How These Brands Used Design to Create Brand Relevance

The first in a 3-part series

a tesla cybertruck
Tesla's Cybertruck helps push forward a mission of sustainability. Frederic J. Brown — AFP/Getty Images

Back in February, Marshmello played a concert in Fortnite for over 10 million people. Despite the many records shattered that morning and the more than $30 million generated in merchandise alone, the traditional industry players in concert promotion and merch were nowhere to be found.

And then, just a few weeks ago, Elon Musk tweeted “250k,” touting the soaring number of pre-orders for Tesla’s recently announced pickup truck that had amassed in just five days. Here, too, the traditional industry players watched from the sidelines as they began to go through the motions of their annual slate of holiday advertising.

While seemingly unrelated, both of these moments are glimpses as the fundamental changes that are upturning the world of marketing. The scale and speed of these stories and the way in which they emerged all evidence the imminent obsolescence of so much of what guides marketing decisions today. And underscoring it all, these examples join the ranks of marketing case studies that did not involve one dollar spent on paid advertising.

These examples spotlight an ever-increasing pace of culture and ever-changing evolution in expectations, including how brand trust is established. These disruptive shifts are human at the core, and as such, demand a human-centered response that can become a new compass for decision-making.

We believe that this new compass is design.

Many of the core components of strategic design may seem familiar to marketers, such as leading with empathy and an obsession with the customer experience. But the true implications of building brands by design run far deeper than a semantic update to a mental model that has been in place for generations.

Using design as a compass demands a fundamental rewrite to how brands are defined, customers are understood and media is approached. Through a series of three articles, we will explain each of these three pillars of marketing by design that we believe forge a path for sustainable success in today’s contemporary cultural landscape.

Brand definition by design

The traditional linchpin of brand positioning is identification of your category and resultant frame of reference. The thinking was that, in order to win the game, you had to first define where you play.

As logical as this may seem, in a world where product categories are increasingly irrelevant, defining your brand by its category creates dangerous strategic tunnel vision. When customers compare your brand experience to that of every brand (not just those in the category you believe you inhabit), you can’t segment consumer expectations. You can only ignore the breadth of expectations that consumers truly have.

A properly defined frame of reference for Live Nation leads them to schemes like failed forays into the secondary ticket market instead of realizing that their greatest emergent threats are, in fact, Fortnite and TikTok. Likewise, if the Tesla Cybertruck had begun with a diligently defined frame of reference, it would have led Tesla into an unwinnable battle with the F150 rather than the creation of what is effectively an entirely new market.

Define your brand by what experience you redefine

Contrast that traditional approach with Netflix, which has defined themselves by their desire to constantly redefine what an “amazing entertainment experience” can become. With this category-defying focus, Netflix isn’t centered on a specific consumer, technology or entertainment product. Rather, they are defined by the change they continually create in what entertainment can become. Through this lens, Netflix appropriately sees Fortnite as a massive threat in the competition for attention, rather than myopically focusing on Disney+ in the rapidly escalating but still narrowly defined streaming wars.

Likewise, Tesla’s mission to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy doesn’t just allow for breakthrough bets like the Cybertruck; it demands them. With a series of product launches that transform what we expect from various forms of transportation (be that a sedan, an SUV or a pickup truck), there is no way that Tesla would have made a dent in the already saturated automobile industry.

To sustain relevance and commercial value in today’s world, a brand must continually transform the impact it has against a core human need. It is not nearly enough to merely out-feature a competitor in your category. Transformation is essential to break through, and constant change is essential to remain relevant.

This is brand definition, by design. These two questions can help you apply this same approach to your brand: What new competitive threats and opportunities for growth emerge if you completely ignore what category you are in and instead look at your competition and opportunities through the lens of a human need? How is your brand fundamentally redefining the expectations that people have for an experience that they have to this point accepted as the status quo?

When the answers to these questions come together, it creates brand definition by design, and that leads to brand relevance that is both more powerful and profitable than could ever be achieved by brand positioning or traditional marketing alone.

@baijushah Baiju Shah is chief strategy officer for Accenture Interactive, co-lead of Fjord and a member of the Adweek Advisory Board.
John Greene is the former head of strategy for UnitedMasters and Translation. He's currently building a new startup that is in stealth mode.