For decades, advertising has always been the main marketing activity to help promote businesses and their products or services. With the changes in consumer behavior over the past couple of years, advertising has evolved in order to remain relevant in its appeal to audiences. In the past, most advertisements focused mainly on the product and how good they were. Fast forward to today, this focus has shifted from the product to the community, the brand, and consumers’ emotions. This is because consumers today are smarter and more well-informed, which makes the hard-selling of products in advertising a big turn off.

This is where design thinking comes in. Design thinking is the process of “applying a designer’s sensibilities and methods to problem-solving.” It adopts a human-centered approach that aims to understand the audience and their needs, and as a result, design innovative products and services to meet those needs. With the consumers of today no longer satisfied with functional products or advertisements that yell “bigger”, “better”and “cheaper”, design thinking is needed to find out what makes them tick. In fact, what consumers need is not another better quality product, they need new, innovative products. What consumers need is not another ad that shouts “SALE” or tells them that it’s made of “state-of-the-art technology” or that it’s “biodegradable”, they need brands that treat them as human beings — acknowledging their problems as well as how they feel, and then giving them solutions to those problems.

What Is Design Thinking In Advertising?

Why should marketers bother about using design thinking when trying to market their products and services to people? This is because the role of advertising has changed — advertisements today should aim to connect, not sell. People wouldn’t mind you selling to them if you have first managed to connect with them.

The qualitative data gathered from design research helps you empathise with your potential customers, and lets you have a more in-depth understanding of them such as what their unmet needs are, what the current options in the market to fulfill those needs are, how much they would pay for your products or services, and why exactly would they want to buy from you (Source: Knowing these motivations and expectations is helpful in effectively establishing a connection with your customers.

Another major component of design thinking, that is also commonly used in advertising and campaigns, is storytelling. Whether it is storyboarding to “walk around in the shoes of your consumer” and understand their customer journey experience, or scripting a campaign narrative to invoke certain actions and emotions from consumers, storytelling is apparent throughout the different stages in the design thinking process. Furthermore, in order to connect with your audience on a more personal level, your marketing message cannot be crafted simply around consumers’ physical needs, but their underlying emotional needs as well. Advertisements that are emotional and touching tend to leave a more powerful impression than advertisements that simply highlight the product and its features. With this in mind, design thinking can help you to tap into that emotion. One brand that has successfully managed to elicit audience’s response using emotion is Always in its #LikeAGirl campaign (Image:

Source: Effie Worldwide, Inc.

Being a brand that sells feminine hygiene products, they employed a similar tactic used in campaigning movements which tapped on the strong emotions of people. By asking “What does it mean to do things #LikeAGirl?”, this question leveraged the anger that it triggered – especially among women – to challenge the stereotypes that fellow women faced, and encouraged the wider audience to consider a new and more empowered perspective towards women.

How To Apply Design Thinking Into Campaigns?

     1. Put human needs first

Design thinking is all about putting your customers first, and that’s what you have to do when applying design thinking to your campaigns. Don’t be quick to assume that you know what your customers are thinking. Start by picturing yourself as a consumer, and empathise with how they would feel. Based on this, explore how you can channel these emotions, experiences and expectations into a campaign. Take note of your consumers’ pain points — what are they frustrated about, and how can you solve it in a way that no one would have thought of? With the combination of qualitative design research and market research, this will help you craft a meaningful consumer experience through your products and services.

     2. Flare before Focus

In design thinking, divergent thinking (or ‘flaring’ methods) is used to discover opportunities and explore ideas. This requires a certain level of open-mindedness — before focusing on a final campaign idea, gather as many user stories as possible to have a better understanding of the opportunity space, brainstorm wildly, and suspend judgement. Only when you have explored a variety of new and different concepts, then should you move on to convergent thinking (or ‘focusing’ methods) to narrow down the ideas (Source:

     3. Trial-and-error

Once you have settled on a final idea, great — but that’s not the end. Continuous testing of that idea is the next crucial step. To lower the likelihood of launching a campaign that resonates poorly with your audience, testing is an iterative and necessary requirement. Develop prototypes, involve users, get feedback, learn from mistakes, continuously improve — do all these until your idea is full-proof.

Coca Cola’s Happiness Machine is hands down one of the most innovative campaigns that have successfully weaved design thinking into their storytelling. Have you noticed how a lot of Coca Cola advertisements emphasise on spreading happiness to everyone? Using this as the foundational message of their storytelling, the Coca Cola Happiness Machine encourages just that. In their campaign video, the machine continuously gives out Coca Cola bottles or flowers to encourage people to spread happiness all around. The video’s point of view showcases real reactions from real people, and are shot with a raw and authentic tone. Although happiness is an inanimate object, the brand’s video successfully captures the emotion, leaving viewers smiling with a warm fuzzy feeling.

Source: Steven Su, Unsplash

Spreading happiness is a consistent theme for the brand and its presence all around the world, in whatever form that may take. Coca Cola recognises that although universal, happiness may look very different from one culture to another. Therefore, by understanding markets and their nuances, and coming up with different and unique ways of bringing happiness to people, the brand is able to deliver on its promise in a way that transcends geographical barriers. Take for instance how in Dubai’s Labour Camps, these Happiness Machinesallowed people to use Coca Cola bottle caps as payment instead of actual money, in exchange for a free call; or how about the brand’s Hug Me vending machines in Singapore that dispensed its drinks if you gave it a tight squeeze. Can you imagine such ideas ever existing before Coca Cola came up with it? Something so simple yet so innovative shows how design thinking can be applied to your campaigns. By allowing you to think out of the box, this gives you the space and ability to come up with something that no one would have ever imagined possible.

Ultimately, design thinking allows brands to understand and empathise with their consumers, which is why holding empathy interviews is often part and parcel of the design thinking process. The goal of design-driven marketing and advertising is as Peter Drucker puts it, “to make selling superfluous…to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.” In fact, more than just a process, design thinking has to be viewed as a mindset — one that helps you look at problems with innovative solutions. This is how you can transform the way you market, advertise and build your campaign — with groundbreaking ideas that can be feasibly executed. The key is to always remember the people you and your ads are serving; because despite how the ad industry has evolved today – especially digitally – we must never forget that it is still “a human industry that is based on the power of imagination.” (Source:

Still cracking your brains on that breakthrough idea for your next campaign? Feel free to reach out to us and we’ll be happy to bring our design thinking expertise to the table, and bounce off a few ideas 😉


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Hero image: Joshua Earle, Unsplash