You probably heard about how little time our brain needs to make assumptions about newly met people. We assume their character and relationship potential in just a few seconds. Though it might not seem fair, it shows how we perceive the world around us. A huge part of this world is presented to us through a mobile phone sitting in our hand. Still, similar rules apply to interacting with both living and artificial objects.
Let me ask a question first. What does the word brand mean to you? Is it a logo? A name? Actually, brand is a very broad term. It refers to a product, person, company - an entity that we can connect with some sort of value. So by branding we consider a complex relationship with that entity - how it presents itself, how we perceive it, and how we feel about it. And although the superficial is the first part that people will judge, it’s not just about the looks.
Hi, I’m an app! Nice to meet you!
Imagine a digital product as a person. It has a name, a specific look, a way of speaking, a personality. Because of that, there is a common connection between the terms “branding” and “identity design”. Identity design includes all visual aspects that identify a product. It consists of the name, logo, colors, and typography, and overlaps with interface design. Branding takes into consideration both identification and interaction with the product.
Brand is when the user meets the product
Psychologists found out that people make mostly fast and subconscious decisions about the products they choose. It involves one of the most complex areas of our being - emotions and feelings. Emotions make things stay in our brain. If you create some kind of emotional connection with an event or an object, you will remember it forever. Within a very short time span your product, website, ad, social profile, has a chance to make someone feel in a certain way. Bored, angry, excited, interested. You can be strategic about it - that’s what branding is all about.
What are the things that influence our judgement? Initial features of a person refer to look, voice and behaviour. Let’s think about how we can use this analogy to a digital product such as an application.
A mixture of shapes, colours, texture and typography. Designers use them strategically, although for some it might seem like magic. Take colours - a dark navy blue is often associated with stability, trust and maturity, pink is playful and daring, red is a strong emotion - love or anger. Pointy and geometric shapes tend to look dynamic, ovals seem more gentle and inclusive. All of those create an emotional background for whatever you see next.
Tone of voice
Headlines, descriptions, calls to action, success and error messaging, combined with iconography and imagery - they all form the voice of the product. If you base it on predefined values, it could strategically influence the phrasing and, as a result, the impact your product’s copywriting has on users. Who is your product? A guide, a joker, an advisor? Define it and pick your words accordingly.
Interface design is also a vital part of branding. You probably know the importance of good UX and information architecture. A well thought out interface can not only enable users to achieve their goals seamlessly, but can also have more distinctive character by using animations, sounds and purposeful interactions. It’s like adding emojis to a message to become more real and emotional to the recipient.
Digital ecosystem - most important things to keep in mind
Have you ever wondered how and where people meet your brand? Even if you have a marketing strategy in place with marketing funnels and ads, you can’t predict how and when people see your product first. That’s why you should consider thinking about all the touchpoints as a cohesive ecosystem.
Social media - this is where you interact with your audience and create awareness for both your product and your brand. Remember, it’s not always the same. Brand is about the broad vision as well. Show more personality and engage people in whatever you believe in. Give them something to relate to and they will help you grow.
Website/Landing page - present your identity and message in a clear manner. Unless your website is your product, treat it like an intro to whatever comes next. This is a place where you showcase your brand and make a promise to customers - be mindful about it. Promising people the world might seem like a good idea at first and might even be beneficial in the short term, but remember about all the places where the users can leave their reviews later.
Advertisements are often the first element in the marketing funnel, so they shouldn’t be neglected. It’s a perfect chance to build awareness, showcase your visual identity, and create a unique voice. Imagine a situation when you try to stop someone on the street to talk to them. How do you want to say “Hi” to them? Will you fall into the same line here as your competitors or will you differentiate? Great advertising is about saying just enough to get users interested and evoke action, but not overpromise.
Finally, the product. Up to this point the users probably learned a lot about the brand and especially its promise. It’s the moment of truth - should you continue to strengthen positive feelings and deliver the promise or burn all your previous efforts. From the moment of onboarding to delivering the key features, users’ expectations are met or crushed. Apart from beautiful design, coherent with previous experience, other things like performance or customer support also contribute to the brand’s image.
