Branding and the user interface, part 2: tips on new media branding: behavior and color

In the April 2003 newsletter, we introduced a new series devoted to exploring the opportunities and challenges related to branding technology-based products. The first installment presented a handful of basic, high-level brand concepts. In part two of our series, we will take a closer look at how branding differs between traditional applications, like printed corporate collateral, and emerging new media applications, such as software user interfaces, with a focus on behavior and color. If there are particular topics you are interested in, feel free to submit them, and I will try to address them in upcoming articles.

Why is Software Significant to Branding?

Everyday, more and more customer touch-points traditionally facilitated by human representatives are instead administered by computers. This is the case even in the most common experiences. For instance, when you check out of most grocery stores, whom do you pay? You may think you’re paying Patty, the human checkout clerk, but I bet many of you are actually sliding a card through a computer (you know, the one that asks, “credit or ATM?”).

These days, you can no sooner operate your business without computers and their software than you can without people. Your company may sell auto parts, vacuum cleaners, or fine wine, but if you have a Web site or B2B e-commerce system, you’d better believe you’re in the software business, too. Because of its increasingly significant impact on your company’s brand, the quality of software’s behavior is a crucial factor in your organization’s success.

Until recently, relatively few companies had fully recognized the significance that software and other technology-based products can have on brand. The proliferation of Web-based media, including Web sites and Internet advertising, has brought considerable attention to these channels, and more companies are realizing the potential of such applications for brand building initiatives.

To their credit, a few organizations have already begun to leverage the branding opportunities offered by software. Take Apple Computer for example. Apple has successfully built brand equity within many of its software user interfaces.

Apple’s QuickTime Player leverages identity elements found throughout the Apple communications platform, including the operating system, the corporate Web site, hardware products, and printed collateral. Each one of these applications serves as an individual voice in harmony with the larger concert, communicating a consistent message of quality and innovation regarding Apple products.

Apple's Quicktime Player is an example of software that builds brand equity.

New Opportunities, New Challenges

That said, the vast majority of organizations have focused their branding efforts mainly on analog delivery vehicles, such as face-to-face encounters with a human employee, or printed materials, including corporate collateral such as brochures and product packaging. As a result, a number of successful companies have developed extensive guidelines that support brand development in these conventional areas; however, many companies are finding that more and more of their customer interactions are being delivered through digital channels including the Web, PC-based desktop software, and the user interfaces of the products themselves. Furthermore, these companies are realizing that the existing guidelines they have spent years developing do not sufficiently address the unique challenges and opportunities that digital delivery vehicles present.

While some organizations are re-examining their branding guidelines and standards in consideration of Web-based applications, very few companies have extended this thinking to consider other technology-based products. As organizations begin to identify and address branding opportunities within the user interface, they face new challenges and search for the best ways to address them. Let’s talk about a few considerations that will start you on the right path to effective digital brand building.

The Importance of Behavior

First, and perhaps most importantly, you must appreciate that behavior is a critical factor in successful digital brand building. Just because your software has the appropriate brand identity elements (i.e. the right logo, the correct color palette, and the proper typography) doesn’t mean it will automatically build brand equity for you. If your software behaves rudely, doesn’t satisfy users’ goals, and otherwise offers a poor user experience, it’s rather difficult to transform that into a positive brand experience. Attempting to do so is what Alan Cooper refers to as “putting lipstick on a pig.” Sure, you might fool some people long enough to make a sale, but in the long term you can cause tremendous damage to your brand.

As an example, consider the fictitious Li-Kee coffee cup company. After realizing that their new line of cups has a few quality issues, they invest heavily in the design of their product packaging. This packaging leverages the brand equity that they have acquired through years of producing high-quality products, satisfying customers, and carefully managing their brand. As a result, customers are able to immediately recognize the new cups as Li-Kee products and in the process transfer many of the positive attributes associated with the brand to the new product.

