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Use Design Thinking to Improve Your Marketing Strategy


A wicked problem in design thinking is one that isn’t clearly defined, for which there isn’t a true/false answer, and for which there are lots of different perspectives on how to solve it. Sounds a bit like figuring out your marketing strategy, doesn’t it?

With roots in product development and engineering, design thinking takes a human-centred approach to innovating and solving problems, with a focus on asking questions, iterating, and testing to learn and improve your solutions.

You can apply design thinking principles to your marketing plan to help focus your marketing activities and improve your marketing performance.


How does design thinking work?

There are a lot of different models out there for design thinking, but the most common version, developed by the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, has 5 phases:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

These phases are not linear and often loop back on one another in an iterative development approach, allowing us to experiment and fine-tune our ideas on the way to solving the problem.

The idea is to understand what it is you’re really trying to achieve, take a user-focused approach to generating solutions that meet your customer’s needs, and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t to learn from the results.

So, how can a design thinking approach help your marketing strategy?


Understand your customer to connect with their needs

Design thinking begins by learning about the audiences impacted by the problem to understand what they experience, what they think and feel, how they behave, and what their needs are within the situation.

We conduct research either by observing their behaviour or by interviewing and asking questions to get to the heart of what matters to them. Then, we use tools like empathy maps that help us organize this information, understand the connections and begin to develop a picture of our audience’s experience to make sure the solutions we generate are designed around their needs and point of view.

Empathy Map
An empathy map can help you organize and understand the information you have about your customer.

In marketing, you can use many of the same tools to develop audience personas and journeys that help you understand your customer's thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and decisions related to your product, and how you can best connect to and communicate with them.

By taking a customer-centric approach that begins with what your audience needs, you align your brand, messaging, content, and channels to their preferences. This allows you to better connect with them, show them how your product or service solves their problem, and ultimately helps them want to buy.

Know what success looks like to align your efforts to your outcomes

A design thinking approach focuses on the solution, or the outcome, it is trying to achieve, not on the problem to be solved. 

So, for example, a community wellness program might try to get participants to exercise 10% more, versus trying to solve for the problem that people don’t exercise enough. This helps us to think about what success would look like, and design our activities and efforts to achieve those results.

In marketing, you can take the same approach to help choose your marketing activities and guide your decisions. Think about what you want your marketing to achieve and how that will be measured - whether that’s sales, leads, signups, event attendance, brand awareness, etc. - and then decide what marketing approach to take based on what will best deliver against your outcomes.

When you know what your end goal looks like, you can make your marketing decisions based on whether your solution will meet your objectives. This helps you make decisions and stay focused on what’s important in your marketing program.


Test and iterate to find what works

Design thinking uses prototyping and "minimum viable products" to test possible solutions before spending time and resources fully developing them. 

This can look like sketches of a software experience, a cardboard cutout that simulates a physical product, or a role play of a service delivery. The below video shows a famous example of app developers demoing the Elmo’s Monster Maker iPhone app using a giant cutout of an iPhone, before they ever wrote a line of code. 


In marketing, you can test aspects of your communications mix like key messaging, ad creatives, and media channels to see which perform better with your audience, and then use that information to refine your communications approach before you build out all your marketing materials. 

You can test pricing and promotions with samples of customers to see what impact they have on sales before you invest in implementing them across your organization. 

You can even test whole marketing campaigns with sample markets to measure their impact before you roll them out to your whole audience.

By testing different components of your marketing mix as you develop them, you can check your hypotheses, de-risk your overall marketing investment, and fine tune your approach to better connect with your audience and maximize your ability to meet your goals. 


Make your marketing problems less wicked

Applying design thinking principles to your marketing strategy can help you better connect with your customer, align your efforts to your desired outcomes, and maximize your marketing performance.

These techniques provide clarity of direction and data to base your decisions around, which keeps you focused on what matters - your customers and your business goals - and helps make your wicked marketing problems a little easier to solve.