All companies wish to have a good, strong brand. For many companies, their brand is their biggest asset. The brand value of a leading enterprise can reach billions of dollars. There is no question about the power of branding. However, the common branding process is deficient, and often is only suitable for the previous century’s economy. In this article, I’ll describe what is missing in a typical branding process and how to improve it.
What is a brand?
A brand is a perception in people’s (customers’) minds about a company (or a product) - what they think and feel when they interact with the brand’s products and symbols. A brand should be recognizable, distinguishable, and evoke a carefully controlled perception.
What is branding?
Branding is the process of defining, creating and maintaining the brand – the expected perception in people’s minds. The branding process involves strategic thinking, research, visual design and marketing campaigns.
What is missing?
Branding deals with marketing and promotion means. The brand is “transmitted” to people’s minds by visual promotion mediums - logo, website, packaging, business cards, ads, etc. The product design is missing; it’s not part of the branding process. The product design and engineering process is normally done long before the branding process begins or after it has ended. Branding experts are not trained for and do not deal with the product design; they consider the product as a “black-box.” They start the branding process with a given product.
Does it make any sense to brand the company’s logo, website, and packaging, and ignore the products? Companies spend a lot of time and money on branding, which is a profound strategic thinking process that leads to sharp conclusions about the messaging, positioning and visual language of the firm. It’s crazy to implement these valuable perceptions in promotional means while neglecting the product design.
Why does branding overlook product design?
The modern branding profession emerged in the mid-1960s, when major consumer enterprises were the first to make a significant positioning shift, from product manufacturers to “dream sellers.” The branding and marketing era had begun. Companies started to spend fortunes on building a myth, and promoting a lifestyle. From that time until the 2000s, there was a clear division of roles between brands and products. The brand promoted the soft-attributes – the narrative, lifestyle, visuals and emotions - and the product was the object delivering the hard-attributes - the function, performance, and quality. The brand focused on customers’ hearts and the product appealed to their brains.
I’m not saying there was no linkage at all between brands and products, of course there was. But the branding and the product design were two different processes, made by different professionals, in a different time, considering different attributes and aimed at different results.
What is the problem?
At the beginning of the 21st century, there was a significant change in the economy. The marketing and branding-oriented market was replaced by a product and user-experience-oriented market. Customers began to appreciate products more than campaigns, and product review websites became more reliable sources than the old TV advertisements. Users started to develop emotions connected to products. The product moved to the front of the stage while the brand began supporting it from above. The traditional soft and hard attribute separation had died. Products had to deliver both the soft and hard attributes. Industrial designers and engineers swapped roles; in many cases, the user-experience (UX) and visual design (soft attributes) become more important (and challenging) than the engineering (hard attributes).
In a market where the product’s soft attributes are at the center, and the product should deliver the brand’s messaging, positioning and visual language, it doesn’t make any sense to keep the previous century’s separation between branding and product design.
Image: Time magazine from 2000 announcing the rebirth of product design
What is the solution?
Branding and product design should be integrated. Branding professionals should take part in the product design process. Not as outsiders or guests, but as active team players that take part in the product brief writing and product design, as is done for the leading brands of today, like Apple, Harley Davidson, Bang & Olufsen, Nespresso, and many others.
I believe that in the near future, the integration of branding and product design will lead to a new profession. One that combines the abilities of business strategy, product design, and user experience. I call it Product Design Strategy, but I’m not sure if this is the best way to refer to this phenomenon. If you have any better ideas, please share them with me.