UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 211 July 26, 2007

Don’t let branding kill your brand

“That’s not one of our corporate colors.”

The words hit you like a whiff of smelly cheese. You try to explain that, yes, the corporate colors are baby blue and yellow, but that combination isn’t optimal for building the main menu of a website.

“Maybe, but we really need to stick to the brand guide approved by marketing. Maybe we could use different shades of baby blue and yellow.”

Oh, the agony and ecstasy of brand orthodoxy. Designers have a love / hate relationship with branding documents and style guides. After all, it’s nice to have a defined style and brand manual. Accepted colors, approved iconography, exhaustively documented gradients and image libraries all make life easier for designers. They cut down on revisions and give us a place to start working. Unfortunately, most corporate style guides are not created with interactive experiences in mind.

Unless you are lucky enough to be working for a company that was born digital, you’re likely to be faced with a lot of branding requirements that were created for the print world, not the digital realm.

When corporate marketing departments dream of brand design, they only dream as far as they need. The expensive and time consuming process of extending the brand into an interactive concept is usually pushed off until it becomes absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, by the time some serious rethinking is required, a lot of people have gotten stuck in the mud of static branding. It’s completely natural for companies to resist straying from the handful of predefined styles that were never meant to address web forms, widgets, calendars and menuing systems.

Whose fault is it really?

As designers and user experience professionals, it’s easy to blame faceless corporate bureaucracy. It’s management’s fault; they don’t think about users. It’s marketing’s fault; they don’t understand the difference between a brochure and a web app. It’s the art department’s fault; they didn’t explain the difference between print experience and multimedia experience. Sure, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but the buck stops here. This is our job, and our fight, and ultimately our responsibility.

There are a lot of designers and UX architects who are happy to go with the flow and let marketing dictate the terms of the design. If a poorly dictated design ends up crippling the user experience, well, that’s not their fault. But blame has a way of trickling down to the people closest to a project. Who’s going to take the bullet? The senior marketing executive who oversaw the project, or you, the worker in charge of actually executing it?

Fault doesn’t matter. Responsibility does. At the end of the day, as user experience professionals, it is our responsibility to advocate on behalf of the user. That means we have to be champions of the user experience, and sometimes that means going against the status quo.

User experience IS your brand

Of all the arguments for modifying brand attributes to better suit a digital experience, the most compelling is this: The way users feel about their experience is inseparable from the way they feel about your brand.

This maxim holds true for brick-and-mortar experiences as well as for digital interactions. A restaurant with great food but incredibly long lines and a bad wait staff will experience brand damage. The user experience is bad, and people will look elsewhere. The same thing will happen if your users get baffled by confusing menus, hard-to-read text, and perplexing layouts. The user experience is bad, and people will look elsewhere.

The way a user feels when they come in contact with a brand interaction point will implicitly shape their image of the brand itself. This realization is a powerful tool for user experience professionals and can help snap clients and peers out of static thinking.

Starbucks.com isn’t just green and white

There’s no real doubt that sticking to brand guidelines is useful in creating a well-defined brand image. Marketing professionals have been embracing strict branding practices for years now, successfully shaping their brands into recognizable and even celebrated cultural touchstones. Still, no company should miss the forest for the trees.

It is helpful to remember that even the most accomplished companies have become experts at modifying brand attributes to suit interactive experiences. This is done without sacrificing brands, but rather by extending them.

For UX professionals, the key is to bring marketing decision-makers on board with the design process, empowering them to contribute to the effort of designing positive user experiences while providing the professional guidance to help them make good decisions. UX is the bridge between brand and customer. Ultimately, the strength of the design process will contribute to the success or failure of the entire brand experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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Comments

44
43

Have full written, is about what to think. Representation fuller became.
To the author of thanks.

41
46

Agreed. I've found it fairly successful with clients to recommend vetting the branding work in real applications both digital and physical, and never to approve identity work until we've seen it in action, where it will live in the real world. Even if they're just "what things might be" type of comps. Another issue here is that it's rare to find a talented identity group that has specialization in both the physical and digital world.

39
41

Hit the nail on the head.

Dude, this is one of the most frustrating parts about design. The brand is developed before the experience is thought about. Drives me nuts.

36
45

Very, very true. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to work with our marketing department to come up with some common guidelines for UI elements. Let me tell you, it’s not an easy task. Luckily things are finally starting to take shape, and we’ll hopefully be able to start working in the same direction rather than butting heads.

48
50

I think Douglas Adams said it best, “The brand/marketing department will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” :-)

Well, DNA didn’t have “brand” in there but he would have if he’d ever worked with them.

And who do I work for? Microsoft of course!

46
35

It is unfortunate when the budget fails to accommodate more elaborate style guides. It is hard to find time — within the budget — to think about and document every application the brand could possibly apply to — especially when the project manager is breathing down your back.

