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XI.5 September + October 2004
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Branding 101

Aaron Marcus

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The antagonism and misunderstandings are familiar from both sides of the fence. In one recent Internet discussion, a CHI professional asked plaintively if we were actually going to have to include the branding people in our design process. Well, CHI folks, it turns out that branding, a key aspect of marketing, is also a key aspect of the success of user-interfaces. Not that usability, visual design, information design, and the like are not important; au contraire, they are crucial. It's just that branding has a definite role to play, and user-interface developers who ignore marketing departments—especially branding groups and their publications—do so at their own peril.

It's easy to poke fun at marketing and branding by picking on some of the dimmer bulbs who may lead departments or carry out corporate projects. However, I know that one can find equally ill-suited people in charge of usability, product development, software development, and user-interface development. In my 22 years in this field, I've encountered a few of each kind. Let's be fair and admit that there are all kinds of people, and no one profession, not even medicine or law, is spared a distribution curve of competence.

So, let's take a look at what CHI folks might need to know about branding. I call it Branding 101.

back to top  Some Anecdotes

Let's start with some anecdotes.

Philippe Starck, a French product designer (you might know his innovative, single-piece, tall, metal three-legged juicer) who is internationally famous as a hotel designer, as well as a furniture and appliance designer, has been exploring the possibilities of adding his design and branding expertise to lesser known Asian manufacturers. He believes that his new branding consultancy called "The Key" can transform these anonymous companies into global brands by adding "style." For him, this comes from a respect for the "elegance of engineering." [6]

Business Week regularly devotes attention to good design and in a recent cover story turned its attention to one well-known product development firm focused on "creating experiences, not just products" that have a brandable quality. [15]

Currently, major marketing, advertising, and PR firms are busy developing a brand for China, not just for the 2008 Olympic Games, but also for China's presence in the world in general. Similarly, the Financial Times reports on discussions seeking to brand products manufactured in the European Union as "Made in the EU" and to reduce the presence of individual national brands. [4] Clearly, branding concerns have risen to national and pan-national levels.

Considering the origins of branding, which go back to the earliest shepherds marking their flocks, can be enormously instructive. One of my favorite brand books is my cherished copy of the 1967 State of Nebraska Official Brand Book, which lists all the cattle brands of Nebraska officially registered that year [2]. (Omaha, Nebraska, was once the nation's leading stockyards and cattle processing center.) Some 860 pages depict the approximately 37,840 visual forms that were literally burned into the hides of cattle and, figuratively, into the minds of attentive cattle managers, cowpokes, and would-be rustlers, all stakeholders in the cattle business.

Speaking of burning brands into the mind, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used to scan the brain, now reveals exactly where memories and other impressions of Coca-Cola seem to shape preferences that can actually override taste buds and, in some blind trials, led subjects to make other choices than what their tastebuds told them. [5]

back to top  Branding Summarized

So, what is this thing called branding? Many have attempted to explain it, as the bibliography and URL resources below attest. James Gregory, for one, briefly defines a corporate branding relationship among all stakeholders, including the consumer, as the following:

  • Intentional, marketing-oriented communication across all business units, media, and audiences (users).
  • Planned, inclusive strategy that sets communication (some would now say experience) standards and policies for all corporate groups for the cumulative benefit of the corporation.
  • A declaration of "who we are," "what we believe," and "why you should trust us."
  • A promise the company can keep to all its stakeholders: its customers, the trade, stockholders, and its own employees, and therefore a valuable investment in the company's future.
  • Visionary, targeted, and controlled forms of all planned communication, advertising, packaging, architecture, vehicles, if "styled to create a specific impression." [9]

Gregory argues that the value of branding can be found in the stock price, simple as that. Some would disagree, but almost all recognize the value of well-known names and positive associations, emotions, and attitudes of consumers generally, both locally and globally.

