A rose by any other name One man’s ideas are another man’s fortune

The idea of the global market place is not new. Where once geography was a contributing factor to isolating markets and giving competing businesses a smaller playing field from which to make their millions, digital technology now blurs the lines where businesses large and small are competing in a digital Gondwanaland.

For years, Australian retail has capitalized on the geographic isolation of its country. Those who could afford to would import goods and sell them on to the Australian people at a mark-up that was normal for the time but is being tolerated less and less by today’s standards. The fact that these large, well-funded businesses were the only ones who had access to the products from overseas was their major competitive advantage. With broader access to digital technology than ever before, this advantage is being swallowed up and the Australian people can now purchase from a one-man-band in the United States and have the item delivered to their door at half the cost of purchasing it from an Australian retailer or middle man. In the cut-throat world of business I find it no surprise that business-savvy designers have capitalised on the fear that businesses have in losing their once dominant place in the market and have packaged up ‘design’ to sell to those who don’t quite understand it.

If you’re a designer (or even a business-person) and haven’t been living under a rock in the last few years you’ve no doubt heard of phrases like “Lovemarks”, “Design Thinking” and “Collaborative Consumption”. It’s my belief that the invention of these phrases in our new digitally-aware world is no coincidence. It’s not the business moguls who are coming up with these terms, it’s the designers.

As the traditional lines of separation between business’ unique selling points blur because of digital technology, it seems that many are scrambling to find or create a new point of difference from their competitors. Designers have recognised an opportunity and taken it; design is the obvious choice. It’s a young, immature, mostly misunderstood industry, not by designers but by those in business environments. For years designers have been perceived by business as “the people who make it look good” but ask a designer what they do and they answer “we’re problem solvers” or “we’re creative and strategic thinkers”. Sure enough, those who have been designing have seized the opportunity that digital technology has handed them by branding their ideas and selling them to the highest bidder.

First, let’s start with one of the more common terms in business over the last few years, “Design Thinking.” In 2009, UK born culture-critic Rick Poynor gave a talk in Australia that I was lucky enough to attend. He continually drove home, with the utmost urgency, the need for designers to be aware of the traction that “design thinking” was getting within business environments and its potentially negative impact on our visual culture. Coined by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm “IDEO”, the term has been invented for what seems like an attempt to rationalise and explain the process of design to business-minded people.

As designers, we take our problem solving abilities for granted. If a client says, “make something feel lustful,” we know which typeface to choose, colours spring to mind immediately, and we know the right layout and photography that will communicate the feeling. We’re able to devise multiple, equally-valid solutions to the problem intuitively and present them with pride to the stakeholder who says “My wife didn’t like the red colour you used.” We sigh, refine and present something of a compromise. IDEO and Tim Brown have devised a catch-phrase and a series of speaking presentations and self-help books simply explaining this process that designers go through on a day-to-day basis and how it’s supposed to be able to revolutionize business. There is no refinement, there is no “feeling”, no emotion, just words and diagrams. Funnily enough, the business world can’t get enough of it.

I should pause for a moment here and explain that I have nothing against IDEO or Tim Brown and their success with “Design Thinking” and I don’t believe for a second that ‘design’ can’t revolutionize business. As designers often do, Tim Brown saw a problem and delivered a solution.  No doubt it’s made him (and IDEO) a lot of money in book sales and keynote presentations over the last 2 or 3 years. They preach that it is broadening the awareness and legitimacy of designers in business, elevating them beyond simple pixel-pushers to strategic business partners whose creativity and innovative thinking can help transform a business. I see it more as a way of making money by using design as it wasn’t intended and patronising the design community by trying to tell us how we’ll all benefit from it too. Yes, design has the potential to transform business, “Design Thinking” in the hands of people who can’t “feel” design does not.

Tim Brown and IDEO aren’t the only ones to have capitalized handsomely on the juice that businesses are trying to squeeze from the design fruit. Take for example “Lovemarks” – a term coined by none other than leading advertising agency “Saatchi & Saatchi”. The Lovemarks website explains it ever so eloquently:

“Brands have run out of juice. More and more people in the world have grown to expect great performance from products, services and experiences. And most often, we get it. Cars start first time, fries are always crisp, dishes shine.

Saatchi & Saatchi looked closely at the question: What makes some brands inspirational, while others struggle?

Have Saatchi & Saatchi successfully branded successful-branding? It sounds like a tongue-twister but what Lovemarks creates, like all advertising, is a problem. What is a Lovemark? Is your brand a Lovemark? Do you have brands that you love? Can I be a Lovemark? Not only that but they’ve created the solution. For all the answers to these important questions and more, Saatchi & Saatchi say “buy our book.” According to Saatchi & Saatchi, creating an ethical, responsive and attractive brand isn’t enough anymore; if you’re not a Lovemark than you’re just an ineffective brand.

