product design

Design thinking & funky brands

I've recently come across an article by Dominic Basulto, Can design thinking save the economic dinosaurs? The main points that Basulto talks about reminded me of what I've said in my two previous blog posts, Astonishing product design and funky brands as well as Dinosaur brands.

Basulto discusses the concept of Design Thinking in relation to "dinosaurs" -- industries such as the car industry, newspapers and magazines, healthcare providers, utilities, and the cable TV industry. Dinosaurs frequently inject a dose of funk into their brand through design.  Often, we see revamped sites, contemporary offices and funky stationery.  In fact, dinosaurs like design -- it allows them to express a certain degree of creativity without changing their business as usual too much.

 

However, most dinosaurs have an enormous need for change, and often they are unwilling to admit this to themselves. That's why they forget the "thinking" part.

 

Take the newspaper industry, for example. Instead of radically re-thinking what it means to be a content provider in the digital age, it is far easier to focus on "making things look pretty." (Quote from this blog post)

 

Dinosaurs don't just need to change their logos, they need to think in terms of an overall brand strategy. For more on this, see my post Need rebranding? Don't just change your logo, think brand strategy.

Interplay between brand strategy and innovation

Many stories told by founders and top managers of Funky Brands in the Funky Brand Interview series have demonstrated that product design and innovation and brand strategy often go hand in hand.  A brand cannot be funky if a product itself has poor design. And vice versa, no matter how astonishing product design is, it's difficult to make a product known without a smart brand strategy that supports its development and launch.

According to the Brand Strategy Insider blog, although there is a close link between innovation and branding, the relationship between these two areas of business is often characterized by many tensions:

"In theory they work together, with the brand strategy providing the ‘face’ of the business’s growth strategy. Brand strategy helps companies bring innovation to the market. Innovation returns the favor by enhancing brand reputation. It sounds simple, but the partnership can be an uneasy one and it is particularly uneasy during a market downturn when investing in new brands or sub-brands can be perceived as ‘too risky’. The difficult choices imposed by hard times forces managers to confront the challenge of ‘brand stretch’ more acutely."

As the article suggests, tensions become especially strong while brand managers begin to play with the idea of introducing brand extensions (for more information about brand extensions, read my article Revitalizing tired brands: Chiquita's fruit bars).  Often,  brand managers are torn between the idea of staying consistent (consistency being one of the main goals of brand strategy) and temptation of delivering the new and unexpected to customers, which is the goal of innovation.

But can the surprise and novelty aspects of innovation become part of the brand DNA whilst allowing the brand in question to stay authentic and consistent? Although it may sound paradoxical, the answer is yes, and many Funky Brands have managed to embrace product innovation as part of their consistent brand DNA.

Many funky brands ensure consistent innovation by opening their companies to external talent. For instance, both Kipling and Swarovski often rely on the fresh inflow of creative ideas from outside of the company.  Both frequently strike deals with external designers in order to deliver constant surprise to their customers.  As a result, the surprise and novelty strategy of constant innovation has become a consistent feature characteristic of both brands. H&M has a similar approach to innovation by co-designing fashion collections together with external designers.

 

Opening your company to innovation does not only only happen at the level of product design.  When I join companies on branding projects in my role of a brand guardian, advisor or partner, I serve as a bridge between the company's existing know how and its potential to innovate.

 

 

Mad Mimi: funky email marketing

mad mimi Anyone who has ever launched a new business, must have at some point experimented with email marketing.

Has any entrepreneur ever looked for an extremely funky kind of email marketing when looking for such a service? I can only speak for myself, and say that I wasn’t. Frankly, I didn’t expect anything as functional as sending out an email to be enjoyable and fun. Until I discovered Mad Mimi.

First of all, it was the name. I thought that a company that dared to call itself by such a name, would be something special.

Then there was the funky design of their web site that triggered my interest even more.

To cut a long story short, sending my first email with Mad Mimi was simply fun. Email exchange with its support team that welcomed me to MadMimi was refreshingly different. I simply could not resist contacting Mad Mimi’s CEO Gary Levitt and getting to know the man behind this funky brand. I greatly enjoyed my talk with Gary, who shared some useful tips on the importance of staying optimistic, and hiring only the best and most talented. Have fun reading my interview with Gary, and learning about Mad Mimi.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Gary, most of my Funky Brand interviewees have represented product brands – such as fashion, accessories, food and drink. I am very happy to interview you about Mad Mimi because I want to show to my readers that Funky Brands can also exist in a business-to-business context. Could you tell me when and how you had the idea of launching Mad Mimi?

