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Chris Koller, bluemarlin’s new Managing Director EMEA, explains exactly why he’s returned to agency life and his ambition to use design and systems thinking to build relevant brand experiences for today and for tomorrow.  

In a meeting in London last week a potential client at one of the world’s largest FMCG companies told me that whilst his job title lists sustainability and innovation, he wakes up every day to be a human behavioural change expert.

My reply was clumsy and sounded like it belonged in a maths or engineering class, not a conversation with a marketer, but the cornerstone of my response was design and systems thinking. A system has rules and those rules govern behaviour for its agents. Those behaviours are limited mathematically by the rules. As business owners and marketers we may  run out of options to change behaviours unless we can change the system and change the rules. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. This perspective on the modern marketing challenge is why I have gone back to a design agency.

Systems thinking has multiple facets to its definition but in it’s most simplest form a system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.

As a brand strategist, I’ve been trying to transform inputs into outputs my whole career.

Design thinking is a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions, with the intent of an improved future result. It is a form of solution-based, or solution-focused thinking — starting with a goal (a better future situation) instead of solving a specific problem.

For me, going back to a design agency is about tapping into the very thing that defined the modern brand consultancy — design thinking. It’s about unleashing that practical, creative resolution of problems and the creation of solutions in a way that is relevant for today’s saturated consumerist reality. Pulling together business strategy, creativity, design, technology and systems thinking to understand human behaviour. It is about focusing on the system itself. Bringing together seemingly unrelated perspectives to achieve new insights, not only changing the behaviour but perhaps even changing the actual need. It’s about applying insights from the fashion industry to a nappy/diaper brand. It’s about using performance cues from the oil & lubricants industry to develop a solution for the beauty sector. It’s about employing the ergonomics of one-handed-operation of a fighter jet for a milk powder scoop for Mum-with-screaming-child-in-arms-at-3.15am in the pitch dark.

It’s about ensuring the marketer I spoke to last week can indeed close his eyes at the end of each day having actually changed human behaviour (for the good).

So yes, after several years, I’m going back to where I began – a design agency. To be clear, it isn’t a design agency like design agencies were when I started. We have a collective of experts with diverse skill-sets. (Whether a marketing director of a large beer brand, a management consultant, a scientist, or a supplychain management expert — it’s their seemingly unrelated perspectives we relish.) We have added commercial strategy and transformational thinking. We have added full customer and brand experience for the digital age, ensuring full end-to-end creative realisation. All this, yes,  but at our core we are a design agency. Design thinking that liberates a saturated marketer’s toolkit. Design thinking that enables us to build relevant brand experiences for today and for tomorrow.


Chris Koller has recently joined the bluemarlin Group as Managing Director of our UK studios with primary focus on EMEA. An award-winning marketing and digital agency executive, Chris has over a decade of results-driven, international experience driving transformational business and brand growth.

traditional-family.jpgThe traditional notion of the nuclear family – a household run by married parents of the opposite sex, raising their biological children – has long been a shallow reflection of what a family actually looks like and how it behaves. Families today are increasingly made up of people from all different cultures, genders, ages and even bloodlines, in strikingly different dynamics – for example, same-sex partners with an adopted brood; single-parent homes with biracial children; divorced parents that have each remarried, creating a double-family unit. To appropriate Tolstoy, ‘All traditional families are alike; every modern family is modern in its own way.’ 

memLrg_nelson.jpgBut with all of this change happening, brands have been remarkably slow in keeping up. As Nicole Kemp wrote in her recent Campaign article Nuclear Family Fallout, “the family unit has changed dramatically in recent decades but brands remain wedded to the ideal of a nuclear family that no longer exists.” By clinging to this ideal, “they are ignoring the realities of a significant number of consumers” – missing out on a huge opportunity to reach a wider audience and engage consumers on a more meaningful, emotional level.

So how can brands ‘catch-up’ and get involved in the conversation? The key is to stop thinking of the so-called ‘Modern Family’ as tokenism, a trend to be capitalized on. The Modern Family isn’t a fad, it’s the world we live in – a direct reflection of how society and family dynamics have changed. Brands should be embracing and celebrating the Modern Family rather than avoiding it or downplaying its existence.

dads.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x725.jpgThis new family, in its diversity, is giving us a multitude of new stories to tell. It’s an exciting time in the world of branding and advertising and now is the time to really make a statement. It’s not about eschewing tradition, it’s about changing tradition, creating new traditions. If you want to stay relevant as a brand, you have to evolve as society evolves. If you want to engage with consumers in a meaningful way, you have to reflect the reality of their daily lives and experiences.

