needs, and it grows out of a deep story. An even better indicator is how her story desire for personal identity and interpersonal alters the course of your brand conversation. Put dialogue. Conversation is a good metaphor for another way, can your brand meaning adapt to the ideal function of a brand, as Paul Hawken and reflect the natural self-interest of your cus- pointed out early on in his classic book Growing tomer, and still remain true to itself? If not, then a Business. you’ve got a worthy goal to shoot for. Next-gen- Speaking of conversation, have you ever eration brands will likely demonstrate such found yourself cornered by someone who has a sophistication in allowing customer-specific desperate need to talk about him- or herself, but reflexiveness to appear effortless, even natural— who hasn’t the slightest interest in hearing what like good conversation. you might have to say? Some companies demon- strate similarly boorish behavior in their Deep-Dive Intelligence attempts at brand communication. Endlessly Periodic immersion into the customer’s world fascinated by who they are and what they have can be a valuable reality check for companies. to say, they show genuine disregard for anything Such “deep-dive” audience research and discov- the audience might have to contribute to the ery is, quite logically, where the branding process Design Management Review Summer 2004 61
  4. 4. Delivering Value Through Design should begin. Most conventional branding below the surface that broader market statistics endeavors center upon the enterprise itself, its conceal. Remember that consumers are humans industry, its competitors, its offerings, and its first, and there are effective social scientific various value propositions—leaving precious lit- methods for explaining the interplay of human tle time for the important work of getting inti- psychology, sociology, and biology. Second, mately acquainted with the brand’s various humans exist only in context with other humans constituencies. Ironically, in their rush to con- and environments. This context is better known verge on a (re)definition of the brand, teams fail as culture, and there are effective applied anthro- to take advantage of the most salient knowledge pological tools for explaining culture, thus mak- resource of all—the customer. ing it possible for teams to responsibly intervene Practically speaking, the deep dive involves and deftly influence the culture. sending out small interdisciplinary reconnais- Bill O’Connor, president of Source/Inc., in sance teams to spend a day, a week, or a month Chicago, frames the relationship between culture in the life of your cus- and brand this way: “Successful brands derive tomer (if you’re an their meaning from the culture, or from values Successful brands executive or a senior that are strong in the culture now and are likely manager, find a way to to remain strong. These carefully crafted brand derive their meaning tag along). Initially led meanings can be added to, subtracted from, and from the culture, by big-picture con- finessed—in a word, managed.” The brand’s sumer market data, meaning-making arc travels from culture to or from values you and your teams brand to consumer, and there are a host of will likely emerge cultural meanings a brand can consider. that are strong from the field with a Probably the most important benefit of this in the culture now wealth of fine-grained “bottom-up” approach to brand building is its consumer data and ability to help even large companies gain a sense and are likely to more fresh and of intimacy with their customers. Knowing remain strong. authentic, brand-rele- something about your customer is always good. vant material than you Having a richly textured, evidence-based under- These carefully crafted ever thought possible. standing of your customer is better. It inspires brand meanings What’s the payoff to ideas, relationships, and strategies that are such an atypical grounded and sustainable. Resulting brand can be added to, approach? Greater themes, stories, and symbol systems inspired by understanding of your the process also enjoy greater persuasive rele- subtracted from, own brand and how vance to the lives of a target audience—because and finessed—in a its offerings currently it is from their very lives that the themes fit (or, importantly, originated. word, managed. don’t fit) into the cus- tomer’s world. You Working On Your Act begin to see the dimensions and subtleties of her Consider what makes a great stand-up comedi- story. You begin to see connections, spot discon- an. It isn’t his delivery—though superb story- nects, and imagine opportunities to better serve telling ability is a prerequisite. Rather, what sets her. (Oh, and the experience might just remind him apart is the quality of his material. Inspired you of why you went into business in the first comedic material is usually the product of place!) observing people in real-life situations (think If this sounds soft or too anecdotal, that isn’t Robin Williams or Bill Cosby). The artful comic necessarily a defect. Anecdotes, carefully collect- holds up a mirror before our eyes, and we recog- ed and reported, are the valuable data of cultural nize truths—often revealing truths—about our- understanding. Anecdotes often reveal truths selves. We can’t get enough of it. Observation 62 Design Management Review Summer 2004
