Fig. 4 A Guide for Designers

The New Rules for Product Branding

Creating lasting product brands by embracing the core characteristics of today’s digital businesses.

Written by Ryan Clark November 17, 2015

We have a problem with branding. Our industry is young. And moving rapidly. We’re quickly developing new ways of coping with business problems that are unique to 2015. But when it comes to branding, we seem to be stuck in the 1980s. We’re branding digital companies with digital products like brick and mortar stores with actual products, or, even worse, not branding them at all. Companies are making style guides that read like the US tax code, while some are just fine letting their branding embody the Wild West while they figure everything out.

What we know is this: businesses with digital products have challenges unlike any other. They have new and constantly evolving brand applications, new touchpoints, rapidly expanding markets (and workforces to boot), new ways of delivering content, and most importantly, new characteristics that make them utterly unique.

If everything about these businesses is new, why are we still approaching their brand—their core message—like we would have three decades ago? And why can’t we develop a brand that anticipates the needs of these businesses and grows with them? And do it in a time befitting an actual product launch?

The answer is actually rather simple: permanence. Branding is meant to answer questions, to make decisions. Branding is meant to be an exercise that defines the core essence of business and extrapolates those values and messages in a myriad of ways. It’s meant to be a constant. Permanent. We desperately want order and consistency — it’s the core essence of branding. The reality, though, is that digital products don’t have that sort of permanence. Not that we don’t want it to, or design under the pretense that it does. A digital product should always be moving though, changing, adapting to its delivery mediums and applications and market and competition. And that sort of change requires a new type of branding that assumes the only real constant: change.

On the technical side of a product this change is inevitable, welcome, and (hopefully) planned for. The iterative nature of a product’s codebase and technical stack allow it to achieve maximum efficiency and roll with the punches, adjusting to strains on the platform and quickly changing course when necessary. A product’s brand should do exactly the same thing.

The Iterative Nature of Branding

Branding has always been seen as a destination, when it is in fact a journey—a journey that will last as long as your company exists. Where a lot of products go wrong with their brand is seeing it as something that either does or doesn’t exist. “We need a full set of brand standards” or “we don’t have the money for a real brand exercise.” Business owners usually see the proposition of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars or a few hundred. In reality both of these approaches will fail your product.

Develop a rigorous brand standards too soon, and you’re likely to overreach in terms of time and budget. Most traditional brand standards projects last multiple months and cost an amount of money befitting that time (meaning a lot). Spending a large amount of time and money doing a head-to-toe brand standards can seem like a good investment, but actually pulls from the two most valuable assets of a product. This decision is especially egregious when it becomes a blocker for product launch—taking key time in market away as well.

On the other side it may seem like a good idea to leave a branding exercise for later on, until the product has matured. This usually leads a business owner to institute a stopgap measure, whether it’s just a simple logo job or a trip to 99designs. Sadly this route also fails as it ignores the need for some aspect of cohesive branding from the inception of a product. A simple logo made in a vacuum isn’t going to cut it.

So what is a product to do? The answer is simply to iterate. Start small. Grow. Bob and weave. Do as much as you need when you need it and allow your talented designers to do what they do best. But how exactly does that work? What does that look like in a real company? Here’s some tangible ways you can implement a more iterative brand strategy for your product:

Don’t Try to Define It All

While doing a branding exercise there is often a temptation (if not a clear directive) to define everything you possibly can. To even create situations that don’t exist. Here’s how your brand would look painted on a 13-story New York City office building. Here’s how your brand looks on custom diecut wetnaps. In order to embrace an iterative approach to your brand, you have to realize that it’s of little to no value to over-define your brand or spend time applying it to fictitious situations. You have a very real set of needs as a product, and it behooves you to address the ones that are (or will soon be) right in front of you.

When looking at branding exercises, choose ones that will be of the most value and have the most impact in the short term. These usually come by means of the core of any brand: logos, color palettes, typography, core messaging, and imagery. These will most likely combine in a myriad of ways to inform secondary brand touchpoints: corporate collateral, social campaigns, website design, app interfaces, and more.

By defining the things you need, you’ll help inform the things you think you need. You won’t waste precious time with things you won’t use, and you’ll have an easier time extending your brand to the things you do.

