To get to point B, first you need to figure out how you arrived at point A.
Take the following example: You've been asked to lead a half-year marketing project for an international cruise line. They're launching a new luxury cruise liner that serves the Caribbean via Miami. Your new client wants you to help her sell out a full season on the new boat. They have a ton of ideas to share with you on how they can accomplish their goals.
Sitting down for your first meeting—an information-gathering session at corporate headquarters—your responsibility is to determine the scope of the campaign and help brainstorm tactics. After the meeting, you'll write a creative brief and prepare to kick off the project with your design team.
After a few minutes of small talk, your client starts to rattle off the details. Three new ports of call. An Olympic-sized swimming pool on the top deck. A new five-star dining menu with a first-rate wine list. Right away, the design ideas start flowing fast and furious in your mind. In the margin of your notebook, you start a few initial sketches that you just know will sell out all the luxury berths through the entire winter season. Suddenly, you blurt out: "Send the travel agents coconuts!"
Not five minutes had elapsed in your information-gathering session, and you've gone right to work. Such scenarios, where you have a clear vision of design solutions to marry up with a stated marketing goal, often seem serendipitous. But the habit of engaging in design ideation before having a thorough understanding of your client's business context is a bad one that should be broken. I'm not denying the value of intuition in the design process, but rather seeking that we employ our intuition after we have created a strategy by which to focus it.
Which leads to the crux of this scenario. A critical skill for any client-facing designer is the ability to scape away at the surface of a marketing problem to thoroughly understand its business context. Marketing is not business. Marketing is an activity that supports doing business. If you don't have a business context for a marketing project—i.e, understanding what business decisions led to engaging a designer's services to participate in sales and marketing activity—then talking strategy and marketing tactics can be somewhat ungrounded.
So, when situations such as these emerge during a client engagement, I immediately try to "unsolve the business problem." This is the act of shifting a client's conversational focus from the stated marketing problem to the underlying system of business conditions that led to its formation. By understanding the system of challenges in which your client's stated problem stands, you can better serve your client in forging a more strategic, better-designed result.
What follows are eight critical questions you can ask your clients—and glean insight into the business context around their marketing problems.
Question #1: What business conditions caused this marketing problem to come about?
You don't need to be an expert in business to ask this question, and the answers will always inspire dialogue that furthers the project's strategy.
Take the cruise line story as an example. This business problem didn't just magically appear out of nowhere—it emerged from a tangled web of market conditions and audience expectations. Why did the cruise line decide to build a new ship? Was it for more revenue? To position themselves against a competitor? Did their customers ask for it after spending a week on a thirty-year-old ship that was falling into disrepair? In order to market something properly and be strategic in your design thinking, you can't be ignorant when considering the facts undergirding the stated marketing problem.
When you are tasked with approaching large-scale business problems, this step can only be skipped at great peril. And many designers don't even realize until they're deep into execution exactly how much information they were missing through their discovery phase.
Question #2: Is the client aware of their role in the marketing problem's formation?
This is scary territory for a designer to tread, but you can couch this question in a manner that feels empowering. It can be phrased as, "How did you determine that [name of business issue] needed to be addressed?"
Clients often create their own problems due to a host of unique concerns, such as siloed business lines, power struggles, market conditions influencing shareholder value, and poor customer experiences that can't be patched over with an increased marketing spend. Don't assume that you can stay free of said concerns in the design process. They will weave their way into your work, whether you like it or not.
If you hear a client talk 100% about the competition and not about their own actions, it's likely that there is another layer of information that needs to be sussed out in a delicate, perhaps indirect fashion. After a few lunches out, the truth always emerges.
Question #3: What other (potentially related) business and/or marketing problems have arisen that you aren't aware of?
Tackling marketing problems can often be like playing Whack-A-Mole—knock one varmint down, and another one that's tangentially related immediately pops up.
In the case of the new cruise ship, did they mention the other new ship that is servicing South America during the same season and will be co-marketed with the Caribbean ship? Or that their cruise line just had a series of poor reviews in Travel + Leisure, and as a result, they have embarked on a brand-building exercise to bolster their reputation? You may have been hired to solve just one problem, but it could be interwoven with many others. This is inevitable, unless you sell just one thing to one person in one place.
Any time a client says, "Don't worry about [X] other project/issue, it isn't related," put a little note in your notebook to be aware of it. The answer is often awaiting you, three conversations later.
Question #4: Who are the actors in tacking the marketing problem, and what is their role in the business?
You need to know who is part of the "extended client team" that may review your work, from start to finish. And the person who's the boss of all of them needs to be signing your creative brief.
Question #5: What other possible business and/or marketing strategies did you consider before settling on this specific course of action?
This question needs to be asked, because exploring the range of thinking around the marketing problem often begets larger and more constructive solutions. Though this doesn't mean you get carte blanche to play business consultant and sell your client on a new business strategy. It means you want your client to explain how their organization thinks through business challenges as a team. This lets you understand their working process, where you fit into it, and what skills or insights you may have during the engagement that evolve their thinking around the business problem. Don't come off like somebody from McKinsey & Co, as you will always lose out. Simply be curious, honest, and intentionally naive in order to see their range of thought.
Question #6: What are the conditions for success in "solving" this marketing problem?
I put the word "solving" in quotes because we usually don't solve client problems. We provide solutions that help to effect change over time, thereby changing the parameters of the problem. For my imaginary cruise line, at the end of every year that client will want to sell out all the berths on the cruise ship. The methods they employ in doing so will evolve based on marketing actions over time. You need metrics for success to make sure that your work is perceived as a success. Otherwise, they may not judge the quality of your work performance fairly. These kinds of conversations shouldn't happen when you're solving the problem. They should occur when you're framing the problem. (Unless you're just doing research.)
Question #7: What are the long-term brand considerations that undergird the problem?
You should never ignore the broader story you're telling for your client. You aren't just doing a project—you're contributing to the trajectory of your client's brand. If you're encouraging customers to go to the Caribbean during the winter months, you may also be planting the seeds for a larger marketing story that ties into other (related) business goals.
I'm not saying to dilute the effectiveness of your work by trying to put in multiple messages. I'm encouraging you to consider the broader story of your client's brand, and how your design choices in execution contribute to their overall brand strategy.
Question #8: How is your client being measured across the problem-solving effort?
Clients have performance reviews. They need to meet goals as well. They need a Plan B or Plan C to make it through any potential calamity unscathed. You need to know where the exit doors are before you get on the ship—for both of you. This doesn't need to be discussed... just be aware of how to help your client succeed with you.
Part root-cause analysis, part client psychotherapy—unsolving a business problem takes considerate, mindful effort. But it has an amazing byproduct for any designer. It lets clients know that you want to contribute to their business success beyond mere aesthetics. And who knows? Perhaps your efforts may inspire another project or two down the line that you weren't even aware of...