August 24, 2018

Design Thinking is Just Plain Smart for CMOs

by Renegade

“I’m just suggesting, humbly, that better products are easier to sell,” says Jerome Nadel, senior VP and chief marketing officer at Rambus, a public software licensing company in Silicon Valley.

This begs the question, are better products really too much to ask for? For decades, the answer for many CMOs has been, unfortunately, yes. Like it or not, it has traditionally fallen on a marketing department to market a product or service — as is — to the best of its abilities, which can handicap even the most brilliant campaigns. The good news? The role of marketing is changing, slowly but surely.

Jerome Nadel is one of today’s innovative CMOs adopting design-led thinking, which is essentially the unification of product development and marketing. By closely integrating the two, each formerly disparate function informs and ultimately improves the other. So, instead of using customer stories at the bottom of the funnel to nurture conversions, or “downstream” as Nadel refers to it, these softer elements of the customer journey are introduced upstream to improve the product, according to what customers actually need and want. By thinking about marketing during product design, the product becomes better and thus easier to market. “You need to be thinking about these user stories and be connected,” Nadel says, “because that’s going to be the foundation of the narrative you’re going to use to promote later.”

Getting to a design-led framework requires, of course, shifting nearly everyone’s perspective on marketing, a feat that Nadel says has been his greatest accomplishment at Rambus so far.

“The perception of the value of this group and how I sit at the table from a strategy, an execution and an interaction-with-the-board level is really exciting for me,” he says. “I think I have elevated the perception of the corporate role of marketing where it’s really in the fabric of this company.”

Shifting upstream

Like almost any paradigm shift, Nadel’s design-led transformation didn’t happen overnight. He says he mostly leaned on a framework of three key activities: being inclusive, explaining his actions and showing, early on, small successes.

With inclusivity, Nadel explains that it’s important to regard both your reports and your superiors equally when it comes to sharing information. “That’s really, through time, the approach that I’ve tried to adopt even in how we do investor relations,” he says. Explaining your actions and helping your colleagues understand how you think is a core tenet of inclusivity. “You can’t lean too far forward, but you’ve got to be clear about your proposal and incrementally, you need to show that you’re working hard to get there.”

Showing your successes, says Nadel, is also crucial to affecting change. “You’ve got to come in and get quick wins,” he says. “Don’t talk about problems until you gave them something good … Then you get to say, ‘Next time, this is what we should do.’ And you’re incrementing towards better process and better outcome.”

Putting design in practice

When it comes to actually executing design-led strategies, the first step is empathy. “The notion of empathy is that you’re really putting yourself in the mind and the body of somebody who was looking for a solution to their problem,” Nadel says. At Stanford’s design school, for example, students are encouraged to look at an experiential problem from as many angles as possible, a practice referred to as “diverge before you converge.”

Nadel notes this practice can make ambiguity-averse engineers and product developers anxious, but that ambiguity is essential for the first steps of design-led thinking. “Of course, you need to distill it back to a solution,” he says. “That’s why you’re almost training those muscles, the divergence muscles, of letting people say, ‘It’s OK, but look, we’re going to come back. Don’t worry.'”

In sum, a design-led marketing operation like Nadel’s takes storytelling all the way up to those developing the company’s offerings. “If you look at a company like ours that was good at, say, designing an interface within a chip — there isn’t a lot of story around that,” Nadel says. “As we’ve moved up the chain, trying to get closer to the consumer, [we’re] convincing [the engineers] that … as soon as you start opening up to more complex solutions, because they involve more human interaction, you had better start by thinking creatively.”

It turns out that, as a philosophy, design-led thinking hasn’t changed much over time, as it is essentially the product of multidisciplinary teams coming together to create user stories. “Simple as that!” Nadel says. “And when they agree that here’s the story, this is how we’d solve it, then when we get the information architect or the business analyst to diagram that out in terms of process and technical flows, things go way better.”

The lesson here seems to be that the sooner a CMO is involved in product development, the better. “I’m just maniacal about that,” Nadel says. “If you start well, you’re going to end well.”