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Brand Is Experience in the Digital Age

The Concept of Brand: A Lesson from Edward “Blackbeard” Teach

Edward Teach, the pirate better known as Blackbeard, is one of the most infamous pillagers in history. More relevant to our interests, however, is that he was also a man who understood the importance of creating an enduring impression. In short, he understood the value of brand.

Before a siege, Blackbeard dressed himself in a dark heavy coat and captain’s hat to accentuate his domineering stature. He strapped pistols to his chest and tucked lit, smoking fuses under his hat and in his beard to create an image reminiscent of the devil himself having just emerged from some smoky brimstone lair. In doing so, he created a personal brand of intimidation and malice.

As his pillaging continued and Blackbeard grew in craftiness, he realized it would be prudent to extend the essence of his menacing nature from afar. He devised a tool to extend his message — an early version of the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag we all know well today. The flag served as Blackbeard’s personal brand mark — his logo. It conveyed his reputation; it communicated who was approaching and suggested that a defense would be futile. It was, in a sense, a brand promise — that any fight would end badly for his foe.

 

Brand Is Experience in the Digital Age
Blackbeard (left) used an image on his flag (right), much like logo, to communicate his personal brand.

The Modern History of Branding

When we think about branding in our present setting, our minds probably go more quickly to logos and slogans than to fear-inducing pirates. But even those concepts are only the beginning of what brand means today.

Brands and branding have two traditional definitions, which are often confused:

  • A brand is the representation of the product: something that identifies it in a recognizable way. This could be a name, a logo, colors, writing style, or other media forms such as sound marks.
  • A brand is the product’s reputation, which creates certain customer expectations about the product. In other words, once customers recognize the brand representation (definition #1), they also project specific attributes onto the product — maybe that it will be high quality, healthy, or allow them to be seen as trendy or fashionable.

While “branding” products with an identifying mark (definition #1) has been around since people first began trading and selling goods, the use of brands to differentiate products — to truly attempt to influence consumers’ perceptions and choices within a market (definition #2) — is a relatively modern idea that appeared with the rise of industrialism. Industrialism, followed shortly by consumerism, introduced a proliferation of products in the market, and, with that, the concept of choice for consumers. Brand transformed into more than an identifying mark: It began to communicate a message — a promise about a particular product or company compared to another.

In the earlier part of the 20th century — the onset of modern branding — this relationship was one-sided. The stream of information flew one-way from brand to consumer. This communication was reminiscent of Blackbeard’s version of branding: a carefully crafted one-way message delivered to a receiver, with no opportunity for dialogue or compromise.

The Digital Age changed everything by churning the waters in the flow of communication. As people began to participate in the new digital frontier, a few key phenomena greatly contributed to the reinvention of brand as we know it today:

  • Brands adapted to the new age and followed consumers online, building digital experiences and blurring the line between “representation” and “reputation.”
  • People began to gain more access to information and to the brands themselves. The range of available choices grew.
  • The strengthening of consumer voices through social-media platforms ensured that end users of products had just as much control in shaping brands as companies did.

For the first time, consumers could crack open the brand’s carefully crafted narrative to engage in two-way dialogues, or even larger conversations with others, widening and reversing the flow of communication.

Defining Brand in the Age of Digital Experience

As brands adapted to the digital world and consumers gained access to information and became increasingly influential, the definition of brand evolved to represent a broader set of experiences across all channels.

Definition: Brand is a subjective perception of value based on the sum of a person’s experiences with a product or company that ultimately influences that person’s sentiment and decisions in the marketplace.

Brand is a tool for influencing choice. Brand is not made of visuals or words alone — it’s not a logo or a slogan. Nor is it a figurehead, such as Steve Jobs. Those things are simply ways to communicate the brand. Although a figurehead such as Elon Musk or a logo such as McDonald’s golden arches can and do serve to effectively deliver the brand message, ultimately, a brand is formulated through a larger set of experiences. Flipping the flow of information from one-way to two-way (as discussed above) results in flipping brand from being a message to being an experience.

