Special guest, Chris Lowery (CEO, Chase Design Group) looks back at lessons he’s learned throughout his design career and the value of embracing insights including AI to grow a successful agency in the ever-changing shopper world.
Podcast hosted by Matt Salem (Vice President, Client Development)
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Hi, everyone, I’m your host, Matt Salem, and you have tuned in to another episode of Our Best Behavior, a podcast brought to you by Behaviorally winner of the 2020 market research podcast award. Behaviorally, formerly PRS In Vivo USA helps brands improve shopper and consumer experiences by defining and diagnosing the behaviors that drive shopper growth.
Each month, we produce a podcast to share industry insights on trending topics designed to help you make better shopper marketing decisions. Today, we are joined by Chris Lowry, CEO and Chief Strategist at Chase Design Group, who will be talking with us about how design and research interact. And the changes brought forth by an increasingly digital shopping world. Welcome, Chris.
Hi. Glad to be here.
Thanks for coming. Really appreciate you taking some time out of your busy schedule to join us here. I wanted to just start with a little bit about you. I always like for my audience to know the guests a bit, maybe a little something personal. Bit of professional, Of course.
Sure. Yeah. Well, I live in Los Angeles. I have a wife, two children, a 19-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter, three dogs, and I was originally from Chicago. So, what school for music, and then pivoted and went into the ad industry originally at Leo Burnett in Chicago, and then ended up here in LA at Chase Design Group . And I’ve been here since 1988.
Wow, wow, that’s great. I love hearing about tenure like that. We are fortunate here at Behaviorally to have folks that have quite the tenure to and similar nature. And it’s always nice to see that. Three dogs, the children, that’s a full house. Well, what’s demanding most of your attention in that house. I’m curious,
you know, these days, a lot of it is teleconferencing. So, you know, in between, I’m trying to keep the dogs quiet and keep everybody else on track with homework. And so, it’s been a busy pandemic life.
I can imagine it’s definitely interesting when you hear pets barking in the background during conference calls and kids coming into the frame asking for something to eat, perhaps depending upon their age, and all the things that come with working at home in a pandemic and afterward. So, Chase Design Group , you know, for our audience, give us a brief history, if you will, about Chase Design Group . Tell us a bit about it if you wouldn’t mind, maybe a bit about the philosophies that you have around design and how you think about design.
Sure, yeah. So, Chase Design Group was founded in 1986, actually, by a brilliant designer named Margo Chase, who’s unfortunately no longer with us. But her ethos was really about endless curiosity and a lot of craft at the end of the day.
So, she came from a family where her dad was a JPL engineer. Her mom was a calligrapher and a concert cellist. So, she grew up with this sort of combination of the pragmatic, logical scientific side and this expressive, artistic side. And she started out in the entertainment industry, doing a lot of logo work for Prince and Madonna and different people across the years. And ultimately, the Brahm Stoker’s Dracula typography was something that broke her to the top. And the thing about that is she was really known about that approach, and the craft and the typography and hand lettering.
But when I first came to work at Chase, the thing that I was really surprised by her was much broader than that she was a really great thinker and a really endlessly deep creative. And so, she and I hit it off right away and started to think about how Chase could be a bigger entity in all types of design.
So, over the years, we’ve done Environmental Design, we’ve done 3D design, we’ve done work for companies in Saudi Arabia and Russia, and all over the place. And it all comes from that sense of brand identity, but it grows into the things that you can create when you really think about a design problem and approach it from the standpoint of what it could be in the world that’s unique.
And so that ethos, that sort of sense of endless curiosity and questioning things and pushing yourself farther and ultimately, having the brains to create the strategy, but then having the hands to create the craft at the end of the day, is something that we still really push all across Chase, and it’s something we’ve managed to cultivate in our culture. So that’s really the core of our philosophy rooted in Margo’s self that, you know, became part of us.
Very interesting. And some of the points that you made there really struck a chord with me, particularly as you spoke to the endless curiosity piece because as researchers, we share that researchers are very curious people I’ve come to notice over the years, not just speaking for myself, who will Google anything and everything, but we share that common link. And it’s interesting because when you think about research and you think about design.
There are certainly points in my career where I’ve heard research and design referred to as more enemies than friends. Right and, you know, is research the enemy of design because we are here grading designs, whereas designs may speak differently to any given person, there is clearly an artistic value and standpoint that you can come from that is not scientific in nature, yet research can be viewed as more scientific in nature, right.
So, on the one hand, they seem diametrically opposed. But on the other hand, we know you and I, and certainly in past conversation have agreed that they can, should, and do work together. So that’s making me think about the value of research and the value of research in the eye of the designer. And I was wondering if you could give some thoughts on your experiences as to the value of research in design?
