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Useful is Beautiful.

Words by Harry Taylor
19 April 2023

When our entire industry has been built on projecting outward appearances, how can ad agencies help build brands that are actually useful?

In an era of specialisation, it’s tempting to believe that the core design should be done by a ‘design/digital agency’, and the ad campaign by an ‘ad agency’. But as True Digital and Experience Director Harry Taylor points out, maybe we shouldn’t be pulling these things apart.

“Customers don’t distinguish between branding, comms, and customer experience. These aren’t neat silos and can become amorphous”. Harry believes it makes sense to design a brand seamlessly from the inside out, putting user insights, journeys, testing, and prototyping solutions at the heart early in the process, through tools like Figma.

If experience is everything, perhaps the best experience we can give a customer is great utility. This starts by discovering the motivations and mindsets around behaviour. “It’s not enough to just uncover what people are doing – we have to try to understand why,” says Harry.

A great example of this in action is Airbnb. Harry says, “They offer a best-in-class experience that shows they understand the holiday decision-making journey, empathise with users, and have designed their experience around that.” However, it’s this utility that’s supercharged by the application of emotive triggers.

“Our emotions are constantly in flux. By understanding their power across something inherently human such as a getaway with friends, they meet needs, while making them feel something at the right moments”. We still make many of our decisions based on emotion. This is the role of the ideation process in experience design.

Spotify does this really well. Their annual Spotify Wrapped playlists provide the utility of personalised playlists, but the experience is also designed to make you feel, share, and remember the meaning of music to you. It’s utility, expressed beautifully.

True Digital Strategy Director Celine Giovanni believes it comes down to a shift in perspective. “It’s about thinking about how we can add value to the customer, rather than extract value from them. The customer doesn’t care about our marketing objectives.”

Focussing on utility means we can add value to a customer – and done well, it can even allow a brand to make an impact beyond their own customer base. Spark achieved this last year with their Beyond Binary Code project by Colenso BBDO. They made their simple piece of code available to all businesses, to add to any website, to instantly update their data forms to be inclusive of all genders. This valuable utility, coupled with the generosity of open-sourcing, positioned Spark as thought leaders and innovators of meaningful change, and had an impact that went bigger than New Zealand.


Celine makes the observation that “people will use a useful thing that isn’t beautiful, but it’s harder to get someone to use a beautiful thing that isn’t useful.” And that’s the tension between utility and creativity – if utility is function, and beauty is form, does that mean we’re always destined for a fight? Or can one inform the other?

For our client STIHL, we have a long partnership of creating ad campaigns together. But this year, we created a content series of STIHL How-To Guides. Helping Kiwis grapple with the big questions like “What’s the best way to stack firewood?” and “How do I get those cool stripes on my lawn?” – using natural language and responding to what people were actually searching for. These videos have had over 243,000 completed views on YouTube, and users are finding and using them in a way that provides value, hitting that sweet spot of utility, expressed creatively.

We’re excited by a future where brands actively seek opportunities to be of service, and advertising becomes a tool for highlighting the good, rather than simply window dressing. Celine puts it more brutally – “I just want to make the internet a less ugly and more useful place.” What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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