Design Forum Finland kindly asked me to host a session on Design for Growth at Slush 2016. I gave a speech on the rise of design and the future of business, and moderated a 90 minute discussion with Google Venture Partner Braden Kowitz, Ivana Helsinki entrepreneur Pirjo Suhonen, Gold&Green founder Maija Itkonen, and Communications Designer Niklas Bergh. Pictures by Kalle Kataja.
Wallpaper magazine interviewed me about Nordic Spirits Lab, a platform for innovation and a new brand that we created for one of our clients, Altia Corporation.
You can read the full interview here:
Branding is one of those confusing words that seems to have a million different definitions. Try googling the word and you end up in threads where people with very different conceptions of branding battle it out. More often than not, the conversation misses the bigger point (which is just to confirm that I am one of these people, believing I have the right answer. And yes, I believe I do). But more importantly that getting the definition 100% right is what branding really means in terms of how you apply it in your life or inside your organisation.
Branding today is largely about "making difference", i.e. shaping people's perceptions in ways that help them choose one offering over another.
Consider this example:
"How can we make our brand of coffee different than those of our competition?" asks the marketer. Enter branding. Consumer insights + brand strategy + design + communication, is the typical formula. After the branding work, we might see two different strategies at play on the same retail shelf. One is priced at 70 eur per kilogram. This brand of coffee comes in beautiful packaging with a rich story that takes us to the origins of the coffee and the people who made it. The other brand is priced at 5 euro per kilogram. This brand has a modest packaging and no story. It puts all its bets on price. Two different strategies, two very different ways to create consumer value. And most likely, two very different consumer segments and need states.
The first coffee brand (this is a real comparison), charges a 14x premium over the other one (a private label brand). In other words, to some people, the first brand is worth at least 14 times more than the other one (!).
Talk about the power of branding. A difference has been made. Let people decide what they want. Branding has worked its magic.
Yet, however simple, powerful and real this example is, there is another way to define branding. I believe this is where branding is heading today and in the future.
Using branding for differentiation is the point, but instead of just "making difference", branding can be about "making a difference". The added a makes a big difference (pun intended).
Moving from "making difference" to "making a difference" requires a big shift in thinking. Instead of asking yourself how you can stand out from competition, try asking a bigger question. How can you make a difference in the lives of your customers. Or better yet, how can you make a difference in the world?
When you shift your thinking about what branding means, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. This is why definitions matter, and why you can find my name deep in those threads, battling it our for the best definition of branding.
When you re-frame the questions you ask yourself regarding your brand, i.e. when you start asking questions about how you can be making a difference, you are forced to view branding as something greater than marketing and communications. This framing also forces you to think beyond mere product features and benefits. You will have to face the bigger stuff. Branding becomes an integral part of the whole business, a vehicle for creating value and making real meaning. That's the stuff that really matters. And that's the rare stuff that people are willing to pay for. Even more than for that expensive package of coffee.
As the new business season kicks off, here is my simple formula for success and achievement.Read More
Working as a strategist for brands and businesses, I have come to know a void between brand and business strategy. The two seem to be two different processes altogether, conducted by different people and functions inside organisations. As a consequence, all too many brand promises are never kept.
So how are the two related? And what should their relationship be?
Let's start with business strategy.
Business strategy revolves around meeting your business objectives and the company's overall aspiration (vision, mission, purpose, etc.). It then addresses two main questions, the question of "where to play" and of "how to win". The first one is about choosing your ideal customer segments, your categories, markets etc. It defines your focus.
How to win - questions are where brand strategy comes into play. How you win should not only be about where you focus your resources (which is the common approach), but about how you will deliver more and different value than anyone else. This, is the essence of brand strategy, answering the question of why people should choose you over competition. How to win, is hence, where brand strategy meets business strategy. The two most be aligned, and they should support each other.
Your brand is, hence, the face of your business strategy, because it is how your customers will "experience your strategy". And for this reason, brand strategy should be the heart of your business strategy.
"Brand Nuggets" are short, half-chewed pieces of thinking to help you create breakthroughs for your brand and business. They are served by Tobias Dahlberg, CEO, Founder and strategist at Wonder Agency, a strategic brand firm from the Nordics. www.tobiasdahlberg.com | www.wonderagency.com
If you are one of those people who believe this about yourself, you might just find yourself working amongst robots in the coming years. While robots are cool, they are not so much fun to hang out with at the company summer retreat.
The World Economic Forum recently released their report on The Future of Jobs. They asked HR and Strategy officers what the most important skills will be in 2020.
The top 3: 1. Solving complex problems, 2. Critical thinking 3. Creativity.