Absolutely. Taking one step back, I mean, I think Margo and I also shared a love of science and a love of that approach. And I think when you have that perspective on what science and research means, you realize that what data ends up being is the foundation that you launch off of, whether you’re doing something in the scientific community based on a hypothesis, or you’re trying to learn about something creative.
You know, it gives you the basis to really build stronger work because when you start with consumer research, you understand things about people that you never thought were necessarily true, and they become the light bulb that leads to the inspiration for the work. And that’s one of the things that I love most about everything that we do is being able to talk to consumers, see worlds that I didn’t know existed, and start to draw that. And we always try to walk in other people’s shoes, when we look at the work, Is it right for them, because it doesn’t matter whether it’s right for us, you know, we want it to be the highest level of craft, but we want to reach people.
One of the things we’ve always talked about, as you know, is we could make designs in our garage for the rest of our lives, and it would never have an impact. And the biggest thing is being able to reach out.
So, over the years, we’ve done consumer research and packaging research, and overall positioning research. And always, I think the basis of it is you do the research, you look at the data, you learn what you need to learn from it, and then you do your magic, you know. But if it’s not based on some solid foundation and knowledge, whether you did it yourself or you do it with a research partner, you have to do the work in order to get to something that’s really transcendent.
Do you find that there’s a struggle there with maybe certain people in terms of the research and the design and the love that you inevitably have for the design that you create as maybe the person that’s created design? And if so, you know, how do you kind of mend that bridge or mend that gap, I should say and create that bridge to show people the importance of understanding the research and not letting it dictate your design, per se, but helping you and guide you?
Yeah, I think it has a lot to do within Chase in how we think about recruiting people.
So, we really want people who are rigorous design thinkers and people who come from that standpoint, aren’t afraid of research. They understand what it can do for them. And granted, some of them are more junior. They need time to grow up and experience things. But in general, we look for people who have an openness to really understanding versus just doing what they think is cool. And generally, that’s where we end up.
I think when you’re talking about putting designs into research and getting a reaction, I think, frankly, it can be one of the most eye-opening things in the world. I think back to one of the early things, we were doing a big package redesign, and we had this design everybody loved brand team loved it. We loved it. We thought it was fantastic. We go into qual research, and we spend two days, we probably see, I would say, 16 consumers over those two days. And to a consumer, When this particular concept came up, every single person said, Oh, that’s so cool, Microsoft clipart. And it was like a stake through the heart.
But you have to realize like some that’s why you’re looking through somebody else’s eyes because we never saw it. We were so close to it that it was not apparent to us that that’s what the world would take away from it, and nobody wanted that.
dagger to the heart right there. As you said, it definitely just felt it for you. You know, as you sit there and watch consumers, you’ve been in the back room a lot over the years, I would have to imagine, and I’m wondering in the past couple of years, whether it’s the backroom or now the virtual backroom, be it as it may, what have you noticed changing, if anything in terms of how consumers are reacting?
Are there certain common threads that you’ve seen change, given in particular the influence of digital on the shopping experience? Do you see that coming through at all as designs being evaluated or consumers either actively making mention an explicit mention of how their shopping experience works online, or are there just nuggets that you’re picking up on as a team that you’re thinking about that digital experience and designing perhaps a bit differently because of it.
I think so I’m not sure that it’s so much to do with their particular shopping habits online, as I would say, the consumer savvy level has gone up exponentially because they’re exposed to so much every time they do an Amazon search, they get “also bought,” or “you might try this,” they see this in their Instagram feeds as people start to, you know, profile them and send things to them.
So, they’re so savvy that it’s really made it more important for us to really do a lot of digging as we get into designs to make sure that we’re not replicating something that’s already known by them out in the market.
And that comes down to also understanding your target audience versus yourself. Because as designers, we gravitate towards certain things that appeal to us, because they’re resolved, they may be going towards something totally different for a different reason. But we may be queuing to that. And so, I think it’s really important to understand that their worldview has widened significantly, just in the last five years,
Does that end up changing the briefs, the angles that you’re coming in on when you’re in the first moments of the creative process? Are you acknowledging that difference for the shoppers actively and really incorporating it, and perhaps seeing different types of design trends emerge, or different approaches emerge, in order to help packaging in this case, perhaps, or just the shopping process in general, improve for shoppers?
In terms of e-commerce, I think that what I would say is that there is a, there’s a broadening sense of what needs to be true for e-commerce to succeed. And it’s starting to manifest itself in terms of pack design because you really have a very different dynamic in the sense that it’s shelf.
Like let’s say, I have a, I have a six by 12, the front panel on my package. And I can communicate, you know, eight messages in descending priority communication. When I put that in e-com, barely anything is visible, but you have e-com titles to support it.
