Branding & the user interface: part 1

This article introduces a new series devoted to exploring the opportunities and challenges related to branding technology-based products. The first installment develops a foundation for future, more detailed discussions by introducing several key brand concepts. Forthcoming articles will present a variety of brand-related topics including the differences between traditional media and new media, how to solve common branding challenges, and several case studies that characterize successful technology-focused brand strategies. If there are particular topics you are interested in, feel free to submit them and I will try to address them in upcoming articles.

What is brand?

In tangible terms, brand is a name, a symbol/sign, and typically a system of fundamental visual, verbal, and written characteristics; however, the true essence of a brand extends beyond what we can see and hear. The significance of your company’s brand is also defined by the sum of its interactions with people.

These interactions occur in a variety of ways. They can be local and personal, such as when a customer engages in a face-to-face conversation with a customer service representative. They can also be remote, such as when a customer contacts a CSR by phone. In both of these situations a human connects with another human who represents the business; however, in mediated interactions-those exemplified by communication channels including mass media advertising, product packaging, and Web sites—a human interacts with a non-human representative of the company.

Each of these interactions represents a touch point that results in an experience. Consistently positive experiences form the foundation of an effective brand. The most powerful brands maintain interactions that repeatedly result in high-value experiences. Such brands allow organizations to capitalize on the strong, long-term customer relationships that result from these experiences. Think UPS, Nike, and IBM.

Understanding Branding

Perhaps one of the most helpful ways to understand branding and its benefits is to think of it in terms of an interpersonal relationship. Consider the following anecdote:

Mary discovers an interesting recipe that requires star fruit, which her local grocery store doesn’t stock; so she decides to try the specialty food store a few miles away. As the store’s produce manager, John notices the troubled expression on Mary’s face while she mulls over the unique, waxy, golden-yellow fruit. John promptly steps forward and helps Mary pick out the best ones, explains how to tell if they are ripe, and even points out that the Asian pears, which she also needs, are on sale. Happily, Mary thanks John, collects the required ingredients, and proceeds to the checkout counter.

Over the course of several weeks, Mary has several more favorable encounters with John. At each meeting, John is sure to take a moment to stop and chat. Eventually, Mary begins to formulate certain expectations of him. Most importantly, with each positive point of contact, their relationship grows stronger, and some of the positive feelings Mary has for John are transferred to the grocery store as a whole. Because of this relationship, Mary is willing to drive a little out of her way to do her shopping at this particular store.

The interactions between a person and a brand are similar in many ways. Brand interactions that generate and uphold favorable expectations also lead to a relationship of sorts. It is this relationship that supplies a brand with its power. Let’s go back to John and Mary:

After several months of positive encounters, something happens to challenge Mary’s expectations. During one particular visit, John is too busy to give Mary much attention. After hurriedly pointing her in the general direction of a fruit display containing mushy peaches, he curtly turns away and waves a hasty good-bye. Mary thinks he even called her “Maggie” when he left! Mary is disappointed, but she’s had so many good experiences with John that she is more willing to forgive this single negative experience. She’ll come back, and as long as the bad experience isn’t repeated regularly, she’ll remain a loyal customer.

The same phenomenon exists with brand relationships. If a consumer has a relationship with a brand, he or she will be more likely to forgive a negative experience with it. Of course, a series of these kinds of interactions would begin to degrade the value of the relationship and therefore the effectiveness of the brand.

You can think about the value of a brand relationship in terms of equity. Brand equity represents the value and strength of the customer relationship. “Building brand equity” is a phrase often used to describe initiatives designed to enhance the customer’s perception of the brand and its underlying relationship with the organization. Routinely negative experiences that fail to meet established customer expectations reduce brand equity. Just like other assets, the more equity a brand has, the more leverage it provides the organization that owns it.

Brand Management

The viability of a brand depends on managing the quality of all the interactions that occur between an organization and its existing and prospective customers. Brand management requires an extraordinary degree of consistency in the way an organization communicates, regardless of the messaging vehicle. Due to this strict level of compliance, people often refer to branding as a religion. In some ways it is. To realize any significant value, branding requires faith in a core strategy, dedication to the consistent implementation of that strategy, and discipline to manage and maintain the brand over time.

Effective brand management requires participation from the senior leadership of an organization. Due to the pervasive effect brand has on business, it is very difficult to formulate, communicate, and modify a well-timed strategy without the involvement of high-level decision-makers. An important and valuable asset, brand is inextricably linked to your overall business strategy. Similar to the genetic instructions known as DNA, a brand defines the salient characteristics of your company. A brand might even provide an indication of how a company could evolve into the future. A healthy brand requires leadership from the top down and participation from the bottom up. Communicating the basic building blocks of your brand to your organization and its customers in a consistent fashion is one of the key objectives of successful brand management.

Brand communication consistency is typically achieved through the creation and enforcement of brand standards, which are referred to in many ways, including standards manuals, brand guidelines, and style guides. Depending on the maturity of a brand, this documentation may be exhaustively detailed or simply a collection of basic guiding principles. Either way, these standards provide a tool for disseminating guidance that will empower every member of your organization to effectively contribute to building brand equity.

Brand Identity

People first experience a brand through its identity, the primary elements of which are the brand name, a symbol/sign, and a brand framework expressed through one or more communication vectors. A common brand framework might include visual, verbal, written, and even audio fundamentals. For example, consider Intel, one of the most successful brands in the marketplace. Standardized visual elements include the “dropped e” corporate logo, a color pallet founded on “Intel blue,” and a basic typographic system that specifies the Helvetica Neue font family. As for Audio elements, I expect that most readers can imitate the familiar 4-bong Intel signature.

Using a standardized brand identity allows people to recognize a brand in a variety of environments and interaction contexts. Since brand identity is essentially the most obvious expression of your brand, it often has the greatest impact on first impressions. As with interpersonal relationships, first impressions are extremely important. While we all appreciate the risk of judging a book by its cover, in the marketplace an outstanding first impression can mean the difference between winning and losing a lifelong customer.

Brand Trends

A quick survey of the marketplace reveals that a rapidly growing number of companies rely on technology products such as software, mobile devices, and Internet applications to do business, which has increased the number of customer interactions taking place through these mediums. As a result, pixel-based communication channels have a substantial, direct impact on the equity of the overall brand like never before.

There is no shortage of tools, techniques, and available expertise for addressing the range of channels traditionally used to interact with the customer. Marketing and Design professionals concerned with channels like direct mail, television, and point of purchase displays have years of experience from which to draw upon; however, the shift toward using high tech products to do business represents a new channel that requires unique tools, new techniques, and specialized expertise to create successful customer interactions.

Coming Up…

The next article in this series will explore the differences between traditional branding applications and technology-based channels. How do these differences affect existing brand standards and visual identity elements like color, image, and typography? We'll also focus on the significance of behavior as it relates to building a powerful brand over time.