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Don’t let branding kill your brand

by Damon
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Damon takes a look at brand guidelines and how they counteract with the User Experience

“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.

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