Branding with brainsPosted July 25th, 2012 by David Hamill
This is an opinion piece I wrote that appeared in Net magazine in February 2009. I was always quite fond of it so have decided to to pop it on my blog. I’m not responsible for the title I should add. I’ve altered some punctuation and added sub-headings to make it a little easier to read online
Branding guidelines can create a few debates when designing websites. In most cases, consistency with brand guidelines ensures consistency with the brand. But not always.
Picture this. After carrying out usability testing of a client’s website I’m presenting my results. I explain to those present that participants in the study couldn’t find what they were looking for because hyperlinks were difficult to notice. The deep blue colour didn’t look any different from the normal black text, so I suggest choosing a different colour “We can’t change the colour it’s against branding” is the response from one person. Really? Is being unhelpful one of the brand ideals? No, but only two text colours are permitted in the guidelines – black and dark blue.
This isn’t the first and won’t be the last design decision that’s inhibited by brand’s visual guidelines. But I’ll come back to this debate later. First let’s talk about the nature of branding.
Branding is more than a logo
These days, large organisations invest heavily in branding. When Lewis Hamilton (remember, I wrote this in 2009) arrived on the Formula 1 scene, Vodafone was quick to use him as a figurehead. This wasn’t so you’d see its logo on his kit. It was so we’d associate the brand with the person.
Branding isn’t just about recognising logos and consistent visual presentation. It’s how you feel about the product. It’s personality if you like. This part of branding is within the control of the marketers, but there’s another influence on brand perception that can be a lot more powerful. I’ll explain with an example.
Experiencing the brand
Let’s say you’re buying a car and you like the look of the new Poubelle. The adverts are funny and the design looks quirky and cool. You don’t realise it but you have an emotional bond with it.
You buy the Poubelle, but then things start going wrong after only a few months. The car has a technical problem that means the electric windows and air conditioning don’t work. The dealers, who were very nice when you were buying the car are a little rude now that you’ve come back with problems. Moreover the customer service helpline keeps you on hold for over an hour playing the same Edith Piaf song over and over again.
You regret buying the Poubelle now. Your opinion of the brand is in freefall and only a very positive experience is likely to recover it. These experiences with brands can have a bigger impact than advertising and marketers often have little control over them.
Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department
David Packard – co-founder of Hewlett-Packard
The web is one of the few instances where the marketers can affect the actual experience that people have with the brand, rather than just the face of it.
We don’t look at websites
People don’t look at websites, they experience them. They interact with them and this relationship can affect them emotionally. On the web it’s possible for visual brand guidelines to negatively impact the brand experience.
Interfering with the experience
Let’s say my client manufactures the Poubelle and those blue hyperlinks are on its website. You’re now visiting the web pages for the Poubelle because you’re tired of listening to Edith Piaf. What do think will have the greatest impact on your feelings toward the brand: getting lost on the website or noticing that the blue hyperlinks on the website are different to the blue on your owner’s manual?
It’s a no-brainer isn’t it? Visual consistency with the brand is important but there are more important things for the business to worry about also. Every interaction we have with a brand can affect our opinion of it. But few companies measure brand experience in its entirety. Different departments tend to look after their own little area.
The people who commission a brand’s visual guidelines are rarely accountable for usability issues on the website. In large companies you can translate ‘not accountable’ to mean ‘too busy to care unless my boss tells me to’.
When guidelines inhibit the design of a website in a way that causes usability problems, they harm the brand. My advice in these instances is to stretch those guidelines. You’ll be protecting the brand by doing so.
What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be asked to change it back. And it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission.