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Design for Marketing:
Building a strategic design program

By: John Burgess

John Burgess is Co-founder and Creative Director of Werkhaus, Inc. a multi-disciplined communication design firm located in Seattle, WA. Clients include Adobe Systems, K2 Skates, Microsoft, Physio-Control Corp, and Starbucks Coffee Company.

Design is an Asset

OK. You've got a new product idea, a solid business plan, competent executive teams in place, and enough financing to get your company off the ground. Congrats. Now it's time to package it all up and take it to market.

First of all, let's make one thing clear. Design is important. It should not be overlooked. It can provide the cornerstone for your company's marketing efforts and it can provide consistency and clarity to your messages in a crowded, often confusing industry. Your new company's design program can provide a visual and messaging foundation for all communication efforts to follow. You will spend valuable resources and time creating it.

It should be thought of as an asset, a valuable driver of marketing and sales. A successful creative program will help provide clarity to your messages, establish credibility and break through the clutter.

Remember, your business will survive on its sales, and sales are supported by your marketing. It is of no minor importance. Creative and marketing disciplines are full of their own vernacular, and opinions vary widely.

Brand, identity, visual systems, leveraged design, creative programs - what do they all mean? How do you get one of those going for yourself? You can develop a 'look and feel' for your company and its products that will position it appropriately, maximize your marketing budget, and support sales the way the textbooks say it should.

There is no single right approach, but one fact is true - it requires thoughtful reflection, insight from experienced marketing professionals, and a creative design team that can translate your marketing objectives into an effective visual and messaging campaign.


Selecting a Creative Firm

Like most professional services, your search begins with your peers. Ask around.

Referrals are still the best source of info. Spend some time on this one.

Your creative team can be as important to your marketing success, as your financial or legal counsel is to general business. A successful creative program can help separate you from the pack, and have an extremely positive affect on sales.

Ask a lot of questions. Check your gut instinct. You will have to work with these people for quite awhile, entrusting them to make important decisions on behalf of your company. What is their philosophy and their approach to design? Can they provide strategic direction? What is their relevant experience? Will they provide all services or just part of the whole?

There is no single model. Educate yourself through this process. When reviewing portfolios, look beyond the surface. Explore the reasons why something is the way it is. Become familiar with how this team thinks. Ask how they will approach your scope of work.

Speak frankly about your concerns, budgets, schedules, challenges. Designers and creative professionals are problem
solvers. Listen carefully to their responses. This will tell you a lot about what it will be like if you retain them.


Build Rapport

Your design or creative team can be a valuable asset for you. They are experts in  marketing communications. Bring them in early in your process.

Use their experience and expertise to your benefit. They will bring a different perspective and will have valuable insight that can positively impact the strategy, concept, cost-effectiveness and eventual success of your design program. Establish the scope together. Allow them to help you build an appropriate budget. Be open with them. Their passion is to help you succeed - so help them help you.

Once you have established a good rapport, open up and let them into your business world. The more a design professional knows about you, your company, its product and market - the better. Input = ouput. Ideas do not come out of thin air. They come from a
clear understanding of your business and marketing challenges.


Establish Objectives

In essence, you want your design program to be a visual and written translation of your core marketing objectives. Your overall look, feel, and messaging should somehow resonate the position and personality you wish to own in the marketplace. Together, your creative team can help you to clarify the primary objectives that will infuse your marketing programs and they should then own the responsibility to achieve those objectives.

The three most important things to consider will be:
  1. your key messages,
     
  2. the competitive landscape,
     
  3. future product and marketing plans - and how these areas may influence the design choices you make today.
Before asking your creative team to begin sketching ideas, you should be clear on all the above. The final creative choices should reflect your marketing communication objectives and drive your messaging. If the final idea and its creative execution communicates effectively, you are on your way.


Know your Competition. Know your Customers.

Bottom line is this, you must provide your customers with a compelling reason to buy your products over others. Everything you do in your communications program should keep this in mind.

Differentiate. Differentiate. Differentiate.

Your key messages should resonate in everything you do - in the story that a logo tells, the colors you choose to associate with your product, a product's name and themeline, the narrative of a brochure. This visual language and messaging, brought to
life in both words and design, should then be consistently used in all communications.

The methodology is quite straightforward. Have a clear idea of what differentiates your product and company, then apply strong creative that puts these messages in the foreground, making your customers aware of your position and key points of difference.

Of course, this requires that you have a thorough understanding of your competition. Do a creative audit of their marketing materials. What are their messages? What works? What seems to be the same? Can you build a program that will project a different set of messages into the marketplace? Or do you want a parity approach? Think it through with your creative team, and be clear on where it is you want your design program to go, prior to asking it to go somewhere.


Judging Solutions

Your creative team will undoubtably conduct a creative 'study' to explore various design ideas and words that achieve your communication objectives.

This is an important part of the process. Through this study, your objectives should become even more clear, with new ideas informing pre-existing ones. A creative strategy should be uncovered that delivers your messages and compells your audience to care about and understand your company and products.

It is likely that there are several good ways to solve your objectives, so stay open minded. Try your best to put personal tastes aside. Think objectively. If part of your key messaging is urgency (for example), then perhaps red is the perfect color. Even if you had a traumatic accident on your red bicycle as a child.

Go back to your objectives. Do the ideas proposed provide clarity to your position? Help to differentiate? Compel interest? Establish credibility? Do they keep in mind your plans for future growth? Are they appropriate for the intended audience?

Design is not only about the surface, but about a way of communicating.


Good Design is Good Business

If you look at design as a tactical business tool, asking it to help position and to differentiate your company and its products, you will be one step ahead of the next-guy-with-an-idea.

Design can make things look cool, look timeless, look trendy or look conservative - but what should it do? This is the question to keep in mind. Several marketing cycles or years down the road, when products and technologies have changed but your audience remains, your design program is what they may recall. It may be the core of their relationship with your company. It can be the asset that resonates most powerfully.

© Copyright 1999, John Burgess, Werkhaus, Inc.

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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