3.3 A Process View of Creativity in Brand Management

This post is part of my bachelor paper ‘The Evolving Role of Creativity in Brand Management’. You can read the introduction, other posts and the table of contents here.

The product view of creativity looked at the role of creativity as a trait of advertising and strategy. The process view of creativity in brand management shifts the focus from creativity as the trait of specific outcomes of brand management to creativity as being applied in brand management. This perspective is looking at how upstream creativity influences outcomes downstream.

One dominant topic when it comes to creativity in business is design thinking. Coined by Tim Brown (2008, p.2) of IDEO, he defines it as

“[...] a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Brown (2008) both witnesses and promotes a shift in how companies use design, from using design as a downstream tactical activity to “companies [...] asking them to create ideas that better meet consumers’ needs and desires” (Brown 2008, p.2). Design therefore becomes more of a strategic, rather than a tactical activity.

While coming up with products or brand ideas that meet consumers’ needs and desires certainly isn’t a new concept, but rather the foundation of modern marketing theory (Kotler & Bliemel 2006), it is the more explicit use of designers or a ‘designerly way of thinking’ to fulfil those needs that is new. Brown therefore introduces three phases that every design project should pass through, with design being very broadly defined here. These phases, or spaces as he calls them, are inspiration, ideation and implementation. Inspiration is establishing the context that motivates the search for solutions, ideation is the process of “generating, developing, and testing ideas that may lead to solution” (Brown 2008, p.4) and implementation is bringing the winning ideas to the market. This is not a linear process however, as the first two spaces are looped back throughout the process shown in IDEO’s process in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Design Thinking – IDEO Process (Brown 2008, p. 5)

In a critical response to the growth of design thinking, Norman (2010) argues, however, that at the core, design thinking really isn’t limited to designers and suggests to talk about creative thinking instead. According to him, design thinking is a part of myth that has spread within the business community:

“The myth? That designers possess some mystical, creative thought process that places them above all others in their skills at creative, groundbreaking thought. This myth is nonsense, but like all myths, it has a certain ring of plausibility although lacking any evidence. […] Design thinking is a public relations term for good, old-fashioned creative thinking. It is not restricted to designers. Great artists, great engineers, great scientists all break out of the boundaries. Great designers are no different.” (Norman 2010, n.p.)

He then extends the scope of design thinking by emphasizing that it requires systems thinking:

“It means stepping back from the immediate issue and taking a broader look. It requires systems thinking: realizing that any problem is part of larger whole, and that the solution is likely to require understanding the entire system. It requires deep immersion into the topic, often involving observation and analysis. Tests and frequent revisions can be components of the process. Sometimes this is done in groups: multidisciplinary teams who bring different forms of expertise to the problem. Perhaps the most important point is to move away from the problem description and take a new, broader approach.” (Norman 2010, n.p.)

With his focus on systems thinking, looking at the larger whole, deep immersion, testing and experimenting as a way of validating and group learning Norman’s (2010) perspective appears to be related to the systemic brand management model that was suggested earlier.

As the focus shifts from design thinking as a ‘public relations term’ towards creative thinking, Martin (2009b), dean at the Rotman School of Business, provides a thorough analysis of the thinking styles associated with the term. He first distinguishes between analytical thinking – which includes deduction and induction – and intuitive thinking. Both deductive and inductive thinking, make a logical leap from the past to the future. The major goal behind both reasoning styles is reliability – arriving at the same result in the same situation repeatedly. On the opposing side, there is intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking has validity – the ‘right’ solution – as its major goal, while more or less neglecting reliability. Standing behind ‘design thinking’ is a third way of reasoning next to deduction and induction.

This is abduction, introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th century (Martin 2009a, p.62ff). Peirce argued that no genuinely new knowledge can be derived deductively or inductively from old knowledge. New ideas always come into place through “logical leaps of mind” (Martin 2009a, p.64) to the best solution, when new data points are observed that cannot be explained by existing models. This way of thinking is widely distributed amongst designers who have to constantly observe the world and derive conclusions from it. Even when the conclusions drawn from the environment might be wrong – as everything that has to be proven by the future – abductive thinking, with it’s balance of intuitive and analytic thinking, provides the best balance between the two poles of reliability and validity.

How can the design thinking discourse now be brought back to the sphere of brand management? One point is an observed epistemological merger of design thinking, innovation and strategy, three different business discourses that are closely related to each other and highly present in brand management.