Clients simply do not value or have the time to understand this element of the design process — therefore not allowing the appropriate budget.

In regards to using the “baby blue and yellow” on a website. Why not? If the corporate colours work in print, they should work on screen media. Obviously you wouldn’t use yellow text on white background, so some realistic thought needs to be existent in the process. The same design aesthetics should be used in any media the branding experience applies to. It is the web-designer’s/designer’s/programmer’s responsibility to see/ask if there are any previous screen media applications of the brand.

Maybe we should spend some time — in the free time we have??? — to generate elaborate templates for each brand you design in the future. For example, most style guides just refer to print colours, so you need to additionally address screen colours in RGB and HEX. The list goes on, but remember the people who refer to your style guides are under strict time restrictions too.

When it comes down to it, it is time allocation. Polish up the style guide template and make it easier for 3rd parties to understand and contact you.

30
44

Just to add to my previous post. Do you honestly think a print only designer can design a website and a web designer do print? It is hard for them to switch other to a design which adapts to browsers — note I’m not mentioning the agony of the width of a site issue — and also think about what works in terms of interactivity — note again, I’m not referring to way out flash animations.

What you need is an even balance of communication between designers and common real world design sense.

39
40

Angelo,

I completely agree, which is what I’m getting at in the article. The relationship between digital UX and print-focused marketing has to be coloborative and complimentary. It makes no sense to blame anyone. The only appropriate action is to combine skills and to work towards the mutual benefit of the company / brand. The major hurdle is getting the appropriate decionmakers to stop seeing brand development as being split between departments and fields. Modern branding calls for the synthesis of multiple fields, and that’s our real challenge.

41
45

It’s a nice dilusion that we have any outright control. The buck might stop here, but speaking as an employee of such a corporation, if we dare to pick up the buck we get the option of like it or look for work elsewhere.
Change is a word that holds no place within a large company, less so when your not at the top of the corporate food chain.

Yes we all encounter these problems, and drool at the opportunity to change them. But somewhere between trying to walk through treacle while juggling fire and the 50,000 meetings each change would require; the fact people don’t like to be told things need to change, the never ending beurocracy; and that annoying sox compliancy thing that creates paper work for every change you make.
I’d rather eat biro’s for a living then try yet again.

43
44

I always thought brand style guides should be ignored to the maximum extent possible when dealing with web (HTML) projects.

For a start, we need to use system fonts, and build menus. Style guides never help with those aspects.

Secondly, most have invested most heavily in their logo, and perhaps a dominant colour. Surely our job is to highlight those by de-emphasizing design elsewhere, and using compilimentary – not the same – colours.

Content before style. Purpose before content. Few corporates are getting websites expressly to strengthen their brand. They have them as a conduit for communication.

42
45

I think you are confusing a logo with a brand. You write that the Starbucks website is not just green and white which is true, but brands and logos are not the same thing. Part of Walmart’s brand identity is low prices, and wide aisles. For Starbucks part of their brand is a warm inviting atmosphere that makes the customer feel welcome to stay and sit down for a few hours. If the clients or employers you are working with have their branding and logo guidelines confused this is a much more serious problem. Branding is about much more than fonts and colors.

42
33

Anthony,

You are EXACTLY right, and that’s sort of the point. All too often companies misake the visual aesthetic for the limit of the brand. Even some marketing departments have a problem with this. I recently did a project for a company that was so wedded to their previously defined aesthetic brand guidelines that they never really developed any concepts for the emotional brand impact. They never even bothered to think in terms of “what ideas should our brand deliver” and “what value should our brand transmit.” It was infuriating. In their docs, their brand consisted of: Company Name, Company Logo, Company Colors, Company Tagline. That was all.

Sad, but true. Their brand had zero experiencial value, no emotional resonance, and probably no future.

37
42

Generally, when working with an established brand, one of the first steps we’ll take is developing a new interactive style guide, taking what exists and applying our own expertise to make it online-friendly. This includes design and copy considerations. This way the client has something they can approve, and we have a chance to iron out the kinks of moving a brand online early on.

37
48

Brands need to be suitable for eworld to get new dimension and live in new world. Look all cars brands. They move in 3d and also don’t look strict on guideline.

39
45

I have to disagree with Communication Agency. Most of the top brands are pretty strict with their Corporate Identity (CI). Most of the top car brands have very well-defined guidelines for print which we, as developers, end up merely transplanting on the Web. Most of the top brands also have their own fonts, too, which is a bit tricky because some of the fonts aren’t cross-browser compatible or simply don’t work well in an online environment. Similarly, copy styles that work in print, appearing as bold and classy, might look a tad aloof when used in an online context. In the end, a compromise is always the case, and we always end up trying to be as creative as possible within the predefined constraints. It’s been like that since Day One and I expect that, with the exception of daring brands, it’s going to be like this for a very long time.

