For decades, there’s been a broad separation between product design and marketing. Products were what you designed to address people’s needs, provide function, and solve problems, while marketing was there to make people want the product.
There are a lot of reasons why that split doesn’t make sense anymore. The marketing campaign of tomorrow isn’t a marketing campaign at all — at least not one we’d recognize today. What consumers experience, not what they see or hear, is what sticks.
If your brand helps them solve a problem or achieve a goal as only your brand can, you have a product experience that will create a brand evangelist. Creating products and services that do this well is challenging, because they have to work beautifully and uniquely at the same time.
There are practical steps brands can take to rethink their product strategy in support of a more powerful, durable brand experience. Underlying all these steps is a necessary shift in mindset.
It’s the Experience!
In the old model, someone looking to buy a new coffeemaker might recall half a dozen ads they’ve seen, and these would be front of mind when they start shopping.
Today, every page of their browser is full of ads for coffeemakers as soon as they start searching online. Overwhelmed by marketing messages and faced with endless choices for just about every purchase, consumers are looking at these brand communications with growing skepticism. They’re more likely to look to professional and consumer reviews, online communities of enthusiasts, blogs and Instagram feeds, and shopping podcasts to inform their decision.
In today’s review culture, the product experience influences you before you decide to buy or use the service. And the most critical brand impressions leading to long-term loyalty occur during the end-to-end experience of a person using your product. If brands want to stay relevant in the next five to ten to fifteen years, they need to learn how to meet consumers where they already are — at the product experience level.
Four Practical Steps for Product Strategists
There are practical steps brands can take as they rethink their product strategy in support of a more powerful, durable brand experience. They are:
1. Understand Future Consumers
Start with an understanding of your customers’ shifting values. As part of our ongoing research into high-level trends that shape customer expectations, we’ve identified ten well-established Global Megatrends that define what consumers are looking for in a brand experience — and what they will continue to look for over the next five to ten years.
Of the ten Global Megatrends, these five are the most relevant for brands that are struggling to connect: Consumer Remapped, Empowered Individual, Search for Authenticity, Quest for Exclusivity, and Ethical Living.
2. Understand Future Technologies
Future brand strategy needs to plug into the digital-physical integration tools that are either in use now, such as over-the-air software updates, or that are emerging in the marketplace. This is its own task, separate from the design of any individual part, and it’s necessarily a long-term, holistic one.
Brands no longer have the luxury of waiting until their customers catch up to new technologies to start adapting. When consumers evolve faster than brands do, the only safe strategy is to start planning today for where the market will be tomorrow — even if consumers themselves can’t see it coming.
3. Make Product Planning a Company-Wide Concern
Strategic product planning is an intensely collaborative effort, regularly bringing brand experts and product experts together in the same room. The CMO should be involved in product development, and product owners should be helping to shape the brand vision.
Make product planning a top-down, company-wide concern — something the entire organization focuses on as a matter of brand survival, and not just a periodic update. If every product interaction is an opportunity to build brand loyalty, then every decision about those interactions requires input from both sides. (See more, below, on what the most successful brands do well.)
4. Use Design and Innovation Strategy Techniques
Companies can harness the methods and techniques of Design and Innovation Strategy, a discipline that combines business strategy with consumer insights to anticipate and create robust strategies based on meaningful, future-driven product experiences, specifically:
Forecast probable future scenarios based on trend analysis. COVID-19 and its impact has reminded all of us that the one thing we can count on in the future is uncertainty. A robust strategy that leverages tools such as forecasting and scenarios of the future helps brands withstand the ups and downs that are caused by such unexpected events.
Think of the brands that would have benefitted from having such a robust strategy in place when COVID-19 hit. What if Zoom had envisioned its product’s potential in consumer markets for non-business purposes?
And imagine if just one institute of higher education had used strategic foresight to envision various futures around a global pandemic — and created a preferred future for all to follow that is affordable, equitable, and valuable.
Create your vision for the future — the scenario that’s most desirable for your company. Then use backcasting (i.e., forecasting in reverse) to plan the steps it will take to get there. Backcasting creates a roadmap toward your imagined future. It provides actionable steps and a path forward. What key events, changes, or technologies will be required to reach your future destination?
Amazon is one example of a company that created a clear vision and used backcasting to generate a path to disruptive innovation. All their strategic moves were planned years ago when the company asked itself, “How do we serve all aspects of consumer life in the future?”
What the Most Durable, Successful Brands Do Well
After helping numerous brands do this kind of strategic product planning, we’ve noticed the most successful efforts share a few fundamentals:
• They focus on customers more than on sub-brands or categories. It’s easy for a company to get bound up in its internal divisions, and project them onto consumers. But for consumers, the brand and product landscape is fluid, and just because they limited themselves to one category last year doesn’t mean they will this year, too.
The most flexible brands consider who they’re trying to appeal to first and foremost, and divide up their product development efforts that way, rather than by some long-established but ultimately irrelevant departmental division.
• Strategic foresight is a core practice within the organization. Market, user, and trend research are ongoing efforts, informing regular cross-disciplinary, multilayered discussions about where the brand will be in a year, three years, five years, and further out. These manifest as scenarios: specific stories about how the brand is perceived, what products it offers, and how customers interact with it. Scenarios have a specific time frame, and they’re written in a way that makes their assumptions about technology advancement and demographic shift clear.
• The most effective brand strategies use experiences to communicate their brand vision to customers. At its most fundamental, this means making sure that the time your customers spend interacting with your brand in the real world and in the virtual world, whether in a store or at a service counter or online, needs to be a positive experience that’s true to your brand.
Apple was a genuine innovator here, investing enormous design attention in its physical stores and Genius Bar customer service desks, even though it’s primarily a digital brand. In doing so, they managed to take two potentially unpleasant experiences — shopping for technology and dealing with customer support — and make them genuinely delightful, in a way that feels entirely Apple-like.
More to Explore
For consumers who’ve gotten tired of being told what to like and who to be, creating a visionary brand strategy that anticipates shifting consumer behavior to build a differentiated and durable product experience is the most successful approach we’ve got.
This post was adapted from the paper, ‘Visionary brand strategies require visionary product strategies: Centering product experience is imperative,’ by Ryan Chen and Mathieu Turpault that appeared in Journal of Brand Strategy, Vol. 9, No. 4. Learn more and download the PDF