So it seems pretty clear we need to stop shying away from being creative.
The good news? (Kind of...)
If you are one of these people thinking you are not creative, you are wrong. Well, you are right to the extent that we all pretty much have the same creative potential. We are wired in pretty much the same way, meaning you have massive creative capacity.
The bad news?
It's time to stop hiding behind the belief that creativity is some god given birthright reserved for a few lucky individuals. Sorry to say, but if you are not feeling creative, chances are...
You are not curious enough.
You are not passionate enough.
You are not bold enough.
You don't open minded enough.
You have not failed enough.
You don't work hard enough.
Creativity is hard work. Creativity (often) involves dealing with anxiety, stress, fear, self-doubt, feelings of inferiority..pain. And then, you put your art out there for people to celebrate, or laugh at. It can be tough. But if you want to be creative, this is what you have to go through.
Creativity takes vulnerability, because by nature, creative work is new, it is original. But most of all, creativity takes hard, gruelling work. The kind of work only very few people are prepared to do. And that's why most people don't think they are creative. They have never done it, been there.
We are at our most creative when we master something, when the knowledge and skill becomes one with who we are. We lose a sense of time and space, we are not mechanic and self-conscious, but rather fluid and fully engaged in the moment. We are guided by that deep inner voice of wisdom that whispers to us. Creativity is the prize we get for keeping at it until we get it right, for keeping at it when most people give in.
Sometimes we feel proud and on top of the world as a consequence of our creative effort. Sometimes we just feel like shit. But nevertheless, there is comfort in knowing that there is one worse feeling than failing at creativity. That the feeling of holding back because of our fears. That knowledge that we could be somewhere else in our lives, if it were not for our own limiting beliefs.
We all fear failing, but some of us just care less about what other think. Once you get over your fear, the world is different. Your possibilities are different. You become different. The world is yours to conquer.
The future calls for creative problem solvers - people who can mix analytical and creative thinking, people who can frame the right problems to solve, then use their imagination to create something new, something valuable.
Luckily, we are all born with this ability. The future belongs to those who cultivate it. Talent is overrated. Greatness comes from practice and perseverance, fuelled by passion.
Last week I had the privilege to deliver a keynote speech about design thinking (I'm just going to refer to it as design, I think we can drop the thinking already.) at the Metropolia Futures Conference in Helsinki.
Here is a short summary of my speech:
Imagine that you had been alive and working 100 years ago. What would that have been like? What would your opportunities have been like?
In 1916, we were at the height of the second industrial revolution, and you would have been part of a larger system where mass production and scientific management were the thriving. With that era came the need to drive efficiencies up, and costs down. For many of us, it would have meant working 35 years in a factory at the assembly line. Imagine. If you consider yourself a knowledge worker, or something beyond that, consider yourself lucky.
This era was remarkable in many ways, good and bad. It gave rise to a massive middle class who could afford to move up the needs ladder, stuffing their homes with much needed appliances, cars etc. to make lives easier. The good life had arrived, and it was mass produced. Suburbs popped up everywhere and most people in the middle class enjoyed a pretty similar lifestyle.
Fast forward 100 years and we are now dealing with a totally different world. Hypercompetition, hyperconnectivity, complexity and a relentless need of change are some of our challenges (and opportunities). Add to that new technologies, e.g. nanotechnology, genetics, 3D printing, robots, artificial intelligence etc. and we can probably all agree the future is both scary and exciting.
How long will we live? What kind of work will we do? Where will production take place? What is the role of the organisation? Do we work in offices?
These are some big, fundamental questions we need to start facing, and they could shake up everything. When the whole foundation is shaking, suddenly that 7% drop in sales vs. last fiscal year seems a small concern.
Creativity and innovation is the primary driver of economic growth, now and in the future. Yet, an alarming amount of companies are still trapped in the old "conventional business thinking" mode, where next year can be predicted by looking at last year, where we have squeezed every drop of creativity and spontaneity out of the system. This business thinking that I am referring to is rational, logical, linear and mostly efficiency driven. The culture that goes with it is mechanistic and people are treated like cogs in a machine. Business is cold offices boring. People behave differently at work compared to at their spare time. Sound familiar?
Even though many companies have moved on, lots and lots of companies are still trapped in that 20th century thinking. The closet is full of old skeletons, of old dogma and "how we do things around here" mentality. These companies are fatally ill-equipped to take on the future we are now facing. I see this happening before my own eyes in my work.
Without going too deep into the reasons why design is thought of as the latest and hottest business-rescue approach, let me just briefly explain what the hype is all about.