Another approach is taken by Hugh Dubberly who uses the language of semiotics to speak of brands as "signs" that embody not only the name but also stakeholder perceptions that grow out of experience with a product or service [7]. Brand managers are called "stewards," and are responsible for maintaining and growing a positive experience in all forms of contact between products, services, and stakeholders. The details of the model Dubberly creates are quite complex and too numerous for this essay, but they constitute a taxonomy of all verbal, visual, personal, acoustic, even olfactory means by which the brand can be conveyed. Some examples are these:

  • Graphic devices like Target's target, Corning's pink insulation, and Kodak's yellow, or Coke's and IBM's typography at various periods of time.
  • Shapes, like those of the Volkswagen Beetle or the Apple iPod.
  • Surfaces or tactile qualities, like Velour shirts, or Angora sweaters.
  • Smells, like those for Shalimar, new BMWs, or McDonald's french fries.
  • Spokespeople, like Martha Stewart for her own enterprises or Bill Gates for Microsoft.
  • Words, like Coke and Coca-Cola.
  • Auditory cues, like "Intel Inside," the telephone's dial-tone, or the sound of a Mercedes door closing.
  • Words, natural or artificial, like Oracle, Apple, Kodak, Huggies or Wired, including ones that have passed into public usage like Kleenex, Xerox, and even Google to become generic nouns or verbs.
  • People/characters, either real, like Ben and Jerry, or fictional, like Betty Crocker, Mickey Mouse, or Hello Kitty.

In fact, in relation to user-interfaces in particular, I have maintained for decades that all the key components of user-interfaces can be—and in many cases will be—branded: metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance. The above list exemplifies some, but not all of these components.

As with other theorists and practitioners, both Gregory and Dubberly suggest that brand efficacy can be measured:

  • Position: the relationship of one brand to another, in terms of categories of competing brands, relevance to one's needs, and ranking within a category.
  • Reach: the extent, in numbers, of people affected, in terms of recognition by a percentage of people in a given geography, the frequency of exposure, the frequency and duration of use, and market share within a category
  • Reputation: the positive (or negative) attributes assigned to the brand, in terms of emotional attributes (affinity, trust, respect, preference, liking, accepting, rejecting, etc.), rational attributes (value, consistency of experience, and clarity of the brand's purpose), and personality (sometimes called tone, character, or voice, such as young vs. mature, playful vs. serious).

As Dubberly notes, and as one can determine from other Web sites, there are other means of evaluating brands, such as Young and Rubicam's Brand Asset Valuator, which measures brand value by using four general dimensions oriented to consumers that are similar to, but not always identical to the terms just mentioned above for all stakeholders:

  • Differentiation: the ability for a brand to stand apart from its competitors. A brand should be as unique as possible. Brand health is built and maintained by offering a set of differentiating promises to consumers and delivering on those promises to increase value.
  • Relevance: the actual and perceived importance of the brand to a large consumer market segment. This dimension measures the personal appropriateness of a brand to consumers and is strongly tied to household penetration (the percentage of households that purchase the brand).
  • Esteem: the perceived quality and consumer perceptions about the growing or declining popularity of a brand. In part, Young and Rubicam relate this dimension to the brand keeping its promises. The consumer's response to a marketer's brand-building activity is driven by the consumer's perception of two factors: quality and popularity, both of which vary by country and culture.
  • Knowledge: the extent of the consumer's awareness of the brand and understanding of its identity, which measures the "intimacy" that consumers "share" with the brand.

Young and Rubicam assert that differentiation and relevance taken together strongly determine growth potential ("brand vitality"), while esteem and knowledge determine the current power of a brand ("brand stature"). According to their Web site, they conduct an annual survey based on the Brand Asset Valuator, which contains data on about 20,000 brands based on the opinion of over 230,000 respondents in 44 countries.

Some Internet-oriented authors have argued that branding on the Web is quite different, that "interactive, personal media such as Web sites simply aren't good at burnishing an emotionally charged message into the minds of millions" because consumers "use the Web as a tool to accomplish a particular objective" [19]. Schwartz describes this as solution branding, not product branding, but it seems to be an evolution, not a revolution, of the branding of services. Branding of both products and services survives and thrives in ever more clever and forceful ways/waves as persuasive communication explores new media.