  5. 5. Joining People & Brands inspires other forms of popular art, too. When to the Hertz brand on the basis of such a pro- asked in an interview to explain the secret of his nouncement depends, of course, on how honor- consistent string of hits, pop-music legend Sam able Hertz is judged to be in delivering on that Cooke replied, “I think the secret is really obser- promise. Similarly, your tagline must be more vation. If you observe what’s going on and try to than a pick-up line. Why? Because your audi- figure out how people are thinking, I think you ence is already conditioned to disbelieve what can always write something that people will you say. Hence, your ad agency does you no understand.” great favor in making delectable promises your How do consumer brands such as Starbucks brand can’t possibly keep. In this jaded atmos- and Honda hold a vast, diverse crowd of other- phere, customer expectations aren’t especially wise preoccupied people? First, they stay close high, and that’s good news to the enterprising enough to the audience to be able to make (and upstart able to deliver. rapidly test) good hypotheses about what will Companies have a lot at stake in gaining flu- engage and hold its interest. Scott Bedbury, a ency with the cultural milieu in which their driving force behind the branding success of brand(s) are intended to live. Likewise, most Nike and Starbucks, insists that a brand must brands have a lot yet to learn about the cus- develop a clear sense of itself and how it con- tomer, who is expected (astonishingly) to graft nects with people’s lives, both practically and the brand to her life. emotionally. Nowadays, so much is expected of a brand: Brands get interesting as they reveal depth to tap reservoirs of consumer emotion, to and dimension. While devalued brands thin out address needs, to articulate aspiration, and to and fade away (think of Plymouth, Clearasil, lead desire. Deep-dive research and discovery and Duncan Hines), “dimensional” brands methods complement traditional market evolve and find ways to reinvent their value, research by producing a wealth of unvarnished often in surprising ways. Get the content, style, user data that savvy teams can gather, sift, and and technique of your brand story right, and be formulate into valid consumer models and sure it is congruent with an excellent network of strategically savvy market hypotheses. offerings. Given the requisite perseverance, the The result is uncanny brand experiences that odds just might tip in your favor. not only satisfy demand and desire, but also instill loyalty and spark new desire. That’s no Mining the Cultural Seam small ambition or accomplishment. Great brands set the stage for interesting things to happen in the lives of participants. You might Acknowledgement even think of branding teams as consummately The authors would like to acknowledge Andy skilled event or experience planners. For Schechterman and a host of research partici- instance, walk into a Trader Joe’s, a Virgin store, pants who contributed to the Designer-Arbiter & an REI, or a Starbucks and you’ll probably feel a Client-Consumer research study profiled in this palpable sense of energy, even expectation. The article. customer plays a vital, willing role in making that vibe real. Indeed, he is the final arbiter and co-creator of your brand’s value. If that makes you nervous, remember: You can do a lot to shift the odds in your favor. Consider Hertz’s new brand message: “At Hertz, we know exactly how you feel, and have exactly what you need.” Whether value accrues Design Management Review Summer 2004 63
  6. 6. Delivering Value Through Design How Deep-Dive Consumer Research Defined an Emerging Market and Helped to Create a Brand by Bill O’Connor There it was, displayed in a spread in the them, to open their minds and their eyes.” Christie’s catalogue of distinguished residences So, while taste may be a matter of taste, there and estates: a bunker-like, low-rise, meandering is certainly a web of historical conventions, val- manor, the centerpiece of an expansive and ues, and cultural meanings that contribute to an beautiful Pacific oceanfront property. What was informed sense of style. Residential interior most breathtaking about the house, aside from designers and architects live and work in this the vista, was its $17 million asking price. It was space. They act as arbiters of taste. The assign- an architectural-kit house, with some ment we were about to get was to learn who Mediterranean bolted on to some Arts & Crafts, these arbiters are. How do they manage the and all of it architecturally duct-taped to a basic process and work with their clients, the people California ranch style. The interiors were also a building high-end custom homes? Who were mishmash of misplaced whimsy and disintegrat- these clients, anyway? What values did they ed style. embrace that informed their choices and moti- While its asking price gave this Tuscan- vated their decisions? What kinds of advice and Stickley-Chateau-Little-House-on-the-Prairie collaboration did they seek from the designer? leader-of-the-pack status, its visual style of con- At the end of 2001, when this assignment spicuous affluence and blender architecture was was in its formative phase, there had been plenty common to many of the other very-high-price- of architectural criticism written about these point properties Christie’s was flogging in its look-at-me lairs. Empirical research and anec- glossy catalogue. dotal evidence suggested signs of a renaissance. How could anyone, I asked our client, able to The very small market of those who could afford afford this–do this? “Taste is a matter of taste,” to build or remodel such homes did not