Before it ever became a global brand consultancy and design firm, Landor had to craft its own image. Its first client, in other words, was itself. Today the company has nearly 30 offices in 19 countries and clients including FedEx, John Deere, and Procter & Gamble. But in 1941 it started with just one employee—founder Walter Landor—who formally named his firm Landor Associates, the last word a pluralization to make the business look big. Landor didn’t even have a traditional office; he ran the operation aboard a boat docked in the San Francisco Bay, a neat trick to avoid hefty city property taxes.
Fast-forward 75 years and the company has turned the practice of courting positive public awareness into an art with its own buzzword: “disruptive perception.” “[It’s] really figuring out, how do we challenge our perceptual capabilities so that we can see old things in new ways,” says Mary Zalla, the company’s global president of consumer brands, during a discussion at the Fast Company Innovation Festival last week. The answer involves four factors, which she says are key to creating any brand or design that resonates: immersion, challenging conformity, novelty, and inviting constraint.
Before sharing insights, though, Zalla took a moment to actually define how perceptions are created. That starts by how you recognize something, which largely involves not an objective identification of something but often a deeper categorization, accompanied by whatever memories you’ve already associated with it. For example, Zalla wore a purple dress, but asked the attendees at her talk to imagine she was wearing a white one instead. The less sartorially inclined might just see her in a white dress, but the more fashion-forward would likely have an additional judgment: “She’s wearing a white dress and it’s after Labor Day, she shouldn’t be doing that,” Zalla adds in mock-scorn.
Therein lies one reason to disrupt perception: “You hear people say you shouldn’t prejudge—don’t prejudge a situation,” she says. “Actually we never prejudge. We are post-judging. We bring our past experience to a current situation, or our past judgments to a current person, and it may in fact not necessarily need to be governed by that.”
For consumer products, these biases can mean the difference between whether someone buys a brand or avoids it. For instance, at Landor, Zalla’s teams figured out that just adding pictures of mac and cheese to the front of a Kraft box didn’t make people want it more. A close-up of a spoonful mid-lift, however, did–perhaps because that shifts attention from the fact the dish is pre-boxed to what it will be like to actually eat it.
Landor has also applied this strategy to intractable social problems: Earlier this year, the company launched “Inject Hope,” a campaign that puts a face on opioid addiction and heroin use in Hamilton County, Ohio. Many people there knew someone experiencing the problem, but often categorized that as a moral failure, not the result of a potentially deadly brain disease.
As you can see below, the group worked to recast addiction sufferers as real people in a variety of ways, as well as find new ways to tastefully provide them resources for recovery, an effort that’s been expanded into other regions of Ohio, and parts of Kentucky and Indiana.
Here are the four components that go into efforts like these:
“You’ve got to break free of what you think you know to be true,” Zalla says during her talk. “You can still kind of hold that belief—just try to put it away for the moment.”
In her own work, that often means spending time in situations with people who might use some product directly. “The cure for automated thinking, is, I think, sometimes doing. We get out into the world, not just talking to consumers in focus groups, we meet them in their homes, meet them when they’re out, meet them with whatever they’re doing, and we get entirely different information and insight.”
The key is to ask yourself one question: “What activities might directly confront your implicit or explicit assumptions?” Then go do that so you actually know more than when you started.
“I think to challenge conformity, we need to document and identify all of those core beliefs, sacred cows, and then challenge and maybe even slay each one,” Zalla says.
That can be tough to do, but the results are often worth it. One non-design example would be Dick Fosbury, the Olympic gold medalist high jumper, who revolutionized the sport by deciding he could get more air from jumping with his back to the bar, instead of trying to go belly first over it like everyone else.
On the design front, two students in Holland recently challenged the idea that bicycle helmets need to be big, bulky, and most importantly, always worn atop your head. Instead, they created an invisible version, which can be worn like a neck scarf, and only deploys during an emergency.
When it comes to tackling new challenges, immersion and agreeing to challenge conformity is great, but there’s a catch: Even if you’re trying to learn more and think differently, your current perceptions can stifle your imagination, which makes it hard to think of truly uninhibited ideas.
In the workplace that’s why it’s important to form diverse teams and always seek out people who may not agree with you; they have probably had different life experiences, which might shift how you think.
On the more extreme end, you can invent your own way to view the world differently. For instance, Zalla has four children. Once, during a project for Procter & Gamble, she equipped some of them with head-mounted cameras to see where they looked and what captured their attention during trip to the grocery store. “I still get insights from reviewing those videos. It was absolutely incredible how they saw things differently than me and what they were concentrating on.”
For branding experts it’s important to always remember exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. To that end, Zalla shares a favorite Chinese proverb: Every kite needs a string. “Sure we can soar, but what’s the foundation?” she asks. When it comes to consumer branding, you can zero in on what makes that product so powerful or relevant with a few test questions.
“Let’s pretend the number-one raw material you use in your product is no longer available. How do you put your product out in the world? What do you use? What do you do? How do you reposition it? How do you ask consumers to think about it differently?” Zalla asks the crowd.
Then she lobs another query: “What if you have to triple the price of the brand overnight? How do you get people to still buy it? How would you keep people in the franchise?”
And another: “What if all of a sudden our product can now only be used by those under the age of 21? What would that change in how you think about it?”
And finally one more to encourage brainstorming about what makes things so appealing: “What if you could no longer use your brand name?” For a few minutes, she tries to explore that issue with Tide, noting that the brand would still have much of its iconic packaging—the neon orange bottle, that blue-and-yellow bull’s-eye. “Actually, Tide would work,” she adds about it appearing on store shelves nameless.
After all, the company is a client. It’s already gone through all of these processes.