(As published in ReThink Magazine Jan 2014)
If my email inbox wasn’t a resting place for other people’s poorly designed marketing, it might not be such a chore to manage. Even though we clearly think of both marketing and emails when we think of design, our ultra connected world has a new use for design, and understanding this new design will be the only sustainable way to cut though the noise in the future. As marketers we’ve historically been taught visual design is what catches, grabs, and drives our brand. Holistic design is a new design philosophy, which first takes into account consumer’s saturation with marketing messages, combined with their unlimited access to information to suggest a life cycle of experiences are the real business drivers in our modern society, not images. The few companies who understand the differences between historical design and holistic design will create sustainable businesses at lower costs, maintain greater customer loyalty, and be able to systematically cut through the noise.
The Problems with Historical Design
Design can mean many things to many people. To a dressmaker, it can mean the seam on a dress; to an engineer, a program running smoothly; and to an artist, the emotion their piece expresses. In business, we hire designers who create HTML, produce images, create animations, and design demand generation campaigns. We expect their creative designs to get us heard while increasing bottom line. However, the underlying driver for many of these ideas was conceived in a pre-internet world. Now, with the connected nature of our current world, design is no longer just a function of images, but of experiences. Understanding why we relegate design to just images will help us see how we can expand our ideas of design into experiences, helping us create stronger brands in the future.
Consider that in 2013, the average person spent about 12 hours per day in front of a screen, 294 billion emails were sent on a daily basis, over 400 million tweets went out each day, and more humans had access to mobile phones than electricity or clean drinking water. The connectivity that now exists allows consumers to instantly engage and share their experiences, and research a brand like never before. Historical design principles were created in a time of very limited connectivity and limited knowledge. This historical approach applied in our modern world has already caused consumers to ignore the sides of their computer screens where banner ads appear, drive direct mail engagement rates to below 1%, and has led to the rise of services like TiVO. Oversaturating consumers with marketing messages is not helping us break through; instead, it’s creating negative experiences for consumers.
Let’s take a very popular recent marketing campaign: Kmart’s “Ship My Pants” campaign. It has been cited as very creative, won numerous awards, and was considered by many to be of “good design.” It got a ton of press, and well over 20 million views on YouTube. However, the ad just drove people to the same old Kmart store — an outdated department store just trying to use fancy ads to increase sales, with little attention paid to customer experience. The consumer entering their store was faced with a negative experience directly opposite of the positive one they were just promised in the advertisement.
Historical design also neglects the connected society where every experience is transferable and remembered. Experiences are remembered in our own minds and digitally transferred to numerous places in the form of review sites, posts, and updates — all of which help people make decisions in both the B2B and B2C worlds. You have reviews on traditional sites like Yelp, and constant conversations taking place on social media channels. These sites allow individuals to share their experiences. Keep in mind that if you are creating a bad experience, the word will spread much faster than it ever did in the past. Also consider the opportunity costs of engagement. Word of mouth is powerful, but is forgotten with time. Digital information on the Internet lives forever.
This historical view created by mass marketing also has us thinking that marketing operates under the rules of economies of scale. Many business minds think that we can sell more products just by exposing more people to our ads. This scaling effect not only creates noise, it also increases the costs of driving engagements. To see this play out in our world, look at search marketing giant Google’s revenues from paid search, which increased by 86% over the past four years and now makes up $14 billion dollars of Google’s bottom line. This is one of the world’s largest companies, growing at twice the rate of any other company their size, and they’re doing it because of the increase in companies who need to get heard. Google isn’t the only one seeing the increase in online spending either — the paid search market as a whole was up 70% during that same time. As you can see, focusing simply on impressions creates a cycle of more and more noise, forcing companies to spend more to rise above it.
Some CEO’s might think this just means we aren’t trying hard enough, and we can solve this with more creative advertisements. Campaigns designed in this way are having a large negative effect on our profession as well. Gallop does a poll every year to see which professions are the most distrusted in America. Every year, at the bottom of the list are Lobbyists, Used-Car Salesmen, and Congressmen. From this poll, it’s clear that people don’t like professionals who talk with a “golden tongue”. Marketers may not speak — but we do write, and many of our “creative” campaigns are written with a “golden pen”. In the same Gallop poll, “Advertising Practitioners” are listed fourth from the bottom. Consumers already distrust marketing messages, and can see right through our thinly-veiled sales pitches.
