Take a quick glance at the top ten Best Global Brands this year, and one thing will stand out as a commonality: They are all design-led brands. The same can be said for the top risers. It doesn’t mean they are the most stylistically beautiful brands—although many are—and it doesn’t mean they’re brands that care only about design in form factors or technology. What they share is far more fundamental: the elevated role of design in the enterprise.
Too often, when design is brought up in the context of brand, it’s assumed that the subject is aesthetic concern. That’s because, for the last few decades, the most common association with branding as a practice has been naming or a logo. While those components still remain a vital part of a brand, design cannot be isolated to what is visible—it must be internalized by the organization and harnessed as a force for improvement.
In the hyper-fragmented Age of You, as brands are experienced in micro moments, design can be a powerful force for unifying a brand’s experience—it can make an instant impression and link those moments in a way that’s both memorable and meaningful. There should now be little, if any, distinction between an organization’s business strategy and its customer experience—design ensures culture, systems, competencies, governance, and service models are aligned.
Amazon stands out as a prime example of elegant design strategy. Though few would consider its Web platform design-oriented from an aesthetic perspective, design is a driving force behind the brand’s well-orchestrated experience strategy. Products like Kindle and Echo both deeply connect to the platform and demonstrate how design can drive the enterprise from within, in order to meet evolving customer expectations.
Design for focus and future growth
With increasingly complex organizational demands, design is a force of integration: It’s the tool leaders can use to drive a singular purpose and vision. When design is hardwired into the organization, and a direct driver of strategy, it bolsters the strength of the brand by providing some fundamental advantages.
One is focus. Excellent design delivers both a coherent customer experience and an elegant road map for growth. This year’s top risers, like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Hermès, and Nissan, have all flourished because they’re invested in design strategy, which drives product road maps and point of view, and paints a bigger picture that serves as a guide for future growth.
One is speed. Today, organizations must move extra fast to keep up with customer expectations and industry advancements, while also outpacing competitors. Design can be harnessed to breed efficiency. Macro design principles can quickly become micro applications—the technologies and systems needed to execute high-level strategies.
One is flexibility. Adaptation and interpretation are an integral part of the design process. Today’s brands must be built to bend to different platforms, adapt to diverse geographies, and shift with changing industry tides. Embedding design methodologies into key aspects of the organization allows teams to reinvent processes that adjust to different contexts.
Design for the outside in and the inside out
In the age of hyper-personalization, brands are ramping up resources to better interface with their connected customers—whether in the car, on the Web, at work, or in front of their TVs. The customer has become a driving force for organizations communicating in a nonlinear fashion. By developing a true understanding of how people live and interact, organizations can more effectively structure themselves around their customers’ priorities.
This outside-in approach also encourages companies to evolve by leveraging emerging platforms that help them reach across industries and customer groups. Burberry has been a front-runner in the fashion industry by embracing digital advancements. The classic brand proved its relevance to a new wave of consumers by streaming runway shows on YouTube and becoming the first fashion brand to sell on Twitter.
Organizations that aren’t internally aligned, however, will falter when trying to meet customers where they are. Prioritizing business efforts is crucial. Prioritizing the interactions and services that are the most differentiating, credible, and useful to customers will help focus teams, while guiding investments in tools and technologies that will deliver on the business’s interests most effectively.
Design derives great power from its role as mediator, as it accounts for the interest of the customer and the desires of the business equally. It’s an integral force, bringing structure and synchronicity internally, so brands can let their customers take the driver’s seat.
Design for transformation and adaptation
Not all traditional organizations are built to handle continuous transformation. Fortunately, disruption and design go hand in hand. When introducing new ideas, design methodologies—such as validation and iteration—can help make the unknown comfortable by making ideas tangible and easier to socialize internally.
According to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs is a company that’s set on disrupting itself . The banking bastion is designing for the future of technology by investing heavily in the tech sector and aligning itself with Silicon Valley—its programmers now outnumber its bankers and traders. The company has created a climate to incubate new business priorities in order to quickly test and validate hypotheses.
Design for structure and culture
Becoming a design-led organization requires both cultural and structural rigor. For some businesses, the entire vision of how to solve for the customer—including the processes and tools it uses—may require an overhaul.
Design-led organizations are driven by empowered employees who are empathetic to their audiences, and by teams that observe and internalize what people need, instead of what the job requires. It changes the language, which in turn changes behaviors—people move from trying to articulate what needs to be quantified to defining stories that are more emotive. The result is often an organization that can solve challenges with new, elegant solutions.
GE has brought design into the center of its business as it quickly evolves beyond a manufacturing organization into a digital-industrial innovator. The company’s latest ad campaign publicizes its efforts to recruit new tech talents, which reflects an investment in cultivating a creative culture.
Design for simplification and humanization
With hyper-fragmentation comes hyper-complexity. Rapidly shifting technologies and ever-changing customer demands make the challenges that organizations face more layered and multifaceted. Design solves for these complexities by rendering interactions with technologies and other complex systems simple, intuitive, and pleasurable—for the organization as well the customer.
Design demands nonlinear thinking and fluid exploration. It reflects our real experiences—buildings and streets are designed in a grid, but we cut corners because that’s how we move. Human-centric design observes and identifies the simplest, most natural solutions. Design can direct conversations about restructuring and repositioning. It guides M&A initiatives by providing a clear vision of where to build—and where to divest. The end goal is to make the organization’s efforts more streamlined and the customer’s experience more intuitive.
Design for empathy and emotion
None of this means that design can’t be beautiful, but above all, it must be functional. Purity of design, however, can’t be at the user’s expense—today’s organizations must be savvy to authentic human needs.
There are abundant opportunities for brands to prove that they understand their customers by creating emotionally resonant interactions that create value. The Amazon Kindle stands out as a product of enterprise design, delivering a bevy of bookish experiences—rifling through the stacks, becoming immersed in a story, sharing favorite quotes—through a single, synchronistic platform.
However, if design and customer experience are relegated to a few individuals within the organization, the brand has little chance of remaining relevant as trends, technology, and customers evolve. Relevance requires a shared point of view on what the customer experience should be, and a design strategy that drives the business to execute on the desired experience efficiently.
Design pursues a balance between beauty and utility, as well as efficiency and emotion. It’s where a single touchpoint reflects how the business works, where what is left out is as considered as what remains, where the business and the customer experience are one.
Design is more than a lofty and provocative goal—it’s an essential tool for building strong, agile, and customer-centric organizations.