Two brands that have taken this to heart are Cheerios and American biscuit brand HoneyMaid. A couple years ago, Cheerios ran an ad campaign portraying a biracial family. While seen as controversial to some, it was a moving celebration of the love and connection shared by all types of families. They moved beyond the superficial notions of what a family should look like and focused on what family means, and the feelings it evokes.

HoneyMaid takes this even further with their “This is Wholesome” campaign. A series of ads embracing people’s differences and championing acceptance, the campaign aims to demonstrate that “no matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will.”

Both of these brands rightfully recognize that while there are many different types of families, the values and desires shared by their members are the same. Whether it’s two moms, a single parent, grandparents, step siblings, half siblings, adopted siblings, friends… A family is a family is a family. There is no “traditional” family anymore, no “normal.” Brands therefore need to focus less on demographics and more on psychographics, on the emotional mindset of what it means to be part of a family in today’s world. In doing so, they’ll be able to connect with consumers in a more honest, personal, and powerful way.

Brands that hang on to images of the ‘traditional’ nuclear family because they are afraid of change or worried about being controversial will quickly find themselves irrelevant. Brands that want to survive in the 21st century have to evolve. They need to embrace the diversity and celebrate the meaning of family – or get left behind.

ElizabethBlog contributor: Elizabeth Thompson, Strategist at bluemarlin NY

iris_apfel_thumbnail_01.jpgBo Gilbert. Carmen Herrara. Iris Apfel. Who are these women and what do they have in common? All are 90+ and bravely challenging the norms of the art and fashion landscapes.

In the UK, Harvey Nichols recently created a campaign featuring 100-year old model Bo Gilbert to celebrate Vogue’s 100th anniversary. In the U.S., 101-year old Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrara just landed her first solo show in New York City’s Whitney Museum, after a lifelong career as an artist. And worldwide, at age 94, fashion icon Iris Apfel is making new waves after being the subject of Albert Maysle’s 2015 documentary, Iris.


We’re entering an exciting and inspiring new age in which being “old” is no longer a social and cultural death sentence. It’s no longer seen as the last phase of life, but simply a new phase wherein people have experience and fearlessness on their side. Therefore, thinking of age as a number is antiquated — age isn’t a number any more, it’s flat. The over 60 population is very different today than it was a generation ago. People are retiring later or not at all. They’re traveling more, starting new businesses, taking classes, and exercising more. It’s not about looking backwards and trying to recapture one’s youth; it’s about embracing this new phase of life and celebrating growing older. It’s about looking forward, to all of the possibilities the future might bring.header-1.jpgSeniors today have become important influencers. They are redefining not only what it means to be old, but what it means to be alive. Things that were once only associated with ‘youth’ – e.g. beauty, fashion, sports, etc. – are now being shaped by this age group, with marketers and consumers alike turning to these platinum pioneers as a source of inspiration and influence. Brands and marketers can play an important role in supporting this movement, by tapping into this celebratory mindset and featuring seniors in more active, spirited roles.

In a way, we’ve come full circle to the tradition of ‘respect your elders’. But it’s not respecting them because of their past accomplishments; rather, it’s respecting them because of their contributions to the present, to the future. Embracing this movement will have widespread and lasting impact because this more optimistic vision of what’s to come resonates with people of all ages, not just seniors. It gives people something to look up to, something to look forward to. And that is certainly something worth celebrating.

ElizabethBlog contributor: Elizabeth Thompson, Strategist at bluemarlin NY

travel-beach-USA-America-Miami-summer-Rebecca-Fletcher-594344Earlier this month, we attended FUSE in Miami joining designers, strategists, marketers, innovators and insight leaders from around the world to celebrate the power of using design as a strategic force to elevate brands and help businesses succeed.

We were inspired, hugely motivated and aligned to philosophy and principles espoused by Mauro Porcini, SVP & Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo. A champion of design thinking culture, Mauro highlighted the benefits of infusing design through an entire organisation, extolled the power of prototyping and asked the industry to reassess how they think about failure.

Here are a few of our key takeaways from the presentation that we’d like to share as a call out to all of us, both clients and agencies, to change our perceptions and practices, and to move forward using the power of true design innovation and strong leadership.

Brand Appeal through the Consumer Journey

There are three levels of achieving the preference and loyalty of consumers, and design has a role to play in each of them. Consumers make initial purchase decisions using their gut. It’s based on emotion and impulse. At this point in their journey, we need to create ‘WOW’ so that the consumer has a really ‘visceral’ experience when they see the brand and product.


The focus then shifts to persuading consumers to repurchase. Here the relationship must become ‘interactive’. It must build on the emotional satisfaction, engaging the consumer to build loyalty.