What’s in it for Saatchi & Saatchi? Profit of course. Book sales, speaking engagements and higher community awareness of the Saatchi & Saatchi name amongst businesses that are looking for that differentiating factor from their competitors. It feels good to be a Lovemark but if you’re not one right now then you’ve got work to do. Who better to help you achieve this almost unattainable accolade than the ones who know most about it – the ones who literally wrote the book on it?

While I’m on this subject, it would be remiss of me not to mention my favourite phrase of this branding movement we’re experiencing, “Collaborative Consumption.” It rolls off the tongue almost poetically. It’s alliterative, catchy and sounds strong and powerful, a real ‘game-changer’ if I may use a business buzz-word to describe a design one. It should come as no surprise that it was named one of Time Magazine’s 10 ideas that will change the world and businesses are falling head over heels to be a part of it.

My first exposure to Collaborative Consumption was on ABCs “Big Ideas” program where I caught one of its two evangelists, the personable Rachel Botsman, explaining her “Big Idea” at a TEDx Sydney conference. I sat through her 10-minute spiel about what it is, why it’s great and of course… yep, you guessed it, why you should read their book. Her enthusiasm for it made a very convincing and entertaining affair. In essence, collaborative consumption is a remarkably simple idea, why it makes it in to this post on branding then is the fact that collaborative consumption is a well-constructed buzz word (or is it buzz-phrase or buzz-brand) for that little thing that our mums taught us as kids; sharing.

“Sharing” doesn’t sound innovative. It’s not alliterative, certainly not powerful and doesn’t come across as ‘game-changing’. In fact, for me it evokes memories of all the times I had to give over half of my ice-cream to my brother when we were growing up because he had dropped his on the floor.  Sharing doesn’t sell but call it “Collaborative Consumption” and by Joe, Rachel Botsman, Roo Rogers & Co have a book-deal, a speaking deal, plumes of media coverage and thus a brand for which to sell an idea that’s existed since the first caveman cooked for two.

Australia’s prime example of a collaborative consumption business model is “GoGet CarShare” – a car share scheme for those who live within a certain range of the Melbourne CBD. No registration costs, little petrol consumption and no maintenance cost. On the surface it sounds great; Collaborative too. Yes, but only for those who can afford to live within the restricted CBD radius and funnily enough, those also with the most convenient access to public transport.

All three of these examples share one thing in common – branding. For many years, companies have used traditional branding philosophy, mostly established in the 1940s and 1950s, to embody and attempt to communicate their values, their processes and ideas to a consumer base that didn’t have an avenue to talk back. These of course still work – we feel a sense of quality for couture fashion labels over those whose logos we don’t recognise. The irony is that a breed of hybrid designers/business owners have turned the tables on the business world and instead of focusing on their own logo, on differentiating their own design businesses through visual aids and deep and meaningful metaphors they’re simply branding their ideas and telling people about them. It seems that this notion of “ideas as products” is what the business world is willing to pay for before they pay for a designer.

The ideas recognised in each of the examples above are not innovative as many of their evangelists say they are. Creative thinking, consistent and valued customer service and the idea of sharing are not new, they’ve simply been re-packaged by designers who have seen a need in the market; a business opportunity. Is that the role of a designer or a business person? Has the idea of design-thinking, Lovemarks and collaborative consumption alone improved the quality of life for all people or just improved the weekly income of Rachel and Roo, Tim Brown and IDEO or the team at Saatchi & Saatchi.

Businesses that are looking for the edge on their competitors during a time where traditional notions of “points of differentiation” crumble around them are having the wool pulled over their eyes. The rapid growth and strengthening of digital technology as a core business asset is scary and those who are not agile enough to think creatively about how to use it will inevitably fall – see exhibit A Kodak and exhibit B Borders for the proof. These are businesses scared to share and engage with their consumers in a 2-way conversation for the fear that they’ll be loved a little less.

Any designer who understands the way brand perception works would give any business, large or small, the same advice on how to use digital technology to enhance their own brand without the additional cost of book publishing rights or a monumental speaking event:

  1. Be creative and innovative – (Design Thinking)
  2. Engage in a conversation with your customers. Use the social nature of people to share your business. (Collaborative Consumption)

By achieving these two simple goals, brand loyalty and customers will inevitably follow, see exhibit C: Apple, Google and Virgin Australia. There’s no need to write a book or tour the world as a speaker. The only question remaining then of course is when will one achieve Lovemark status? There’s only one business with the expertise to decide that – touché Saatchi & Saatchi. Perhaps we should at least buy their book after all.

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