Mar 09, 2022

On brand

Across the clients and companies I’ve worked with, more often than not I’ve had to sell the value of hard to measure stuff like branding and designing for emotion. Chances are good I’ll have to keep selling folks on this subject, so I thought it’d be handy to have a link I can send folks that outlines my thoughts. This link, specifically.

Let’s start at the very beginning and review the purpose branding plays in the context of a tech startup. Does it even matter? Can’t you just use off-the-shelf design systems or copy what everyone else is doing or do nothing at all? The short answer; sometimes, but not all the time, and usually not forever.

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste”
— Steve Jobs

You can look at early Microsoft or Google for examples of when brand identity (and more broadly “good design”) isn’t a vital strategic pillar. When you have a product that is category defining or wholly unique in the value it delivers, you can build an incredibly successful business without investing in branding or experience. At the time, the hardware-independent model offered by the Windows ecosystem was impossible to beat. It didn’t matter that Microsoft had no taste. They eventually invested in branding of course. But what made them start?

As novel technologies become commodity or you directly enter a competitive market, branding and experience design become increasingly valuable strategic levers. Slack is a classic example of a company that saw massive success in large part due to branding and experience design. Slack wasn’t a notable standout feature-wise compared to contemporaries like HipChat or Campfire when it entered the market, but it had a cool name, a fresh brand identity, a beautifully designed app, and an amazing onboarding experience. My team was using Hipchat when it launched, and we couldn’t switch fast enough. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

When you get branding right, it’s a multiplier on everything you do. It’s the salt that intensifies flavor, a wind at your back. Hiring is easier, customers are more satisfied, prospects more enthusiastic.

As to why that’s true, you have to remember that humans make decisions through a combination of conscious logical reasons and unconscious emotional reasons. Features, benefits, and value appeal to the logical self, whereas branding and “experience” focuses on the emotional self. As I described with Microsoft and Slack, you can compete on one or the other, but when you get both right, magic happens. For a deeper dive on this phenomenon, read on.

What constitutes a “good” brand identity?

Good brand identities are inherently contextual. Good for one company could be bad for another. For instance, the identity for Monster works for an energy drink, but it’d be disastrous for a mortuary. There are a few common “good” characteristics that apply to most businesses though:

  • A good brand identity inspires confidence. At minimum, a brand identity must immediately identify you as legitimate. A good brand identity takes that several steps further, instilling confidence that you can solve the problem potential customers have.
  • A good brand identity stands out. In 2022, it’s basically impossible to wholly unique, but it’s vitally important to not be blandly forgettable. If a customer is competitive shopping, do you want to be that one Zebra standing in the middle of a pack of identical zebras? Or do you want to be that one Zebra with pink stripes? Always the latter. This is where most tech companies go wrong. They think they have to “look like a tech company” and don the homogeneous “tech look”.
  • A good brand identity shines in the primary medium. For a tech company, that usually means websites and apps.
  • A good brand identity is consistent, but not monotonous. Evolutionarily speaking, humans are wired to respond to novelty. If you spot that tiger in the bushes, you live. If not, tiger snack. In music terms, you want a song with rise and fall, not a monotonous single tone.
  • A good brand identity should make you feel… something. Ideally a positive something.

A closing thought; consider that on any typical day there is no functional difference between a $20,000 Kia Rio and a $100,000 luxury car. They both get you from A to B safely. They both crawl through traffic at the same rate. What is it that people are paying 5x more for?

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