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  • Marlee John

Empathy to Innovation: How Design Thinking helps Brands to better Strategize their Marketing

Design Thinking is one of the leading tools in brand development today used by major brands and marketing teams worldwide. Why? Simple, because it works. How? Allow us first to tell you a story.

If you remember back before the domination and sophistication of the internet, when movies came in the form of VCR and DVD, movie rental stores like Blockbuster, allowed people to rent their favourite movies.

In 1997, entrepreneurs Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph applied the use of available modern technology to improve this service and Netflix was born. At the time, movie rental stores were popular, but for those who didn’t have access to brick-and-mortar stores, Netflix’s online mail-rental service provided a solution to this problem. With the eventual implementation of a subscription-based payment method and the shift to online streaming, almost 24 years later, Netflix is now one of the most used streaming services with over “151 million paid subscribers in over 190 countries” (The Fascinating History of Netflix) worldwide. Netflix is now an industry giant and one of the pioneers of subscription-based streaming.

Why did we tell you this story? The story you have just read is an example of Design Thinking, a popular tool used by big brands such as Google, Apple, Netflix and more recently, UberEATS. But what is Design Thinking, and how can it contribute to the development of your brand’s marketing strategy?

What is Design Thinking Anyway?

The term, also referred to as “thinking outside of the box”, is essentially a tool which allows brands to create user-centric products for their consumers. Design Thinking is solution-driven, consumer-oriented and empathy-inspired. The goal of this mode of innovation is for the product or service it yields, to be a solution for its user.

The Five Phases

The Interaction Design Foundation, the world’s largest online design school, states that there are different variations of the process though each is built upon the same basic principles. A common model taught in business classes from high school to Ivy League splits the process into five phases:

Empathize - with your consumer and/or user

In life and in business, empathy is key. Users of your product or service want to know that their needs are heard and understood. Especially in the current age of consumerism, users don’t want to simply be treated as an income unit, but as a person with needs, wants, and values. (Read our article on empathy and human connection, for more information on the importance of “humanizing” your brand HERE)

Define - the problem your user is facing

The trick here is to look for the heart of the problem, not simply respond to a surface level complaint. It is easier to find the real problem through the lens of empathy. This one may be straightforward and at times a bit more complex. With Netflix, a surface issue was the lack of availability of physical stores, but the problem was one of accessibility and convenience.

Ideate - potential ways to fix this problem, by observing it from different angles and perspectives

Be open to perspectives and ideas, and be careful not to run the risk of “expert’s tunnel vision” where one cannot see outside of one’s own methods of expertise. Sometimes the solution is more simple than it seems.

Prototype - a potential solution to the problem

Choose an idea and develop it further.

Test - try it out with real users to see if it is effective

This phase may seem the most obvious, but it is arguably one of the most important. In marketing and business, data is king. This phase is the direct engagement with the user so analytics teams can determine whether or not the product or service is effective. If a product is created as a potential solution for a target audience, who better to test it out than the target audience themselves?

These phases can be considered interchangeable, because they are not a strict set of steps but rather a guideline. It is always possible to return to a previous phase, or even combine more than one phases during the innovation process. As long as the principle of problem-solving, user-centric innovation remains at the heart, it’s Design Thinking.

But How is it Helpful for Developing a Marketing Strategy?

We are currently living in what has been called the “age of the consumer” where brands are guided by the desires of their target audience, as opposed to dictating those desires to their target audience. In a 2013 Business Insider interview with Steven Frumkin, former Dean of the Jay and Patty School of Business and Technology, Frumkin states that because of both the increased access to information and the increased price of living, consumers are now smarter with how they spend their money (Frumkin). It is therefore up to brands to evolve alongside consumers and become more strategic in their marketing and development strategies.

Enter Design Thinking. As mentioned earlier, Design Thinking allows brands to better understand their consumer. By building products and services that are consumer-centric, your target audience will be more likely to purchase your product and, more importantly, value your brand. Consumers in the current age are smarter so they are looking for a feature of your brand that stands out among the plethora of other options. Empathy is at the heart of this.

Empathy on All Sides

Jim Berryhill, a Forbes Councils Member, argues that for customer-centric companies, customer value can become a business strategy. As humans, we respond to what we value. We can create value in the eyes of our consumers when we provide a user experience that demonstrates that we are trying to help them. The saying goes in business and retail that the customer is always right, as it is the customer who decides what sells and what doesn’t. When developing new products or a brand in its entirety, this is crucial to consider.

Consumers are used to companies saying they care more than they are used to seeing and experiencing it. Think about it, as you’re watching TV or passing by a subway advertisement, how many times have you been skeptical of the “because we care” tagline from a brand whose behaviour seems to prove just the opposite? What is the root of our skepticism? Perhaps because we feel like we are being treated as wallets on legs, instead of human beings. While “care” may be a brand’s intention, it is the customer’s interpretation of the brand as a whole that is the most important.

As humans we all desire to be listened to and responded to. Design Thinking is a tool to help brands use empathy in order to truly listen to consumers and as a result, come closer to fulfilling consumer needs. Marketing and analytics teams run on data, data, and more data. The prototyping and testing phases, give analytics teams an opportunity to analyze this data from a humanized perspective: each data point is a real person with real needs. Responding accordingly to this data allows a brand to ensure that “because we care” is not just a cute tagline, but intrinsically connected to user experience. Fostering a strong and positive user-brand relationship is the best was to ensure brand loyalty, so make sure that empathy is not just given lip-service, but the core value of your brand.

References and Where to go to Learn More:

Dam, Rikke Friis., Siang, Teo Yu., “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular?”, Interaction Design Foundation,, 2020.

McFadden, Christopher., “The Fascinating History of Netflix.” Interesting Engineering,, July 4 2020.

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