Is Your Marketing Stuck in a Rut? How Design Thinking Can Spark New Growth

As a marketer, it often feels like the goal posts are always moving. No matter how successful your last campaign was, you‘re expected to deliver even better results the next time around – with the same or fewer resources. Meanwhile, customer expectations keep rising, technology keeps evolving, and the competition keeps finding new ways to innovate.

It‘s enough to make even the most creative, data-savvy marketing teams feel stuck. But what if there was a proven method you could use to tackle even the toughest, most ambiguous marketing challenges and generate new growth?

Enter design thinking: a human-centered, iterative approach to problem solving pioneered by top design firms like IDEO and Stanford‘s d.school. While originally associated with product design, this powerful methodology can be applied to any business challenge – including marketing.

How One Marketing Team Used Design Thinking to Boost Engagement by 25%

Let me give you a concrete example. The marketing team at a midsize software company had been struggling for two straight quarters to hit their targets for user acquisition and retention. They had tried every tactic in their playbook, from paid social campaigns to email nurture flows to site optimization. But nothing seemed to be moving the needle.

Frustrated, they decided to step back and approach the challenge through a design thinking lens. With the guidance of an experienced design thinking facilitator, the team dedicated five full days to unpacking the problem and rapidly prototyping new solutions using the following process:

Day 1: Build empathy. They conducted a dozen in-depth customer interviews, hosted a focus group with lost prospects, analyzed usage data and support tickets, and even shadowed customers in the field using the software. The goal: gain deep insight into the customer‘s world.

Day 2: Reframe the problem. Armed with new customer understanding, they reframed their challenge from "How can we get more leads?" to "How might we demonstrate the value of our software to users faster?" This subtle but important shift opened up new solution spaces to explore.

Day 3: Ideate and prototype. They brainstormed over 200 ideas for how they could shorten time-to-value, voting and clustering around themes to identify 15 of the most promising ones. Teams then rapidly built out rough prototypes, from new in-app onboarding flows to interactive demos.

Day 4: Test and learn. The teams tested their prototypes with employees and a handful of customers, gathering feedback to iterate and improve. Some ideas were scrapped, others were refined based on user input.

Day 5: Share and plan. The teams regrouped to share learnings and decide which concepts to take forward. Together, they built a roadmap to pilot the winning solutions, assigning owners and defining success metrics.

So what were the results? Within one month of launching the highest-potential prototypes, the company saw:

  • 25% increase in customer engagement, measured by weekly active usage
  • 15% increase in trial conversions
  • 12% reduction in customer support requests
  • 95% customer satisfaction rating on new onboarding experience

And those results continued to compound in the months that followed as they scaled the solutions to more users. By deeply understanding their customers and taking an iterative, experimental approach, this marketing team was able to deliver the kind of needle-moving outcomes that had previously eluded them.

Why Design Thinking Works for Marketing

This team‘s success was no fluke. When applied correctly, design thinking can help marketers:

  1. Build true customer empathy. Through immersive research techniques, you gain deep insight into your customer‘s real needs, motivations, behaviors and constraints. This empathy is the foundation for crafting marketing that truly resonates.

  2. Reframe challenges through a human lens. Instead of starting with your own objectives, design thinking forces you to look at problems from the customer‘s perspective. By asking "How might we…?" questions, you open up new ways to deliver value.

  3. Generate novel ideas. The structured brainstorming process helps you come up with a huge quantity of diverse, creative solutions – even for challenges that seem impossible. Deferring judgment and building on each other‘s ideas leads to out-of-the-box thinking.

  4. Make ideas tangible. By rapidly prototyping concepts, you make the abstract concrete and testable. Even a rough sketch or storyboard allows you to collect input and spot issues before investing in a full rollout.

  5. De-risk new initiatives. Testing prototypes with real users allows you to validate (or invalidate) key assumptions and hypotheses. Based on feedback, you can iterate and improve to boost your chances of in-market success.

The numbers back this up too. According to the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies outperformed the S&P by 228% over ten years. Another study by McKinsey found that companies scoring in the top-quartile of the McKinsey Design Index had 32% more revenue and 52% more total returns to shareholders compared with other companies.

How to Get Started with Design Thinking in Your Marketing

Sold on the benefits of design thinking but not sure how to begin applying it within your own marketing organization? Here are some tips from experts who have been in your shoes:

1. Start small and focused. Pick a specific, contained challenge to experiment with design thinking first vs. trying to boil the ocean. Look for a project where you can go from problem to tested prototype in a matter of days or weeks to build momentum.

"When I work with marketing teams adopting design thinking, I always recommend they start with a pilot project to get a feel for the process and demonstrate quick results to build buy-in," says Sarah Jones, Design Thinking Consultant at Innovate LLC. "It could be something like improving email open rates or reducing landing page bounce rates – something that won‘t take months and millions of dollars."

