My name’s Mike Atherton and I’m the head of UX for Huddle. When I first started at Huddle, I went to marketing to learn more about our brand. And they said ‘oh you know, it’s blue – its this Pantone reference –- and here’s the logo guidelines’.And I knew then we had some work to do.
Because branding is not about making the logo bigger. Brands don’t exist in marketing guidelines, but in our heads. A brand is a small idea that occupies a corner of our mind. It’s the mental association we make when thinking about a product or service.
And with the rapid rise and constant iterations of the lean startups around town, we should take a moment to reconnect with the concepts of brand building. The idea that we offer, the values that drive it and the personality by which its expressed. I think we can use these not just to tell people about our product, but to actually design more valuable products.
So pop quiz time.If I asked you who made safe cars? You say: VOLVOName me a robot vacuum cleaner?: ROOMBAOne for the pre-digital people here. Instant camera?: POLAROIDIt’s a neat trick, this mass hypnosis. And it shows us that these brands have successfully taken a single, differentiated angle on their product category and embedded it in our minds.
For better or worse, we don’t own our brand message. Our brand isn’t what we say it is, but what our customers say it is. We can try to reinforce that message through marketing, but really the values have to be more fundamentally associated with the product itself.
Those valuesare what you believe. The things you care about – and ideally the things you’re best at. It’s the impetus that drives many founders to start a company, just as a stand against bad business software led two guys to start Huddle. Values are what you love or what you hate, and they serve as a guiding policy driving everything you do.
Volvo have long talked about their commitment to safety, and Starbucks like to think its all ethical. These values also try to distinguish them from the competition. Values need to come from within and be lived every day, and people will notice if you fail.We remember the Starbucks scandal last year for avoiding tax. While they didn’t do anything illegal, their brand reputation was tarnished because we had expectations of their values that they failed to live up to. Values are just words until they’re tested under pressure.
Values drive your brand purpose. Your mission. The visible change you want to see in the world. None of this ‘to be the best’ or ‘to be the market-leader’ stuff. Missions aren’t what you want to be, but what you want to do. They’re ambitious, specific and measurable. They should be relevant and desirable to customers, who then want to help you get there.Microsoft started out with a great mission; to put a computer on every desk and in every home. And however uncool you might think they are, they did achieve it. So ask yourself: what are we for? And how will we know when we’re done?Missions energise and focus the team. There’s a great story about President Kennedy visiting NASA. He walked up to a janitor and said ‘What do you do here?’. The janitor puts down his mop, stands up straight and says ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon!’. So choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.
That brand purpose drives the economic growth of your business. Consider the humble coffee bean – a commodity if ever there was one. But grind them into a cup of coffee and you’ve got a product to sell. Sell it in a coffee shop and you’re offering a service. Put comfy chairs and smooth jazz in the shop and you’re creating an experience. Make that experience part of our everyday lives and you’ve driven a behavioural transformation. Create the customer and the money will follow.
This is something I like to say – making marketing run your brand is like making IT run your website. Which isn’t a slur against marketers, but the understanding that living the brand and delivering on values is thing that unites everyone in the company.
They say the first law of branding is focus; staying true to that one idea. Which should appeal to startups, not just because they’re all about reductive, lean thinking, but because Steve Jobs said it. Maintaining a focus that comes from your brand values insulates us against trying to do too much. If your mission doesn’t tightly define your product roadmap, it isn’t specific enough.
And without that tight mission, you end up engaged in the feature wars; an arms-race against your competitors to do more stuff; adding social sharing here, or a mobile app there. Huddle was founded as a challenger to Sharepoint – a product so hideously complex and bloated that it created a market of consultants trained to use it so you don’t have to.If we engage in the feature wars, what’s going to stop Huddle from going down the same road?
The days of the multi-function,swiss-army knife of feature suites are numbered. As consumers, we’re favouring products that do one thing well, and using service layers – like Dropbox integration or microformat export – to connect them. Small focused pieces, loosely joined across the network.
So how to we find our focus in a crowded market of products? These guys can help. In 1981 Al Ries and Jack Trout developed the idea of positioning. It’s about understanding which market category you’re in. We learn that its always better to be first in a category – after all, who remembers the second man on the moon – and that each category typically has a leader and a challenger. Think Coke and Pepsi.
The challenger’s role is to disrupt the status-quo. Make people think about the category in new ways, and turn any weaknesses they have into strengths. Perhaps the most famous example of this is car rental, dominated in the 50s by Hertz with delightful ads like this one. The challenger was Avis, who made advertising history by saying ‘We’re number 2, so we try harder’. And ‘We’re number 2, so the lines are shorter at our desk’. It was true! And by making a virtue out of trying harder, by reframing themselves as being trustworthy and earnest, they subtly repositioned Hertz as lazy and complacent.
So the challenger reframes the conversation. Turns weaknesses into strengths. And something even cooler:Because if you’re not a market-leader, and you’re not even number 2, then you can use reframing can create whole new sub-categories, of which your brand can then be first.
This was typical American car advertising in the 50s. Big, opulent, luxurious. Big meant status. Then came this little German car, making a virtue out of small. Small is cheaper to run, cheaper to fix and easier to park. Small is beautiful.
