The Critical Role of UX in Brand Strategy, and Vice Versa

Brand Strategy and UX: When Brand Promise Meets Product Experience

One of my best holiday gifts this year was the opportunity to chat via Slack with Suzanne Ackerman, Director of Experience Strategy at PJA. We talked about brand, user experience, and Subaru, but first we started out with a discussion about Slack – which also served as the platform for our conversation. (I've edited out the most glaring examples of Slack-ese and tuned up grammar and punctuation just in case Miss Riordan, my ninth grade English teacher, happens across this post.)

heyrobertdavis [9:13 AM]

First of all, Slack channel names can’t contain spaces or capital letters. What kind of BS is that? I have the feeling it’s a brand idea masquerading as a technical limitation.

[9:15]

And that’s a great place to start. I initially thought of this as a discussion of the role of UX in delivering on a brand strategy. I feel we could just as easily start by talking about the role of brand strategy as an element of UX. So where should we start? And why?

suzanneackerman [9:32 AM]

Well, to back up — the no capital letters: I am not sure it’s masquerading as a technical limitation as much as very much a part of the branding. The smoothness of the interface is secured by these rules — an intentional branding element. It’s one of many rules and micro-patterns in the UI within the platform that I think are reflective of the origins of, and users of, the platform.

[9:33]

Everything follows the mindset of the CLI (command line interface) user as the platform was originally designed for and by development teams who are comfortable within the parameters of *manual markup* and ~don’t want distractions~

These elements are elegantly integrated throughout the experience itself and as the user base has grown, an affinity for manual markup and “coded” integrations is now reaching a broader appeal. The original user base and their habits and preferences are being shared through the design of the experience itself.

heyrobertdavis [9:41 AM]

Hmm – appreciate the background. "Insider” cultures get really interesting when brands scale beyond their original niche audience. Some brands loosen standards to engage the mass and lose their original audience. Some maintain their focused appeal and never achieve scale. And some negotiate the expansion gracefully. I guess you could say the same for the indie to arena band progression… now how do we gracefully negotiate our way back to our core topic?

suzanneackerman [10:04 AM]

The Slack branding conversation is a great way in. I’m certain the Slack design team has made some “concessions” and choices we aren’t even aware of to achieve the expansion gracefully to the (perhaps unexpected) user-base of millions of users, including business users. Our initial interactions with a brand are through experience — whether that is media that is consumed or interaction / use.

heyrobertdavis [5:33 PM]

I love the insight that my first interaction with the brand may not be through media, which I think can be overlooked when “marketing" is separated from “product” in the organizational structure. If your job is to make ads, you tend to think that ads are how your target is learning about the brand, and UX might just be part of the product or service. If you work in product UX you might see it a different way – so how do we balance being user-driven with being brand-driven?

suzanneackerman [7:43 AM]

As simple and oft-repeated as it may seem I can’t remember when I have failed completely by taking the step back to reframe the “consumer” or the “user” as a “person” and to understand the context(s) in which that person lives, survives and thrives. By understanding her in the real world, contextual needs emerge independent of their solutions. As designers and strategists — as researchers — we start to see and make real human connections.

Brand and experience have to do more than find balance and become expressions of the same essence. An ad campaign should breathe the essence of the experience; an experience should breathe the essence of the campaign that brought me here. A story of imbalance lies again in Slack. In the Fall of 2016 Slack took out a full page NYT ad in the form of an open letter to Microsoft — essentially an attack ad on Microsoft Teams. It seemed bold, un-Slack-like, and got a lot of attention. Definitely caught mine. But it sort of bombed — because it got away from the *lack* of presumption that makes Slack users feel special and empowered. Here was Slack, the “weird kid” who’d gained a ton of quiet respect over a short time, unexpectedly taking the bully’s walk down the hallway straight to the prom king’s stage.

heyrobertdavis [8:24 AM]

Clearly you feel the essence of Slack’s lack of presumption was missing from their recent ad; to take the example a little further, how does that essence show up in the experience they create with the app/service? Does it?

suzanneackerman [9:22 AM]