Other authors comment on the shifting focus of global brands, in which U.S. based brands are losing "power," while Asian and European brands have gained strength [10, 13]. In global and local markets, brand awareness, competitiveness, and effectiveness are studied carefully by market leaders and their would-be supplanters [11].

back to top  Branding and the CHI Community

This introduction to branding, like an introduction to all user-interface development in 2,500 words, leaves out much. My objective has been primarily an exercise in "branding appreciation." What I have tried to do is to present some key terms and concepts on a complex subject, with varying historical legacies and competing conceptual models. Is there one universal set of branding terms or one universally accepted model? Unlikely at this point, but if one were to ask the same of user-interface development conceptual models, one would likely enter into a similar lively debate. Perhaps what might be useful at this point in time is what a former staff member of my firm has done as a graduate thesis: Ask experts around the world what are the most "useful" dimensions to evaluate cultural artifacts, especially user interfaces, and then do a comparative analysis to determine the "best-of-breed" dimensions, which can be reduced to a few powerful, generally accepted dimensions. Valentina-Johanna Baumgartner and I recently published a summary of her thesis on this subject. Perhaps someone has already done such a study for branding models, but I have not yet found one. Doing such a study from a CHI perspective might be especially useful to help the CHI community understand the substance and benefit of branding.

As perplexing and distant as it may sometimes seem to some CHI community professionals, branding often must be accounted for in user-interface development, and it is often beneficial to get to know the local managers or stewards of brand identity. Good communication can improve stressful situations that arise when designs are submitted to the "brand police" and are rejected for various reasons. It is sometimes the case that brand concepts and standards have been developed for the world of print media, and the guidelines, as posted, are either silent, ambiguous, or dysfunctional when applied to many complex screen-based situations, especially in the lower levels of applications, whether Web, client-server, or mobile. In such cases, having already developed good communication paths, it may be easier to persuade and/or educate the brand managers about the new and complex requirements of data and application user-interfaces as opposed to content and document-oriented structures. It may be possible, with some coaxing and discussion, to jointly or unilaterally develop analyses that show the relative increased cost of attempting to bring branding details down into deep lower levels of complex, hierarchical applications. There are numerous such research and business-oriented efforts that may need to be explored; they will require cooperation among user-interface, engineering, business, and marketing groups.

back to top  And in Closing...

I conclude with two additional anecdotes. Once, many decades ago, we designed a complete windowing environment user-interface for Eastman Kodak. We wanted to place the Kodak K with corporate colors as a primary icon in a featured top-left button at the top of the screen. However, Kodak's legal department, acting under brand protection policies would not allow us to do so, even though we felt we were trying to reasonably extend the current brand guidelines to a new medium: computer display screens. After giving up the fight, we reluctantly used another sign in its place. A few months later, we saw an exhibit of Kodak equipment at an industry trade show that featured the Kodak K on the screen. We asked the exhibit-booth staffers how the product development group could do that, since we were told it was "illegal." They laughed and said, "Oh, we can do whatever we want, we're the programmers."

In many realms of the corporate world, it is no longer a laughing matter. Adherence to brand standards, however thorough and intelligent, or ambiguous and dysfunctional, are often published on intranets or in printed documents, and emerging products/services are monitored by the brand police for adherence. Once, several years ago, we were fortunate to be responsible for writing and designing an entire extension to Intel's branding documents that concerned a joint relationship between Intel and the Smithsonian in honor of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary. Not a single detail escaped the eagle eyes of Intel's brand management, including screen display, animation, and sound qualities. This considerable, but not over-done attention to preserving quality is typical of many brand-conscience companies, and is not surprising for Intel, which discovered a decade ago the value to brand itself more thoroughly in the minds of consumers who had, before then, been generally unaware of "what was inside" their computers.

