Can Pernicious Marketing Problems Be Solved With Human-Centered Design?

Prashant Kohli, vice president of strategy at The Glitch (a VMLY & R company), India, explains how agencies can work to secure a seat at the big table and create valuable work for businesses and consumers by deploying thoughtful thinking human-centered design.

I like marketing. Despite my occasional skepticism, I love the job. My ten-year journey as an adman who creates and develops brands has been nothing less than an adventure. It made me travel – literally and metaphorically. I have been part of tribes and movements. Met outlaws, healers and magicians. Struggling with artificial intelligence and human stupidity. I was impressed by the individual will to overcome obstacles and the collective ability to transform lives.

I believe in the power of stories to transform lives. But first, marketing must transform.

The marketing industry seems to be on a unique mission of self-sabotage. We have made human emotions a commodity. We’ve replaced real people with demographics and target groups and replaced our accountability to businesses with meaningless KPIs. We have reduced ourselves to agents of the toy stores of Silicon Valley. We have shied away from our responsibility to communities and the planet. For an industry that claims it can help businesses connect with people, we do a horrible job of connecting with our own.

So it should come as no surprise that our worth is called into question and that our existence is threatened. We’re in a tough spot, facing tough issues like – how do we sit down at the big table? How do we create work that is of value to both businesses and consumers?

So how do you change this?

These issues are hard to recognize, let alone solve, however, taking a human-centered approach could be key.

Enter Human-Centered Design (HCD)

Based on putting people at the center of every problem, HCD allows us to see challenges from a consumer perspective. Marketers have been doing this forever – consumer research, cultural exploration, knowledge exploration, these are all the tools we have used. So why design thinking, and why now?

Simply put, digital foremost marketing – technology and data has made marketing smart but cold. We can reach target audiences more precisely through personalized / optimized communication (almost) anywhere and anytime. However, in the rush to create 6 second stories where the brand appears in the top 3 to satisfy an algorithm, we put aside the human ideas that get people to take action. Our solutions are designed to scale to the most efficient platforms, not to leverage the most efficient moments. We’ve gotten good at using data in obvious ways – like measuring the number of views, but what about data that unlocks provocative information?

The missing component here is empathy, and this is where the HCD fills the void, allowing us to understand what another person is going through within their frame of reference.

Take a brand of detergent. You can tell the consumer your cost, your efficiency, your superiority over competing detergents – what might work or might make another cheaper detergent find its way into your consumers’ shopping cart.

Or you can use empathy to explore what your brand is doing for the consumer. Suppose your client is a housewife responsible for the laundry in the house. Step into their life – explore what they say, think and do, understand their needs, their pains, their gains.

Surf Excel (HUL’s laundry brand) realized that of all the problems housewives face when doing laundry, children’s clothing is the most important. At the same time, they still want their child to enjoy playing, learning and getting dirty at the same time. For them, dirt is not only a nuisance, but also a sign of a healthy childhood. From this idea, Surf Excel’s “dirt is good” was born.

A human point of view first

Brands without a strong point of view become commodities. Brands with a worldview inspire people. A simple way to arrive at a point of view is to reframe a problem – looking at a problem through the lens of the consumer experiencing a brand, rather than the point of view of the brand offering it.

Meet Indigo, India’s largest passenger airline with a 55.5% market share as of October 2020. Founded in 2006, the airline has found that India’s burgeoning middle classes are not being served by the country’s luxury flight market. This group, they found, appreciated the savings in time and money from air travel, but did not want to spend on luxury. The reframing was deceptively simple – smart, efficient, non-bloated luxury air travel. This tactic not only opened up a new market for them, but gave them the opportunity to retain their customers, without the need to create a loyalty program.

Points of contact at important moments

A clear, relevant and unique perspective allows marketing to extend beyond touch points. User journeys, another tool in the HCD framework, aim to do just that. Surf Excel’s tactic of turning dirt from a nuisance into a positive experience for children has positioned the brand as a catalyst for this belief, with a meaning that transcends washing dirty laundry. The brand’s efforts have successfully activated and engaged parent communities, focusing less on marketing touchpoints and more on the moments that matter most to the customer.

A seat at the big table

Marketing is about connecting brands to people, and people to each other and their communities, and the quality of that connection can define a business’s success or failure. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to dig deep and rediscover humanity. We need to stop being distracted by tech toys and complex KPIs – and focus on understanding people and engaging with them creatively. Human-Centered Design reminds us to put people at the heart of everything we do to unlock opportunity, drive innovation and transform categories.

This is our ticket to the big table, and it must start now. I like marketing. I always go. I will continue to fight the forces of stupidity that have reduced a powerful tool of behavior change to an instrument of mindless selling.

I will fight to solve evil problems just because they are worth fighting, and human-centered design will be my weapon of choice.

The author is vice president of strategy at The Glitch (a VMLY & R company), India.

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