Values are oak trees, not mushrooms

In order to survive the digital revolution, German companies need a new instrument: Brand Design Thinking. A Polemic.

Strong brands score because of their outstanding design. Sophisticated products and services in turn are the basis for attractive companies that differentiate themselves from their competitors. Brand and design are inseparably connected. That has always been the case. However, looking for “design” online, you will right away be offered the supplement “design thinking”. No doubt about it, this method is en vogue. Back in 1985, Joseph Beuys made the provocative statement that everybody is an artist; today, Design Thinking wants to make us believe that everybody can be creative. Its followers want to increase the innovative power of companies by means of unconventional, playful thinking, in order to make them fit for the digital revolution. Clever Design Thinking is supposed to convey even to accountants how to work in a liberated manner free of taboos, thus playfully creating business ideas, interconnecting things in novel ways, and making surprising solutions appear as if by sleight-of-hand. But it doesn’t stop there. New products and services are to be brought to life in a jiffy, and they are not only to work well, but to be well-liked by multitudes. Users are central. Their will be done, in the data heaven as it is on earth.

One thing’s for sure: the revolution is here. Digital progress gets rid of old certainties and business models. It simply is no longer enough to just build good cars; from now on, they have to be ecological, interconnected, and soon they will have to be driving autonomously. The data behind the vehicles, the movement profiles of their users, are possibly more valuable than the hardware itself. This is of course a problem for traditional industries which at same time are required to develop their new products faster and faster, and ever closer to the real demands of their users. Design Thinking promises an escape from the crisis. This sounds so good that you have to ask yourself: What, then, are the specialists doing? All those industrial designers and brand consultants? Are they suddenly redundant, now that everybody is co-designing and now that the brand is blithely turning this way and that depending on its users’ predilection of the day? The contrary is the case. The interplay of design and brand is more important than ever before. Without a sophisticated strategy, all those brave new ideas, products, and digital platforms will miss the mark. Design Thinking calls for brand competence if it doesn’t want to reduce itself to absurdity in a very short run indeed.

Brand Design Thinking is what’s called for. Let’s take a case in point, the market for white goods. Whether it’s Bosch, LG, Miele or other competitors – each brand represents specific characteristics, and each of their products has to deliver on the respective promise. If all manufacturers of washing machines were to develop – thanks to Design Thinking – new models and features as fast as the wind, all would come up with similar products, assuming they have their processes under control: a digital automaton that links up with water meter, power grid and mobile phone.

Here’s where brand strategy comes into play. It defines the range in which companies develop with a profit. Numbers can prove it. The DMI (Design Management Index) shows that strong brands were performing 228% stronger than the S&P index between 2003 and 2013. So design is no option but a necessity for companies which want to succeed in the global marketplace. So if you combine an innovation offensive with a strategic perspective, then the flash in the pan “Design Thinking” turns into a new Brand Design Thinking which ensures differentiation. Otherwise, competitors will meet on a higher plane while still being interchangeable. The new digital washing machine itself is not the solution, but only a new variant of the initial problem: What is the company to represent? Which values does it stand for? Which ideas, and which services?

A design strategy that promises success will combine design with overarching values and standards, and is thus part of the corporate culture. The goal are products and innovations which are convincing across the entire spectrum as to their form, their look-and-feel, and their function, and which at the same time reflect the brand values of the company. All this while paying close attention to the user. Phoenix Design always thinks from the user’s perspective – and from the product’s. The big question is: Does everything fit together – design, brand values, and the expectations users have towards their brand? And will the product work for the user in the first place? The feat consists of making things which tend to be complex in their handling so simple that everybody understands them at once. But self-explanatory products are a far cry from styling and fads. Otherwise we would still use button cell phones instead of smartphones. In this sense, the designer is always the user’s advocate, and the company’s, someone who pays attention to the brand. Product design and business consultancy are inseparable. The added value that companies may create if they manage to converge their processes and their design elements is immense. The strong product creates the strong brand – and vice versa.

These benefits seem to move off the radar these days. Agile organisations and all manner of workshops are just the thing right now. Companies realise that they won’t make any progress with merely incremental, i.e. step-by-step, innovation. Optimising processes and production is not enough anymore. A big leap is called for. Brand Design Thinking helps. The attitude has to re-discover the value of daring to do something new. That’s what’s exciting. Innovation has the potential to open up huge opportunities for companies. Those who quickly trigger change will get a short-term reward. Those who plan strategically, will get the long-term reward. For the product and its stance will have to fit the brand even the day after tomorrow, or there’s a risk of watering down the appearance of the brand. Without a strong profile, no premium brands can be built, let alone be maintained. And that’s exactly what a high-wage country like Germany needs.

Other nations like the US may have higher rates of innovation and may get to market faster. But thinking pays. Values are oak trees, not mushrooms. Brand profiles develop in people’s minds over the long term, not overnight. Inversely, if services and products don’t redeem any brand promise, no image can be built nor maintained. That’s why the call sounds: Specialists to the fore. A brand that loses its profile will not attain premium prices. That would be the death blow for Germany which lives off such enterprises (and entrepreneurs) – not digitisation, the bogey on the wall. Brand Design Thinking is more necessary than ever before. Today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.

This article was created in collaboration with the freelance journalist Oliver Herwig/Munich and Hans Meier-Kortwig, Managing Partner of GMK Markenberatung.

Bernd Eigenstetter
Bernd Eigenstetter

Managing Director

Bernd Eigenstetter is Managing Director of Phoenix Design in Munich. One of his main topics is merging the product with digital technology to create a holistic brand and user experience. “More than one third of our 70 employees at the Stuttgart, Munich and Shanghai locations are working on Interaction and User Experience Design. In interdisciplinary teams, they work hand in hand with product designers, technologists, model makers and other experts to create the products and service ideas of the future.”

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