The Difference Between Marketing and Design

difference between marketing and design

Written by Peter Thomson, Orginal Article Published

Marketing and design a very different mindsets and professions. I’m guessing that both your company’s marketing and your design probably sucks. But then again so does everyone else’s. It’s been driven to blandness by a combination of focus groups that couldn’t “get” your new idea, repeated changes from your management team, internal squabbles and old ideas left over from a time when advertising spend equalled market success. But maybe there is an even deeper problem…

The difference between marketing and design isn’t obvious. They’re different professional disciplines but the real difference is in the mindsets that they bring to approaching a problem.

Design vs Marketing

If you don’t have a great product, then no amount of marketing and advertising will help you. What might just help is design. In particular, a way of approaching new product development, business strategy and marketing problems that’s called design thinking. You still need traditional marketing to execute and scale, but for new ideas or new brands you’ll need a new approach and design thinking is built for creating new things.

Design vs Marketing
Design thinking and marketing can learn a lot from each other about creativity and innovation.

These days, in the startup scene, the mindsets of design thinking are well defined, well understood and well appreciated. But just today a marketing manager stopped me in my tracks in the middle of a meeting. She asked me,

“Everything you’ve told me about ‘design thinking’ just sounds like good marketing. What gives?”

To be honest, I was slightly lost for words and this blog post is really just my attempt at a proper answer. Design isn’t just good marketing. It’s a fundamentally different way of approaching problems within your business. When I’m talking about design and design thinking, I’m not just talking about marketing vs graphic design. I’m talking fundamental differences in how we see our customers.

How Marketers Think

Marketing thinking is all about seeing people in aggregate so that you can communicate with them as efficiently as possible. By contrast, design thinking is all about seeing people as individuals so you can delight that one person and then extrapolate that out to others.

The best place to see this is in a focus group. Focus groups that are reviewing a concept will tend towards the views of the average. This results in the overwhelming blandness of the products that you see on your supermarket shelves. There is a very healthy place for focus groups in the insights, research and needs identification parts of the process. But not in testing or reviewing your new brand or new product. Instead, the Google Ventures Sprint based approach, or the Ideo design thinking approach would seek to go and find a smaller number of customers to really deeply understand how they view your product.

Marketing Strategy

Marketers made good business strategists and product managers. A wise old friend of mine (with a Stanford MBA) who’s a successful entrepreneur and investor recently reminded me that in business you really only have three options for winning:

1. Be the biggest and win by being the cheapest,

2. Be the smallest and win by staying under the radar, or

3. Be different.

If you choose option (3), which most companies say they want to do, then you’d better get aware of how design can help your whole business understand your customers and create difference. – And fast. Because someone pursuing option (1) with an army of marketing experts, and someone pursuing option (2) with an invention in their garage are both coming after you.

How Designers Think

The most powerful thing I did to learn about how designers think was to read Thoughtless Acts by Jane Fulton Suri from Ideo. It’s a simple book with photos of things that people have improvised to adapt the environment around them. Like hanging the wires from iPhone headphones over their ears when not in use or putting a plastic bag over a parking meter to signal to everyone else that it’s not working. This style of design thinking is really all about honest empathy with your customers.

Design Strategy

Design thinking is a style of problem solving that’s available to anyone. The most important part is to start with the user and work everything backwards from the moment of end-use. This type of “human centred” design is at the core of design thinking. User interface designers and industrial designers are trained to think like this all the time.

Management professionals can try on design thinking by using gamestorming, design sprints and empathy techniques like user observation and anthropology. Just getting a taste of design thinking isn’t the same as being an expert, but any increase in empathy for your customers will help improve your products.

Bringing Design and Marketing Together

To be fair, you still need a marketing strategy and you still need to tell your story and get the word out. But maybe it’s worth having your own story to tell first. I’ve found that using a marketing approach too early on in the process leads me to ask the wrong questions. For example:

  • Marketing: What will please the greatest number of people just enough to buy our product?

Whereas, using a design approach at first tends to lead me towards empathy, user centrednesss and creativity to ask questions like:

  • Design: What will delight the specific person that we created this for, so much that they tell other people about it?

Creatives in advertising agencies have the same conflict with marketing people that designers often have internally. Fundamentally, marketing is about talking to a group, whereas design is about creating something for an individual. Both are important skill sets at different stages of the process. But in the end, would you rather buy from a company that saw you as a bland demographic or as an interesting individual?

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