35
37

I think all of you are missing the point.
Besides, we really need to stick to the brand guide approved by marketing.

43
51

First of all this blog needs to truely understand what a brand is. The brand is simply not just the logo, letterhead, business card, website etc., it invloves all your senses. The brand experience may also incorporate how the customers are greated in a shop, product design or even the feeling of owning a pair of ‘such and such’ shoes. There are many many other aspects what a brand is/means.

Web developers should not be designing and looking at the style guides in the first place. A web designer or graphic designer — who understands the brand — should be providing the developer with the finished mock site. Mock site being a fully coded site without database entries and major functionality. The designer is responsible for making the creative conversion of the branding experience into electronic form such as web, screen, video, etc. The designer should then work in conjunction with the designer of the brand in order to meet all required guidelines — if it is a different person :) . The web designer/graphic designer should then work in conjunction with the web developer to make sure the branding experience requirements/goals are met.

I would however strongly recommending a style guide should be made up for the web developer which shows which ‘classes’ and IDs belong to certain elements, etc. for future reference.

In regards to typography, of course the fonts are not available in most cases. It is however possible to use a similar font — which is web friendly — and also style the copy to almost mimick what is possible in print. The designer of the brand should supply the font names in order to purchase and use them for type in images or automatically generated type images via server.

46
39

Brand is not logo nor branding meant matching your carpet with visiting card.

Please undertand that branding aims at recall and recognition process inside brain.

Gosh! please forgive them because they know not what branding is all about.

35
44

Sachin. My post was a positive response and purely trying add to the knowledge of this subject. Please read my response a few more times when you are relaxed. :) If you read them in an angry manner, then it will appear as though the responses are angry. :)

There is much the web needs to change. One, being the way we read blogs/email which are detached from the feeling of seeing the person face to face, their expressions and tone of voice.

Have a nice day everyone :)

46
38

Sachin. My post was a positive response and purely trying add to the knowledge of this subject. Please read my response a few more times when you are relaxed. :) If you read them in an angry manner, then it will appear as though the responses are angry. :)

There is much the web needs to change. One, being the way we read blogs/email which are detached from the feeling of seeing the person face to face, their expressions and tone of voice.

Have a nice day everyone :)

44
39

Brand is not logo nor branding meant matching your carpet with visiting card.

Please undertand that branding aims at recall and recognition process inside brain.

Gosh! please forgive them because they know not what branding is all about.

27
32

First of all this blog needs to truely understand what a brand is. The brand is simply not just the logo, letterhead, business card, website etc., it invloves all your senses. The brand experience may also incorporate how the customers are greated in a shop, product design or even the feeling of owning a pair of ‘such and such’ shoes. There are many many other aspects what a brand is/means.

Web developers should not be designing and looking at the style guides in the first place. A web designer or graphic designer — who understands the brand — should be providing the developer with the finished mock site. Mock site being a fully coded site without database entries and major functionality. The designer is responsible for making the creative conversion of the branding experience into electronic form such as web, screen, video, etc. The designer should then work in conjunction with the designer of the brand in order to meet all required guidelines — if it is a different person :) . The web designer/graphic designer should then work in conjunction with the web developer to make sure the branding experience requirements/goals are met.

I would however strongly recommending a style guide should be made up for the web developer which shows which ‘classes’ and IDs belong to certain elements, etc. for future reference.

In regards to typography, of course the fonts are not available in most cases. It is however possible to use a similar font — which is web friendly — and also style the copy to almost mimick what is possible in print. The designer of the brand should supply the font names in order to purchase and use them for type in images or automatically generated type images via server.

46
45

I think all of you are missing the point.
Besides, we really need to stick to the brand guide approved by marketing.

29
43

I have to disagree with Communication Agency. Most of the top brands are pretty strict with their Corporate Identity (CI). Most of the top car brands have very well-defined guidelines for print which we, as developers, end up merely transplanting on the Web. Most of the top brands also have their own fonts, too, which is a bit tricky because some of the fonts aren’t cross-browser compatible or simply don’t work well in an online environment. Similarly, copy styles that work in print, appearing as bold and classy, might look a tad aloof when used in an online context. In the end, a compromise is always the case, and we always end up trying to be as creative as possible within the predefined constraints. It’s been like that since Day One and I expect that, with the exception of daring brands, it’s going to be like this for a very long time.

36
43

Brands need to be suitable for eworld to get new dimension and live in new world. Look all cars brands. They move in 3d and also don’t look strict on guideline.