We then move to the ‘expressive’ phase, which is when consumers have attained so much pride and love, that they want share their positive brand experiences with their trusted peer group, becoming brand ambassadors.

Design plays an integral role in achieving impact with a consumer at all three of these levels – powerful packaging that ignites that initial visceral feeling; a brand experience that lingers in the memory and becomes part of the consumers’ lives; a framework to recruit, support and drive brand ambassadorship. 

Brands are onstage 24/7. Managing its expression and propelling growth is becoming an increasingly overwhelming challenge. With design this challenge transforms into an opportunity to respond and resonate with consumers at every touch point.


Rethink Failure Mauro is a great believer in changing the culture around how we think about failure. He advocates getting rid of the misnomer that you have to do something right the first time and that if it doesn’t research well than you’ve failed so change agency, change team, change direction.

It’s not failure. It’s perpetual learning. Don’t be afraid to turn around and do it again and don’t worry about budgets because it’s actually saving you money by avoiding launch of something that isn’t right. It’s really important for designers within the creative community to align the stake-holding groups very quickly, very early on. And the best way to put this into practice is rapid ‘idea’ prototyping, and co-creation.

c864e5cf1bab5af39f4180bc651cef29-1Understanding prototyping and the benefits of using it organizationally. Make a film, sketch the concept out, mock it up – prototype it. As Mauro puts it, engage in ‘the power of the shiny object’ to give the room as much understanding as possible of what you are trying to achieve in a visceral way. Don’t talk about it in words. Put something on the table to see, to touch, and to feel. By making the concept sensorial, you create real memory.

Prototyping also allows other functions to impute into that process from other departments. It inadvertently becomes a co-created product with everyone involved feeling a sense of excitement, and therefore the perception of imperfection is much better. When people say, ‘It doesn’t look right. I don’t quite like that.” The response can be, “We can deal with that.” This nurtures a much more spirited progressive change helping to achieve an optimal brand and consumer experience.

If you adopt this prototyping process, it will lead to massive efficiencies. There are commercial gains with increased speed to market , and reduced costs to the company. You also get so much more quality from this co-creational approach. The ideas get better and better, and richer with more people collaborating. You get wonderful real-time insight and continual validation. And that’s what design leadership is all about.


Go Big with a Touch of Pragmatism You’ve got to have a big vision. If you don’t aim really high, you’ll end up very ordinary. Don’t come into a design or innovation meeting unless you’ve got something really exciting to share, or if you are not ready to create something thrilling. Aim for the stars and push your people.

But heed that you’ve got to land on an idea that is possible. Work within the parameters of commercial reality but embrace the risk of entrepreneurialism, and you’ll be amazed and become a true champion to design thinking.



Fisher Price recently released a short video titled, “The Future of Parenting.” It’s an imaginative vision of the next decade showing how technology will empower parents and enable early childhood development through immersive, personalized experiences.

Insightful, optimistic and inspiring, the video explores the possibilities of how we will raise Gen Alpha. These children are the first true digital natives who are driving fundamental change to our world where the real and digital converge to a place where the difference is indistinguishable.

This is an emerging conversation that Fisher Price has taken a powerful lead in, highlighting the importance of developing solutions that meet the demands and embrace the opportunities of the future.

Click here to watch the Fisher Price clip.


Deeply saddened by the passing of Dame Zaha Hadid, one of the most influential forces in the world of modern architecture. We would like to take a moment to celebrate her exceptional work and individual thinking.


Pierres Vives

With courage, passion and distinctive style, Zaha was regarded as a pioneer in the industry. Her most recognisable works include the Cardiff Bay Opera House, the Guangzhou Opera House in China, and the Vitra Fire Station in Germany.


Heydar Aliyev Center

Unafraid to be provocative and to experiement, Zaha simply shattered the glass ceiling winning high-profile projects and awards alike. In 2004, she was the first woman ever to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigous award in the field. And just last month, the Royal Institute of British Architects announced that Dame Zaha would receive the 2016 Royal Gold Medal. Again, she would be the first woman to recieve the honour.

It is truly a great loss. As a condolence, Zaha leaves us with a legacy of extraordinary buildings of astounding beauty.

In a powerful campaign, General Mills Canada has removed Buzz, the Honey Nut Cheerios bee mascot, from its box to heighten awareness to the devastating decline of the bee population.


The new packaging design serves as the starting point of a full-scale marketing campaign which includes a poignant TV spot, an online video, contesting, consumer sampling, PR and a microsite where you can request free wildflower seeds. (request yours here

Sometimes it’s what’s missing that counts. Simple and smart, #BringBackTheBees is a great example of a brand using cause marketing to raise awareness.


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