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Lessons in Design Thinking: the Future of Advertising


Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide explores how DTC brand Allbirds is putting design-thinking first across its operations

Lessons in Design Thinking: the Future of Advertising

Allbirds has achieved phenomenal growth by doing things its own way. The brand’s focus on sustainability and the environment has attracted a vast global community of fans dedicated to combating climate change.

Instead of continually releasing new sneakers, like Nike, Allbirds takes a minimalist approach, with just a small range of designs made from its pioneering sustainable, natural materials. It encourages customers to buy and hold on to one pair of shoes for years rather than get into an endless cycle of acquiring the latest releases. “Fashion doesn’t need more things, it needs better things,” says co-founder founder Tim Brown.

This maverick approach has helped the DTC brand to extraordinary success and its current valuation at $4bn after little more than five years in business. Along with its recent IPO and plans to grow its customer base further by opening stores, despite the pandemic.

Like many other disruptive brands on the market, Allbirds puts design-thinking first right across its operations. It is focused on building a movement rather than just reaching an audience, and design is critical to its connection with people. The simplicity, minimalism and passion for craft in its shoe design feeds into its communications. Its social content on platforms such as Instagram is accessible, creative and fun, just like the brand itself. The brand shares ideas with customers on social media, listens to them and invites feedback. Its comms across touchpoints are designed to bring fans along with it. As Red Antler, the design agency that worked with Allbirds on its branding, puts it: "Each interaction with the brand invites people to join the journey, and the world’s been engaged at every step.”

Because Allbirds is mobile-first, its comms stops people scrolling past and is digestible in the blink of an eye. Now that we live in a virtual mobile world, every brand should be approaching its marketing in this way. The best design-led brand imagery and content on social platforms are not remotely recognizable as traditional advertising nor is it advertising that has been 'adapted’. The old approach of coming up with a TV idea first and then simply recycling it for online channels has long passed its use by date.

Clients are increasingly asking agencies to 'design', not write, their campaigns. They want their campaigns to naturally fit the frame in our highly visual mobile world, from social posts all the way to check-out and making the post-sale connections. That’s a very different approach to writing 30-second TV ideas, gags and headlines. It’s communication design to fulfil an increasingly connected consumer journey. 

Making advertising that pops in the online world is increasingly driven by design and this trend has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. For the launch of the VW iD, the electric vehicle range, in China, we had to design a campaign on mobile, social and within the DM world of young Chinese consumers. Traditional agency approaches and advertising narratives simply wouldn’t cut it with China’s young, aspirational audience who eat, sleep and breathe mobile. That meant AR experiences, music over dialogue as well as finding a way to connect the brand philosophy in a single post, not through a 90-second manifesto. Our design strength led us to achieve just that. By combining both Hanzi and Roman characters, we designed a new language that combines the abbreviation ‘iD’ with the crucial consumer attitude of being individual. And it’s all communicated in two bold, social-friendly characters rather than a traditional advertising sentence. A single, unmissable post versus a campaign that relies on someone randomly stopping on a thumbnail frame by chance to watch a 90-second film.

We are also seeing this approach at the heart of Alessandro Michele’s incredible turn-around of Gucci. Designed for mobile, social and designed to convert online, the brand's newfound success is the envy of its competitors.

This new approach to designing campaigns for the mobile world requires an inherent understanding of the formats and the audience alongside a fresh collaboration of skills. At a global scale, there are few agencies built for this. It will take a lot of courage for traditional agencies to let go of the old ways and seek the new small screen, DTC, highly visual thinkers that are changing the game today.

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Cheil Worldwide, Fri, 03 Dec 2021 11:04:21 GMT