Once upon a time, branding was good for companies but not so good for consumers. That’s no longer the story.
In an entertaining TEDx talk from a few years back, self-described “advertising guru” Rory Sutherland describes Eurostar’s massive effort to lay all new track for its trains, shaving 40 minutes off the trip from London to Paris, at a cost of six billion pounds. He then asks why Eurostar didn’t simply spend half as much money to hire all the supermodels on earth, and have them walk up and down every train throughout the journey, handing out free glasses of champagne? Passengers would probably be happier, and want the journey to be longer, not shorter.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek solution, but the point is worth taking. Sutherland argues that all consumer value is subjective, and that we’d be wise to take advantage of this fact. The most valuable product is the one that leaves us happiest, whether because of how it looks, how fast it is, or how much champagne it doles out.
Companies tend to focus on qualities that can be measured, like price, size, and speed, but at the end of the day we like (and buy) things for emotional reasons that sometimes have little to do with function.
Branding is one of them. Done right, it doesn’t just improve the value of the product – it generates value for consumers, creates a happy relationship between them and brands, and can genuinely improve their lives.
Branding’s Shift from Surface To Experiential
In the last decade branding has undergone a transformation– it’s no longer the logo tripling the price of a shirt or the shiny package hiding an inferior product. This is great news for designers. Branding is no longer primarily the domain of marketing and advertising. These external forces can supplement, but the real defining elements of the new experiential branding are baked into the products themselves. Consistent, authentic, emotional design across all touch points is what forges and strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customers.
Many factors have contributed to this deepening of branding from surface to experiential, but three are especially significant:
- Information Easy access to tools (such as the internet and social media) that disclose and disseminate knowledge. A brand that doesn’t practice transparency runs the risk of being exposed as inauthentic by increasingly informed, resourceful consumers. In today’s age of transparency, an inferior product or suspect company practices can’t hide behind shiny packaging.
- Entrepreneurship. The flowering of product entrepreneurship and crowdfunding that is partly due to easy access to digital tools has leveled the competitive landscape. Brand new brands have a blank slate and nimbleness on their side, and they can sometimes catch up to and surpass older, established brands.
- Internet of Things. Connectivity and smart products afford brands a more direct and intimate relationship with consumers. These objects living inside peoples’ pockets, homes, on their wrists, etc. gather data and communicate closely and contextually with consumers.
Designing the Whole Product Experience
Thanks to these business and cultural shifts, today’s well-built brand needs to be viewed as, as my colleague Bill Horan has said, “A story a company tells its customers through the experiences they have with its products or services.” A brand experience is the sum of interactions and emotions evoked, ranging from desire and surprise to assurance and even joy, along the entirety of a customer’s journey.
We get a jolt of delight when we make a new purchase – that’s where “retail therapy” gets its power. And certain micro-interactions can trigger a frisson of cheer, but lasting, prolonged happiness comes only from a sustained relationship buoyed by a growing perception of value. Think of the streaming service that continues to get you effortlessly to the right music every time, or the apparel subscription whose thoughtful packaging makes the unboxing ritual an unparalleled delight month after month.
Lasting, prolonged happiness comes only from a sustained relationship buoyed by a growing perception of value.
Surprise and delight has received a lot of attention, but it seems a shame to stop at standalone tactics when there’s the potential to deliver on a protracted strategy. So perhaps the question to ask is, how do we inspire “prolonged happiness”? In the context of products, what creates that value? The short answer is, of course, design!
There’s a saying among designers that “If it doesn’t feel like it works, it doesn’t work”—in other words, function is meaningless unless it’s perceived. This is one reason why so many websites, apps, and software packages are easier to use now than five years ago: their creators realized that cramming in more functions or speeding up processing by 10% matters less than a satisfying, approachable user experience.
These days, effective function is just table stakes. Nobody’s happy with a washing machine that won’t run, but in many categories, the function part is more or less taken care of. Any washing machine will get your clothes clean, and any stove will boil water, creating what consumer journalist Rob Walker calls “the Pretty Good Problem”: when every product in a category is pretty good, what comes next?
Joy Through Experience
What’s next is optimizing for user experience, and branded design is one of the most powerful tools for doing that. The Tesla Model S offers some truly unique features (no gas tank, for example) but the one that brings me the most joy is the door handles. Since Tesla was designing and building a car from scratch, they took the opportunity to make it look and behave like the brand-new thing it was. So the door handles emerge and illuminate, almost magically, from the surface of the door as you approach, then sink back in once you’ve shut it. It’s an extraordinary detail that’s unique to Tesla – a fact you’re reminded of every time you use the vehicle.
Other brands and products that are doing this well are pictured here with Tesla’s magical door handle. Read more about Nest’s Farsight, Moen’s touch-sensitive faucet, and the Disney MagicBand in our 15 Favorite Branded Interactions post. These are the essence of prolonged joy in product design.
This approach is even more prevalent in digital-physical products. I’m not an Apple person but I can appreciate that their brand has become synonymous with pure forms, advanced materials, and distinct micro-interactions that bring pleasure to their users. Apple’s digital and physical identities feel like they came from the same place. By contrast, I also appreciate that Google’s latest Android and cloud apps deliver a different but equally clear branded message of simplicity and efficiency.
Google’s “Material Design” visual language, which defines the latest Android releases as well as online tools like Gmail and Docs (and the physical design of many Android phones), is a triumph of clarity and consistency, and it looks nothing like the iPhone.
Both systems of branded design are internally consistent and beautifully executed, which makes them a joy to use, but they’re quite distinct from each other. The Apple one (pictured, left) looks and feels like Apple, and the Google one (pictured, right) looks and feels like Google.
Helping Clients Find Their Joy
Oftentimes the most difficult part of our job at Bresslergroup is getting clients to articulate their values in a way that drives design that will be both distinctive and expressive of their brand. When you ask most organizations what they stand for, they can often default to things like Quality, Value, Innovation and a few other generic terms that everyone else uses, too.
Our role is to help client stakeholders develop unique identifiers that set them apart – what branding expert Simon Sinek calls “starting with Why”. Patagonia is about Quality and Innovation too, but ask their devoted customers and they’ll tell you about commitment to the environment, and the quiet, transformative exploration of the world’s dwindling wilderness. These qualities permeate Patagonia’s marketing messages, but also their products, from the names of the colors they use to the recycled materials that comprise some of their garments.
Unique identifiers drive the creation of experiential design elements that lead to prolonged joy.
These are more than just tricks to get people to buy your stuff. They are sources of joy, for millions of people. Nest’s Farsight feature and its graphic interaction, the touch-free operation of the Moen sensing faucet, the ambient technology of the Disney Band – all of these were designed, and all of them do a remarkable double duty, bringing a smile to countless faces and solidifying the identity of the brands that made them.
The best examples of branded design are thoughtful, generous, honest, and exuberant. As a consumer who avoids shirts with logos and as a designer who does a lot of this kind or work, I’m thrilled to see branding headed toward this more meaningful future. You could even call it happily ever after.