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Can wicked problems in marketing be solved with human-centred design?

The future: human-centred design

Prashant Kohli, vice president, strategy at The Glitch (a VMLY&R company), India writes about how agencies can work towards getting a seat at the big table and create work that’s valuable to both businesses and consumers by deploying human-centred design thinking.

I love marketing. Despite my occasional scepticism, I adore the craft. My decade-long journey as an adman building and growing brands have been nothing short of an adventure. It’s taken me places - literally and metaphorically. I’ve been part of tribes and movements. Met outlaws, caregivers, and magicians. Grappled with artificial intelligence and human stupidity. Been left awed by the individual will to beat odds, and the collective ability to transform lives.

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

The marketing industry seems to be on a single-minded mission of self-sabotage. We’ve made a commodity out of human emotions. We’ve substituted real people with demographics and target groups and replaced our accountability to businesses with meaningless KPIs. We’ve reduced ourselves to agents of Silicon Valley toy shops. We’ve shunned our responsibility towards communities and the planet. For an industry that claims it can help businesses connect with people, we’re doing a horrible job of connecting with our own.

It should be no surprise then, that our value is being questioned and existence is threatened. We’re in a wicked spot, facing wicked problems, like – how do we get a seat at the big table? How do we create work that’s valuable to both businesses & consumers?

So how do we change this?

These problems are tough to recognise, let alone solve, however, taking a human-centric approach could hold the key.

Enter Human Centred Design (HCD)

Based on putting people at the centre of any problem, HCD allows us to view challenges from the consumer’s perspective. Marketers have been doing this forever - consumer research, culture exploration, insight mining, these are all the tools we have employed. So why design thinking, and why now?

Simply put, digital-first marketing - technology and data have made marketing smart but cold. We can reach target audiences more sharply with personalised/optimised communication (almost) anywhere, at any time. However, in the rush to create 6-second stories where the brand shows up in the first 3 to satisfy an algorithm, we have sidelined the human insights that drive people to act. Our solutions are designed to suit the most efficient platforms, not to leverage the most effective moments. We’ve become good at using data in obvious ways - like measuring the number of views, but what about data that unlocks provocative insights?

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

Take a detergent brand. You can tell the consumer your cost, effectiveness, superiority amongst competing detergents - which could work or could lead to another cheaper detergent finding its place in your consumers’ basket.

Or you could use empathy to explore what your brand does for the consumer. Say your customer is a homemaker, responsible for the laundry of the house. Step into their life - explore what they are saying, thinking and doing, understand their needs, pains, gains.

Surf Excel (HUL’s laundry brand) realised that amongst all the problems homemakers face while dealing with laundry, kids’ clothes are the biggest. At the same time, they still want their child to enjoy playing, learning and getting dirty in the process. For them, dirt is not just a nuisance, but also a sign of a healthy childhood. From this insight, Surf Excel’s ‘dirt is good’ was born.

A human-first point of view

Brands without a strong point of view become commodities. Brands with a worldview inspire people. A simple way of arriving at a point of view is via reframing - looking at a problem through the lens of the consumer experiencing a brand, rather than from the perspective of the brand delivering it.

Meet Indigo, India’s largest passenger airline with a market share of 55.5% as of October 2020. Founded in 2006, the carrier found that India’s burgeoning middle classes were not being served by the country’s luxury flight market. This group, they found, valued saving time and money via air travel but didn’t want to spend on the luxuries. The reframe was deceptively simple - air travel that’s smart, efficient and not bloated with luxuries. This tactic not only opened a new market for them but gave them opportunities to build customer loyalty, without needing to create a loyalty program.

From touchpoints to moments that matter

A clear, relevant and unique perspective allows for extensions of marketing beyond touchpoints. User journeys, another tool in the HCD framework, aims at doing just that. Surf Excel’s tactic of reframing dirt from being a nuisance to being a positive experience for kids, positioned the brand as an enabler of that belief, with meaning that transcends washing dirty laundry. The brand’s efforts successfully activated and engaged parent communities, being less focused 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 with people, and people with each other and their communities, and the quality of that connection can define the success or failure of a business. Right now, we have a unique opportunity to dig deep and rediscover humanity. We need to stop getting distracted by tech toys and complex KPIs - and focus on understanding people and engaging with them creatively. The human-centred design reminds us to put people at the heart of everything we do to unlock opportunities, drive innovation and transform categories.

That’s our ticket to the big table, and it needs to start now. I love marketing. I always will. I will continue to fight the forces of stupidity that have reduced a potent tool for behavioural change to an instrument for mindless selling.

I will fight to solve the wicked problems simply because they are worth fighting for, and human-centred design will be my weapon of choice.

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

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