Whenever we’d meet with prospects, we used to show samples of projects we’d worked on, describing the challenges and showing the solutions. Sometimes a curious thing happened. If what we showed was even slightly different from a prospect’s needs or who their audience was, they’d have a hard time connecting the dots between what we did for someone else and what we could do for them.
This both frustrated and intrigued me. After all, I reasoned, these are smart, articulate, successful people. How could they come up short in this one area? What’s happened to people’s imagination?
I bring this up because a client recently experienced a similar thing. I can’t discuss specifics here, but suffice it to say that his company produces systems which monitor patients in a hospital room environment, and they are developing a new product utilizing the same technology, but for the OR.
In order to gauge interest and better understand the specific needs of those using the product, they decided to exhibit this product at a recent trade show aimed at their target audience. In order to demonstrate the new system, they brought along the hospital bed they use to show how their current system works. But because the environment the audience at this trade show is familiar with is the OR, the hospital bed created confusion — was the product applicable to them or for those involved in post-surgery patient care? Even a large sign in the booth showing an OR and accompanied by a headline explaining the product’s purpose failed to clarify things.
Did these people lack the intelligence or imagination to make the leap? Hardly. I think the issue has more to do with how we search for information. In a world of information and sensory overload, we have learned to look for shorthand visual cues that signal whether or not something is of importance to us. The hospital bed represented a different, and irrelevant world to this audience.
The lesson here is that the more you look to simulate reality, the more accurate you need to be. Even small differences that can be significant. (After all, humans and chimps share 96% of the same DNA.) In a seeming paradox, going in the opposite direction (e.g. abstract, imaginative, or non-descript) can work better, especially if it’s hard to accurately imitate reality. If the prop or environment doesn’t offer any visually informational cues, people instinctively skip over it and look to whatever will provide the information they need. In the case of my client, had they used a non-descript black box in place of a hospital bed, people would not have even noticed it. Instead, they would have gone straight to the large sign for the information they were looking for, and any confusion would have been avoided.
As for me, I realized that the problem wasn’t with our prospects’ lack of imagination. We weren’t sending the right signals. Instead of hospital beds in an OR environment, ours centered around expectations. We were showing results while our prospects were looking for someone who could figure out how to solve their problem. And since the results we were showing didn’t match their needs, they had a hard time finding any relevance in them. So we stopped showing our portfolio and began demonstrating our thinking, since this is really what our clients need from us and where our expertise lies.
1. Any tweet that starts with “Top 5…”. Can’t we find another gimmick to grab attention?
2. Incomplete thoughts with a link. If I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’m not going to take the time to click your link.
3. Anyone that sends more than ten tweets a day. Come on, be a little selective.
4. Avoiding brevity by overuse of acronyms and abbreviations. Kind of misses the point of having a 140 character limit.
5. Tweets that use every technique in the Twitterverse to show they’re charter members of the Twitterclub. HT@CarrollRay 4 RT of bit.ly/Xtms8F #FF
At some point in the course of product development, the task of applying your brand to the hardware or software comes into play. Too often, it boils down to a late-addition exercise in labeling — where and how to place the logo and color. What this seems to imply is that branding from a product standpoint is only skin deep, and the real burden of branding is the responsibility of marketing. This is misleading. Marketing has the role of promoting the brand. But it is the product that defines the brand more than marketing efforts ever could.
Brands are built to attract consumers. And consumers fall into two categories: prospects and users. Prospects are introduced to a product through various marketing efforts (e.g. website, ads, trade show exhibits, commercials, etc.). Some people mistakenly assume that all of these efforts constitute the brand. Not so. These efforts introduce the brand promise — a set of expectations for a product. But a brand is more than what is promised — it’s also about what is delivered. Because once prospects become users, the brand promise will either be fulfilled or not, depending on their experience, and this will ultimately form their perception of the brand. Additionally, there will be some users of a product whose perception of a brand will be based solely on their use of it and not by any exposure to marketing efforts.
What this should make clear to anyone responsible for developing a product is this: think beyond the product logo, colors, graphic elements, type, etc. to build the brand. The visual and user experience needs to come together into one seamless, consistent presentation of the product in order to convey the true meaning and value of the brand.
If you’re developing a software product, there are a number of things to consider to create a better user experience:
• The application needs to be intuitive and easy to use
• The navigation, icons and language should follow common practice
• Prompts, instructions, commands, etc., should be clear and concise
• Icons need to be understandable and distinct from one another
As communicators, designers can serve as a link between software engineers and users to help make the presentation of information and instructions simple and clear. This is particularly helpful when time or resources don’t allow for testing with user groups.
