Inside FUSE: Design and Brand Strategy Are Inextricably Linked

With FUSE 2014 just a couple of weeks away, I was fortunate to sit down with Natalie Nixon, Ph.D., Director of The Strategic Design MBA Program at Philadelphia University.  At FUSE, Nixon will be speaking along with countless brand strategists, designers, trend hunters and culture curators. With one collective voice, the 18th annual FUSE conference celebrates a collaborative approach to building more meaningful brands – becoming a forum for all to share stories, inspiration and best practices.

Here is what Nixon had to say:

IIR: A big theme for FUSE this year is inspiration. So, we want to know what is your “muse” or what inspires you in your work?

Nixon:  My muses come from 3 areas: fashion, music and the millennials. 

1) Fashion, because I used to work in the fashion industry and believe it is a thoroughly untapped industry -outside of tech, automotive and food- in terms of the way that it creates aspirational experiences for customers.  There is so much to learn from the way fashion firms create meaningful interactions, tap into crowdsourcing, and integrate left brain-right brain thinking.  In fact, I have co-authored an article about this, with Johanna Blakley, called “Fashion Thinking.” 

2) Music, because musicians (and fashion designers!) are using social media as a platform in some very interesting ways.  Take, for example, Pharrell’s “Happy.”  It is co-creation at its best!  Some of the actors & dancers were grabbed off the street because they fit the vibe and ethos of the song. Additionally, because this is the world’s first 24 hour video the viewer can tune in at any time of day to synchronize with the time of the video. Pharrell stretched the capacity of what a video is and how the viewer/fan can interact with the music. 

3) The millennials, because they are who I teach at the undergraduate level at Philadelphia University; they have access to a wide range of material and they are adept at manipulating the use of multi-media platforms.  They are the curators extraordinaire.  They are curating their education, their entrepreneurial ventures, their fashion looks and their weekends.  There is a lot to learn from them. 

IIR: Why is it important for brand strategists and designers to work collectively?

Nixon: Strategy is a creative endeavor- and design and brand strategy are inextricably linked.  Unfortunately, they often operate as silos in companies. I should clarify that I am not only referring to the design of the tangible- product design, fashion design, etc. 

Since I am steeped in design thinking, I am also referring to the design of the intangible: processes, services and experiences.  When designers and brand strategists work collectively, the end result is more cohesive and resonates more meaningfully with the end-user.  Brands are ultimately designed- not only in terms of logo and the online user experience that interactive media designers develop- but brands are also designed in terms of the ways that users interact with them, and can use the brand to gain meaning for their own lives.

IIR: What are ways a design can emotionally connect with its audience?

Nixon:  Story is one of the most effective ways in which brands can emotionally connect to its audience.  YouTube has become an awesome way for brands to do this whether it’s Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches,” Old Spice’s sense of humor about itself through “the Old Spice guy” or TC Bank’s “Dream Rangers” short film.  Story brings to the surface the meaningful “why”- not the how or what, to tap into Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.”  Story compels us to lean in, hold up a mirror to ourselves through its use of archetypes, emotion and conflict.  Story humanizes brands. 

IIR: Knowing how consumers will react can be an art and sometimes involves clairvoyance. How have you developed this skill?

Nixon:  Whether you call it clairvoyance, or anticipating your client’s needs, knowing consumers requires an ability to discern the real problem that the product or service is solving for the user.  This can’t be done solely through quantitative market research data and focus groups. 

You have to get out of the office and into the context of your customer.  Do some deep observation, some participatory research and some rapid ethnography.  Those companies that are starting to hire anthropologists have the right idea.  The best way to anticipate the customer’s reaction is to get to know them- up close and personal, using some tried and true social science, qualitative research methods.

IIR: Gamification is shaping our interactions with everyday experiences, from education to retail. How has gamification affected you?

Nixon:  It’s a frontier that I try to incorporate into my teaching because I do not underestimate the value of play!  I have been told that gamification is the largest growing industry in the United States, as applied to corporations.  It makes sense- it’s a way to disseminate internal organizational culture, identify user’s need, and get buy in for your product and service.  Games, and play by extension, relaxes people, engages them and is one of our primal activities in human development that makes us social beings tapping into our curiosity, improvisational skills and ingenuity.  Gamification will lead to more innovative outcomes. 

IIR: We live in an always-on “now,” where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything. What does this emphasis on immediacy mean to marketing and design?

Nixon:  It’s interesting because we actually are not very consciously present for all of this focus on immediacy.  Immediacy is not equivalent to meaningful engagement.  The focus on immediacy has meant that marketing and design is on a shorter timeline crunch to produce – and often the output is diluted.  We are most likely headed for a swing back to deliberate, intentional focus on the now, or at least a hybrid approach. 

For example, it is very interesting to me that within the fashion industry there is currently a co-existence between slow fashion and fast fashion. The consumers are demanding some balance and that is reflected in both the valuing of the locally sourced, artisanal product (and thrift store/vintage) alongside the mass-produced, fashionable product at ridiculously low prices. 

IIR: How have you used Design Thinking to solve a problem?

Nixon:  I love design thinking. It is a framework where I can plug and play and make full use of my creative capacity (the divergent work) as well as get down to tactical, practical implementation (the convergent work).  More specifically, I have launched the Strategic Design MBA program at Philadelphia University, where we integrate the best of business school with design thinking principles.  It’s an untraditional MBA where teach our students in studio environments, and encourage them to revisit if they even asked the right question, to reframe the problem, and to use the creative intelligence of design and the analytical intelligence of business.  We call ourselves “The MBA for Hybrid Thinkers” because of this approach. 

For me, the coolest experience has been to have my students tell me that the program has changed their lives, has revamped the ways they approach their work… this is music to a teacher’s ears!

Nixon will be presentation a session entitled, “The Brand is the Voice – Using Design Thinking to Solve Business Problems” at FUSE 2014 in April. This year, we present our most Iconic and Inclusive experience ever and welcome all to discover the magic of FUSE. 

As a loyal reader of our blog, you get an exclusive 15% off discount when you use the code FUSE14BL. So register today to meet Nixon in person at FUSE!

About the Author: Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist of the Marketing Division at IIR USA, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR’s blogs including Next Big DesignCustomers 1st, and ProjectWorld and World Congress for Business Analysts, and a regular contributor to Front End of Innovation and The Market Research Event,. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She can be reached at Follow her at @AmandaCicc.
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