So, what we’re finding is that the drive we’ve always had as designers to go towards simplicity is starting to come to fruition through e-com because it needs to be a simpler solution. And in fact, in some cases, we’re looking at situations where we might be designing two packs, one that’s going to go into bricks and mortar, and one that’s going to live in e-com. And it will support better performance in both because people are still shopping and both it’s it hasn’t swung all the way to one side.
So as someone that’s certainly embraced research, you know, you personally but also Chase Design Group as an organization over the years, How have your needs changed in terms of what you’re looking for to come out of the research?
Has there been a decided, “Hey, we can’t just look at the packaging on shelf anymore, we just can’t talk to the shopper about the in-store experience, we do have to decidedly include that online shopping experience that online assortment so that as I design, both versions of the pack, I know that I’m going to set us up for success.” had the needs changed. In terms of the research?
I would say in a couple of different ways. I think that in terms of what’s going on and research, we’ve definitely tried to think about, even before we get to the research stage, presenting, say, first-round designs, both in the context of how they look at a shelf set, and how they’re going to look on E-com in, like a sample Amazon frame. So that’s really helping us and our clients judge what’s successful about the designs, and you know, in most cases, you don’t want to have two packs. You want to have one, so where can you find the middle ground.
So, as it gets into research, we have already migrated to things like digital shelves. And when you think about it, the digital shelf really gives you a very similar experience to e-com, you know, you don’t really get to zoom in very far, you don’t get to pick it up, really.
And you’re looking at the shelf from a distance. So, consumers were already used to filtering by the cues that got them there, you know, by color and shape and then getting in and improved responding to the primary messages. So, I think the research is just helping us continue on that trend. And personally, I think that you know, doing physical research with comps is something that’s largely going away. It’s expensive, it’s slow, and it’s hard to get a real read.
When you think about design trends a bit more, what’s exciting to you that you’ve seen in the past year emerge, you know, maybe things that you’ve personally worked on, maybe just what you’ve witnessed in the marketplace, but are there any specific types of changes that you’ve seen? Maybe it has to do with a kind of personalization which, You know, might not be as new of a topic, but I think over the years, and in more recent time, we’ve seen packaging personalization, there have been campaigns out there that are certainly well known.
You know, Coca-Cola is a great example. But hyper localization of packaging. I mean, if I think about tried and true to me craft beer, I can’t go in a store now without a full door of New Jersey craft beer, and the designs are outstanding. I mean, they’re really attention-grabbing and certainly new for that category as compared to two-three years ago. So curious what you’ve seen that’s struck a chord.
Yeah, I think that the interesting thing is that when you look at craft beer, it, in some ways, is driven by new trends by things that are fresh coming into the marketplace by concepts. And at the end of the day, you know, what is the difference between one beer and another? Many beer drinkers don’t know.
One of the things that I think is really interesting is I heard a talk about creation on Heineken and Bud Light. So same agency, same decision basically came down to the realization that what they were selling, the consumers could not tell the difference of. So, they went back to the actual core consumers, finding that the Heineken person wanted to be what they wanted as a badge because they wanted to pick up on it. So, they wanted to walk in and get this no-fail situation. I got this in my hand.
Nobody’s gonna call me out on it. But light drinker wants to get an 18 pack, bring it home. So, then you go from the man of the world Heineken campaign where he’s James Bond, and he’s going through these exotic things, and you know, all these situations, too Bud Light, Dilly Dilly. So, they really understood that they took a commodity and made it very different based on that. I think that’s a challenge in many many categories is.
You really do have a commoditized product. And so, the quality of the design and the messaging around it is more important at this point than it has been before.
I love that example. That’s great, the dilly dilly verses, and I’m trying to remember I see like ten memes in front of me, and I can’t remember the gentleman’s exact line from Heineken. But it was he was. He was a sophisticated and suave fellow that I remember
exactly. And you remember the red star? Because they made a big deal out of it from a graphic standpoint?
Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, that’s a great example. And I think beer is a great category. I’ve always thought it was, at least, from a design perspective because it’s like keeping up with the Joneses. I mean, one brand changes, then the next brand changes, and the next brand changes, and ten more beers come out, and the cycle continues. So certainly, a great one, in thinking along the lines of what you’ve seen, design-wise, and what you’ve seen in the industry. And what’s new.
One thing that we’ve been seeing a lot of and working a lot with is AI. And I’m curious to hear a bit more. And I’m sure our audience is curious to hear about how creative minds such as yours and the folks that you work with day-to-day view AI because, in my mind having a machine, quote-unquote, evaluate something that humans create. It seems like it might be a question mark if I’m on the design side, like what’s this machine learning algorithm going to tell me about everything that I know, as a human, and what makes a good design?
So, I’m curious to hear if you’ve dabbled at all in terms of leveraging AI to help with any of the work that you’re doing and what your thoughts are around incorporating it because it certainly does seem to be inevitable in the future, that more and more AI is going to become a part of everyday life through multiple facets.
