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On the Edge: Branding the User Experience

Business publications extol the power of branding as a success factor in marketing products and services. Branding is crucial in our social-networked, information-rich, communication world. Today, researchers measure where the impressions of a particular product might be located in our brains, and the power of these preferences to override even our own sensory experience in blind trials of products.

User experience professionals can benefit from learning more about branding’s role in managing customer experience. Branding traditionally defines a relationship among all stakeholders:

  • Intentional, marketing-oriented communication across business units, media, and audiences (users)
  • Planned, inclusive strategy that sets communication/experience standards and policies for the company’s benefit
  • Declaration of “who we are and why you should trust us”
  • Promise the company can keep to all its stakeholders: customers, competitors, stockholders, and employees
  • Visionary, targeted, and controlled forms of planned experience, communication, advertising, packaging, architecture, and vehicles

The value of branding can be found in the company’s stock price, the value of well-known names, and positive associations by consumers. These approaches view brands as “signs” that grow out of our experiences with products or services. Some examples:

  • Graphic devices like Target’s “target,” Corning’s pink insulation, or Coke’s typography at various times
  • Shapes, like those of the Volkswagen Beetle or the Apple iPad
  • Smells, like those for perfumes, new cars, or McDonald’s French fries
  • Spokespeople, like Lady Gaga for Polaroid or Natalie Portman for Dior
  • Auditory cues, like the “pongs” of “Intel Inside” or the sound of a Mercedes car door closing
  • Words—natural or artificial—like Apple, Kodak, Smurfs, or Wired, including those that have passed into public usage like Kleenex, Xerox, and Google
  • People/characters, either real, like Ben and Jerry, or fictional, like Betty Crocker, Mickey Mouse, and Hello Kitty

Many theorists and practitioners measure brand efficacy by:

  • Position – The relationship of one brand to another, in terms of categories of competing brands, relevance to one’s needs, and ranking within a category.
  • Reach – The extent of recognition by a percentage of people in a given geography, their frequency of exposure, the frequency and duration of use, and market share within a category.
  • Reputation – The positive (or negative) values assigned to the brand in terms of emotional attributes (affinity, trust, respect, and preference), rational attributes (value, consistency of experience, and clarity of the brand’s purpose), and personality (tone, character, or voice, such as young versus mature or playful versus serious).

There are other means of evaluating brands by using dimensions oriented to consumers, which are similar to the previous terms:

  • Differentiation – Ability of a brand to stand apart from its competitors by offering a unique set of promises to consumers
  • Relevance – Actual and perceived importance of the brand to a large consumer segment
  • Esteem – Consumer perceptions about the growing or declining quality of a brand, which vary by country and culture
  • Knowledge – Extent of consumer awareness of the brand and understanding of its identity; the “intimacy” that consumers share with the brand

Young and Rubicam, the ad agency, asserts that differentiation and relevance taken together strongly determine growth potential (“brand vitality”), while esteem and knowledge determine the current power of a brand (“brand stature”). Their website includes a Brand Asset Valuator, which contains data about 20,000 brands and is based on the opinions of more than 230,000 respondents in 44 countries.

Some web-oriented authors argue that Internet branding is more like solution branding, not product branding, but it seems to be an evolution in the branding of services. Other authors comment on the shifting focus of global brands, in which U.S.-based brands are losing “power,” while Asian and European brands have gained strength. Global market leaders and competitors carefully study brand awareness, competitiveness, and effectiveness.

With the rise of Facebook, Google’s algorithms for selection of relevant search results, and consumer-review sites like Yelp, commentators argue that brands are determined by what users say, not what the company says. It is too early to tell who will have the ultimate control over the brand of anything or anyone. Will it be the “suits” or the will of the people?

Branding and the UX Community

Although there is no one universally accepted branding model, branding establishes and maintains people’s identification with and “loyalty” to people, companies, products, and services. Because the number of each will ever increase, it seems likely that the focus on branding may become ever more prevalent.

We see this already when one might follow Lady Gaga’s latest purchases on Twitter to guide one’s own. Okay, not everyone is a fan of Lady Gaga, and she might someday move from wired to tired. Yet, there’s no arguing that our recognition of “personalities” in every aspect of products and services makes them more memorable, understandable, and appealing, and, in the end, augments their usability and usefulness.

Andy Warhol had it almost right. In the future, everyone will be a brand…and might achieve fame for fifteen minutes or less

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