I worked at the mobile telecoms company Orange right in its heyday. I was there for it’s 4th birthday and was the 3rd employee in their web / digital team. Orange was a really strong brand - one of the most respected at the time. From those days I still remember the Orange brand managers; the custodians of the brand, deciding what was ‘Orange’ and what was not. Whenever you did some design work or came up with a new product or service you would take it to this team and they would decide whether it passed the ‘Orange brand’ test. These brand managers knew everything about the brand; they embodied it.
Whenever they reviewed and critiqued design work there were lots of comments to do with visual identity; do the designs meet the visual brand style guidelines? But there was also something deeper, a seemingly intangible sense of ‘Orangeness’. As time went on, and some of those people left the company, this ‘Orangeness’ seemed to get lost (the accountants took over).
Orange always had a very clear and well-administered style guide. It included instructions about fonts, colours, layout, imagery, illustration and more. Orange also employed a whole team who managed the copywriting and tone of voice for the brand.
But this ‘Orangeness’ wasn’t in any style guide. You could access tips and indications elsewhere through inspiration and past work and you could tap the wisdom of the brand managers. But getting clarity on the definition of the ‘feel’ side of ‘look and feel’ could be challenging.
In my opinion the respect Orange received as a brand in those early years was not primarily about its visual strength and style. Instead it was the experience of an Orange product or service; what it really felt like to be a customer, partner or supplier of Orange. How you engaged with the organisation. In those days they won customer service accolades year after year. This spoke of a brand that was defining itself through the entirety of the user’s experience and not just its visual identity.
What has all this got to do with Unbranding?
There’s been increasing talk in the last few years about ‘unbranding’ or the ‘maker movement’. This seems to advocate a model of branding that involves no significant visual identification of a brand. It talks about consumers seeking out brands with whom they can have deeper and more human connections - especially with the people inside those brands.
As a user centred designer I will always welcome a strategy and practice that elevates understanding and applying user needs. It’s my standard work process to spend time doing user research to build a clear picture of what problems users face, to then design solutions for the brand concerned.
I applaud as more and more brands try to capture a depth of engagement in the experiences of their customers, supporters, members and partners.
But ‘unbranding’ is nothing new…
I've been working in user experience design for over 18 years. Over that time I've had numerous conversations with all types of people about the need for good user research and for interpreting that research correctly. Understanding users has to produce insight that fuels the creation of all the necessary elements to deliver the right experience for that particular brand. That’s the same language people use when they talk about ‘unbranding’ - engagement, understanding, connections etc.
Branding done right
I wonder if ‘unbranding’ is really just branding done right. All of this talk of engagement and deeper experience comes from doing a good job of designing the brand experience. As designers, brand experience is something we know a lot about. Designers spend considerable time and energy merging user experience design methodologies with brand strategy and identity design.
Just meeting a user’s needs is relatively straightforward, but the magical moment comes when that is done in a way that achieves something stronger in their mind and their emotions; where the experience they take part in is deeper and richer and carries the ethos of the brand. This kind of design leaves them with an impression of the brand that can be described as a connection. When the brand experience is right, the full character of the brand starts to sing.
We are moving towards a consumer world where people no longer remember products and services in terms of what they look like. Instead, the effect it had on them and their mental and emotional response to it is what creates a connection. The weighting between look and feel is changing.
Look vs Feel
But is it really a competition between look and feel? Historically the greater investment and recognition has been on the look; the visual assets and visual design style of a brand. However, as user experience and service design have become more prevalent and their benefits are felt by all types of organisation, the feel of a brand and its product and services are being given more importance.
Look and feel are equally important. To correct the balance doesn't mean removing the look completely. In fact even some of the ‘unbranding’ examples have a very strong visual style. We just need to continue the quest in elevating the importance of feel and the energy and resources invested in designing it.
At Futurebrand we use a tool called The Futurebrand Plus. At the centre of the brand plus is a concise expression of the brand’s future intentions; it's a good picture of the ‘future self’ of the brand. It is often quite an active statement that leads towards somebody being something in particular. Identity should manifest action. This kind of definition hugely affects the experiences we create for that brand.
As a user experience designer I love having this deeper and richer guide to aid designing the right experiences for users. I don't want to just design experiences that perform well in user tests. Instead I want the experiences, interfaces and interactions I design to carry a deeper meaning; something that communicates the heart and soul of the brand. It's not just about designing attractive buttons in an interface or about whether the copy is well written. It's about the character I can bring out in this user interaction; how can I communicate something of the brand’s ethos to the user during their journey.
Ultimately this affects everything: not just the ‘experience’ in the user interface but the actual products and services themselves. It is very common in brand experience design to create new product and service ideas that meet a user’s needs in a very fitting way for that brand; sometimes surpassing the work done by internal innovation labs.
So is ‘unbranding’ really a hot topic? Not really. It's mostly just putting more emphasis on the brand experience. It’s an understanding that the brand identity expresses itself through experiences and not just visual style. In our industry we love new terms and buzzwords and that's why words like ‘unbranding’ can become popular. I suggest we focus our attention on understanding users and designing brand identities that express themselves in top rate brand experiences for those users.
Stuart is a seasoned User Experience Designer with over 18 years experience in senior roles. At FutureBrand, he works in User Experience Design, Product Design and Digital Strategy.