You know, I think AI in a lot of ways to people is a big scary thing. And again, you hit on it, it’s a machine deciding things for us, and will it get out of control? I think that’s been the sci-fi nightmare that’s been around for a while. But when you look at it from the standpoint of it generating raw data, at the end of the day, it’s what you do with the data.
It’s not how the data is generated. And I think when you go into any sort of research, you have to understand what is the goal? And what’s the methodology? What are the things you want to get out of it? What are the things you won’t get out of it? And so, when I think about AI, and we haven’t actually taken any of our designs through AI, though, I’ve seen a lot of demonstration around it.
The things that I think the AI process can get to you know when it starts to do, you know, comparative, generative network kind of stuff, is the idea of like is, is your color story working? Is your iconography standing out in communication at the right level? And all of that I think is really helpful. What where the human touch comes in, I think that it’s really hard for an ad to get to, or the delighters are what I’m going to call. You know, when people get into packaging, there are certain details that consumers will latch on to, and designers will latch on to intuitively, that may be very subtle, but they’re causing an emotional reaction.
And they’re going to be hard for the AI to tease out because it’s going to read on a pretty higher level how people are reacting to it. So, I think there are just two levels to it. I think it’s a useful tool. And But it all researchers a useful tool, it’s about what you ask it, and what you intend to do with the information.
So hopefully, all of our jobs are saved, and robots aren’t taking over because there is a value that the human mind can still bring to the equation.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think when you get into like the deep fakes and the generative adversarial networks and all that stuff, I mean, it’s pretty, it’s pretty crazy stuff, but it won’t necessarily replace painting cats
will always need the real Tom Cruise is. Deep fakes will not suffice. What about AI as it relates to the world of e-commerce, there’s so much data in the world of e-commerce, and you would think AI can certainly help filter through. And when I think about the shopping experience, you mentioned the titles and the images. And there’s certainly that portion of the experience.
There’s also, of course, the written word and what you can read the descriptions, the fine print. But at least anecdotally, if not, through what I’ve seen in several pieces of research, the images do tend to be important. And certainly, I think you would echo that given earlier, you were mentioning, two different designs potentially being available doesn’t mean that’s the rule.
It doesn’t mean that’s what you’re striving for, per se. Perhaps finding the common thread of something that works in both a brick-and-mortar and e-commerce environment is best. But with that said, The images are certainly a big part of that experience. What would you think about AI in terms of helping us understand the impact of images in an online scenario? Is that something that would be helpful from a design perspective? To just get that big picture, as compared to, let’s say, hey, just design A versus design B? How did they fare versus one another?
With an understanding that maybe it’ll be in brick and mortar? Maybe it’ll be in e-commerce? In other words, something that’s a bit more focused on a brick-and-mortar perspective versus an e-com perspective?
Yeah, I think, again, it could get you to the level, I think, where is it gonna stop and grab somebody? I think it’s a little harder to get to, you know, that closing piece of that delighter piece, you know, with the AI aspect, but I also think AI could play a role in what you do with supporting imagery. You know, in the stack.
There are things obviously that people respond to that help them engage with the product. And I think a lot of people leave that on the table when they go to e-com. They’re not really showing the product and environment. They’re not creating what would have been the communication from, like, say, broadcast commercial when everybody saw those, because now that’s out of the picture for the most part. So, you know, I think AI can tell us a lot about people’s image registration.
So I think I watched a really fascinating presentation a couple of years ago, were what they were doing during the presentation is he had taken a bunch of images series of like, say, 20 images, and he flashed them up on the screen for less than a second and then asked you what it was, and then he would show you what the actual image was. So, they were blurred images that went up for a second. People could call it right away, sailboat, soccer game, horse race, right off the bat, just from a blurry image, in the end, the interaction of the colors. And then he’d show you the resolved image after, but it was fascinating how quickly you could pick that up.
And I think of e-com and how much you’re flipping through pages. And if you can get the idea of like, what is the takeaway from that moment in time, it would be, you know, a great help to kind of craft things and also get simpler things sold through to the client.
That sounds like a great demonstration. I’ve actually tried similar demonstrations with flash exposures at conferences and such, but I like the idea of that being blurred as well. And people are still getting it.
Does it sound a lot like flipping through your phone, right? You’re flipping so fast. It’s like you do not even see that clear image. You’re seeing kind of this quick blur of it, but you can still make things out. So it certainly, makes sense to me. Well, you’ve been a fantastic guest really appreciate you taking time today to join us.
Yep. Thank you. Good to talk.
Thanks to Chris for joining. Thanks to our audience for listening. You have been tuned into Our Best Behavior brought to you by Behaviorally. Like to thank Chris, and we’ll catch you next time.