Importance of good foundations
So we understand that the digital ecosystem is very complicated, but how to start building a brand? First, it helps if you have defined the vision and mission for the product. Simon Sinek, author of the bestseller “Start With Why”, wrote “People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”. Having defined the why behind a project or company helps to keep all the details pointing in the same direction.
If differentiation should be the success of your brand, learn what you should differentiate from. Map out your competitors, understand their voice, visual language, and strategy. Then define your perfect customers. Understand where they are coming from, what drives them and why they would like to use your product. If your customers’ why overlaps with the brand’s, you might have a perfect match!
Prepare for success
Doing research first helps with planning and conducting the whole project. It also eliminates most guesses and wasteful discussions about personal preferences. Research-based design decisions make the product attractive to the target audience, resulting in better retention, reviews, and recommendations.
Having identity design guidelines makes the UI design phase much smoother, bearing in mind that the two areas overlap. Giving it more time at the start you also prepare your brand for growth, making it easier for future teams to expand and plan new ventures. Netguru offers help with conducting branding workshops at this point to help establish the right foundations for identity design and strategy.
Digital product’s branding essentials
After doing the workshops and establishing the foundations, it’s time to get to the specifics.
Probably the most important part of brand identity. It tends to also be the most difficult to accomplish. The name could be descriptive or abstract, but it’s good to follow some simple rules to get it right.
To create a memorable name, try 4-8 character words, easy to say and spell. One practical tip to test it - call your friend or teammate and tell them about this new project. If you have to explain or spell the name to them, it probably needs some more work. Short names are also important from a design point of view - shorter names scale down easier and can also be used as a wordmark logo itself.
Remember to check the market for possible conflicts with already existing brands. It’s crucial in case you think about registering your trademark.
The most under- and overestimated piece of design, for sure deserving another article. Why does such a paradox exist? Some don’t care much about it at the start, others want it to tell the whole grand story of the company. Respect logo design but don’t treat it as the Holy Grail of your success. Remember that its role is mostly identification, not communication. A good logo reflects the brand’s character and sets the tone for other design elements.
The golden rule for logo design is keep it simple, stupid. Your logo will be displayed in various sizes and contexts. Think about tiny social media avatars, product icons in app stores, small version on a sticky menu bar. Simple shapes retain readability much better when scaled down and tend to be memorable. The exception to this rule might be game logo design. Scalability issues still apply here but the design falls into a more complex category.
Remember, that the logo should look good in black-and-white as well as in colour. It’s a good practice for a couple of reasons. First of all, this approach allows you to judge logo design without colour bias. It also helps you to ensure various application possibilities.
Colours and typography
These elements usually come from the logo design itself, but could be extended for the brand guidelines. Digital branding consists of many elements and use cases, like web design, presentations, social media profiles, posts, and advertising. Each of those areas has some restrictions and characteristics. That’s why it’s a good practice to have a main and extended colour palette as well as main and alternative font suggestions. Having these foundations is a great set-up for other designers and developers creating derivatives like illustrations or landing pages.
Depending on the starting budget and project scope, there are other possible elements of visual language to consider as a branding package. Designers work on setting templates and guidelines for using imagery or illustration styles (key visuals) to perfectly reflect and supplement the brand voice. Combine it with some strategic copywriting suggestions and you have a complete package to give to your design or marketing team.
Brandbook - do you need one?
This is what binds the whole branding design process and will be a point of reference for your project team and future ventures. Having a brandbook made means extra cost at the start but saves time and money in the future. It facilitates communication between teams, allowing all the project areas to maintain the same focus and build a coherent brand.
If you plan to expand the product with subprojects, it’s also possible to include the system for the product’s sub brands.
Thoughtful branding design and strategy with well-executed UI for digital products, give the user more than just a pleasant experience. It evokes positive feelings, creates a sense of safety, and above all gives users the freedom to do whatever the product is intended for.
Here are the most important takeaways:
Branding is an ecosystem, a living organism - plan for consistency, think long term,
Don’t underestimate the power of research,
Hire specialists who will help you develop and showcase the why, not just the what of your product,
Plan your brand creation and growth accordingly to the product’s life cycle, don’t overpromise.
And remember, at the end, your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what the people around it say it is. Care about your users and they will help you grow your business.