In the 21st Century, new focusses have emerged for the management of service brands. Understanding the brand solely through a lens of intelligent marques, red-hot visuals, or one-off advertising campaigns is old-world thinking. In point of fact, many traditionally dominant brand management approaches have become wholly inadequate for building and maintaining brands in an intangible, networked and global economy, where partitions between the tangible and intangible have dissolved. As is well understood by most branding practitioners by now, the purpose of brands has changed: they are no longer identifiers, but first and foremost providers of experience. In our current era, brands live, breath and die through continuous interactions across many unique touch-points, while consumers in all sectors and industries demand and expect brands to provide them with meaningful, authentic and personal experiences. Inexplicably, in this context brand manuals— books, guidelines, bibles (whatever you choose to call them)— maintain pride of place in the marketer’s armoury and remain the bread-and-butter of branding agencies everywhere, despite (in their traditional sense at least) offering limited value and arguably no longer being fit for purpose at all— too narrow for managing brand expressions, but too broad for developing brand experiences.
So where does design fit into this picture? Without doubt, the design field’s value for contributing towards the coherent symbolic expression of a company's identity is well established; with graphic, product and packaging design (for example) contributing to organisational competitiveness through increasing the esteem and use value of goods. In order to succeed, the new age of design through the lens of brand must not be understood or practiced by the ex nihilo creation of marques, symbols or products— the graphic design paradigm of corporate identity— but inextricably linked to new and broader themes such as organisational culture, values, social relevance and the future of corporate strategy. Accordingly, design domains are no longer distinct, but boast ambiguous boundaries, as fields and specialisms merge and intersect.
In a digital age, service design has rapidly evolved as a unique, valuable and all-embracing platform of expertise for governing the service interactions that play a central role in building brand image. As an inter-disciplinary field with a pedigree for intimately linking employee behaviours and processes with customer interactions; intertwining the design of the service with the business strategy; and interpreting the organisation’s needs with the customer’s, service design’s potential in modern branding appears to be beyond doubt. However, interaction between service design and brand management remains peculiarly modest. Departments tasked with managing or delivering brand objectives and those prioritised with delivery of services and customer experience are often viewed as dichotomous, with the role, purpose and place of the service designer often ill-defined (or even more commonly: non-existent).
So with such monumental evolutions in the design and brand spheres, important questions arise: how are branding agencies working in the new competitive battlegrounds of experiential value creation and brand-driven organisational cultures, how do they deliver value to clients, and how have the principles and practices of service design infused mainstream brand strategy and thinking? Exploration of these topics and exposition of how brand experience and service design interweave with strategic level objectives remains ambiguous and conflicting. In order to contribute to this discussion I wanted to reflect on several conversations that I have had with practitioners within branding and service design over the last few months.
Taking the client on a journey
Consistent with much of the design-led brand experience work emerging from The Oslo School of Architecture and Design— most notably that of Mauricy Filho and Simon Clatworthy— the primary role of the designer in the branding process is one of a guide, an educator, a facilitator, a coordinator and driver of internal change. In speaking with me, brand practitioners often reflected on their role as an invigorator and enlightener, above and beyond purely providing customer insights or design outputs.
As an external agent, the role of the designer in the brand transformation journey is to interrogate the values of the organisation and bring new perspectives, but also to embed a sense of purpose, direction and drive within the organisation. The use of external representations in order to make intangible concepts sharable and accessible becomes a core characteristic of service design in this context. External representations utilise a plethora of service design techniques, in order to articulate insights, learning, communication, collaboration, and ensuring that empathy for customers is maintained.
In this view, the brand practitioners play a central role in facilitating organisational learning, as well as encouraging empowerment and ownership of outcomes by the company. Creating cross-functional interaction, with the designer acting as leading facilitator and enabler of shared mindsets to reflect and explore opportunities together.
Pertinently, the tools and methods utilised within brand journeys are largely dependent upon the intuition and experience of the practitioner, and influenced by the unique client context: picking fit-for-purpose approaches from their own cognitive toolbox. However, in the strategy and insight building phase, established tools were often rejected by practitioners, due to their formality, and a temptation towards “over-facilitation”; with interviews often seen as most powerful avenue to meaningful insight.
Maintaining coherency at scale
In order to maintain brand meaning and coherency as organisations start to scale, principles play a major role in bringing the brand to life. My own experience has revealed how as small organisations begin to scale and expand, rifts between departments can begin to show. Through it’s cross-functional character, service design can bring a renewed focus to the organisation and create a shared knowledge platform for innovation and collaboration. In achieving this, ’service principles’, ‘guiding principles’, ‘organising principles’— whatever term is used to describe them— form consistent and enduring guidelines for after the designer has left the building. Use of principles was exhibited by many of those I spoke to, across all specialisms.
Additionally, all agencies that were spoken to distinctly articulated their focus on culture through strategic design outputs focussing on internal brand communication. Indeed, if the performance of a firm’s product or service is viewed as an output of their internal value system, then the next level of service design— beyond polishing touch-points— appears to be finding meaningful ways of holding insights against the organisation’s value system; to find unique and value-authentic opportunities. Many of the practitioners I spoke with reflected the view that competitive advantage emanates from inside-out approaches to brand, often implementing this focus on culture through strategic design outputs centred on driving internal alignment, over directly influencing external perception through advertising or PR campaigns.
Delivering more for less, ASAP
A potential factor for the modest levels of service design integration in brand practice was identified as a discord between the value attributed by clients to the service design process. The value for many companies engaging a creative agency is the creative outputs; they are after divergent ideas and relative certainty of positive results. Therefore, the time-intensive (and therefore expensive) research often required for service design projects is not accepted— perhaps feeding into the resultant inadequacy of many brand guidelines for service experience development.
Therefore, a divergence in weighting applied to stages of the branding process was present in those I spoke with. Some focussed heavily on getting involved in the research stage— and deeply understanding the client— whereas others focused on getting to the delivery stages as quick as possible.
It’s about going back to basics
Ultimately, service design represents a going back to basics. Wherein the onus is on ensuring customer- and user-centricity in all of the organisation’s operations, driven by the firm’s unique values system. For many small firms, the identity, personality and characteristics are largely shaped and imbued by the founder, however as organisations begin to scale, to ensure they don’t lose their way, service design offers an avenue to maintaining and capitalising upon the intangible value that is held their own organisational culture— maintaining the authentic, meaningful and human qualities that consumers demand.