Aug 2020


Apparently, up in Denmark, there is a secret underground facility that guards all the Lego sets ever made. If you ever happen to take a tour of the place, you’d probably come face to face with your old toys, childhood memories and perhaps also, your favourite Lego creations. 

Whether it was a car or house or even a candy dispenser, Tim Brown, former CEO of IDEO, believes that your childhood Lego invention was your very first foray into prototyping. And, as a marketer, we’re pretty sure it won’t be your last. 

The power of prototyping is laid out in Tim Brown’s 2009 book “Change by Design”, where he highlights how it’s harnessed in fields as varied as product design, city planning and engineering and offers suggestions on how to prototype better. 

Fire Lego GIF by Yule Log 2.015

Keep your prototypes quick and dirty

Ever played dumb charades? If you are a dumb charades champ (like me), you’d know that the secret to winning in a competition is to get the message across to your team in the quickest and easiest way possible. So, for instance, if you’re signing for a really difficult movie like “Apocalypse Now”, you signal “now”, not “apocalypse”, and your team could figure it out faster and save precious seconds (and win!).

Prototyping is a bit like that. Tim Brown’s example is that of a team member who taped together a marker, a film canister (remember what that is?) and a clothespin to prototype a rudimentary device with a pistol grip to show the rest of his team what a new surgical instrument for performing nasal surgeries could look like. This first prototype was a diamond in the rough and was all it took to catapult the discussion forward. It helped to align everybody working on that project for Gyrus ACMI at no cost and zero wasted efforts.

We see this a lot in marketing. Sometimes you think you need to test audience sentiments towards a product only after a product or a product concept is fully developed — but that’s not true. Just like my college dumb charades team can guess “Apocalypse Now” from me gesturing “now” or an entire design team can align on a new surgical instrument from seeing a taped-up marker pen pistol, your customer can imagine the difference a product could make in their life even if you show them an idea of what your product could be.

We helped an instant noodle brand get valuable consumer feedback in early stage product development by doing this. Even with no product ready, we used a series of posts to find out how consumers reacted towards very specific food trends, and zeroed in on the specific flavour to develop using these audience insights. Each post in this campaign was a mini-prototype that may not have been accurate, but close enough to understand consumer sentiments and make progressively tweak the product. What this meant was lower product development costs and faster time to market. 

Such dipstick posts are often quick and dirty substitutes to larger full-blown surveys or a detailed focus group, but just as effective because you can continuously prototype your product or marketing campaign instead of getting feedback only at the beginning or the end of a campaign.

Indie Train GIF

Test drive your prototype consumer journeys

For every marketer, the consumer journey is where it all begins — it’s how we map out all the possible touchpoints that can connect us with the consumer. 

According to Tim Brown, the consumer journey is a form of a prototype, and is a big step in clarifying where the customer and the service or brand interact. In his words, “Every one of these touchpoints is an opportunity to provide value to a firm’s intended customers—or to derail them for good.” To get a successful product or service out, you need to see the consumer journey as a prototype with touchpoints that can be validated and improved upon. If this is not done you can spend money on marketing the wrong features and benefits or worse, the wrong product.

So, how do you validate your consumer journey? Your best allies in this task work alongside you, in the sales team and the customer service team. They are the people who connect with your consumers everyday, and they know a thing or two about your target audience. So get them to join you in those initial marketing discussions to vet the first round of your consumer journey and incorporate their feedback to create version 2.0. 

Now, what after that? At Happy Marketer, we suggest testing the next version of the customer journey prototype using a small-scale experiment instead of a full blown marketing campaign. We did just that for a cultural centre in Singapore recently, using iterative seeded surveys to glean insights that validated key parts of our client’s customer journey, helping them narrow down their media mix and optimise their media spends. This is more than A/B testing—we’re actually getting our audience to self-report on their preferences and behaviours to create better customer journeys and more efficient marketing campaigns.

Animated GIF

Let your prototypes run wild

In many companies, prototyping takes place behind closed doors due to product confidentiality concerns. But that undermines its real world viability. As Tim Brown points out, today complex ideas require prototypes to be released into the wild to see how they survive and adapt. In “Change by Design”, you’ll find an interesting example of this ‘running wild’ in the anecdote about the Starwood hotel chain, which opened the doors of its Aloft brand—in the virtual world Second Life. This 3-D computer-generated Aloft hotel prototype opened its doors to Second Life residents, and gathered 9 months of virtual consumer feedback. This was the source of Aloft’s urbane, tech savvy look and feel, which easily resonated with its youthful, adventurous target segment.

That was 14 years ago. Nowadays, following Tim Brown’s cue, us marketers experiment much more to see how real life products and experiences can be prototyped using digital and social media environments. In fact, for one of our client partners, a policy school, we fashioned a virtual prototyping experience laboratory of sorts by creating a Facebook group. The Facebook community is supported by the school and serves as a forum for policy buffs to reach out and discuss with each other. The group serves as a petri dish of sorts, and we test key areas of thought leadership resonate with the community through quick posts, polls and memes. The school uses these insights to build most relevant webinars, videos and content that serve to inform and connect with their audience.

Tired Boost GIF by LEGO

Parting note: Prototyping is about failing

One of the many ways that a prototype is like some of our favourite games is this — it slows us down to speed us up. By taking time to prototype our ideas, Tim Brown points out that you can avoid costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long. These are the lessons we learn when building a tall Lego tower without a big base, trying to sign a movie like “Zoolander”, or reading a book like “Change by Design”. Fail fast, fail early and fail often to win big at any game, including marketing.

Celia Vincent
Celia Vincent

Senior Copywriter, dedicated and hardworking 💪🏻

Passionate about words, and meticulous about crafting her phrases just right, Celia is equally comfortable with writing long and short form copy. However, she believes that a great piece of content is born long before she puts it down on paper. It all begins with that spark of an idea. That’s why she sees the brainstorming phase as one of the most important parts of her creative process.