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Helping companies rethink, re-imagine, reset

Staff at Idea Couture doing some brainstorming.

It's a boardroom, or at least that's the word inscribed in big bold letters on the door.

The room is small, dominated by a large oval table. At its centre is a jar of Reese's peanut butter candies. Make that a half-empty jar, because a recent meeting here decimated it. Wrappers lie crumpled on the floor, next to bicycles leaned up precariously against the wall.

The sugar rush must have worked. A freestanding white board is covered in notes connected by lightning bolts of arrows pointing to an image of what appears to be a glow globe.

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It looks like chaos, and that is precisely the point.

At Idea Couture, a Canadian company that calls itself a strategic innovation and experience design firm, chaos is the crucible for creativity. And creativity is the principle service the organization provides to clients, both domestic and foreign, representing industries ranging from motor parts to mobile phones.

Founded three years ago by Idris Mootee, a long-time strategy adviser to executives of Fortune 500 companies, Idea Couture takes a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving - a process he calls "noodleplay" - in advancing a brand's competency with consumers.

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"We believe in the power of D-school plus B-school," says chief executive officer Mr. Mootee, settling into a chair in one of the communal offices (no firm boundaries in this workplace) sprinkled throughout the company's loft-style headquarters on Toronto's emerging Wellington Street West.

He speaks at a rapid clip, not stopping to explain his marketing-hip lingo.

But to translate: D stands for design, the discipline that Mr. Mootee says "humanizes" transactions involving an enterprise and its clients. The B stands for business, which focuses a company on achieving financial success.

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"You bring the two together," continues Mr. Mootee, his internal motor (or is it the chocolate?) driving him to the edge of his seat, "and this is how we can help companies rethink, re-imagine, reset."

Distinguish themselves from the collective corporate herd, in other words.

For Mr. Mootee, the intersection of D-school and B-school means one side creates a dialogue with the consumer while the other analyzes that exchange and provides insights to help the relationship grow profitably.

"All global enterprises are more or less the same," Mr. Mootee elaborates. "Today so much in business is driven by technology. The question becomes, 'Why should I be doing business with you? What is it you do that's different?'"

To grow, and be relevant in the future, businesses must know how to empathize with customers.

From Mr. Mootee's perspective, this means persuading companies to invest in design as a way of creating a tangible relationship with users of their products and building a customer experience.

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This is distinct from customer service involving such obvious values as courtesy, reliability and responsibility, he says.

"Customer experience goes much deeper than that in building brand equity," says Mr. Mootee, educated at the London Business School and the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, among other international MBA programs.

"It's about knowing how to build empathy with the consumer."

Design, in this case, doesn't just mean the visual form of a thing, although at Idea Couture, which employs graphic and industrial designers in addition to businesses strategists, creating the right visual presentation is important in creating consumer awareness and loyalty.

Good design, from a business perspective, also involves research into consumer habits. Idea Couture hires anthropologists and ethnographers to observe consumers in the field, as it were, of their own kitchens, living rooms and supermarkets.

Scott Friedmann, a partner at Idea Couture who previously worked in the hospitality industry, says that using anthropologists helps foster what he calls "experiential innovation," or the process by which a company can turn itself into an industry leader.

"As opposed to the traditional advertising agency that spends all its time building a slogan," says Mr. Friedmann, nosing in on the conversation, "we say that the product and the experience of the product is the message. Which is so much more empowering to the consumer because ultimately it's about getting them to share their experiences with others."

With Mr. Friedmann warming to the topic, Mr. Mootee suddenly stands and announces he has to go.

"Everyone's really busy around here," says the company's communications director, Ashley Perez, by way of explaining her boss's abrupt departure.

"Given the right tools, the customer becomes very creative in forging a relationship with a brand, and this builds loyalty," says Mr. Friedmann, not missing a beat.

To create that experience, Idea Couture employs what Mr. Friedmann calls "touch point analysis," a process that dissects each layer of interface between a product and its user.

One client, for example, was looking to enhance the experience of visiting the doctor.

"Often these visits are fraught with anxiety. We know, because we had anthropologists in the waiting room observing how much they fretted and perspired as a result of overly long wait times."

To turn a nerve-wracking experience into something less stressful, Idea Couture came up with the concept of a starting kit that the consumer could use at home.

"The Box," as Mr. Friedmann calls it, would be opened at home and might contain the forms that are required to be filled out in advance of an appointment, and also a map of the facility if it's a first-time visit, with a highlighted route, if necessary.

"We'd even tell them in advance that there might be a 40- to 50-minute wait, so they know in advance exactly what they're walking into."

It seems so easy, so logical. And yet it took the chaos of a waiting room for it to spring to mind so clearly.

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About the Author

Deirdre Kelly is a features writer for The Globe and Mail. She is the author of the best-selling Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books). More

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