36
43

Generally, when working with an established brand, one of the first steps we’ll take is developing a new interactive style guide, taking what exists and applying our own expertise to make it online-friendly. This includes design and copy considerations. This way the client has something they can approve, and we have a chance to iron out the kinks of moving a brand online early on.

46
41

Anthony,

You are EXACTLY right, and that’s sort of the point. All too often companies misake the visual aesthetic for the limit of the brand. Even some marketing departments have a problem with this. I recently did a project for a company that was so wedded to their previously defined aesthetic brand guidelines that they never really developed any concepts for the emotional brand impact. They never even bothered to think in terms of “what ideas should our brand deliver” and “what value should our brand transmit.” It was infuriating. In their docs, their brand consisted of: Company Name, Company Logo, Company Colors, Company Tagline. That was all.

Sad, but true. Their brand had zero experiencial value, no emotional resonance, and probably no future.

46
41

I think you are confusing a logo with a brand. You write that the Starbucks website is not just green and white which is true, but brands and logos are not the same thing. Part of Walmart’s brand identity is low prices, and wide aisles. For Starbucks part of their brand is a warm inviting atmosphere that makes the customer feel welcome to stay and sit down for a few hours. If the clients or employers you are working with have their branding and logo guidelines confused this is a much more serious problem. Branding is about much more than fonts and colors.

42
46

I always thought brand style guides should be ignored to the maximum extent possible when dealing with web (HTML) projects.

For a start, we need to use system fonts, and build menus. Style guides never help with those aspects.

Secondly, most have invested most heavily in their logo, and perhaps a dominant colour. Surely our job is to highlight those by de-emphasizing design elsewhere, and using compilimentary – not the same – colours.

Content before style. Purpose before content. Few corporates are getting websites expressly to strengthen their brand. They have them as a conduit for communication.

48
45

It’s a nice dilusion that we have any outright control. The buck might stop here, but speaking as an employee of such a corporation, if we dare to pick up the buck we get the option of like it or look for work elsewhere.
Change is a word that holds no place within a large company, less so when your not at the top of the corporate food chain.

Yes we all encounter these problems, and drool at the opportunity to change them. But somewhere between trying to walk through treacle while juggling fire and the 50,000 meetings each change would require; the fact people don’t like to be told things need to change, the never ending beurocracy; and that annoying sox compliancy thing that creates paper work for every change you make.
I’d rather eat biro’s for a living then try yet again.

44
37

Angelo,

I completely agree, which is what I’m getting at in the article. The relationship between digital UX and print-focused marketing has to be coloborative and complimentary. It makes no sense to blame anyone. The only appropriate action is to combine skills and to work towards the mutual benefit of the company / brand. The major hurdle is getting the appropriate decionmakers to stop seeing brand development as being split between departments and fields. Modern branding calls for the synthesis of multiple fields, and that’s our real challenge.

45
46

Just to add to my previous post. Do you honestly think a print only designer can design a website and a web designer do print? It is hard for them to switch other to a design which adapts to browsers — note I’m not mentioning the agony of the width of a site issue — and also think about what works in terms of interactivity — note again, I’m not referring to way out flash animations.

What you need is an even balance of communication between designers and common real world design sense.

43
43

It is unfortunate when the budget fails to accommodate more elaborate style guides. It is hard to find time — within the budget — to think about and document every application the brand could possibly apply to — especially when the project manager is breathing down your back.

Clients simply do not value or have the time to understand this element of the design process — therefore not allowing the appropriate budget.

In regards to using the “baby blue and yellow” on a website. Why not? If the corporate colours work in print, they should work on screen media. Obviously you wouldn’t use yellow text on white background, so some realistic thought needs to be existent in the process. The same design aesthetics should be used in any media the branding experience applies to. It is the web-designer’s/designer’s/programmer’s responsibility to see/ask if there are any previous screen media applications of the brand.

Maybe we should spend some time — in the free time we have??? — to generate elaborate templates for each brand you design in the future. For example, most style guides just refer to print colours, so you need to additionally address screen colours in RGB and HEX. The list goes on, but remember the people who refer to your style guides are under strict time restrictions too.

When it comes down to it, it is time allocation. Polish up the style guide template and make it easier for 3rd parties to understand and contact you.

40
38

I think Douglas Adams said it best, “The brand/marketing department will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” :-)

Well, DNA didn’t have “brand” in there but he would have if he’d ever worked with them.

And who do I work for? Microsoft of course!

38
40

Very, very true. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to work with our marketing department to come up with some common guidelines for UI elements. Let me tell you, it’s not an easy task. Luckily things are finally starting to take shape, and we’ll hopefully be able to start working in the same direction rather than butting heads.

44
37

Hit the nail on the head.

Dude, this is one of the most frustrating parts about design. The brand is developed before the experience is thought about. Drives me nuts.