Effective software branding

Branding is the emotional positioning of your product and company as perceived by your customers. Product branding is achieved through a combination of factors, including the product name and logo, use of color, text, graphics, and sound, the style of various other design elements, marketing, and most importantly, the attributes of the product experience itself. Branding is used to differentiate a product from its competition.

Historically, the term branding came from cattle branding, where ranchers burned their mark onto their cattle hides for easy identification.  Samuel Maverick famously refused to brand his cattle on the grounds that it was painful for the animals, but his competitors believed that was just a ploy for him to claim any unmarked cattle.

I wrote a solid guidelines article on Software Branding while I was at Microsoft, so there’s no need to repeat any of that here. For this post, I’d like to look at some examples of effective and ineffective branding.

Hilton Garden Inn

I recently drove across the country and stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn at each stop. I was very pleased with this choice. Here are the details I like about Hilton Garden Inn:

  • The hotels have an inviting lobby with a fireplace and free coffee, cookies, newspapers.
  • There is always a pool, spa, and exercise room.
  • The rooms are new, clean, well appointed, and stylish.
  • The rooms always have a comfortable bed, a good TV, a desk, and a comfortable desk chair.
  • The hotel offers a good breakfast that is a quick, convenient, and fairly priced.
  • The rooms a priced competitively and are a good value.
  • The hotels and rooms vary from property to property (so they aren’t cookie cutter), but are consistent enough to always meet my expectations.

In short, the Hilton Garden Inn brand is clean, comfortable, well appointed rooms for a good value. Now you might be thinking: Wait, that’s not the hotel’s branding, that’s the hotel properties themselves.

Exactly!

When done well, a product’s banding is completely reflected by the product itself. Branding isn’t something superficial that you tack on to a product. This is a mistake many developers make and as a result, “brand” their product by slapping the product name and logo on every UI surface. Bigger logos does not make better branding. While those elements affect users’ ability to identify your product, they are just the superficial part of branding.

Google user experience principles

Google has published their Ten principles that contribute to a Googley user experience, which are:

  • Focus on people–their lives, their work, their dreams
  • Every millisecond counts
  • Simplicity is powerful
  • Engage beginners and attract experts
  • Dare to innovate
  • Design for the world
  • Plan for today’s and tomorrow’s business
  • Delight the eye without distracting the mind
  • Be worthy of people’s trust
  • Add a human touch

This is a good set of principles and I recommend reading the original article. If you read them carefully, you’ll notice that these principles are really Google’s branding statement. And a very specific, actionable one at that. I can see how a team could apply these principles in a design review to make better design decisions. Contrast that with the vague laundry list of adjectives so often using in branding.

Windows 7 branding details

Effective branding creates a positive image of your product or company in the user’s mind. Generally, this means you should avoid associating your brand with any experiences that are unwanted, unpleasant, or annoying. Consider rare exceptions only when your product addresses those situations in a way that is significantly better than the competition. For example, Volvo associates their brand with safety and how their cars score favorably in safety tests, but they don’t dwell on crashes.

The User Account Control (UAC) feature in Windows 7 isn’t an especially popular and the Windows team wanted to avoid associating security problems with their branding. The standard Windows security shield has the Windows branding colors, so Windows 7 uses a special blue and yellow UAC shield to not associate this feature with the Windows brand. This is a smart move.

For a not-so-smart move, Windows 7 dialog boxes flash rapidly seven times when a program needs your attention. Flashing rapidly seven times goes well beyond annoying—even four times would too many. I’m sure this was intended to be a clever branding detail (Windows 7…flashing seven times…get it?), but this is not a good way to brand. This idea should have never seen the light of day.

If you do only one thing:
Establish clear, actionable branding principles. (Of course, work with your branding pros if you have them.) Use your branding principles as a design decision making framework and make sure that your design decisions are consistent with your branding.

If your branding principles don’t affect your design decisions, you’re not doing it right.

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