You can get away with the playful indifference of programmers (like the ones in the anecdote) for a while, but eventually official policy will probably catch up to you. I recommend knowing what the rules are, and if they seem inappropriate or incomplete, making the effort, admittedly sometimes unappreciated and unsuccessful, to help the branding folks understand the CHI folks' point-of-view, and vice-versa. We may not always get along or agree, but we might use our time more productively, and eventually achieve better branding guidelines and standards for the benefit of all stakeholders.

back to top  References


1. Ball, J. (1999, May 3). But How Does It Make You Feel? Wall Street Journal, p. B1ff.

2. Beerman, A. J., & Harris, J. (1967). State of Nebraska Official Brand Book. Lincoln, Nebraska: Office of the Secretary of State Frank Marsh.

3. Belson, K., & Bremner, B. (2004). Hello Kitty: The remarkable story of sanrio and the billion dollar feline phenomenon. New York: John Wiley.

4. Buck, T. (2004, January 12). First one currency and now for one label as Europe seeks brand status. Financial Times, p. 1.

5. Burne, J. (2003, November 28). Neuromarketing: A probe inside the mind of the shopper. Financial Times, p. 13.

6. Cheng, I. (2004, May 8-9). It's all in a name and it's all in Asia. Financial Times, p. W3.

7. Dubberly, H. (2001). A model of brand. (Poster). San Francisco: Dubberly Design Office,

8. Gobé, M. (2001). Emotional Branding. New York: Allworth Press.

9. Gregory, J. R. (1997). Corporate branding: Answers to the CEO's toughest questions. New York: Corporate Branding Partnership.

10. Khermouch, G., & Brady, D., et al. (2003, August 4). Brands in an age of anti-Americanism. Newsweek, pp. 69-71.

11. Khermouch, G., & Brady, D., et al. (2003, August 4). The 100 top brands: Here's how we calculate the power in a name. Newsweek, pp. 72ff.

12. Marcus, A., & Baumgartner, V. (2004). A practical set of culture dimension for evaluating user-interface designs. In Proceedings, Sixth Asia-Pacific Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (APCHI 2004), Royal Lakeside Novotel Hotel, Rotorua, New Zealand, 30 June-2 July 2004, in press.

13. Miller, K. L. (2003, July 21). Brands on the Run. Newsweek, pp. 43-44.

14. Murphy, J. M. (1987). Branding: A key marketing tool. New York: McGraw-Hill.

15. Nussbaum, B. (2004, May 17). The power of design. Business Week, pp. 86-92ff.

16. Perry, A., & Wisnom, D. (2003). Before the Brand. New York: McGraw-Hill.

17. Schmitt, B. (2003). Customer Experience Management. New York: Wiley.

18. Schmitt, B (1999). Experiential Marketing. New York: Free Press.

19. Schwartz, E. I. (1999). Digital Darwinism. New York: Random House.

bullet.gif URLS

The following URLs and email contacts are relevant to this topic:

American Institute of Graphic Arts: The URL is a portal to the USA's primary graphic design association, where links to branding-oriented subsites, competitions, and documents may be found.

American Marketing Association: The URL contains advertising articles and tips, lists thousands of companies and firms, and more from the official American Marketing Association Web site.

Association of National Advertisers: The URL is a portal to "brand builders."

Corebrand: One of many branding companies, this URL offers documents evaluating brand assets.

Corporate Design Foundation: The Foundation's URL contains branding-oriented resources as well as corporate design management.

Oracle browser branding guidelines: The URL contains detailed specifications. This is an example of corporate branding guidelines for software applications that are publicly available on the Internet.

Schmitt, Bernd: Bernd Schmitt, a self-proclaimed leader of branding has branded himself and his publications at this URL.

Young and Rubicam: The URL explains their definitions and means of measuring brands.

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus, President
Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc.
1196 Euclid Avenue, Suite 1F
Berkeley, California 94708, USA
Fax: 510-527-1994

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0900  $5.00

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