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Service Brands: Where is Service Design?


Service Brands: Where is Service Design?

Alex File

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.

It’s not just about gathering the data, which is one huge part of it and giving yourself that ammunition to work out what’s important, but it’s also about taking people on a journey. That’s a really, really important part in this. […] taking them on a journey (for us) is as important a part of the journey actually as research gathering is
— Creative Partner, Brand and Design Agency: Manchester, UK
It’s about engaging with people and taking them with you, rather than just presenting them with something they then have to adopt […] making sure everyone is on board with it— it’s an internal communications thing really
— Managing Partner, Design, Brand and Creative Agency: Manchester, UK

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.

It’s about that ability to create a sense of direction and really demystifying this approach of the designer
— Innovation Co-ordinator / PhD, Entrepeneurship and Service Design: Lancaster, UK

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.

When it comes to branding, it really needs to be owned by the company itself. So it’s got to come from something inside the business, it’s got to be owned by the people and be something that they can adapt and own and take forward over time
— Strategist / Brand Thinker, Strategic Brand Consultancy: Lewes, UK

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.

I think it’s that a lot of the time if you try and over-facilitate a workshop, then people get so caught up in the process that you lose sight of what you’re trying to answer
— Strategist / Brand Thinker, Strategic Brand Consultancy: Lewes, UK
It’s a very big decision whether we or not we even bother with specific tools, because they come with all of these assumptions; they immediately focus attention on specific things and exclude other things. So, already, by choosing a tool, you’re imposing a logic
— Innovation Co-ordinator / Phd, Entrepreneurship and Service Design: Lancaster, UK

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.

As companies increase in size, they get siloed up and they get lost in their own processes, and they start to think in terms of scale, and in terms of operational excellence. Then the focus starts to shift, then service design makes sense to bring that focus back
— Managing Director, Service Design and Innovation Consultancy: Rotterdam, NL
True branding really is— yes there’s an element of graphic design to it— but actually it’s this thing that sits at the heart of the organisation that drives everything that you do going forward. […] Where I think we can help guide everything they do is to really dig deep to find that organising principle, that purpose, that sense of ‘what you want to be famous for’ […] that they truly believe sits in here [taps heart]
— Creative Partner, Brand and Design Agency: Manchester, UK
For us, a really great way to bring the brand to life in a service context is to work with service principles […] guiding principles are the brand values of the 21st Century for me
— Managing Director, Service Design and Innovation Consultancy: Rotterdam, NL

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.

It’s not always visuals, sometimes it’s saying “one of your fundamentals problems with your business adopting the values that it says it has is your induction process
— Strategist / Brand Thinker, Strategic Brand Consultancy: Lewes, UK
Everyone is looking at the same type of customer, so there’s no differentiation there at all. At one point everyone will be up to par, then you’ve done your homework, but you haven’t really reached a new level yet.  […] Insights are common knowledge, they only become valuable when you hold them against your own set of principles. That’s the next level work
— Managing Director, Service Design and Innovation Consultancy: Rotterdam, NL

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.

I think back to my early days, I think clients now are probably demanding more bang for their buck. Budgets are tighter, more proof is needed, more results are needed […] I think where the value is for any client is in the second stage, which is the ideas stage […] so we try to get to that stage as quickly as we can do
— Creative Partner, Brand and Design Agency: Manchester, UK

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.

The approach doesn’t change, it’s the amount of involvement in the different stages that changes
— Creative Director, Web Design and Brand Agency: Lancaster, UK

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.

In a sense service design is only logical. Doing this is the right way, it’s nothing special, it’s just that we’ve lost track. Operating from the brand as a basis, your DNA, your internal beliefs, there’s nothing special about that— that’s what every starting entrepreneur does. It’s only when you grow bigger that it becomes illogical
— Managing Director, Service Design and Innovation Consultancy: Rotterdam, NL

In sum, service design provides an unique and valuable platform of expertise for governing service interactions; the primary input to brand image for service brands. Service design’s multidisciplinary nature helps build cross-functional links within organisations, maintaining consistency in the service behaviours as companies begin to scale. Service design represents a back to basics for contemporary business; through providing a way to regain and communicate the unique character, identity, personality and values of the organisation, which have been lost along the way. In the modern context— as consumers demand authenticity— true differentiation comes from within organisations, and service design offers a generative avenue to finding, building and maintaining this advantage, with an intrinsic mindset of customer-centricity.