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The past few years have accelerated many trends in our society. One clear trend is how customers and employees perceive organizations through their stated purpose. As we struggle through COVID fears, economic uncertainty, and social disruption, we have become acutely aware that customers and employees care about the purpose. Some purpose-driven organizations are seizing the moment to build strong bonds with their employees and customers. We also see situations where organizations appear flat-footed in response to this rapid change—triggering negative perceptions and protest.
While it may seem obvious that an organization’s purpose impacts how they are perceived, we’ve learned that there is a complex interplay between purpose and perception. Understanding how they relate and connect allows organizations to deploy tools and strategies that ensure everything lives in harmony.
Purpose Drives Perception
Almost every project our team has ever worked on eventually circles around a fundamental question—how can we impact the way people perceive an organization? We are all concerned about how the world perceives us. How others perceive us helps construct the reality of who we are. There is a reason why, for all its flaws1, so many businesses obsess over customer and employee net promoter scores2. It is commonly understood that happy customers will lead to higher profits and that happy employees are more engaged and productive. There are decades of research that prove these common-sense notions.
So, how do organizations impact how they are perceived? They do this by intentionally designing the experience they have with you. Your perception of an organization is based on the totality of every human interaction, product, and service. For a customer, that means everything from how your service works to the experience on a support line. For employees, that means everything from your welcome booklet and compensation package to how your boss responds when you face a challenge. When every aspect of an organization’s experience reinforces the same values and tells the same story, they can shape perception over time.
How do organizations make sure every experience reinforces the same story? Well-crafted brands with a robust* strategy, brand guidelines, experience principles, and design criteria make this possible. When executed well, a brand defines the values and criteria that control how experiences come to life. A well-defined mission, vision, and values help organizations make strategic, aligned decisions. Robust visual and verbal guidelines ensure every touchpoint and story reinforces those values. Experience principles and design criteria provide objective rules that help teams translate those guidelines into everyday interactions.
What is the foundation of a strategic brand? Purpose. A purpose is the story organizations tell about why they exist and should be the foundation of everything they do3 (thanks Simon Sinek!). It should inform the mission, vision, values, voice, and visuals. Design an experience around a strong brand, grounded in a meaningful purpose, and every employee and customer interaction will reinforce the same perceptions over time.
The most impactful organizations out there have supercharged this framework. You can see this in the rise of Chief Experience Officers4 and the decline of brands that struggle to deliver a compelling customer and employee experience.
We have seen this dynamic play out over and over. At Other Tomorrows, we start every engagement with a problem from a client. If that problem centers around customers or employees, we look at their experience first. This almost always involves in-context qualitative research, living and working alongside users to understand their functional and emotional needs. If there are problems with the experience we attempt to go deeper to understand the root cause. Was the experience just poorly executed? Is there a lack of brand strategy and guardrails to design within? Is there a purpose that helps guide us?
Sometimes this leads to hard conversations where we need to reframe our challenge. We lean into these conversations because we believe sustainable change is grounded in purpose—otherwise, the brand, experience, and perception will drift over time.
Perception Drives Purpose
Organizations used to have an easier time bringing their purpose to life. They could broadcast their story with marketing and advertising. The more they spent, the more people believed it. If an organization flooded the airwaves about their trustworthiness, that is what people perceived. If one customer or employee had a bad experience, other customers and employees would rarely hear about it. In many ways, organizations were what they said they were—whether accurate or not.
Today, organizations are not the only ones that tell their story. Every customer and employee has the tools and platforms to add their voices to the conversation through reviews, influencers, and social-media supercharged word-of-mouth. This means organizations are what their customers and employees say they are, based on their experiences.
These same constituents are also actively working to shape their experiences with organizations. They are pushing organizations to reconsider their brands and pressuring companies to be more intentional about their purpose. If employees and customers don’t feel like they are part of the story, they will push for change—or go elsewhere.
Recently Disney decided not to speak out about controversial laws in Florida—a stance that impacted how Disney’s employees perceived their workplace. Employees didn’t accept the cognitive dissonance between their values and their employer’s actions. They pushed back with protests and walkouts5, forcing Disney to change its stance and re-evaluate how it expressed its purpose. This same dynamic shows up with customers more and more frequently6. When there is friction between customers’ and employees’ values and how they perceive organizations—they will push hard for change.
A Story You Tell Together
Understanding the complicated interplay between purpose and perception allows organizations to be intentional about the design and expression of their products, services, and people. Some organizations do this extremely well, and they tend to structure their teams and leadership roles to support this dynamic. They have empowered purpose and brand leadership at the top, holistic customer and employee listening programs, and incentive structures that reinforce behaviors that align with their purpose. They have robust brand strategies and guidelines with clear criteria used to make daily decisions. Every aspect of their experiences is designed intentionally. They focus on the employee experience because they know that it ultimately drives the customer experience.
Today, if a company has a perception problem, it is critical to zoom all the way out to purpose and then make sure the right brand and experience tools are built in-between. When everything works harmoniously, purpose becomes a story of organizational togetherness that is rooted in perceptions shared by all employees and customers.
The Futures Archive is a podcast from Design Observer, hosted by our very own Lee Moreau. In it, he speaks with the design industries leading minds to explore the history of human-centered design with a critical eye to its future. Each episode begins with an object, interrogating the motives and methods that put people—and their complex needs and desires—at the center of the design process. From research to iteration to manufacturing and distribution, the podcast looks at design as more than the sum of its countless parts, learning from the “what” and searching for the “why,” exploring the possibilities for our collective future.
