Brand vs Service Design

The Team creative branding agency. Brand vs Service Design

Brand vs Service Design. We look at how these two disciplines stack up against one another in a world where consumers are buying experience.

I’ve been considering the merits of two similar disciplines, both which aim to design satisfying experiences for customers and employees, but despite overlapping ideas there’s a tension.

Brand is a shorthand for the value something offers. Products, services, organisations, places, people, campaign ideas or a cause can all be branded.

Service Design is the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers.

Today vs Tomorrow

We see any change in a brand as an opportunity to re-evaluate our relationship with it. For a business this is useful when launching a new product or service. A rebrand might follow a merger or acquisition and a refresh could be at a time of organisational change. The focus of a company evolves as it moves through different stages of development and its brand might need to anticipate or react to competitors, changing needs or new legislation.

Service Design improves how an organisation operates by recognising that backstage issues have onstage consequences. Identifying the things that frustrate customers and the tools and processes which aren’t working. Improving the experience for employees and developing the touch-points for users.

The phrase “Sell pain-killers not vitamins” is an investor colloquialism for what motivates people to buy. The thinking is that people are more likely to take an aspirin for a headache than a vitamin to improve their health. And customers are much more likely to buy something that solves an immediate need. Brands are designed as a reaction to change whereas Service Design informs changes. For branding projects, the desire and commitment for change is already there. Service Design is more of a health check which unravels and tackles issues. When beginning a Service Design project, it may not be clear what the business case will be. There is a growing interest in Service Design but today there are still many more branding agencies.

Advantage to brand.

Tangible vs Visionary

Brands don’t aim to fix systems. Instead they set out a vision of what good looks like. Articulating the purpose of something, making things clearer and more compelling.

Service Design is evidence based, mapping customer journeys, identifying pain points and whether service users are voting to continue or not. Creating a blueprint of what good looks like.

I’ll call this round a draw.

Retain vs Recruit

Service Design has been heralded as the new marketing, citing examples like Airbnb or Uber. By providing an easy experience, loyal users promote the service through their social networks. Generating credible unpaid advertising.

Brands are tribal and are great at attracting like-minded people. They represent who you choose to spend time with and why you don’t consider joining other groups.

Younger generations seem to be less loyal to a brand, they’re more interested in expressing their own individuality and buying novelty. They’re also less willing to share experiences publicly.

So, there’s no clear winner here.

Frictionless vs Quirky

Right now, we seem to be in a race for more efficiency. Technology makes things quicker and easier, and to some extent every business has become a digital business. Carving out a path of least resistance will eventually result in things being without friction and possibly a bit dull.

In a world where everything is easy where is the satisfaction? We enjoy the things which have a unique point of view, it makes them interesting. Brands use human personality traits and quirks to enrich an experience.

However, we are too easily distracted. There is so much choice for consumers and social networks are quick to pick fault. Unless something is made easy, we give up quickly.

Advantage to Service Design.

Equitable vs Unique

For businesses, fulfilling different needs, remaining relevant and maintaining trust is difficult. The customer isn’t always right. Buyers don’t often say what they mean and what they do isn’t what they say they’ll do. Keeping everyone happy is impossible and shopkeepers will tell you that people can be deliberately difficult. Filtering for different types takes effort and can deter genuine users.

People select which brand to trust and by opting in providers can offer a more unique experience. Brands are confident in saying “this isn’t for you”.

Advantage to brand.

Reliable vs Rebellious

Marketing communication has got the attention of CEOs. Management consultants are aware of this and to keep their influence at board level they have started buying creative agencies. Just like the rush to acquire and grow digital teams, communication specialists are being rolled into strategy and organisational management. Service Design has been adopted as part of this shift and further growth in the service economy is promised.

Typically, management consultancies crunch lots of information so that they can sell clever solutions to complex organisations. But creativity isn’t data driven, design deals with ambiguous human needs. Clients also see design as a time to suspend disbelief and they use the creative process as a means to anticipate the unknown. Being visually and emotionally seductive, brand concepts sell a vision and help people to see things differently.

Advantage to brand.

So who wins?

The design projects I see are commissioned for different reasons, here are a few typical requests from clients:

“We’re looking to develop a clear proposition and how to communicate it.”

“We’re looking to understand why our communications have no cut-through and how we can improve them.”


“We need to better understand our customers’ journey and tackle
pain points.”

“We want to think about the wider user experience.”

Branding agencies seem better at setting an expectation. Service Design agencies are better suited to managing an expectation. Branding agencies could benefit from tackling customer pain points head-on and Service Design needs to get better at selling a vision.

Both share a single approach. Design Thinking is a tried and tested way to define a problem or opportunity, form an idea and then test it. This common method is woven into many design disciplines in different ways. The process is often presented as linear so that timelines can be formed and costs submitted, but as an activity it has three parts:

Asking what is viable?
Define a problem or opportunity and who benefits.

Asking what is desirable?
Form an idea that will attract people.

Asking what is feasible?
Test and learn. Can an organisation or technology deliver it successfully?

The bottom line is that clients are buying experience. With communications having many moving parts and touch points being interdependent, project teams need to be flexible.