Design can mean many things to many people, but for us to understand how to cut through the noise, we must understand why we created the noise in the first place. Once we can understand what got us here, then we can begin to see the lining of a the new world and we can start to see the reason design needs to change to put a larger focus on consumer experience — instead of singular impressions.
The Case for Holistic Design
Holistic design, on the other hand, understands that we belong to a connected society, with no barriers to information, and that every interaction with a consumer drives either a positive, negative, or null response. The goal of holistic design is to communicate a consistent and managed message, which builds net positive goodwill from every interaction between your business and the outside world.
Holistic design seems like a simple idea and one that you might dismiss as something you already have. To prove the need for holistic design, conduct this short experiment in your office: Pull 10 people, each from different departments in your company, and ask them the following three questions.
- What do we value in a customer?
- What do we value in an employee?
- What do we consider success?
If your employees can’t answer basic questions about your business in the same way, how can you expect their interactions with consumers to be the same? It is up to you to shape perceptions of your business in your consumers’ eyes. If the employees who interact with consumers on a daily basis via marketing messages, customer emails, phone calls, and support tickets can’t answer three basic questions the same way, how can you expect to shape a consistently positive experience with your consumer?
If you were to map these customer interactions on a graph, and look at each set of interactions over time, you would notice a line. The longer your relationship with customers, the longer the line would be. Regardless of your marketing design, your line will go up and down over time due to positive and negative experiences. We’ll call this variation “volatility,” just like the stock market. The stock market can rise and fall over time, but it also does so generally as a collective. The few companies that can rise above this collective are the true stars of the market. In the stock market, we call these companies “successes;” in marketing, we say they are able to “rise above the noise,” or in other mathematical terms, “rise above the volatility”.
If you’re planning to break out of the noise, the only way to do it is to rise above it — which means you have to consistently build net positive goodwill with each interaction that you have. If not, your brand will never have a net positive gain on a consumer larger than any other brand, causing you to constantly spend more money, time, and energy to be heard. This is very akin to a band-aid style approach to advertising. You fix one problem, only to have to fix it again later because you are ignoring the underlying issue. Holistic design acts more like a vitamin, where it is taken in advance and works its way into your system to prevent the core underlying issues.
Many of our perceptions of design have been shaped by years of others’ thoughts and executions of their ideas. The band-aid approach is responsible for creating most of the “noise” in the first place. Understanding that the only way to break through the noise is to remove volatility in your customer experience is the first step to holistic design. Once you get this basic premise of driving demand in the modern world, you can begin to take the next steps toward implementing holistic design at your company.
How to incorporate holistic design into your business
A house built on sand with fall with the winds and the rains, but a house built on a solid foundation will last the test of time.
So how do you build holistic design? It’s a process, and can be implemented into a company regardless of where the business is in its lifecycle. There are many different ways to create a holistic design foundation as well — some very minimalistic ways, very structured ways, and some techniques that fall in the middle. Here are a few ideas for you:
Historical Design needs direction
If you’ve read any of my other writing, you’ll know I’m a very large fan of David Ogilvy and give him a lot of credit for my lines of thinking. The greatest thing he left with me was a legacy of design, and its importance to success. He understood holistic design, yet never promoted it as such. Rather, he just promoted it as good marketing. He used a very specific tool to ensure that all designs were consistent and based on a holistic idea. He used lists.
His lists are very detailed and cover just about every situation you can think of, and there were lists for every department in his company. His list ensured consistent, holistic design from every person, all the time. They were not relegated to a medium, but were instead holistic in their construction, which allowed them to be used on any other medium as well. If you are looking to incorporate holistic design into an existing business, this technique might be a very good way to go. It will allow for a hardcopy plan that everyone can read, understand, and follow. To learn more about his lists, I’d suggest reading Confessions of an Advertising Man, first published in 1962.
Holistic Must Be in Your DNA
As an early employee in a recent startup success story, I’m lucky to have learned this lesson firsthand. Pardot was a bootstrapped startup with no venture capital funding, competing with companies backed by over 500 million dollars in VC funding, and was recently a part of a $2.5 billion acquisition. Understanding how holistic design gave us an edge can give your company the same advantage.
