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Inside FUSE: Design and Brand Strategy Are Inextricably Linked

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With FUSE 2014 just
a couple of weeks away, I was fortunate to sit down with Natalie Nixon, Ph.D.,
Director of The Strategic Design MBA Program at Philadelphia University.  At FUSE, Nixon will be speaking along with
countless brand strategists, designers, trend hunters and culture curators.
With one collective voice, the 18th annual FUSE conference celebrates
a collaborative approach to building more meaningful brands ' becoming a forum
for all to share stories, inspiration and best practices.
Here is what Nixon had to say:
IIR: A big theme
for FUSE this year is inspiration. So, we want to know what is your 'muse' or
what inspires you in your work?
Nixon:  My muses come from 3 areas: fashion, music and
the millennials. 
1) Fashion, because I used to work in the fashion industry
and believe it is a thoroughly untapped industry -outside of tech, automotive
and food- in terms of the way that it creates aspirational experiences for
customers.  There is so much to learn from the way fashion firms create
meaningful interactions, tap into crowdsourcing, and integrate left brain-right
brain thinking.  In fact, I have co-authored an article about this, with
Johanna Blakley, called 'Fashion Thinking.' 
2) Music, because musicians (and fashion designers!) are
using social media as a platform in some very interesting ways.  Take, for
example, Pharrell's 'Happy.'  It is co-creation at its best!  Some of
the actors & dancers were grabbed off the street because they fit the vibe
and ethos of the song. Additionally, because this is the world's first 24 hour
video the viewer can tune in at any time of day to synchronize with the time of
the video. Pharrell stretched the capacity of what a video is and how the
viewer/fan can interact with the music. 
3) The millennials, because they are who I teach at the
undergraduate level at Philadelphia University; they have access to a wide
range of material and they are adept at manipulating the use of multi-media
platforms.  They are the curators extraordinaire.  They are curating
their education, their entrepreneurial ventures, their fashion looks and their
weekends.  There is a lot to learn from them. 
IIR: Why is it
important for brand strategists and designers to work collectively?
Nixon: Strategy
is a creative endeavor- and design and brand strategy are inextricably
linked.  Unfortunately, they often operate as silos in companies. I should
clarify that I am not only referring to the design of the tangible- product
design, fashion design, etc. 
Since I am steeped in design thinking, I am also referring
to the design of the intangible: processes, services and experiences. 
When designers and brand strategists work collectively, the end result is more cohesive
and resonates more meaningfully with the end-user.  Brands are ultimately
designed- not only in terms of logo and the online user experience that
interactive media designers develop- but brands are also designed in terms of
the ways that users interact with them, and can use the brand to gain meaning
for their own lives.
IIR: What are
ways a design can emotionally connect with its audience?
Nixon:  Story is one of the most effective ways in
which brands can emotionally connect to its audience.  YouTube has become
an awesome way for brands to do this whether it's Dove's 'Real Beauty Sketches,'
Old Spice's sense of humor about itself through 'the Old Spice guy' or TC
Bank's 'Dream Rangers' short film.  Story brings to the surface the
meaningful 'why'- not the how or what, to tap into Simon Sinek's 'Start with
Why.'  Story compels us to lean in, hold
up a mirror to ourselves through its use of archetypes, emotion and
conflict.  Story humanizes brands. 
IIR: Knowing how
consumers will react can be an art and sometimes involves clairvoyance. How
have you developed this skill?
Nixon:  Whether you call it clairvoyance, or
anticipating your client's needs, knowing consumers requires an ability to
discern the real problem that the product or service is solving for the
user.  This can't be done solely through quantitative market research data
and focus groups. 
You have to get out of the office and into the context of
your customer.  Do some deep observation, some participatory research and
some rapid ethnography.  Those companies that are starting to hire
anthropologists have the right idea.  The best way to anticipate the customer's
reaction is to get to know them- up close and personal, using some tried and
true social science, qualitative research methods.
IIR: Gamification
is shaping our interactions with everyday experiences, from education to
retail. How has gamification affected you?
Nixon:  It's a frontier that I try to incorporate into
my teaching because I do not underestimate the value of play!  I have been
told that gamification is the largest growing industry in the United States, as
applied to corporations.  It makes sense- it's a way to disseminate
internal organizational culture, identify user's need, and get buy in for your
product and service.  Games, and play by extension, relaxes people,
engages them and is one of our primal activities in human development that
makes us social beings tapping into our curiosity, improvisational skills and
ingenuity.  Gamification will lead to more innovative outcomes. 
IIR: We live in
an always-on 'now,' where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.
What does this emphasis on immediacy mean to marketing and design?
Nixon:  It's interesting because we actually are not
very consciously present for all of this focus on immediacy.  Immediacy is
not equivalent to meaningful engagement.  The focus on immediacy has meant
that marketing and design is on a shorter timeline crunch to produce ' and
often the output is diluted.  We are most likely headed for a swing back
to deliberate, intentional focus on the now, or at least a hybrid
For example, it is very interesting to me that within the
fashion industry there is currently a co-existence between slow fashion and
fast fashion. The consumers are demanding some balance and that is reflected in
both the valuing of the locally sourced, artisanal product (and thrift
store/vintage) alongside the mass-produced, fashionable product at ridiculously
low prices. 
IIR: How have you
used Design Thinking to solve a problem?
Nixon:  I love design thinking. It is a framework
where I can plug and play and make full use of my creative capacity (the
divergent work) as well as get down to tactical, practical implementation (the
convergent work).  More specifically, I have launched the Strategic Design
MBA program at Philadelphia University, where we integrate the best of business
school with design thinking principles.  It's an untraditional MBA where
teach our students in studio environments, and encourage them to revisit if
they even asked the right question, to reframe the problem, and to use the
creative intelligence of design and the analytical intelligence of
business.  We call ourselves 'The MBA for Hybrid Thinkers' because of this
For me, the coolest experience has been to have my students
tell me that the program has changed their lives, has revamped the ways they
approach their work' this is music to a teacher's ears!
Nixon will be
presentation a session entitled, 'The Brand is the Voice ' Using Design Thinking
to Solve Business Problems' at FUSE
in April. This year, we present our most Iconic and Inclusive
experience ever and welcome all to discover the magic of FUSE. 

As a loyal reader of
our blog, you get an exclusive 15% off discount when you use the code FUSE14BL.
So register today to meet Nixon in person at FUSE! http://bit.ly/1dirc6R

About the Author:
Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist of the Marketing Division at IIR USA, has a background in digital and
print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing,
and technology. Amanda is the Editor at Large for several of IIR's blogs
including Next Big DesignCustomers 1st, and ProjectWorld and World Congress for Business
, and a regular contributor to Front End of Innovation and The Market Research Event,.
She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where
she covered breaking news and feature stories in the technology industry. She
can be reached at aciccatelli@iirusa.com. Follow her at @AmandaCicc.

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