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Putting the Customer First, a Business Strategy You Can’t Overlook

Truly global companies — which have a design office in California and a marketing team in Colombo, for example, — have a tendency to feel disconnected or out of sync. The traditional top down decision-making style of the past won’t cut it in an international setting where businesses are learning to respect local wisdom and understanding of distinctive consumer tastes.

More than ever, companies are acknowledging that it’s not about the “next cool idea.” Hitting consumer gold is all about understanding what the consumer’s life is like and what they need. This excerpt from the chapter “Disrupt Yourself and Your Business Before You Get Disrupted” by Jennifer Hurford presents the case of how an all-American brand like Nike is winning overseas in mega markets like China because it has learned to come out with products more in touch with on-the-ground realities through human-centered design. “God is in the details,” after all. Nike’s basketball shoes for the Chinese market are, for example, designed for outdoor games, which is how most people in China play basketball. In contrast, people in the U.S., mostly play indoors.

A graduate of both the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, Hurford has experience in business strategy at IDEO, an innovation and design consulting firm. Read the complete chapter in Rethinking Asia 4: Why Asia is Hopeful.  


If you don’t take people with you on the journey, they’ll reject the destination. Develop a customer-focused mindset, when you’re a government or a company.

Case of Nike: Develop a Customer-First Business Strategy

Summary: Senior management should keep a close eye on what the customer wants. Don’t design what you want your company to put out in the world; instead solve a problem for your customers. This outlook is sometimes called human-centered design.When it comes to China, Nike believed that they need to adopt a China-first approach.

Nike’s customer-oriented approach in China appears in their product development, in their shoe design, and in their marketing. Instead of waiting for teams in Oregon to make decisions on what’s cool in China, the local team relies on information from local consumers when making their decisions. For example, when designing the basketball shoe in America, Nike’s design team made sure that it was suitable for an indoor game, since that’s what most people in America play. However, when designing a basketball shoe for China, Nike had to change the sole of the shoe to make sure it would work well in outdoor pick-up games, which is what how the majority of people in China play basketball.

When advertising in China, Nike is careful to label its products as being “of China,” indicating authenticity and belonging. McDonald’s has adopted a similar policy, labeling its products there “of China” because they make burgers tailored to local Chinese tastes. Going an extra step, Nike China selects only celebrities who are considered “of China” to represent their brand—for example, Kobe Bryant, an American basketball star who is considered to be “of China” because he has been in the market for twelve years and is well-liked by the Chinese.

Companies like Nike need to continue developing methods of connecting with their customer segments that the customers themselves feel are authentic and real. For this reason, it is important for western companies to give their international teams the freedom to make their own decisions. By giving them some measure of autonomy and trusting them to make smart decisions based on the preferences of the local market, the top leaders will ensure that their teams feel part of the company’s overall journey.

How can Nike and other companies maintain a strong focus on designing for their customers’ needs? The most effective tools for this strategy are used in human-centered design thinking (DT)—a system made popular by IDEO, an innovation and design consultancy firm in San Francisco that contributed to the design of Apple’s mouse.

Many companies are adopting DT methodology to ensure greater focus on their consumers during the design process. PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi, for example, has turned design thinking into a strategy: in 2012 she created PepsiCo’s first-ever Chief Design Office and invited Mauro Porcini to lead the Design & Innovation Center in New York. When companies embrace design thinking, it transforms the ways in which they connect with their consumers. And as it drives up shareholder value, more and more companies will adopt its principles. Below is the standard design-thinking framework; more free resources can be found online on the websites of IDEO and the Stanford d.School.

EMPATHIZE – Learn about the audience for whom you are designing, by observation and
interview. Who is my user? What matters to this person?

DEFINE – Create a point of view that is based on user needs and insights. What are their needs?

IDEATE – Brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible. Wild ideas

PROTOTYPE – Build a representation of one or more of your ideas to show to others.
How can I show my idea? Remember: A prototype is just a rough draft!

TEST – Share your prototyped idea with your original user for feedback. What
worked? What didn’t?

Source: IDEO

Effective design needs constraints, and the following seven pointers help designers as they uncover and analyze customer wants and needs. These overarching guidelines are critical throughout the five-step process of empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.

– Defer judgment. You never know where a good idea is going to come from. The key is make everyone feel that they can express any idea on their mind and allow others to build on it.
– Encourage wild ideas. Wild ideas can often give rise to creative leaps. When coming up with ideas that are wacky or out there, we tend to think about what we really want, without the constraints of technology or materials.
– Build on the ideas of others. Being positive and building on the ideas of others takes some skill. In design-thinking conversations, we should try to use “and” instead of “but.”
– Stay focused on the topic. Try to keep the discussion on target; otherwise you can become distracted by going beyond the scope of what you’re trying to design for.
– One conversation at a time. Your team is far more likely to build on an idea and make a creative leap if everyone is paying full attention to whoever is sharing a new idea.
– Be visual. In brainstorming sessions, write down ideas on Post-it notes and then put them up on a wall. Nothing gets an idea across faster than drawing it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not Rembrandt!
– Go for quantity. Aim to create as many new ideas as possible. In a good session, up to 100 ideas are generated in 60 minutes. Crank the ideas out quickly and then select and build on the best ones.

These guidelines not only allow for effective design thinking, they also ensure effective collaboration, a concept at the heart of progress and innovation. Making sure that we pay attention to both our customers’ desires and our colleagues’ ideas means that everyone is journeying together toward a shared destination—and that means we stand a much better chance of achieving success in the long run.

By Jennifer Hurford