Pardot’s secret to success lies in our holistic marketing approach: we only hired those who always created a positive experience for our consumers. Our CEO identified the three core characteristics an employee needed to have in order to complete his vision: being positive, self-starting, and supportive. This was the measuring stick used against every hire, and it was never compromised. This allowed us to spend 1/20 of the marketing budget of our competition and to become one of the clear leaders in our space. It wasn’t because we had better messaging, but our consumers had consistently better experiences.
Note Design Studio is another great example of a company that uses holistic design throughout the hiring process. As a recent success story in the design world, Note Design Studio was awarded “Break out of the Year, 2012” by Swedish design magazine, Residence. This single accolade launched their design firm into international fame. You can find their designed objects around the world at retail stores, and their influence is beginning to reach all areas of design, not just product and interiors. I was fortunate enough to meet with them in Stockholm, and to get their take on design for this article. What I found surprised me, as it was uncannily similar to Pardot’s own approach to design.
I was able to sit down with the full team to discuss their design process and what inspires it, and I turned the conversation towards some aspects the design process which I know plague many companies. I asked about their process for gaining consensus on designs and how they deal with issues that arise from this — to which Alexis Holmqvist, head of creative, immediately replied, “We haven’t had that problem.” Holmqvist continued, “If we hire people who think like us, and who get what we are doing, we don’t have this issue.” Holistic design through hiring is a very novel concept for today’s business leaders; however, it’s proven to be a huge success for two very innovative and highly successful companies in two very different industries.
Holistic is Personal
One of Canada’s largest Internet retail companies conducted a study on the effects of personal emotion versus digital emotion with the goal of designing a better follow-up campaign. They took a segment of customers who had received errors in their shipping orders, and apologized in two different ways.
They first digitally apologized for their mistake by sending a note and a $50 dollar gift card to one segment of the shoppers. They then compared this segment with another group of shoppers, who they personally called and apologized to. The second group did not receive a gift card, just a personal phone call. They followed up each segment via survey, to see who was more likely to buy from them in the future. The segment that was personally communicated with won out by a double-digit margin.
Holistic Design is Lasting Design
Holistic design also takes into account the full lifecycle of a buyer. This means understanding the Life Time Value (LTV) of a customer is the greatest measure of success — not the conversion rate of a campaign. Your business must understand that shortsighted “golden pen” campaigns will have a larger negative impact on your business than positive. Finally, you must look at campaigns as pieces of a puzzle, which are all directed by your internal DNA, not just immediate business goals.
Consider the magazine “COLORS.” It’s a publication backed by the clothing company United Colors of Benetton, yet it never mentions its benefactor. It has been in print for over twenty years, and is not about clothing or fashion. In fact, it’s 100% dedicated to issues unrelated to fashion, from the environment, to arts and culture, to world issues, and everything in between.
You might be saying, “Mathew, if this is such a great campaign, why don’t I know about it? Isn’t that the opposite of effective marketing?” But consider the following statement, which is posted on the BennetonGroup.com site under ‘company strategy.’
Benetton Group has always been committed to combining economic growth and social commitment, competitiveness and concern for the environment, and business and ethics. People – their moral values, daily work capacity and desire to look to the future and improve themselves – are at the center of every program and activity.
The magazine, and the school FABRICA, which they also sponsor, are direct reflections of their concern for people, social issues, the future, and the environment. Both the magazine and the school help people with their daily work, and their desire to improve themselves. This is true holistic marketing, driven by company culture and executed through a series of holistic campaigns — which, in this case, have lasted over two decades.
The few companies who understand the differences between historical design and holistic design will create sustainable businesses at lower costs, maintain greater customer loyalty, and systematically cut through the noise. As I’ve shown, the ultra-connectivity of the world has changed what the word “design” means for marketers, and has broadened it’s meaning to include the full lifecycle of experiences, not just visual impressions. The world is no longer what it used to be, and the way we design our marketing campaigns must change with it. We’ve proven to ourselves more marketing, does not equal more sales, yet better marketing can. To get better in the future we must remove the concept impressions and understand we need to put a greater emphasis on the consumer’s life cycle of experiences. This is the only way to consistently, cost effectively, and systematically rise above the noise.