want to he replied, “and we believe that the market has be stigmatized as money-come-lately’s, their begun to turn away from these kinds of architec- homes criticized as tasteless monuments to tural expressions. People who can afford these recent affluence. homes are now looking for architectural integri- Our client, a large global marketer of hard- ty in the design of their homes and furnishings. ware and fixtures, believed that a product whose They want their architects and designers to teach designs expressed these newly rediscovered and Figure 1. We spent time with Kim, an independent interior designer in Figure 2. Melanie is a contract commercial interior designer with a side- Atlanta, and her assistant, Lucy. They are shown at a vendor showroom, line in residential interior design. Here she is shown specifying colors with specifying interior furnishings and built-in elements. a client. 64 Design Management Review Summer 2004
  7. 7. Joining People & Brands Relationship Continuum Archetype: Carole and Leslie Designer-Arbiter & Client-Consumer User Research Client leads Arbiter Collaboration Arbiter leads Client Figures 3 and 4. In 2002, Source/Inc. spent time with families building high-end custom homes, and their interior designers. We were particularly interested in the processes and dynamics of their working relationship. Our data analysis helped us invent Carole, an archetypal interior designer, and Leslie, an archetypal client who is building a high- end custom home. We posited a range of collaborative relationships, from high client involvement and control to relatively low client involvement. Understanding the dynamics of this relationship proved key later on. ascendant architectural styles could be served up as a brand rich with information and the oppor- those conversations. Getting these answers Science teaches us tunity for personal discovery. The client wanted required a deep dive of that humans to catch this emerging market at the bottom and discovery for us all: client ride it, wavelike, to the crest of a successful and team, research team, and are more alike enduring business with “first-in” prestige and creative team alike. (See than different, authority. figures 1 and 2.) Wisdom Science teaches us that humans are more gleaned from the with the primary alike than different, with the primary differentia- research surprised and differentiator tor being culture. Understanding the nuances of inspired subsequent human experience, across a continuum, deeply work to an unforeseen being culture. informs strategy for brands, products, services, degree. For instance, the and environments. target of primary interest actually turned out to The brand team at Source/Inc. worked with be a hybrid, which we characterized in the “rela- Michael Eckersley and Andy Schechterman to tionship continuum” existing between an arche- plan a study that would do more than define the typal interior designer/arbiter (Carole) and an target in marketing terms. At this point, there archetypal high-end residential client (Leslie). was no market definable by the classic marketing (See figures 3 and 4.) This relationship is key in metrics. The primary audience happened to be terms of who influences the specification of fur- select interior designers managing high-end resi- niture, wall coverings, hardware, and so forth, dential projects—a fairly exclusive group, to be not to mention the general theme or stylistic sure. But we also needed to find other likely tar- direction the project takes. Understanding these gets—people who were constructing or remod- dynamics of control, and how they play out to eling high-price-point homes. It was important varying degrees from client to client and from for the entire team to experience their rumina- designer to designer, yielded a complex, yet tions, collaborations, and conversations with strangely simplifying and authentic picture of their interior designers in order to build a brand the customer—a refreshingly nonsuperficial, evi- meaning and a brand story that could be part of dence-based familiarity unavailable before. Design Management Review Summer 2004 65
  8. 8. Delivering Value Through Design From the mass of user data collected and processed, 70 touch points were validated by the team and mapped across various dimensions. Some meaningful patterns emerged from the touch-point data, illustrating key underlying themes that were discovered in the client-design- er relationship of Carol and Leslie. One pattern was named Realization; it captured some com- mon aspects of the manifestation of a lifelong dream that a home-building project can repre- sent for financially successful people. Another resonant theme came to be known as Search (Find), and it represents the demanding experi- ence of managing a complicated project from beginning to end, through a search-space of seemingly countless options and decisions— some big and many small. The experience informed an integrated strat- egy for a new brand of high-end custom-home hardware that is scheduled to hit the market in early 2005. The research—which took place over a period of just three months in four regions of the US—was foundational. The archetypes, models, and constructs it offered have a surpris- ing shelf life. They proved informative both strategically and tactically in our subsequent process of brand identity development, name development, packaging, and merchandising. It’s some story, and a full telling of it requires an article all its own. Reprint #04153ECK58 66 Design Management Review Summer 2004