A while back I was asked by Patrick Stal from Interbrand if I would do an interview for their quarterly magazine IQ. This issue is all about digital and I had the opportunity to talk about digital branding and the role of design in this context. Read the full article below.


Thomas Marzano puts the emphasis on experience by insisting on a human touch in a digital world.

PATRICK STAL: Could you tell us a little bit of your personal background with digital specifically?

Thomas Marzano: I guess my fascination for digital started with my first Donkey Kong handheld video game. Very sub-consciously at that time, having a world that can be re-created or created by nothing, a world you can interact with, you can be the person who’s directing the plot and who is developing a story line in a digital world—already captivated me at a very young age. I think a red thread throughout my personal career and my fascination with digital has always been experience. As soon as you move in the world of brand and you move in the world of telling stories for a brand, whether it’s in a digital or non-digital space, it’s really about orchestrating an experience.

PS: Would you say that digital has taught brands about this aspect of total, complete experiences and storytelling?

TM: I like the word “taught”, but I’d like to slightly change that into “re-taught”, because I think if you go back 100 years, brands already knew this. Because in essence, brands were a small group of people who are running a business. Usually in a small locality, they had direct contact with their customers. It was very easy to get a sense of what customers were liking or not liking about your product. Think of a butcher in a town. He would be able to tell you how to best prepare that very nice piece of beef for example and which wines maybe you could try with it. He would have this personal relationship. I think in scaling up, we’ve lost that knowledge and tradition to keep that relationship going. I think digital has brought back the means to do just exactly what we used to do back in the day. Now, we need to re-teach ourselves.

PS: Would we be able to say that digital has caused branding to be personal again?

TM: Yes, humanizing it. Digital is really bringing the personal and the human element back. That’s what makes it a challenge for the larger organizations, because we have distanced ourselves from that personal relationship through using retailing channels, through going global and having global operations.

PS: What we have seen though is many brands panicking to some extent because years ago, we saw a lot of the digital developments as technical developments…

TM: Yes. I think globally, we’ve seen a panic. Part of it is due to the speed in which this has developed and also the quantity of digital tools, platforms, new technologies, the Cloud, the Facebooks, the Twitters and all the little niche social networks that have been popping up. There is so much that came about at a speed that was easier for a consumer to keep up with than for a brand to keep up with. At the same time, the brands that have been leading in this area, they shifted their focus from technology to people. Where you need to stay close is your story, your brand story, your brand value.

PS: Could you tell us a little bit about the design strategy of the Philips brand and how digital has really impacted the design strategy?

TM: If we talk design strategy, I think what has been at the heart of Philips and Philips Design therefore has been a high design process, which is really the user-centered approach. In essence, it talks about understanding your context, the environment that they’re using a certain product or a certain product category. It then talks about going into conceptual design where you, through testing and learning, keep reiterating on your proposition until you go off and design the actual product or touch points. It’s really the user-centricity and the relevance and the means of meaning to a consumer. How digital has impacted that is, first of all, it has given us tools. We’re able to collaborate and involve customers digitally at a very early stage. We did a project a while back where we really brought a group of consumers together in both Germany and in Spain to inspire us and generate ideas around a new proposition for a kitchen environment. We gave them cameras, and we enabled them on a blog. We asked them to basically capture their life. Capture how they put their groceries in the fridge, how they will go on and prepare the foods. Then we gave them challenges like, “Okay, tomorrow we want you to organize a party and invite six people and do a dinner party.” We asked them to observe and to capture the steps that they would do like going grocery shopping, making a list and doing all these things. Real time, we could then give them another assignment because we wanted to dive deeper into a certain aspect. In the digital space, the whole notion of AB testing and being able to live, try things out and measure and really get a dashboard of what is going on enables you to do something, which I call precision design because the more you know, the more you can see, the more precisely you can make design decisions. Design effectiveness for me is one of the most important aspects. Brand and creating brand preference and brand recognition is a very big part of that. At the same time, in the digital space, you’re facilitating a task for somebody. It’s really about bringing that brand to life across all of the touch points. Taking the user and their experience at the heart of everything that we do and trying to, along that entire consumer journey or customer journey, to try and integrate all of the touch points and really provide the seamless experience around all of them. It’s a very difficult thing to do.

PS: What would your thoughts be to brand leaders where they get a question from the CEO and say, “We don’t know how to deal with digital, we’re not doing a good enough job, deal with it. Tell me what the solution should be.”

TM: Maybe I can just say what helps me because I’m also in that same context and I’m also seeing the overwhelming opportunities and maybe also threats that digital gives. What helps me, is really to, in a way, turn your back on the technology and look at people and put most of your effort in understanding how people and your audience, not people in general, but specifically your audience, how they are interacting with brands and how they’re consuming your product and how they are behaving and how they are using digital. Start there.

PS: You think there are some brands or professionals that get caught up in the “I need to understand how I can use Facebook, for example, for my brand”, rather than the question of saying “How are my consumers attracted to whatever platform?”

TM: Absolutely. To be honest, to be also a little bit critical, maybe to a lot of the consultancies that I see and a lot of the agencies that I see, is that they get caught up in that as well. They find themselves also promoting a certain tactic on a Facebook platform or on a Twitter feed without really consulting on a higher level of what a brand or a company should try to achieve. Talk about your target audience. Understand them and design, that’s what I’m so passionate about, design as well. Design that experience that you want to give them. Even if it’s a really, really small one.

PS: Do you feel that some brands are not deciding that certain directions are right for them, but struggling in terms of conceptuality?

TM: I think a lot of brands are struggling and are having difficulties in making decisions. The reason is because we’re still in an evolution related to digital, I think the bigger brands are still going through growing pains. I think digital-native employees like myself for example, are slowly having more influence in organizations and therefore, you see much more maturity in the last couple of years than maybe five years back. It will still take time and I think a big part of success in digital, is leadership in the end. Leadership is when you really know it as a brand, what you want to do and what you stand for. I’ve seen too many brands falling in the trap of “We need to buy this knowledge” and of course there’s a lot of agencies out there that as soon as the buzz with social or mobile media came out, they stick it on their CVs and on their portfolios. The trap is then for brands that are trying to buy this knowledge and buy this leadership. I’m a true believer that in ten years, everybody will be digital. We can scrap the word digital, I guess. I’m a firm believer that one of the things that as brands, we need to start to do so to move beyond having to activate something in marketing, how do you service a customer experience, how do you turn your employees into your brand ambassadors? Because that will be your long-term digital brand.

Article published on InterBrand IQ

Read the full IQ Magazine here