Gary Levitt, CEO of Mad Mimi

Gary Levitt: I studied music at Berkeley College in Boston, and after graduation, played jazz in New York, worked as a bus boy in restaurants and eventually worked in commercial music production. One day I had an idea of building an online platform for musicians that would allow them to upload images and send out press kits. Although I received funding to develop this product, and hired coders, I never ended up launching it.

I guess the main reason for that was that I lacked deep understanding of how to build a product, and expected the coders I hired to do the creative thinking and architecture for me. The coders were into ... coding, as opposed to designing the product and making it work on the market. Plus, I myself lacked the experience to know how to manage the development of a product.

SCHMOOZY FOX: How did you make the switch from the press kit product for musicians towards Mad Mimi, which is an email marketing service for a much wider audience?

Gary Levitt: Mad Mimi simply seemed like a logical step in a direction that I thought had more potential for commercial success than a niche product for musicians. The interface we had created for musicians was good enough for everybody to use -- and so Mad Mimi was born.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Mad Mimi is quite an original name, did you come up with it?

Gary Levitt: Yes. I originally planned to call the company simply Mimi, but then had the idea of adding “Mad” to it when I was renting space next to another company called Madstone productions.

SCHMOOZY FOX: Good design -- be it product design or brand visual identity -- is an important element of Funky Brands. To me, Mad Mimi looks pretty eye-catching! Even the colors of your site look quite different from what one would, I suppose, associate with email marketing!

Gary Levitt: I wanted Mad Mimi to stand out from the crowd not least by giving it amad mimi email marketing fun, eye-catching visual identity that would make it memorable. I was once leafing through an issue of Creativity Magazine where I saw a list of award-winning designers. It seemed like a great idea to work with the best and most talented, so I contacted one (David Bamundo) who designed Mad Mimi’s logo.

This is pretty much how I’ve thought at every crucial step of building the company. For instance, when I looked for software developers, I sent out my brief to about 80 meticulously selected top programmers. I was lucky to end up working with really talented people who helped me build Mad Mimi the way it is now -- and are in fact continuing product development.

The same philosophy of hiring the best and most talented applies to selecting customer service reps for Mad Mimi. We receive 1, 500 emails of customer inquiries per day, and have a dedicated force of 16 customer service reps around the world.

I have generally focused not on resumes (I’ve never actually used a resume to influence a decision to hire someone) but on energy instead. We typically don’t take a cost cutting or outsourced approach to staffing our front lines with low paid employees. We’ve instead focused on creating top-down culture where every lead developer and C-level executive does customer service along side dedicated customer service staff. The customer service infrastructure isn’t “designed” as such, but has rather flowed naturally from the ownership out to other members of the team. We feel that our profitability and growth is in a large part due to this approach, and it’s a crucial part of our brand.

SCHMOOZY FOX: I experienced Mad Mimi’s customer service first hand.  Actually, I must say, I assumed that the first email I received from Mad Mimi was an automated response.  And yet, something told me there was a real person interacting with me at the other end.  It felt different and nice.

Gary Levitt: (Laughing). Indeed, we don’t do automated customer service! There are real people who are there 24/7 to help you. We say that we like to hire friendly geeks for this kind of job, but really, anyone cool, friendly and passionate is great to be in customer service.

SCHMOOZY FOX: And finally, Gary, how would you describe the essence of Mad Mimi’s funky brand?

Gary Levitt: It’s simplicity, warmth and loveliness. Yummy loveliness! :)

Mashable gives a positive review to Mad Mimi

Why venture capitalists should ask web startups about brand strategy

Photo by Jus' fi on Flickr

Should startups worry about brands?

This is the question that a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, Larry Kubal, asks in his thought-provoking article. ((The article was published by The Venture Capital Journal in November 2005. You can download the full text from this page , scroll down to “November 2005”, it’s there!))

