During a year studying abroad in Luxembourg, I got to know this small, fascinating country. While today Luxembourg is a rich country, a center for banking and finance, and a founding members of what became the EU, for 900 years it was known as “The Gibraltar of the North,” one of the best and most impressive fortresses in all of Europe. It served an important strategic function due to its location between France, Germany, The Netherlands (and later, Belgium).
The Fortress of Luxembourg lasted until 1867, when to avert war between France and Prussia, the Treaty of London required the demolition of the city’s famous fortifications. The thing is, by 1867, despite their fearsome reputation, the walls no longer held much strategic importance given changes in technology, particularly better artillery. The treaty precipitated a change from strategic fortress to a small, neutral country that had to reinvent itself, but one which would have come in short order.
Now, stay with me for one moment. I think this story has something to say about how business is changing in the age of the Internet. I think we’re all facing our “Luxembourg” moment.
Back in the day, how did you know which soap to buy? The same one your mother used? Or the one with the persuasive offer to make you and your family better people? You know, advertising. It’s still out there, but it’s changed. Today, branding is no longer about what you’re told. It’s about what you know because there are millions of people ready and willing to share their experiences with the world; to tell it like it is.
This is where design comes in. Back in day, the emphasis was on the claims. The promise was what drove action. You can hear it in the Rolling Stones (or if you prefer, DEVO) “The man comes on the radio, tells me how white my shirts can be, but he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” Advertising (and later, marketing) were where all the money went. Design was applied, typically, at the end, to support the advertising claims that were already made.
Today, the formula is flipping. When you spend time with a product or service, its design is its promise. And, there’s no escaping bad experiences. They will follow a brand everywhere online. This is why design-driven organizations like Apple, Nike, or AirBnB have found such success. The design is the message.
The walls have truly come down.
The Internet has leveled the playing field. Every organization has a fair shot at getting their message across. And if people love the product or service, they’ll likely say so online or on social media. Becoming customer-centered will have to become a core competency of every organization.
In our practice, we call this becoming “Experience Driven.” It means doing the hard work to understand what people want, need, and desire, and bending your organizations’s workflow, technology, and culture to deliver on those promises. The “fortress” organizations have painstakingly built up – old-fashioned branding, advertising, etc – no longer offers the power it once did. Reinvention is the name of the game.