Skip to main content

Design Thinking: What Does It Mean to Marketers?

Marketing Horizons with Roger Mader Design Thinking: What Does It Mean to Marketers?

Design thinking has been around a while, and it sounds alluring, but there’s still some confusion about what it means to marketers. Roger Mader sets us straight in this podcast, explaining the skills and tools of design thinking that apply to marketing practice, and how it can be used to improve marketing results. In short, he describes a process for predicting your customers’ future needs and interests, and serving them better than the competition. Join Roger, Managing Partner at Ampersand and professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, to hear where design thinking can take marketers, on the sub-series, Marketing Horizons.



Cyndi Greenglass: Could start by grounding us all in here, what is your view, what are the specific skills or attributes of design thinking for marketing and marketers?

Roger Mader: I recently spent a year with Subway, one of my clients who I advised on innovation as their chief marketing officer globally. I was asked because design thinking is so closely aligned with the core competencies of marketing. Design thinking begins by understanding your customer by using deep empathy to understand what the needs of your audience are, so that you can conceive products that will better serve what they need.

You should know that design thinking is really just the application design theory, which has been around since as long as people have been drawing pictures to figure out how to build a building before putting it in the sky. Using the same promise that it must understand you rather than it is understanding me. It overcomes a very human bias that we tend to wake up in the morning, thinking about ourselves. Marketing is the least selfish exercise you can do well by design, much the same way, if I am truly doing my job, I am like the most perfect gift giver. I am working really hard to understand this person that I love more than myself. It's that same sort of sense of love in the preparation that we should be doing when we're creating messages, creating products offerings or experiences.

We do that by knowing the other person by understanding what they need better than they do. It's one of the things that makes Amazon both wonderful and dangerous because they have so much data to understand what our purchase patterns are, much like Netflix knows what to recommend for me in my video feed because they've got all the demonstrated behavior that I might not be conscious of. They probably know what time of day I prefer some light comedy versus some thriller in the darkness, they can probably tell you how weather patterns affect what I choose to watch. And during COVID, when we're all sort of slammed into communicating through technologies and entertaining through technologies, that stream of data has become much richer. Design theory simply tells you that you have a method that starts with understanding the other person that you choose to serve.

Ruth Stevens: I’m wondering how day to day marketers can apply design thinking to get better results or perform their tasks more effectively, specifically?

Roger Mader: Let me tell you what we needed to do in my work with Subway. Five years ago, we were brought in because Subway was losing ground against new competition, places like chipotle a we're growing rapidly. When I asked, why don't you collect revenues from all your franchisees so that you can do central advertising, he said, oh yeah maybe you should talk to my chief marketing officer. He also told me he didn’t understand why they were not growing they haven't changed anything 50 years. He was ignoring that the world had changed around it, so we went out and showed the executive team the changes that were going on.

We came back with insightful quotes and videos from people saying things like I would take my girlfriend for a date to Chipotle, but I would never go to Subway, gross. They were missing the boat that people saw these giant buckets of meat that create a burrito the size of your head as a healthier option than fresh vegetables on a piece of toasted bread, in part because they saw the bread as just being a giant carbo load, they saw the meats being sort of cold cut quality stuff that looked like it had been industrially produced. People saw Chipotle as fun and friendly with a modern layout and community tables, everything about the experience can noted fresh and friendly. So, we brought all that back to them.

In short, the method that we use, I'll summarize very quickly. The first is to define the challenge you're trying to solve. Secondly, you discover, this is where we all fall short because intuitively, we will jump to the solution. Then, you design as a marketing group would do the design of a new campaign, we tend to do it like you do in the industrial design, you come up with prototypes, I will give them six answers to the same problem, but with different levels of risk and cost. Then test those like you would with marketing and focus groups. Lastly, you deploy these things as though they're not going to work because it's new to the world. Your deploy process is not about doing a big launch, it is about doing testing and changing along the way.

Ruth Stevens: Roger are there other specific skills or attributes of design thinking that are useful to marketing?

Roger Mader: Yes, you need to consider that you have the opportunity to be designing for people who you haven't met yet because they don't yet exist. What I mean is, designing for people today means by definition you're going to be producing things that are out of date by the time you launch them. So, how do you anticipate the future, and, you might think of design thinking as designing for the future. We’ve all seen it in demographic forecasts that say we know that 12-year-olds today are going to be 13-year-olds tomorrow, and we can forecast what their needs and wants will be. How I forecast those 13-year-olds to be 26-year-olds is a little bit more speculative but also super helpful. I can by seeing what Millennials and Gen X and Gen Z and Gen Next are going to morph into like designing to solve for those trends.