Good question. I’d say within the UI and visual design elements we’ve talked about — the bare bones nature of the look and feel (as well as function) you see that lack of presumption. But its most prominent embodiment is probably in a true dedication to integrations. There’s an openness and lack of discrimination there; they’re saying “whoever you are, and whatever tools you work with that make you comfortable and productive, we support you. We celebrate you. There are all sorts of people and teams out there; if you’ll have us we’re ready to be a part of it…"

heyrobertdavis [11:23 AM]

Great explanation, and I like the way you’re tying together the way the brand engages utility, or what the app helps me do, and usability, or the way the app helps me do it. Can you propose a few best practices for ways brand, product and UX leaders can collaborate to best deliver across brand promise, value and experience? (Tall order, I know – take your time.)

suzanneackerman [3:29 PM]

Definitely a tall order! There are a lot of ways to approach delivery but the key word is embedded in your question: *collaborate.* More than ever it’s a mandate versus a “nice-to-have” to marry brand promise to product upfront. That means product, marketing and technology have to commit to working together early and often — and commit to listening to customers along the way.

[3:32]

“Brand experience” is really a larger set of variant experiences; it’s not singular. How a company or product looks, sounds and behaves should be consistent and start feeling familiar to the customer across touchpoints. Disconnects between internal teams can reflect outwardly as disconnects in the manifestation of shared goals or tenets… they show up as jolts in the customer’s experience of the brand.

[4:13]

I was thinking about Subaru’s “Love” campaign as I was driving my Impreza, pulling up to my mother's house and parking up the hill from her Forrester…(yup.) Subaru is marketing “Love” just that plainly. What a bold thing to try to pull off. And "love" helps create so many great nuances in the campaign messaging (Love = time with your partner or family. Love = love of nature. Love = free time spent well. love = worry free.)

In combination with the experience of the product across touchpoints (physical: safe, smooth and powerful driving; in-person: a friendly trustworthy local dealership with whom I book service appointments hassle free online...) that makes “love" not only ring true, but I might be falling in love with my car (and the company that made it) a little bit easier and more likely… Product, marketing, technology *and customer*… all working together.

heyrobertdavis [9:46 AM]

Well, I think you’ve nailed it nicely – the notion of the brand essence translating into the dimensions of brand experience, that each can be reflected in experience strategies for specific touch points. To your earlier point, that’s a strategy that can only work if you have collaboration among brand owner, marketer, product owners, service/retention owners… pretty much everybody.

[9:51]

So if I can sum this up – sounds like UX meets brand strategy most completely in organizations that have evolved their vision from “delivering the product” to “delivering a comprehensive brand experience that addresses shared goals and values or beliefs.” Lofty, yes, but let’s not be afraid to think big things, right?

suzanneackerman [9:26 AM]

That’s right; shared goals across disciplines is paramount and those goals should, overall, align directly to customer goals.

heyrobertdavis [9:51 AM]

To finish the Subaru example: watching TV over the holidays, I saw Subaru putting media muscle behind their “Spread the love” campaign, featuring real people benefiting from the organizations Subaru supports when you buy a car. Really well done and one more way to amplify their “love” value.

suzanneackerman [12:59 PM]

That campaign is strong; it's exactly what we mean when we talk about “being authentic.” Also? There’s an adorable dog in one of the spots.

Wrapping this up IRL

Back in the office, Suzanne and I regrouped F2F to cull out a few recommendations based on our discussion:

  • Check out your brand's first impressions. When customers need you, that first contact with your brand can be made almost anywhere, and often not through an explicit "marketing" touchpoint. Conduct a full audit of the touchpoints where prospects and customers first engage your brand — not just the intended marketing moments — and look at each as an opportunity to establish the value of your brand's unique POV.
  • Know how you'll scale. If growth is an objective, it's good to prepare for "bigger" by knowing how you plan to translate your brand for new audiences once you've grown beyond your core enthusiasts. Which elements of your brand should – and shouldn't – flex to speak to needs of new audiences? Listen to and learn from your customers and develop guiding logic your teams can share.
  • X-ray your organization for signs of uncomfortable blockages. Examine your internal structure; siloed internal teams (R&D, product, technology, operations, marketing, sales) are likely to show up outwardly as disjointed brand experiences for your customers. Build some detail into your brand platform that goes beyond messaging to guide brand behavior in a range of settings.

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