By: Ed O’Brien
Previously published in Issue 21 of Design Museum Everywhere
Over the last several years I’ve contemplated the future of air travel, media and entertainment, restaurants and retail, housing and education, on behalf of a fascinating collection of clients, through the lens of design and innovation. But what about the future of the field I’ve dedicated my career to since 2013? Similar to other industries, the world of professional design services has undergone its own dramatic shift brought on by several key factors including the pandemic. I believe that nimble, independent design firms are poised to have explosive growth in the coming years and here’s why:
During the last decade large management consultancies, software engineering companies, IT firms and even large brands have snapped up a plethora of highly reputable independent design firms – Lunar, Frog, Adaptive Path and Fjord among many others. Why? It’s enticingly quicker and cheaper to purchase high-end design talent, introduce a new capability and acquire a roster of quality clients, than it is to build any of these from scratch. For design firms, hiring and retaining design practitioners, building a healthy culture and developing an enviable book of clients takes years if not decades.
At least on paper, these adjacent businesses make perfect sense to merge. Business design is a close cousin of strategy consulting. Brand design is fairly close to work executed at creative agencies. UI/UX design and software development have been frenemies since the dawn of digital. And it’s risky for any IT consultant to recommend a new technology platform without first deeply understanding intended users. So with all the recent design firm acquisitions what could possibly go wrong??
Fixation Toward Integration
According to Harvard Business Review 70-90% of acquisitions fail regardless of industry vertical. And design services are no exception. Respectable salary bumps, stock awards and other retention programs are not enough for acquired firms. New team members are often not on the same page with power dynamics tilted heavily in favor of the acquiring firm. Key people leave leading to a brain drain. And the acquired company, who inevitably gives up their independence, settles into a funk of demotivation with output quality suffering. Rather than trying to understand the acquired firm’s success factors, the acquirer believes they can fix underlying problems through greater “integration,” which ironically only exacerbates pain points. Clumsy brand repositioning, new venn diagrams to “leverage organizational synergies” and suddenly larger project teams (account managers, program managers, business developers, engagement managers) are all tactics deployed to stop the bleeding. To quote a former client colleague, “Nothing says we’re still figuring things out and don’t give us your money like using four different fonts or brands or a room full of career consultants talking over each other…even if you don’t know why, things seem vaguely off, undermining trust.”
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Seasoned design practitioners are faced with difficult choices. To be fair, some assimilate to the new culture while others are able to summon an internal optimism that conditions will improve or a new opportunity will present itself. Those who decide to exit are met with two alternative paths – join (or start) an independent design firm or immigrate to the client side (in-house). The latter has been the primary beneficiary of design talent and that trend has accelerated since the start of The Great Resignation. Today’s design talent is more likely to switch jobs than ever before and large companies, who are now wise to Design Thinking, have been systematically acquiring these clever problem solvers. Whether it’s an insurance company, an airline or a toy company, the c-suite is now fully aware that being more customer-led and hiring in-house design talent leads to competitive advantage. Beside their inherent ability to play nice and share, designers bring creativity, business savvy and an outside-in perspective to solving intractable problems. These are extremely attractive qualities to corporations who historically struggle to bring innovation forward. This is where the market for design services is getting most interesting.
Developing Mastery at Speed
Client-side designers have a sophisticated understanding of high-quality design services. They know what good looks like and need to get stuff done quickly. Economics play a critical factor too since they intuitively understand how long a quality engagement takes and what it should cost. Besides their day job (chief design officer, head of design strategy, director of customer experience, etc.) they are increasingly pulled into every difficult problem a company faces – hybrid/ remote work models, office redesigns, employee experience, environmental and sustainability issues and high-impact technology investment decisions, to name a few. However, the mission is often more ambitious – push the company to be more innovative, more customer-led. It’s a lot to ask and they increasingly need help. Design help.
Baked Fresh Daily
Independent design firms that hold the same values and shared experience have become the preferred choice for client side design talent. The unmatched energy, approachability and refreshingly unbiased point of view is worth paying for. The output is bespoke, there’s no hidden agenda and they won’t overstay their welcome. When it comes to client engagements, details matter to independent design firms. There’s a lot on the line if an engagement goes poorly and they are eager to do right by clients. By first asking the right questions, they quickly surface the most salient insights and pull together concepts and prototypes with a compelling narrative. They make transformation seem within reach. Since they tend to thrive with a healthy variety of challenges, and are under no pressure to hyper-specialize within industry domains, independent design firms bring a humility and curiosity-seeking perspective to every engagement. You generally get more than you pay for…and it’s fun too.
What independent design lacks in size and scale they more than make up for with mutually beneficial contracts and engagements that result in actionable outcomes. As the merger and acquisitions dust has settled in the design services category, knowing who to trust and where to turn has become significantly more complex. Similar to the industry lions who conceived and defined this category so many years ago, independent design firms have the empathy and hunger to tackle today’s complex business environment. Pragmatic leaders should look no further than independent design firms for help.
Jen Ashman-Stauss is the Head of Envisioning at Other Tomorrows.
Jen interconnects people and product, patterns and environment, the digital and physical to create meaning and impact through story-based futurism. Previously, as Director of Innovation at EPAM Continuum, Jen partnered with category leaders like American Express to define new luxury, Fisher-Price to imagine the future of parenting, Medela to reinvent breastfeeding for millennials, and Google to craft neighborhoods built on contribution and culture.
Particularly adept at translating the functional and emotional “why’s” behind human behaviors into vivid, transformational expressions of the product and service experiences that inform our lives, Jen holds global design awards and patents for visual communication, illustration, and industrial design from her persistent efforts to create a brighter tomorrow.