Many marketing executives probably think that the success of companies such as Dell has everything to do with their enviable ability to innovate. After all, they're selling technologically innovative products in a technology age.

Business has relied on innovation to corner the market with new products and services for decades. Now, with a definite intensification in global competition, marketing executives are learning that bringing a stream of innovative products to market does not enable them to uniquely position and differentiate their companies from their competitors. Predicating a company's USP (unique selling proposition) on innovation simply doesn't work; it's just too easy for competitors to knock off any new product or service in a few short weeks or months.

There are myriad examples of knock-offs out there. Think of a category such as cell phones. How many have similar, if not identical, features? Basing corporate brand positioning and differentiation on innovation is no longer an effective strategy.

While companies like Dell are extremely adept at building innovation into new products, there must be something deeper that drives these brands. For example, Apple consistently demonstrates that its customers have an absolute passion for the brand. In international business circles, marketing experts have long admired, and lusted after, the kind of brand passion that Apple commands from its customers, who are truly devotees.

Something profound is going on here. While business executives correctly view that innovation built into new products and services is important, few have understood that the cornerstone of groundbreaking innovation is design. And even more importantly, design encompasses far more than the development of innovative features to products.

Design, when great, has its roots in in-depth consumer research. Design represents a basic, intrinsic value in all products and services. While creative consultants have understood that, their corporate counterparts have not always grasped this concept. Nor have they fostered adequate respect for the value of design. But that is changing.

Essentially, the concept of making design the focal point of every corporate department, then leveraging that, has the power to create the unique, differentiated corporate and brand identity that every company needs to succeed. Marketing guru Tom Peters has always maintained that design is so important that it should be on the agenda, along with design consultants, of every meeting in every single corporate department.

But what do we mean by all-encompassing design? And why is it critical that all corporate departments understand and embrace design as their true USP—in unifying their internal and external branding efforts?

Evolution of Design and Marketing

The newest concept is taking root in a few sector-leading corporations: Design is being integrated into corporate marketing strategy as never before. This evolution is beginning to create a powerful impact on executive management's perception of the value of design. One could make the point that the academic concept of Experiential Marketing started it all.

This holistic way of viewing marketing has created new ideas, possibilities and much-needed new thinking. Experiential Marketing theorizes that the customer's experiences with corporate brands go beyond the actual products or services that the company offers. It really is about all the intangibles around those products and services that form customer perceptions, thoughts, emotions and attitudes based on repeated, interactive experiences with corporate brands.

This mix of intangibles transcends actual products or services—all of which can be purchased from a number of competing companies. Meaningful brand experiences are unified experiences; that is, they are corporately designed, properly managed and aligned across all customer touchpoints.

So how are meaningful brand experiences created for the customer? They begin with the actual design of its products or services, and then extend to an overall design strategy, encompassing all of the corporate-to-customer touchpoints: communication hierarchy, packaging of products/services, the business's Web site, its letters and special offers to customers, call center interactions with customers, advertising, promotions and more.

All of this, every part of a harmonious whole, creates a total customer experience. A positive experience at one touch point does not signify what we mean by "experiential" branding. Again, all of the customer touch points, if properly designed, aligned and managed in conjunction with the corporate brand, do.

The goal of corporate executives should be to create the experiential environment for customers to become emotionally involved with their brands... by design. Over time, an emotional level of interaction develops into brand dialogue and the formation of ever-deepening relationships based on trust. Result? Significant levels of brand loyalty reinforced by repeated, positive experiences.

Smart corporate executives know that the overall design of their customer's experience is the key differentiator that ultimately builds corporate and brand equity. They also know that this is not solely the province and responsibility of the marketing department—but every department in the company. Every corporate employee has a role in creating the customer's experience with the corporate brand.

Corporate management, and the creative consultancies with whom they collaborate, understand that extensive consumer research is the key to great design. Great design work involves in-depth research of the consumer. This research observes and studies consumers' interactions with products and services, yielding valuable information. Studies like these assist companies to deliver the brand first, and products and services second. Observing how consumers interact with products or services, and then getting their feedback as to what they like and don't like, as well as their preferences, helps companies and creative consultancies design the most satisfying customer experiences!

This enables companies to test for positive end user experiences. How much better is this than developing products based on what R&D and marketing departments think their customers want? How insightful is this kind of research vs. taking consumer surveys?


Several global corporations have already embraced the concept of designing the total customer experience with their corporate brands, products and services. These design-centric companies are, no surprise, leaders in their respective sectors: Procter & Gamble, Samsung, IBM, Harley-Davidson, BMW, Apple, Disney and yes, Dell, among others.

Alan G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, once stated: "I want P&G to become the number one consumer-design company in the world, so we need to be able to make it part of our strategy. We need to make it part of our innovation process."

In a recent Fast Company interview, he went on to say: "We want to design the purchasing experience....we want to design every component of the product; and we want to design the communication experience and the user experience. I mean, it's all design."

Mr. Lafley meant what he said and brought P&G marketing veteran Claudia Kotchka on board as VP for design innovation and strategy. She expects to turn P&G into what she calls a "design-centric culture." When the CEO of such a behemoth consumer products company sees the marriage of design and marketing as critical to the success of P&G, it signals that a powerful new trend has taken hold in the corporate world.

The world of business and the world of design are beginning to respond. A balanced approach to branding and building design strategies will become a determining factor to future success in corporate business. For the skeptics among us who don't think so, a current trend among some of the nation's leading business schools is to add elective design and creative thinking courses into their MBA curricula: Harvard, Georgetown, UC Berkeley and Northwestern, to name a few.

Stanford University is establishing a new Institute of Design in order to teach design strategy to business and design students. Likewise, some design schools, particularly in the UK, have added business courses for graduate level design students. The AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) holds a "Business Perspectives for Design Leaders" seminar at the Harvard Business School annually. And many more programs are being developed.

Clearly, a trend to imbue future business leaders in design thinking and strategy has begun. After all, if our business leaders are expected to become creative thinkers, problem solvers and innovators to keep their companies ahead of ever-intensifying global competition, won't the basic premises of design serve them well? We might call this a move to integrate right brain (creative, innovative and design) and left brain (analytical, management) thinking in the highest circles of business.

Business Week's editor-in-chief, Steven J. Adler, has referred to this new corporate trend as the "rise of the Creativity Economy." Current design and business leaders need to embrace this new "creativity economy" as it unfolds. The corporate and design sectors must integrate their analytical and creative problem solving with true design solutions as never before. The dividends that doing so will yield will be the better-and-better customer experiences that deepen into meaningful relationships built on trust. That is where we will realize the full potential of brand loyalty and brand equity.

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image of Ted Mininni

Ted Mininni is president and creative director of Design Force, a leading brand-design consultancy.

LinkedIn: Ted Mininni