Thinking or sinking in the sea of sameness

Tony Chapman and Ken Wong discuss how creativity should be regarded as an asset, a real tool and resource that is entrenched and deployed across more areas of the business.


Tony: The marketplace today is a sea of sameness.
The shelves and streets are choked with me-too brands and retailers. Some retain a loyal base through tenure and recognition, many offer quality, but most offer little or no differentiation.  In this situation, strategy evolves from positioning and relevant messaging to the “Hail Mary” tactic – a flight to price. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy as the consumer becomes conditioned to wait for the price bait.
In this world, you either make things happen, respond to what happened or wonder what happened as your share and margin implodes. You need to differentiate in a manner that is relevant to the consumer at a price point they are willing to pay and, more importantly, one you can profit from.   
To achieve this, you need to embody design thinking throughout your entire organization. Design thinking goes far deeper than surface aesthetics, from a product or service perspective it is the entire user interface.

Ken: I agree. There is a certain irony in the fact that sometimes we aren’t very “creative” in how we think about creativity. We tend to focus on the end result – the package, the ad and the like. We need to start realizing it isn’t about the “ends” or the “means” but the realization that the two are intimately tied.
If we are conventional in “how” we create our work, the result is likely to be conventional work. When we allow ourselves to explore new approaches, a creative outcome is more likely. Think of it as “the means enables the end.”

Tony: Ken, you highlighted the key word of design theory: enabling. 
How can my product, service or retail offering enable versus simply service the needs of a client? Can Sun Life enable peace of mind? Can Scotiabank enable a family to save for what is truly meaningful? Target, which could disrupt the retail ecosystem in Canada with their design mantra being the democratization of style, enables the consumer to treasure hunt in their stores with value offerings created by some of the worlds’ most renowned designers. Who wants a 19 cent dishrag at Walmart when you can spend a few pennies more and have one designed by Stella McCartney?

Ken: Precisely. This is a perfect example of how the brand is an extension of the underlying business system. It brings new depth to the cliché “marketing makes promises, the organization has to keep them.”

Tony: Marketers used to seduce consumers with ads that promised, but brands that failed to deliver. Federal Express designed their entire organization around their mantra of delivering peace of mind. This wasn’t an advertising campaign – they revolutionized package tracking for the benefit of the end user who positively had to get it there. The Easy Button campaign was considered breakthrough for Staples but to make it work they had to make their stores easier to shop in, their site easier to navigate and they had to make their loyalty program easier to attain.

Ken: Yes, and significantly this shows that creativity starts by thinking about what we are really solving. Your FedEx example speaks to this. No one lies awake at night or wakes up wanting a parcel delivery service. But most of us can recall that time when it “absolutely, positively had to be there tomorrow” and FedEx had the smarts to creatively solve that problem through its info tech, airline routing (they invented “hub and spoke”) and logistics management…all boring until you realize they found a way to creatively integrate them.

Tony: Sometimes you have to give credit to marketing. Virgin is a challenger brand that challenges the leaders’ convention through insights and agility. They create a superb product and then deploy the most creative advertising.

Ken: Virgin is a perfect example of how challengers can exploit the so-called “innovator’s dilemma.” The established market leader has a vested interest in sustaining the conventional approach because they’ve built advantages on that model. The challenger gets creative and asks, “Why do we do it that way?” It’s why supplanted Barnes & Noble as the world’s biggest bookseller and why WestJet and Porter beat out established rivals. Put Porter at Pearson Airport and you have a different ballgame.

Tony: Design with purpose and touch every part of your organization to enable the end-user experience.

Ken: Yes, and not by decree or work rules. You have to “sell” that philosophy inside with as much, if not more, vigour than we use with external audiences. You could say we need to win the “head, heart and hands” of our own people before we can win over our buyers.

Tony:  Can I get a TM on Head, Heart and Hands?

Ken Wong is a marketing professor at Queen’s University and VP, knowledge development, at Level 5. Tony Chapman
is the founder and CEO of Toronto-based agency Capital C.