One of our clients recently asked us to develop the icons for the software interface of a new product they were developing for cell metabolism research. Icons are a visual language that serve as a shorthand for words, requiring less space on a screen. Some of the functions that we had to create icons for are common to all applications (e.g. save, delete, rotate), and so the icons we developed were universal as well. For all the icons that needed to be create that were unique to this product, we took great care to make sure each conveyed an intended action or element, and — this is most important — each was distinct enough not to be confused with any other icon. (Icon design will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming blog.) Clear communication enhances the user experience, which enhances the brand. We also designed the launch icon and elements for each interface to pick up the brand design we developed. This helped to reinforce the brand identity and give a consistent impression across the brand experience.
There are a number of considerations for hardware development as well. As with software, the quality of the product, engineering, and ease-of-use will shape the user’s opinion of the product. There are ways to integrate the brand into the look of the product apart from the logo and colors. The shape of the product is one way. For example, one of our clients was developing a navigation and robotic targeting system for interventional oncologists. As we were in the process of developing the overall brand, we received some CAD drawings of the new system from the industrial designer. While our brand designs were evolving toward soft curves and archs, the system was more hard-edged. Since the system design was still at a point where changes could be made, we worked together to round the edges of the system and introduce subtle arched lines. We also introduced an abstract graphic that we had developed for multiple uses to create a visual to link throughout the brand.
Regardless of what else you do, at some point you still need to include the basic branding elements — logo, color, graphic elements — that identify your company or product. Careful consideration should be given when applying these elements. Should the company logo, product logo, or both be used? Where and how large should they appear? If both logos are to be used, which should be prominent? Should they be in color? Black and white? Embossed? Each decision needs to be made in relation to the overall brand strategy. If color is used, it should look as consistent a possible between RGB and CMYK color modes (RGB is what you see on a computer display; CMYK is for printing).
In conclusion, introducing the brand design into the software and hardware development sooner will helps achieve the main point of this article: In order to convey the true meaning and value of the brand, the visual brand design and user experience needs to come together into one seamless presentation of the product.
Many companies, under pressure to get to market and generate revenue, will try to develop a new corporate or product brand as quickly as possible so they can begin to build brand awareness in the marketplace. This effort is typically spearheaded by an individual or small group of people, usually in the marketing department, working in conjunction with some C-level position. This outward focus is understandable, but as a result, little or no time is afforded to introducing the new brand to other departments within the organization. What little time is allocated is often limited to a show and tell, featuring the new logo, tagline and perhaps a few examples of a brochure or ad using the new brand design as opposed to giving employees a deeper, more meaningful understanding of the brand and the thinking that went into it.
This makes no sense. Think about it for a second. Promoting a brand without first educating every member of the organization about it is like creating a football team by putting people in uniforms, giving them a cute mascot, and sending them out to play. They may look great trotting out on the field, but they won’t win many games. Teams that win year after year get their players to embrace the same philosophy, understand what they are trying to do as a team, and get everyone to work as one to accomplish those goals. And by the way, this kind of approach usually builds a rabid and loyal fan base.
In no other aspect of the business would a company think of having an employee perform a function without training them first. And yet, companies routinely fail to adequately educate their personnel about their brand, even though it is the foundation upon which everything is built. After all, a company or product brand is, in essence, a promise to its customers. Every touchpoint that an individual from a company has with a customer helps to communicate the brand, whether it’s from the CEO, or a salesperson, repair technician, or delivery person. How can employees be expected to effectively and consistently communicate what customers can expect from a company and its products and services if they haven’t been trained to do so? And while it’s true that marketing departments rely heavily on the brand, branding is much more than the sum of materials they generate. Despite a marketing department’s best efforts, the failure to educate all employees can impinge a company’s future marketing efforts.
Educating all personnel also has a beneficial byproduct: In the workplace, attitudes — both good and bad — are contagious. If people have embraced the brand promise and are motivated to fulfill it, their actions can serve to influence the attitude of fellow workers or new hires and create a positive, productive culture within the organization.
I saw a TV commercial this morning for Lord & Taylor. I was so struck by the campaign line, “OH MY LORD & TAYLOR”, I couldn’t decide which angle to take for this blog. I did a little research and found a few Web links referring to the campaign, showing behind-the-scenes filming of the campaign, etc. If I hadn’t HEARD the TV spot, the entire thing would have passed by without notice and I would not be writing about it now.
But in the TV spot, unlike the references I’ve seen online where there is no punctuation, a critical pause was inserted into the narration. And instead of ending the spot with “Oh my, Lord and Taylor”, the woman breathlessly exclaimed “Oh my Lord, and Taylor.” Wow. by moving the comma back by just one word, they entirely changed the meaning and the brand. With one pause, they changed the campaign, invoked the Son of God and messed with the company brand. The Lord & Taylor name is so well known, they won’t be harmed by the interpretation, but I would love to know how this decision was made. Did they agonize over it in the boardroom debating the merits and dangers of this interpretation of the phrase, or did the art director just like the way it sounded while editing, without giving full consideration to what he was doing?
Maybe it’s just me, I am a brand geek after all.