2. Assemble a cross-functional team. Resist the urge to limit involvement to just the marketing department. The magic of design thinking often comes from bringing together people with diverse skills and perspectives, from sales to product to customer service.

"I‘ve found that the ideal design thinking team includes a mix of left-brain and right-brain thinkers, introverts and extroverts, senior leaders and frontline employees," says Jones. "You want people who can bring the voice of the customer, people who can think strategically, and people who can actually build and execute."

3. Immerse yourself in customer research. There‘s simply no substitute for engaging with your customers directly, whether through in-person interviews, contextual observation, or even inviting them to co-create with you. The goal is to build deep empathy for their experience – which is very different than reviewing the results of a multiple choice survey.

4. Don‘t skimp on ideation. Even if you feel pressure to jump straight to solutions, give yourself and your team permission to diverge before you converge. Set an ambitious target for the number of ideas you‘ll generate (at least 50-100) and bring in a skilled facilitator to help you stretch to new territory.

"The biggest mistake I see marketers make in design thinking is not spending enough time in the ideation phase," says David Lee, Director of UX at BigiDesign. "They come up with 15-20 ideas, most of which are variations on what they‘re already doing, and call it a day. But to get to truly breakthrough solutions, you need to generate a huge quantity of diverse ideas, including the crazy ones. Embrace the wild and wacky!"

5. Experiment to learn, not to validate. When you put a prototype in front of a user, you‘re not trying to sell them on how great it is. You‘re trying to learn what works, what doesn‘t, and why. Ask open-ended questions, encourage honest feedback, and observe their actual behavior – not just what they say.

"I always remind my teams that a prototype is not a finished product, it‘s a learning tool," says Lee. "The goal is not to get the customer to rubber-stamp your idea, but to stress test it and identify all the ways it can be improved. Some of the most valuable insights come from prototypes that don‘t quite hit the mark."

6. Communicate learnings and iterations. Design thinking isn‘t a linear process – it‘s a cyclical one of continuous learning and improvement. Make sure to build in channels for sharing feedback from experiments across the organization, as well as making decisions about what to do differently next time.

"One of my favorite rituals is the ‘Friday Failure‘ meeting, where teams come together to present something that didn‘t quite work that week – and what they‘re going to change as a result," says Jones. "It‘s a great way to normalize the idea that not every experiment will be a home run, but that there‘s always something to be learned."

Growing a Design-Driven Marketing Culture

Of course, adopting design thinking in marketing isn‘t just about using a new set of tools or running the occasional workshop. To be truly effective, it requires instilling a whole new mindset and way of working across the organization.

"Design thinking is not a one-and-done activity, it‘s a cultural shift," says Lee. "It‘s about embracing customer empathy, experimentation, and continuous iteration as a way of life. That requires changes to how you hire, how you structure teams, how you make decisions, and how you measure success."

Some companies, like IBM, Capital One, and Intuit, have invested heavily in building design thinking capabilities over many years, hiring thousands of designers and user researchers and integrating them into multi-disciplinary teams. But you don‘t have to go that far to start seeing results.

One baby step is to start advocating for the voice of the customer in your marketing planning and decision making. "Any time someone proposes a new campaign or tactic, ask: how do we know this is what the customer really needs or wants? What evidence do we have to support that? Bringing the customer into the conversation is always an eye-opener," says Jones.

Another is to start dedicating a small portion of your budget to marketing experiments. "Most marketing leaders are so focused on near-term targets and ‘proven‘ programs that they‘re afraid to carve out resources for testing innovative ideas," says Lee. "But all it takes is setting aside 5-10% of your budget to start building that experimentation muscle – and to uncover new opportunities you would never have thought of otherwise."

Conclusion: Embrace Design Thinking to Reinvent Your Marketing

In today‘s world of constant change and rising customer expectations, marketers can‘t afford to stick to the status quo. The old playbooks and best practices will only take you so far. To drive breakout growth, you need a whole new approach – one that combines creativity, customer centricity, and continuous experimentation.

That‘s where design thinking comes in. By applying this proven methodology to your toughest marketing challenges, you can unlock fresh insights about your customers, expand to new solution spaces, and validate high-potential ideas faster than ever before.

But getting started with design thinking doesn‘t have to mean hiring a Chief Design Officer and overhauling your entire go-to-market strategy. Start small with a single pilot project, build a cross-functional team of eager co-conspirators, and carve out some time and space to immerse yourself in the customer‘s world.

Most importantly, don‘t be afraid to fail. In the wise words of IDEO co-founder David Kelley, "Fail faster to succeed sooner." The more you embrace experimentation and learn from your misfires, the sooner you‘ll hit on the next big marketing breakthrough.

So what are you waiting for? Identify that first gnarly challenge to tackle with design thinking, assemble your team, and start building your way to a new way of marketing. Your customers – and your bottom line – will thank you.