“The discourse of strategy expanded in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to be a powerful force. Around the millennium, the discourse of innovation gained new prestige; it was linked to strategy and became the hallmark of companies in the forefront of the global economy. Design thinking has joined these executive discourses as a methodology that enables innovation” (Johansson & Woodilla 2009, p.1)

If strategy was the paradigm and innovation the imperative, design thinking got more and more established as the process that promised creative – divergent and relevant – outcomes. And if design thinking is a generic and process-driven way of working creatively, this means it can be applied to everything from forming brand strategies to creating brand experiences (Brown 2005). It is interesting to note how this description of bringing in the wider context first is close to the distinction Mintzberg (1994) drew up between strategic planning and strategic thinking in his seminal paper on the rise and fall of strategic planning:

“Planners should make their contribution around the strategy-making process rather than inside it. They should supply the formal analyses or hard data that strategic thinking requires, as long as they do it to broaden the consideration of issues rather than to discover the one right answer. They should act as catalysts who support strategy making by aiding and encouraging managers to think strategically.” (Mintzberg 1994, p.108)

Only after broadening the considerations of issues, strategic thinking ensues:

“Strategic thinking, in contrast, is about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. Such strategies often cannot be developed on schedule and immaculately conceived. They must be free to appear at any time and at any place in the organization, typically through messy processes of informal learning that must necessarily be carried out by people at various levels who are deeply involved with the specific issues at hand. (Mintzberg 1994, p.108)

Again, the importance of creative thinking in strategy as well as the importance of contextual awareness as a starting point of creative thinking as a process can be seen. Every phase of any project there should therefore be a succession of divergent and convergent thinking, as is also illustrated in Figure 5 (Woodman et al. 1993, p.299).

Phases of generating ideas, possibilities, challenges and opportunities should be followed by phases of reduction, refinement and synthesis.

Figure 5: Divergent and convergent thinking (screengrab from Hulme 2010)

To do this, an important conclusion for brand management, as derived from Mintzberg (1994) as well as the newer proponents of design thinking, immersion into a wider context is inevitable. The more opportunities and different data points and ideas – the more empathy and knowledge – is created in the first place, the more divergent solutions are possible.

“Invention is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory. Nothing can be made of nothing. He who has laid up no material can produce no combination.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1732-1792; qtd. in Offner, 1990).

There is, however, a critical perspective on design thinking that goes beyond Norman’s (2010) critique of its use as a marketing label. Nussbaum (2011, n.p.), one of its strongest earlier proponents argues that design thinking is a “failed experiment”. This is because designers and consultancies tried to use design thinking as a sellable, generic process to get creativity and creative thinking into the hallways of corporations, which failed because what corporations took out was merely the process, and not the core of design thinking, which is – as has been argued – creative thinking itself.

“Design Thinking originally offered the world of big business–which is defined by a culture of process efficiency–a whole new process that promised to deliver creativity. By packaging creativity within a process format, designers were able to expand their engagement, impact, and sales inside the corporate world. Companies were comfortable and welcoming to Design Thinking because it was packaged as a process.” (Nussbaum 2011, n.p.)

Nussbaum (2011) goes on to argue that it is creativity that really needs to be understood and valued by corporations. He is therefore promoting the concept of ‘creative intelligence’, which he wants to be broadly accepted, not only by managers and corporations, but by society as a whole. This leads to the final two perspectives on creativity in brand management: the person view and the organisation view of creativity in brand management.

Brown, T., 2008. Design thinking. harvard business review, 86(6), S. 84.

Brown, T., 2005. Strategy by Design | Fast Company. Fast Company, (June). Available at: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/95/design-strategy.html [Zugegriffen April 18, 2011].

Hulme, T., 2010. 12 Ways To Add Design Thinking Into Your Project – Tom Hulme on Vimeo. Available at: http://vimeo.com/14138667 [Zugegriffen April 18, 2011].

Johansson, U. & Woodilla, J., 2009. Towards an epistemological merger of design thinking, strategy and innovation. In 8th European Academy of Design Conference.

Kotler, P. & Bliemel, F., 2006. Marketing-Management. Analyse, Planung und Verwirklichung 10., überarb. u. aktualis. A., Pearson Studium.

Martin, R., 2009a. The design of business: why design thinking is the next competitive advantage, Harvard Business Press.

Martin, R., 2009b. What is Design Thinking Anyway? Observatory: Design Observer. Available at: http://observatory.designobserver.com/entry.html?entry=11097 [Zugegriffen März 14, 2011].

Mintzberg, H., 1994. The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review, 72, S. 107–107.

Norman, D., 2010. Design Thinking: A Useful Myth. Core77 – design magazine and resource. Available at: http://www.core77.com/blog/columns/design_thinking_a_useful_myth_16790.asp [Zugegriffen März 14, 2011].

Nussbaum, B., 2011. Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? Co.Design. Available at: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663558/beyond-design-thinking [Zugegriffen April 18, 2011].

Offner, D., 1990. „ Hitch-Hiking“ on Creativity in Nature. Journal of Creative Behavior, 24(3), S. 199–204.

Woodman, R.W., Sawyer, J.E. & Griffin, R.W., 1993. Toward a theory of organizational creativity. The Academy of Management Review, 18(2), S. 293–321.

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