Choose Your Battles (Brand Variables)

Once you realize you don’t have to over-exert yourself defining the next 25 years of your brand’s existence you can focus on the items at hand. But how do you think ahead to the future while tackling what you have now? The easiest way is to define your brand variables. In every brand there are aspects that will evolve and change—colors, logos, messaging, tone, typography. What you need to do at the onset is look at the breadth of your brand and decide the places where you want that growth to occur.

For instance, you could define a robust color palette, but decide that your specific UI style can vary with time. That way when a new operating system comes out, you don’t have to rebrand to fit it. You can decide that your mark will be a source of brand uniformity, but you don’t mind using varying colors based on the specific application and context of a project.

If that seems crazy, it helps to look to an entire industry that designers seem to love but ignore when it comes to branding lessons: fashion. Fashion brands are some of the most interesting brands that exist, and unlike most industries, fashion is based largely on constant change. With specific products and trends rapidly morphing throughout the year, and most larger brands managing targeted sub-brands as well, it’s interesting to look at the things that remain constant in companies’ brand language. The things that corporate brands usually hinge on—color, typography, imagery—are almost totally irrelevant. Instead fashion brands focus more on primary marks and messaging. Those become the constants of their brands, allowing for maximum freedom across their product offering from season to season.

Regardless of how you want to implement your brand, it will change. And looking ahead to specific areas where you want to change will allow you to include the requisite amount of flexibility in your core brand exercises.

Let your core designers design

One of the best parts of embracing the iterative nature of product branding is that it lets your core designers shine. When I hired my first designer at Virb, Justin, it was interesting (and refreshing) to see how his unique approach to our brand affected the work we both produced. Luckily, our brand was a work in progress, and it was all the better for it. Sadly, this isn’t the case with a lot of product brands.

Nothing makes me more frustrated than seeing some of the most talented people I know working within the strictest brand standards. Designers are unique and bring a unique skill set and point-of-view to any company they work for. Your brand should assume that—and anticipate it. By allowing your designers to use their talents to benefit your brand you’ll create brand advocates instead of brand robots. You’ll also allow newer employees to help inform and even challenge the status-quo of a brand, keeping it from reaching a point of stagnancy.

One company that seems to do this incredibly well is Mailchimp. They have a talented and diverse set of designers, and everything they produce feels so warm and personal. Nothing is the work of a robot implementing a tome of boring standards. They’re a company that celebrates the varied and unique ways that their brand can be implemented, and it makes all of their collective work shine even brighter.

Your designers are a core part of your team and are central to the success of your product. Develop a brand that allows each one to maximize their abilities for the greater good of the team without constricting their skills.

Centralize brand assets

One of the products of iterative branding is versions. Versions aren’t necessarily bad, but they are when not managed properly. Sending a marketing officer into a jungle of brand assets—v1’s, v2’s, finals, or worse—is not the situation you want to put your coworkers in. Iterative branding requires those managing the brand to create and manage centralized locations of assets. This gives everyone referencing your brand the confidence that they’re using the correct and most up-to-date version. It also lessens the chance of someone getting ahold of something that’s either in-progress or deprecated.

Here’s 3 quick ways to make this work:

  1. Keep final brand assets in a central and accessible location. Have you heard of Dropbox? It’s a great place to store files in a centralized location for everyone. Just mind your folder sizes. Also, keep working files and archived assets out of the way — only the recent and current assets you want people using should be accessible.
  2. Move to comprehensive UI style guides. Digital products create a mess of files unlike anything I have ever seen. They also become irrelevant and out of date faster. By moving to a centralized guide for UI elements you can eliminate contextual files (homepage.sketch, marketing_pages.sketch) and keep your design files from getting out of hand.
  3. Implement a code based style guide for all web-based products and marketing sites. The absolute best way to keep things unified among web-based touch points is to have a web-based style guide. These guides are incredibly easy to manage (and update!) and give designers and developers alike access to a constantly updated brand application.

You might not be able to implement all of these right away, but any of them will help alleviate the issues that arise during a more iterative approach to your branding.

Iteration is A Balance

Your product is a living breathing thing unlike any other business. Branding it as such requires a new way of thinking that eschews the traditional longwinded branding exercises of the past, but realizes that branding is more than just a $300 logo. There’s a balance in between those two extremes that exists, and your business will be better if you can find it. To help, embrace your brand and develop it iteratively, just like the product it’s charged with representing.