A good brand experience makes an organization’s perspective manifest to its stakeholders.
Some stakeholders are outsiders who have an outsider’s relationship to the organization. (e.g. current or prospective customers, the press, the interested public.) Other stakeholders constitute the organization itself. (e.g. employers, employees, partners, shareholders.)
The manifestation of the perspective takes the form of a sharing of understanding. Some of this understanding is explicit. Certain facts are agreed upon. The most important aspects of the understanding, however, are implicit: what is the significance of the facts at hand? What is the relative importance of each fact? How do the facts connect? What aspects of an offering are essential, and what aspects are less important or negligible?
Every act of design is one of balances and trade-offs. The best designs make its trade-offs feel obvious and necessary, to the point of invisibility. What is marginalized or omitted is what was irrelevant. (A classic example of this kind of trade-off is the London Underground “Tube map”.)
So, within the brand perspective is embedded the company’s standards and rankings of value. Those things seen as most important are given the most attention and emphasis. The less important things are ignored or downplayed, sometimes pointedly. The standards and values determine how an organization behaves, how it presents itself and how it develops and delivers its offerings.
(The classic example: What makes a computer more or less desirable? Low price and high performance? Those who see it that way are unlikely to purchase a Macintosh. However, if you view computers the way Apple does and put a premium on how it feels to use and own a computer, you are likely to consider only a Macintosh when purchasing a new computer. Another example: What do you consider important the most important quality in a car? Style? Performance? If so, you probably won’t buy a Toyota. However, if you see reliability as the single most important quality in a car, it is very likely you will consider Toyota. Boring, but compelling. Consequently, there are many Toyota owners, and very few Toyota enthusiasts. Toyota makes cars for people who don’t love cars.)
If an organization wishes to have an authentic, compelling brand its leadership must 1) actually have a perspective on what it does that is different from its competition, 2) the perspective must be one that can be shared, 3) the leadership must know how to share its perspective, 4) the perspective must be practically consequential (the perspective changes the way one acts), and 5) the organization’s leadership must have the courage to believe its own eyes and to actually live and lead according to how it sees. It cannot constantly second-guess itself, equivocate, compromise or waffle between its perspective and the myriad other ways of seeing.
This does not mean one denies the existence or validity of other ways of seeing. It does not mean that one does not believe in the possibility that other ways of seeing might turn out to be better. (If you have a taste for such things, allow your mind to boggle for a moment at what it means to see a new definition of better as better than the one you currently hold! Better… how?)
It does, however mean one sees for himself. It means that one listens to others in order to see with them what they are seeing, and to share with them what one is seeing. This listening and sharing — dialogue in the proper sense — presupposes an expectation of seeing for oneself and the insight that one could at any moment see differently, and that difference could be deeply and extensively consequential.
Most of all it means that a leader who wished to lead an organization with a real brand must see by a genuine brand vision.
Leaders who lack vision rarely know it. They believe an ability paint a vivid, desirable and detailed picture of the future and to lay out a plan for actualizing that picture is having vision. The mistake is understandable — some imagination and ability to visualize and describe is involved. It is a valuable skill for a leader to possess. However, this is not vision.
Vision is seeing what their organization is and does in a distinctive, persuasive and consequential way. This way of seeing makes their organization look, feel and behave differently from its peers.
It is a subtle difference, but a substantial and consequential one. The ability to share one’s ambitions and plans persuasively might help an organization perform better, but it won’t help it accomplish anything new. If this were all vision were, nobody would care much about vision. It would just be another skill.
There are multiple levels of branding needed in user experience projects:
- The company has an articulated brand, its offerings are deliberately on-brand. What is required is framing the company and product in a reinforcing on-brand experience.
- The company lacks an articulated brand, but has developed its offerings through a tacit brand vision. What is required is a) articulating the brand (minimum: brand perspective, brand attributes and positioning statement) and b) framing the company and product in a reinforcing on-brand experience.
- The company lacks an articulated brand, and has developed its offerings through a tacit and unclear or inconsistent brand vision. What is required is a) articulating the brand (minimum: brand perspective, brand attributes and positioning statement), b) framing the company and product in a reinforcing on-brand experience, c) a establishing a program to communicate the brand articulation throughout the organization and, d) and additionally, developing parallel programs to operationalize the brand – that is, to redesign the organizations processes to produce on-brand offerings and uniformly on-brand customer experiences at every touchpoint.
- The company lacks brand altogether, and has developed its offerings strictly through imitation of best practices or inconsistently according to fragmentary individual or factional whim. What is required is a) anthropological study of the organizational culture and the stakeholders it serves to understand the possibilities, given the organization’s traditions, constitution and contexts. From this foundation a brand strategy consisting of a brand articulation and supporting operational changes can be developed to transform the organization into a coherent culture.
Brand is the outward expression of an authentic, coherent culture. This is why, despite the fact that all companies have logos and most have corporate graphic standards, very few have actual brands.
Most brands are like most people. They try to play a part without really being it. It is hollow and unpersuasive.