We use something called scenario planning, it says we don't know what the future will be, so, what are the probable alternate futures. Think of creating a simple two by two grid. For today's COVID moment, as we see light at the end of the tunnel, you can imagine on one axis, it will be the degree to which vaccination and herd immunity factors allow us to open back up. So, you know, on one side, it could be we stay closed for another year because of new variants and bad behaviors or were opened up in no time at all because of mass vaccination and good behaviors. On the other, you might think of local of U.S. versus international. For example, how does that affect us just thinking within our own ecosystem but recognizing that we live in a permeable global membrane, so what does it look like internationally and you'll see very different forecasts. So, thinking more broadly creates many, many more variables.

And then you can say, okay here's what it looks like if we're kind of closed up and we're only worried about the U.S., and the opposite extreme, here's what it looks like if we're wide open globally and if I'm designing for the future, I should make a bet on which of those I think is going to come to fruition if I'm developing a marketing campaign that's going to be taking place in the next three or four months.

This notion of forecasting where the future will evolve means that you start making assumptions about the behaviors of your target audience in those different futures and how would I best serve them. Almost thinking about taking the personas that you might create for a marketing campaign and split them into those four different possible futures.

Key Takeaways/Three Little Piggies:

  • The process that is called the four Ds: defining, discovering, designing and deploying is something that we can take away and apply very quickly.
  • Many times, we miss that important middle step of the discovery and the design and jump right into defining the problem to the solution.
  • We need to think backward from what we think is the future of various options or anticipated types of futures with scenario planning to meet the evolving market need better.

Marketing Communications Today presents Horizons, it’s forward-thinking, looking ahead, through the front windshield and beyond, into the marketing future. Join Cyndi and Ruth bi-weekly for new ideas, technologies, tools and strategies that are emerging to help marketers navigate over the marketing horizon.

Meet our guest

Roger Mader

Roger Mader is on a mission to “make better”—to equip leaders and entrepreneurs, experts and students to change the world. Declare purpose. Make a promise. Act on principle. Measure performance. Learn. Grow. Roger serves as the Managing Partner of Ampersand, a global team of partners who help big companies act small, and small companies get big. Ampersand uses design practices honed in the field, in collaboration with teams to conceive, test, iterate and launch new offerings and experiences. He serves on the graduate program faculty of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His course on Strategic Innovation introduces teams of students to Ampersand’s 4D method to design breakthroughs for corporate sponsors, including Accenture, Cap Gemini, Capital One, Chase, Citi, Deloitte, EY, Lippincott, McKinsey, RGA and SYP. His writing includes Purposeful Enterprise, a thesis on the power of purpose to guide strategy, attract demand and compel people on a shared mission.

View Roger's YouTube Channel for more content:



Meet the hosts

Cyndi Greenglass

Cyndi W. Greenglass is a founding partner and Senior Vice President Strategic Solutions at Diamond Communication Solutions, a data driven communications firm specializing in Healthcare, Financial Services and direct response solutions and an adjunct instructor in the Data Marketing Communications online master’s degree program from WVU.

Greenglass has twice been named into the Top 100 Influential BTB Marketers by Crain’s BtoB Magazine and was the 2012 CADM Chicago Direct Marketer of the Year. Greenglass is a member of the Executive Management team at Diamond Marketing Solutions where she is responsible for the strategic planning process, participates in strategic acquisitions, and manages the agency services division.

Ruth Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention, for business-to-business clients. Ruth serves on the boards of directors of the HIMMS Media Group, and the Business Information Industry Association. She is a trustee of Princeton-In-Asia, past chair of the Business-to-Business Council of the DMA, and past president of the Direct Marketing Club of New York.

Ruth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Marketing by Crain’s BtoB magazine, and one of 20 Women to Watch by the Sales Lead Management Association. She serves as a mentor to fledgling companies at the ERA business accelerator in New York City.


Interested in growing your career with a master's degree in Data, Digital or Integrated Marketing Communications? Request more information today!

Subscribe to the Blog     Tune into the Podcast

View Upcoming Integrate Online Sessions