Kubal’s short answer is YES. According to him, venture capitalists should make sure that brand is taken care of by web startups before any investments are made, “For VCs currently paying far more attention to consumer facing Internet businesses than they have in quite some time, ‘word of mouth’ has taken on a whole new meaning.”

ELEMENTS OF BRANDING

The elements of branding that Kubal gives as important to consider by startups (and venture capitalists who assess them) boil down to:

  • viral marketing
  • intuitive messaging
  • word of mouth branding

But are these the only elements of brand that startups should worry about? In my experience of working with companies seeking market entry, the notion of brand goes much deeper than this.

DIG DEEPER!

Venture capitalists should dig much deeper into brand strategy when they do their due diligence on startups.

Especially when it comes to web startups, my experience is that techies may well think about going "viral", but what they are often not well equipped to think about is the consumer, as well as product design suited for the consumer! They often assume that consumers are as "geeky" as they are themselves!

So, it is not only a detailed plan of how a startup plans to be viral that venture capitalists should look for when they do their due diligence about brand.

They should dig much deeper than that. Good branding is not only about promotions and word of mouth. The key is to assess whether a startup thinks in terms of brand strategy or not.

WHAT IS BRAND STRATEGY?

A brand strategy begins with product design and consumer intelligence, and continues through the design and delivery of promotional materials, promotional strategy, customer dialogue, distribution…. All of which is important if you want to build a funky brand.

Importantly, a good brand strategy should be embedded within the company’s DNA. If you don’t get the DNA right from the start, it will be very hard to fix later - you simply can’t afford your company DNA, and with this, your brand strategy to be an afterthought!

WHY STARTUPS RARELY THINK ABOUT BRAND STRATEGY

Unfortunately, thinking in terms of brand strategy is very rare among web startups, for various reasons. I’ve touched upon some of them on several occasions. For instance, see SCHMOOZY FOX’s thoughts about web and mobile startups here or check our tips on how to craft a smart marketing strategy if you are a web startup.

Of course, VCs might themselves be more attentive to these aspects than the average techie. One would certainly hope so. Nonetheless, the fact remains that huge amounts of time and money – including VC money – are poured into web enterprises that have no chance of taking off because they have not thought through consumer needs, product design and communication.

SCHMOOZY FOX works with web startups to help them incorporate brand strategy early on into their recipe for future success.

Smart marketing is key to success on the web

Photo by Jus' fi on Flickr

Let me ask you this question: how many successful web start-ups do you know? In the sense of actually known by sizeable audiences. Selling useful products and services. Providing great user interface. Encouraging people to come back to their sites time and again. And check this one out: p-r-o-f-i-t-a-b-l-e.

Yes, there are a few. But the truth is, thousands of software developers, engineers, web designers and other technically gifted folk spend lots of time and money every year to launch new businesses but are unable to connect with their target audience – or launched a service for which there is no real demand.

Many of these start-ups end up being simply web sites, with no valid business idea associated with them. And even if some do have a sound business model, they still don't make it because they don't have any skills in customer-oriented marketing.

Why does this happen?

Dave McClure, author of the blog "Master of 500 Hats", argues that the main reason for this is this: most web start-ups are designed, implemented and managed by techies and lack marketing talent.

The main arguments he puts forward here are:

-Addictive User Experience (aka Design) & Scalable Distribution Methods (aka Marketing) are the most critical for success in consumer internet startups, not pure Engineering talent

-If investors don't have operational backgrounds in design, development, or marketing from proven consumer internet companies, you probably don't want their money

Photo by jeffwilcox

I fully agree and this is in fact one of the reasons I decided to focus part of my brand strategy business precisely on web startups. Have a look at SCHMOOZY FOX'S thoughts about web and mobile start-ups .

It must be said that interface design and useability do sometimes get attention, as at least "enlightened" techies are aware of their importance. In my experience, though, product design and positioning, brand strategy and promotion are frequently an afterthought, implemented ineptly or forgotten about entirely.

However, it's an area where investments can pay huge dividends.

In fact, given the economics of the Internet, it can make all the difference between an out-and-out success story and complete failure. Some online businesses are figuring this one. But for now it's still very much the exception to the rule.

Technical skills and talent are very important in building an online business, but they are only one element. It takes two to tango: only a combination of technology and marketing can make all the difference and propel your online brand to success!

Photo by Kjunstorm