Designers are schooled to think about many possible outcomes, they deal with complex problem solving, they work to make connections between parts that do not seem to relate to each other, they build to think, and they are typically tuned into the emotions of the users they are designing for. And finally, they work to create aesthetics, beauty, stuff people really want without someone pushing it down our throats.
Design is potentially the approach conventional business is desperately looking for, as Total Quality Management, Six Sigma etc. have been exploited so far that both quality and price have mostly become hygiene factors.
So, what if business leaders and managers took this design idea seriously? What could it mean for businesses? Here are five perspectives.
1. It would mean companies would (finally) become customer-centric.
Wait a minute. Aren't they all customer-centric? That's what they all claim, anyway. Yes, most claim it, but only very few live it. And I literally mean live it, because customer centricity means culture.
What if we started spending more time with actual customers instead of just "benchmarking", looking for "best practises" and making logical conclusions about customers in meeting rooms, far remote from the real world. This is what designer do. Tip. Don't just use marketing research, use design research and ethnography to get close to your customers. That is, don't just zoom in on the herd, go live with the people you serve. It will change everything.
2. We would see strategic planning for what it really is, a creative activity.
Most companies still crunch numbers and analyse their way toward a new strategy - and that means making a logical conclusion about what to do. That leaves out the most important equation of the strategic process - creativity and invention. Strategy is about carving out a place for your business in the future, then making choices about getting there. Anything involving the future involves visioning, and that means using your imagination. And strategy can often be prototyped and reverse-engineered, so let's stop those internal logical arguments and start building to learn. As a consequence, perhaps we would see some more imaginative offerings and brand experiences in the world. And more excited customers.
3. We would aim at creating beauty and wonder.
Think about what great art is. It is original, bold, often unexpected and irrational, yet often it is remarkable, sensational, beautiful and..very expensive. Sound like what you are looking for?
What if we started thinking about business more as art? Why not stop thinking of business of a mechanistic system detached from humanity, from beauty and emotions. Again, look to designers for inspiration.
4. We would re-design the organisation.
The speed of change today and in the future will call for more collaboration, more horizontally aligned organisations, and for well-aligned cross-disciplinary work. Or to put it more bluntly, we need to kill the silos. They mostly make companies slow, blind and dumb. Great companies and brands deliver well orchestrated, coherent brand experiences that people crave for. Silos are simply the wrong for coherence.
5. We would change the view of humanity.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem in business today is that we do not appreciate and cultivate the true potential of human beings, our employees. We are not successful in motivating and training people to bring out the best in themselves. Designers start with empathy, with trying to feel what others are feeling, then work to satisfy people. But what could this mean for business?
With the risk of sounding naive (I am a hopeless optimist, anyway), letting go of control could do wonders for most organisations. Sure, it sounds scary for our command-and-control conditioned brains, but think about it. We don't really know where the world is going, so why not let people spend even a little bit more time exploring and playing, making and building potential new business models, organisational and operational ideas etc.
I would imagine that our organisations could be ten times more creative, and as a consequence, the output of organisations would be totally different. Sure, this is a trickly one, as this is a two-way street. You cannot just motivate people in one direction. I know that. But what if we were able to light that passion in people, to cultivate a growth mindset in everyone just by empowering them to create instead of managing people top-down? What if that was the key to unlocking the creativity, flexibility and passion that we so desperately need in the future. A bit more empathy, trust and autonomy could surely not be that bad?
In conclusion - the future is actually not about the corporation. It is about you. It is about you deciding whether you will be a follower or a game-changer. How will you matter? Design is not just about beauty and form any longer. It is a way to design great strategy, great organisations and solve complex, systemic problems. Design is now used to solve those big, wicked problems of the world, like pollution and hunger. Having said that, design is not the perfect cure for everything, it is just a step in the right direction. We need to abandon most of the dogmatic thinking that once propelled us to a new standard of living and adopt a new model. And in the spirit of design, that means constantly searching and being open to new ways, to "what could be". This is the growth mindset we need. Not just from designers and other so-called "creatives", but from all of us. Design is, after all, too important to be left only to designers.
Come on now. This is an invitation. The world needs you. To change it.
In 2015 I had the great privilege to bring over one of my personal heroes of branding, author and speaker Marty Neumeier (The Brand Gap, ZAG, The Designful Company, Metaskills, 46 Rules of Genius, Brand Flip). Here I interview him at our office (April 2015).
Photo from Flux Conference 2015Read More
Here is a short video interview I did for Design Forum Finland about branding for start-ups, a preview of my upcoming Slush Roundtable session on Nov 11th.