How to Create Experiences to Bring a Brand's Story to Life

Five Questions for Sohrab Vossoughi, Founder-Principal of Ziba Design

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sohrab Vossoughi believes in love -- the love marketers must create when trying to connect with consumers.

Mr. Vossoughi, the founder and principal of Ziba Design, in Portland, Ore., said his job is to help clients create experiences for their customers, because the "experience is what brings them back for more." He launched Ziba, a product-development firm, in 1984 and directs projects for marketers including McDonald's, FedEx, Hyundai, Whirlpool, Xerox, Black & Decker, Samsung, Microsoft, Nike, Pioneer, Sanyo and Coleman. "We design experiences in multiple platforms -- object, communications, environment interaction/interface and the combination of all of those," he said.

Sohrab Vossoughi
Sohrab Vossoughi
One notable achievement for Mr. Vossoughi, who also held industrial and product-design positions at Hewlett-Packard Corp., has been the work his firm did a few years ago for Oregon bank Umpqua Bank, which wanted to reinvent the retail-banking experience. Ziba redesigned everything from furniture to fixtures to layout to environmental graphics and collateral materials, including gift cards and coffee coasters. "It was a very holistic kind of experience that was in line with what they really were about, the essence of their brand, and connected them to their core customers," Mr. Vossoughi said.

In an interview with Advertising Age, at a time when connecting with value-seeking, penny-pinching consumers has never been more critical, he discussed the necessity for marketers to create authentically designed experiences for them, from media platforms to in-store environments to products. He also explained why many marketers have faltered trying to get it right.

Ad Age: Do you think every brand is ripe for a design overhaul?

Mr. Vossoughi: Most brands see design as a way to differentiate themselves. Most PC companies and cellphone companies have driven themselves into a fashion industry. Look at Apple or Porsche: They don't change their design. Once in a while they revive it, but they don't change every aspect of the product. But most other companies, in order to lure people, [feel compelled to] make changes and change the design along the way. It might work in the short term, but in the long term it gets them into trouble. You get into the fashion business, and then it's not sustainable, because of the amount of resources you have to put into it but also because you become obsolete very quickly.

It's easy to be different; it is very hard to be right -- right for your brand, right for your target customer. Most brands try to be everything to everybody, and then they become nothing to nobody. They are more focused on reaching the masses. If you're not delivering on your promise, consumers will go out and buy something else. Most brands are ready for design, not to create something new and different but to create something that is meaningful to them.

Ad Age: How do you collaborate with agencies?

Mr. Vossoughi: There's a huge potential for companies like us to collaborate with advertising agencies. There needs to be early collaboration. This is really important, to make sure the actual experience and the actual story are the same thing.

Let me briefly describe our collaboration on a recent Procter & Gamble project. P&G is a unique company because they understand the importance of using design to define the brand DNA/identity based on consumer insights, and they do so in a holistic way at the beginning of the product-design and communications process. As a result, P&G created a team that included a package-design agency, an advertising agency and Ziba at the inception of the project.

Ziba created a brand framework from the consumer's perspective so that design strategy and all communications tactics are derived from the consumer's point of view. Ziba also provided insights into the consumer journey with the product and explained how that product connected with the individual user on a practical and emotional level. This work takes place very early in the process, before a product is created. Without this collaborative approach, an advertising agency would likely create a campaign based on its own perspective of the brand and not the consumer's perspective.

Ad Age: Where is advertising failing marketers?

Mr. Vossoughi: The essential failing is actually on the strategic level within a company, which is where brand definition should begin. Once this brand identity -- or story -- is defined, it should guide all product development and marketing tactics, such as web, retail and traditional advertising, to complete the brand experience. So while advertising is one of several marketing tactics, it often has a separate strategy. The result is a brand experience that is inconsistent and inauthentic. This occurs because most CEOs have not yet given brand strategy the importance it deserves on top of the marketing hierarchy. Instead, strategy is fragmented into silos -- one for advertising, one for web, one for retail and so on.

Take Nike, for example. "Just do it" isn't just an advertising slogan; it is a part of the brand's consistent identity that honors athletes and does not fluctuate. All of the consumer experiences Nike produces -- from products to events to public relations -- reflect this identity. Target is another example. Their CEO is deeply immersed in the definition of brand's DNA and its identity. He personally reviews all advertising to ensure it is consistent with the brand story.

Ad Age: Let's consider Starbucks, seemingly a poster child for intentionally designed customer experience. Where do they succeed and where do they fail?

Mr. Vossoughi: They were succeeding for a while. They had a great story; they were the "third place." And they created these neighborhood coffee shops, and eventually it became a platform to sell stuff; they became basically a channel rather than a meaningful place. I'm so surprised to see them keep adding stuff, extending their brand. ... They're selling instant coffee and stuff like that. OK, so Starbucks is a coffee brand; it's not about the place anymore. They've lost it, and I'm not sure they'll be able to create the love, the loyalty they used to have. For me, going to get a great cup of coffee in a great place, there are plenty of other places I can go. Starbucks has become safe. That's all.

Ad Age: So what brings consumers back for more?

Mr. Vossoughi: Design is the process of bringing the story to life. It's about making a connection between the consumer and the story. If you tell it to the right audience, then you create trust and meaning. Consumers want to love something; meaningful, authentic relationships are what consumers are after. You've got to go back to the core -- focus on what your brand is about. You've got to focus on your tribe, not everybody. Then you've got to use everything to bring that brand to life, and then consumers will come back again and again for more.

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