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Data Should Help Designers, Not Hinder Them: Why Brands are Doing More Research Earlier in the Creative Process

by Kim Gaskins on 05/04/2021 | 5 Minute Read

Design is sexy—but the bedrock of consumer insight upon which it rests? Not so much. 

Although almost every brand conducts consumer research when it embarks on a design initiative, few talk openly about its critical role in the creative process—or how research itself is changing for the better.

Historically, many large brands have skimped on robust research that would help guide creative strategy at the beginning of the design process. Instead, they’ve doubled down on heavy-duty research, such as shelf tests intended to simulate store environments, at the end of the process to validate their chosen design route—much too late in the game to provide meaningful direction to creatives.

To remedy this, forward-thinking manufacturers have begun front-loading research in their design processes, sometimes even using data to answer the antecedent question, “Should we be redesigning at all?” It’s a good question, given that approximately two-thirds of all redesigns launched to market will generate no meaningful sales impact.

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“Brands make a lot of assumptions—thinking we need to redesign because the competition did, or to keep things fresh, or for this or that reason, but we need to have very up-to-date learning about what's working and what’s not before we just go and change everything. Conducting pre-design research on the current package is incredibly helpful at that stage,” said Jen Giannotti-Genes, global brand design director at Colgate-Palmolive.

Some manufacturers have taken the notion of pre-design research even further, implementing tools for continuous design performance monitoring before a redesign opportunity arises. For example, Kellogg’s evaluates the mental availability of its visual assets every three to five years and leverages syndicated data, updated annually, to audit the performance of its current designs and those of key competitors. 

“In the last couple years, we’ve put more emphasis on having ongoing benchmarks for brand identity, distinctive assets, shopability, and other design performance areas. Having an objective set of data on how our design work performs at any given time is critical. This alerts us to potential issues and opportunities and helps remove subjectivity that can sometimes arise during our design process,” said Neil Cowan, brand design director at Kellogg’s.

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Not only can subjectivity force a redesign when there’s no strategic impetus for one, but it can also wreak havoc on meaningful decisions made early in the creative process, including how far out from the current design to venture and which routes are worth developing further. “Personal preferences have a tendency to impede long-term growth and momentum for our brands. We have to remind ourselves that good design is equal parts art and science, form and function,” remarked Cowan.

Sometimes this subjectivity manifests as a reluctance to consider bolder design approaches that may ultimately benefit the brand. To make matters worse, end-of-process validation tests tend to reward this built-in bias toward the current design. These tests are, in essence, “disaster checks” focused on averting risk rather than maximizing the upside potential of design through early strategic insight. That isn’t to say that all design initiatives require a dramatic change, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “close-in” redesigns typically deliver “close-in” sales outcomes. In other words, limited design exploration can sometimes carry a significant opportunity cost.

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“Decision-makers in almost every industry show a strong bias towards the status quo. If you're sitting on a three-billion-dollar brand, you don't get rewarded for taking risks every day. A big part of your job is to protect that franchise, but our job as designers is to be ambitious on behalf of brands when it’s warranted. We should be asking, ‘What’s the potential of this design?’ with an understanding of the current design, but also a willingness to look beyond it,” said Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor & Fitch, a global brand transformation company headquartered in London.

For brand owners who struggle with risk-taking, early and iterative quantitative research can help to drive confidence in the chosen approach so that by the time a design undergoes final validation testing, there is minimal concern about failure. Since these validation tests are typically costly and time-consuming—requiring tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of preparation and fielding time—many brands can only test one design route. A failure at this late stage can prove catastrophic for launch timelines.

“The goal is to implement more test-and-learn measures for upstream concepts. That way, we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket, thinking we have the answer. This process allows us to be more confident when we do eventually validate a final design,” explained Cowan.

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The value of iteration certainly isn’t news to designers. While many brands have endorsed more “agile” processes, not nearly enough have made the investments to back them up—at least where design is concerned. These investments include deep-dive qualitative explorations, a quantitative baseline read of the current design’s performance (when applicable), and quantitative testing of initial design concepts early enough to signal the likely success of those concepts and provide actionable feedback for refinement.

In an ideal setting, the role of research should be to provide creatives with as much objective information as possible, as early in the process as possible—not to render an ironclad judgment about whether a particular design is fit for launch. The more research a brand employs early in the process, the less necessary such a judgment becomes. “If you’re validating your approach continuously throughout the process, there’s no big mystery at the end—you just know whether something is going to be a success in market,” said Giannotti-Genes.

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Giannotti-Genes, a senior design executive, places a high value on her team’s collaboration with the consumer insights group within Colgate-Palmolive—so much so that she believes there’s an opportunity to meld these functions, training individuals with data chops to become fluent in design thinking as well. Manufacturers and agencies alike now embrace the immense potential of applying data to the design process at different stages and in ways that are more empowering for creatives.

“Too many people assume that design and research are adversaries. Understanding how we can design more effectively for a target audience—that is probably not us, by the way—and making sure we’re having the desired impact shouldn’t be something that great designers complain about or shy away from,” said Zalla.