How These Brands Used Design to Create Brand Relevance

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Baiju Shah for AdWeek.

The first in a 3-part series. 

Back in February, Marshmello played a concert in Fortnite for over 10 million people. Despite the many records shattered that morning and the more than $30 million generated in merchandise alone, the traditional industry players in concert promotion and merch were nowhere to be found.

And then, just a few weeks ago, Elon Musk tweeted “250k,” touting the soaring number of pre-orders for Tesla’s recently announced pickup truck that had amassed in just five days. Here, too, the traditional industry players watched from the sidelines as they began to go through the motions of their annual slate of holiday advertising.

While seemingly unrelated, both of these moments are glimpses as the fundamental changes that are upturning the world of marketing. The scale and speed of these stories and the way in which they emerged all evidence the imminent obsolescence of so much of what guides marketing decisions today. And underscoring it all, these examples join the ranks of marketing case studies that did not involve one dollar spent on paid advertising.

These examples spotlight an ever-increasing pace of culture and ever-changing evolution in expectations, including how brand trust is established. These disruptive shifts are human at the core, and as such, demand a human-centered response that can become a new compass for decision-making.

We believe that this new compass is design.

Many of the core components of strategic design may seem familiar to marketers, such as leading with empathy and an obsession with the customer experience. But the true implications of building brands by design run far deeper than a semantic update to a mental model that has been in place for generations.

Using design as a compass demands a fundamental rewrite to how brands are defined, customers are understood and media is approached. Through a series of three articles, we will explain each of these three pillars of marketing by design that we believe forge a path for sustainable success in today’s contemporary cultural landscape.

Brand definition by design

The traditional linchpin of brand positioning is identification of your category and resultant frame of reference. The thinking was that, in order to win the game, you had to first define where you play.

As logical as this may seem, in a world where product categories are increasingly irrelevant, defining your brand by its category creates dangerous strategic tunnel vision. When customers compare your brand experience to that of every brand (not just those in the category you believe you inhabit), you can’t segment consumer expectations. You can only ignore the breadth of expectations that consumers truly have.

A properly defined frame of reference for Live Nation leads them to schemes like failed forays into the secondary ticket market instead of realizing that their greatest emergent threats are, in fact, Fortnite and TikTok. Likewise, if the Tesla Cybertruck had begun with a diligently defined frame of reference, it would have led Tesla into an unwinnable battle with the F150 rather than the creation of what is effectively an entirely new market.

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