The good news is many of these customers purchase a new cup based on the brand relationship they had established with Li-Kee. The bad news is that when they realize their new cup leaks, the relationship suffers. In fact some of these customers will never purchase a Li-Kee product again. So, while an effective appearance will help you with initial impressions, it is usually behavior that delivers long-term customer relationships.

How do you ensure that the behavior of your software is not a barrier to building brand equity? Unfortunately, there is no quick and easy answer. I’ve seen plenty of attempts to sell a one-size-fits-all, paint-by-numbers approach to the behavior of technology-based products, but the plain and simple truth is that it takes expertise and a lot of hard work. In the most basic terms, you must understand who your users are, what their goals are, and then provide a way for them to appropriately accomplish those goals through your software.

How do you do that? Well, that’s what interaction designers are for. Experienced interaction designers can help you to research and understand your users, define their goals, and translate them into a software solution that considers marketing objectives, development constraints, and above all, user expectations. While it takes time, and money, it is an investment that must be made to effectively capitalize on brand equity building opportunities within your software.

What You Should Know about Color

In order to reap the benefits of a long-term customer relationship, you must begin with a good initial impression. Color is often one of the first things we notice about something and, therefore, a dominant factor in determining a customer’s first impression about a product. In his book, The Power of Color, author Dr. Morton Walker writes:

Marketing psychologists advise that a lasting color impression is made within ninety seconds and accounts for sixty percent of the acceptance or rejection of an object, place, individual or circumstance. Because color impressions are both quickly made and long-held, decisions regarding color can be highly important to success.

In many cases, color is a capable vehicle for communicating tone because of its ability to convey emotional qualities. For instance, when was the last time you were feeling blue or so mad that you were seeing red?

For these reasons, color is one of the key elements of almost every successful brand platform. For some organizations, it is the primary element. As an example, I’m sure most of you can tell me who “big blue” is, and you probably even know who the statement, “what can brown do for you today?” refers to. But what is unique about color in terms of digital branding applications?

Perhaps the biggest difference between the use of color in traditional branding as opposed to digital branding is in the characteristics of the substrate, or surface, that the color is applied to. Most technology-based brand applications are displayed on some kind of CRT monitor or similar display device. The way that color is produced on these displays is fundamentally different than the way it is created on traditional substrates like paper. In order to really understand this, we must understand the relationship that light has to color.

Light and Color

Light from the sun that seems white to us is actually composed of many colors. Light is made up of energy waves, and these waves have different wavelengths. Put simply, the variation in these wavelengths is what yields the color we see. Isaac Newton demonstrated this phenomenon by passing white light through a prism to reveal all the colors of the visible spectrum (think Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album cover).

The color spectrum is divided into three primary colors (red, green, and blue) and three secondary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow). While there are many different types of media that we can use to apply color, there are only two fundamental processes that produce color. These are referred to as the additive and subtractive color systems.

Subtractive Color System

Brand applications, such as product packaging that use ink or some equivalent pigment to apply color, employ a subtractive color scheme. This means that we see a red package because the ink reflects the red wavelengths back to our eye while absorbing (or subtracting) all the other wavelengths. Black is produced when all of the wavelengths are absorbed, while we see white when all of the wavelengths are reflected.

The subtractive color system

The benefit of the subtractive color scheme is that standardized systems have been developed so that we can produce color consistently. For instance, the Pantone matching system is used in most corporate branding documentation to specify brand identity colors and ensure the reliable reproduction of those colors.

The additive color system

Additive Color System

In contrast, technology-based applications, such as software, that use a CRT monitor, employ an additive color scheme. A monitor’s screen is composed of thousands of red, green, and blue phosphor dots that are so small and spaced so tightly that they are virtually invisible. A monitor produces all of its colors by combining (or adding) these red, green, and blue phosphor dots in different amounts. Black is the color we see if no dots are activated, while combining all three red, green, and blue dots produces white.

Works Cited
Walker, Morton, The Power of Color: The Art & Science of Making Colors Work for You, January 1991: Avery Penguin Putnam.