Components of Brand: Visuals, Tone, and Actions

If brand is reliant upon a total set of experiences as discussed above, then what a company looks like, sounds like, and how it behaves are all equal components of brand in the eyes of a consumer. Therefore, people experience brand (and brand can be expressed) through three areas: visuals, tone, and behavior.

Visuals:

Visuals comprise the graphic elements used to communicate the brand, including the logo, typeface, images, and other elements of a common style guide.

Tone:

Tone is the style of communication the brand uses, from the text on a website to the messaging developed and used in targeted advertisements and to the manner in which staff speak to customers.

Behavior:

Behavior represents how the company acts in certain situations. Does the company reflect the morals and values of their customers? Do they actively express those values through their actions?

Components of Brand in the Real World: Southwest Airlines

To examine these components more closely, consider Southwest Airlines. This airline is recognized for its consistent and differentiated brand, which claims to put customers at the center of its business model. Southwest showcases this core brand message and its “love of People” through the brand visuals, tone and behavior.

For example, last year, Southwest launched a new look for the exterior of its planes, calling it a “bold new look that puts our heart front and center for everyone to see.” It extended its brand visuals to even the plane itself, putting the heart logo that represents its love for its customers on the belly of the plane. “It’s big and bold, but also authentic and welcoming,” says the campaign’s microsite.

Brand Is Experience in the Digital Age
Southwest’s new exterior design put the heart logo on the belly of the plane, to visually reinforce “love of People” as a core brand message.

Southwest also has a long-standing campaign called “Transfarency,” Southwest says, “Transfarency means we don’t dream up ways we can trick you into paying more. It’s why we still let two bags fly free, and don’t have change fees.” The tone of the campaign is authentic and suggests honesty in Southwest’s treatment of its customers and communication of fees. The campaign tone is straightforward and a little playful, matching its overall brand message.

Finally, Southwest is known for coaching employees to treat customers in a way that reflects its core brand message. “People are our most powerful fuel,” says a slogan. Brand behavior matches this promise. In one of the more touching customer stories, a Southwest pilot held a flight 12 minutes past the scheduled departure for a man who was attempting to see family after a tragic death. “They can’t go anywhere without me, and I wasn’t going anywhere without you,” the pilot is credited with saying.

The Relationship Between Brand and Digital User Experience

Why is it important to understand the components of brand, and to differentiate brand from its common misinterpretation as simply a logo, a figurehead, or a website, among other things? Only when all three brand components — visuals, tone, and behaviors — are present and true to the core brand message, do customers have a consistent user experience across interactions with a company or product.

Though interaction has always been important for forming customer impressions in service industries — customers would quit going to McDonalds if they were consistently treated rudely by staff no matter how highly they rate the fries — what’s new is that interaction and user experience have become the key elements in representing all brands. As all brands now have a digital presence, customers now have frequent interactive experiences with all categories of companies, no matter the industry.

In digital systems, customers interact with the representation of the brand in the form of websites and other interactive services, making behavior a crucial attribute of brand. The granularity of behavior as a brand attribute can and does vary and can be expressed holistically at the level of entire processes and interactions on a site, but also at a finer level, in the specific qualities of those interactions (e.g., transitions, animations).

UX Is a Brand Differentiator

Most people can’t differentiate how they feel about a brand from how they feel about the experiences they have with that brand, so in many situations, UX becomes the brand differentiator. It can be part of — or all of — the reason a customer chooses to engage with a company or its products.

In their definition of user experience, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen claim that “the first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother.” Brands that choose to address an unmet user need at the core of their business are regularly disrupting industries by focusing on UX and, specifically, on unmet user needs as brand differentiators—and succeeding in oversaturated markets by doing so. Examples are not hard to find: Uber, AirBnB, and Netflix are based on this philosophy.

More competition in the market (and greater user access to those competitors through digital avenues) means that it’s more important than ever to stand out. And in order to do so, the entire experience of interacting with a brand must deliver a consistently great user experience.

Learn more in our full day course Translating Brand into User Interactions.