This is Dick Fosbury from Portland. In the 1968 Olympics he took the gold medal for the high-jump, using a new technique. Previously high-jumpers straddle over the pole, but Dick cleared it going backwards, head-first. The technique became known as the Fosbury Flop, and now everybody does it that way.
In 2007 Steve Ballmer of Microsoft missed the point of the iPhone. He thought no one would want a $500 phone. And he was probably right. But a lot of people wanted a $500 pocket computer, which was what the iPhone really was.
Of course, Apple had successfully reframed years earlier. The 1984 commercial suggested IBM were Big Brother and big-box computer users their drones. With the Macintosh, Apple created the category of the Personal Computer. Not just one you could personally own, but one with personality.
So true challengerschange the status-quo of any category, reframing them to their advantage and in doing so often creating a new category; think Personal Stereos or Luxury Ice Cream. While it sometimes comes down to trash-talking your competitors, a challenger can take the higher ground by attacking a problem in a genuinely different way.
So don’t try to compete with products on the features they offer, but on what they stand for, how they’re perceived and how they’re solving the problem. What trick have they missed? Every truly disruptive product, from online-only insurance brokers to lettuce-in-a-bag, has come from taking an established status-quo and turning it on its head.
If values are what you say, then personality is how you say it. Are you a little bit cheeky, or buttoned-up and formal? Do you speak like a peer or a parent? Our brand voice then can have a profound effect on how customers perceive our product.
With the digital products we design, we can make that tone of voice integral to the product experience. The tone and sophistication of our visual and interaction design, the characterful way we write our microcopy or our long-form content, and even the structure of our application, all speaks to our brand personality.
So while UX dogma is big on starting with sketches, I think before the pictures come the words. What are the key values driving this product? What emotions do we want to elicit? What’s the single differentiated word that we need to own in the mind of our customer and thus place centrally into the experience?
Our brand voice then, has three major needs. It should be talkable – by which we mean relevant to the audience, it needs to be authentic – stemming from our values and our mission. And above all it needs to be unique; instantly identifiable with your brand and no-one else.
We’re becoming ever more aware of noticable personality in our web products. Mailchimp did it brilliantly, and its been key to their success. And then there’s this kind of app design, where everything’s simple and happy, the sky is blue and the mascots are cute. It’s charming…for a while.But it’s all so bloody ‘nice’, and it’s all the bloody same! And if these brands are all speaking in the same happy tone of voice, we might buy their authenticity but they fail to be unique.
Innocent Drinks has a lot to answer for. What they did was fantastic - the funny, irreverent tone they put on their packaging, really drove home the idea that these guys were different; non-corporate, home-grown and well, innocent. Actually they’ve just been bought by Coca-Cola, so we shall see just how authentically they can keep this up.
But it spread, so much so that the term ‘wackaging’ (for wacky packaging) was coined, and now this stuff is bloody everywhere, co-opted by banks, utilities and other companies far from Innocent. For them it fails the test; we doubt its authenticity and its certainly not unique.
It’s a problem that seems to be infecting visual design. Throughout history art has moved in schools, and not so many years ago everything had that Web 2.0 look. Now designers debate skeuomorphic versus flat design as though those were our only choices. Choosing which tribe to follow is the opposite of being a designer. Our unique personality must be expressed through visuals too, and this Dribbblification of visual design hurts our distinctiveness.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re failing to even differentiate on our proposition. Do we really need another Instagram clone, Klout clone or Foursquare clone, if these products aren’t attacking the problem in a way that’s relevant and talkable?If that’s the business you’re in, is there a way you can be like Avis was to Hertz and change the status-quo? If we want to challenge a category leader and be remembered, we can’t just give people more of the same.
We can try harder. We can use unique, authentic and talkable not just to determine our tone of voice but to drive our entire proposition. Putting our values and above all our differentiator at the heart of our experience.
Nest wasn’t the first thermostat, but could lay claim to being the first truly intelligent thermostat. Its facia has hardly any controls, because its differentiator is all about its smart brain doing the hard work for us.Twitter wasn’t the first blogging tool, but it recognised that long-form blogging was intimidating for most of us and so created a new category of micro-blogging. The key to this is the 140-character tweet, lowering barriers to engagement by saying its okay to be brief. Without that limit, central to the Twitter experience, it would be just another publishing tool.
But my favourite example is Netflix. Not the first video provider, not even the first streaming video provider. Netflix’s big differentiator is its recommender system. So confident are Netflix in their recommendations, that that’s pretty much all the interface gives you. Its harder to browse around or search than to take what you’re offered, and in theory at least, that should be right. And I think that’s brave of them.
So look at what your competitors are not doing. Look for the inconveniences that aren’t being addressed. Find that uncontested ground where you have a chance to be a first-mover. And for crying out loud, don’t make me-too products. Act like the other guy and they'll think of the other guy.
In return you’ll be able to make better decisions for your product roadmap, you’ll have greater insulation from competitors and commodities, and with your users you’ll be building long-term preference, loyalty, even love.Thanks!
Brand Driven Design - Mike Atherton - UX Café May '13