It's what they say when you're not in the room
Your Brand Is Your User Experience
Written by Melissa Mapes, Founder
When companies treat brand as solely a marketing responsibility and user experience as product responsibility, everyone loses.
The world of branding used to revolve around packaging, messaging, and logos. These elements are still essential — after all, where would Nike be without its swoosh and "Just do it." tagline? — but in today's reality, we interact with digital products more often than we do our own shoes.

Users hold high expectations for every application and website they encounter. If one fails to meet standards, it is abandoned and easily replaced by a competing app.

Your brand is only as good as your experience, and vice versa. Like it or not, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. The integration of brand and UX often separates the winners from the losers, and here are a few reasons why.
Bold cross-channel bets
Colin Kaepernick Nike Just Do It
Even companies with physical goods as their flagship offering now rely heavily on digital experiences to promote their brand and sell merchandise. Look at the suite of apps developed by Nike:

  • Nike - Your personal Nike shop
  • Nike SNKRS - Your ultimate sneaker source
  • Nike Training Club - Workouts and fitness guidance
  • Nike Run Club - Run tracking and training plans
  • NikeConnect - Sports

Nike also operates countless websites and, of course, the in-person experience of their brick and mortar store.

I use this example because it shows how an iconic company has successfully translated its brand into user experiences, both online and offline. Most companies, however, do not approach branding and UX with a unified vision.

Instead, they sequester brand and UX onto two different teams, often with competing goals and interests. Tension ensues and valuable time is squandered by bickering over priorities.

Tradeoffs are always difficult to make when it comes to developing company roadmaps and I'm not suggested that product and marketing teams should be combined into one behemoth org chart, but effective leaders will provide a single, user-centered objective to rally both units around a common vision.

When leaders across teams signal the same values and decision-making framework, discussions become more productive.

This set of brand and UX values allows companies to make bold bets across channels and the product. With everyone swimming in the same direction, organizations can build end-to-end user experiences that are wow-worthy rather than watered-down.

A tale of two tech cultures
Tech company startup office
In tech, I often encounter two very distinct perspectives on brand:

"Our brand is everything to us. It guides all decisions and is paramount to our success."


"Brand doesn't really matter. Users come to us for [insert product or service], not our aesthetics."

Both are flawed, but both also make valid points.

The first statement describes an organization that really understands the potential impact of a cohesive and well-crafted brand presence. This company is far more likely to have integrated marketing and UX teams that collaborate across all touch points. But, it fails to make an important distinction:

User feedback should equally influence decision-making. A brand cannot provide the sole guardrails for strategy — it needs to evolve with customer feedback like everything else.

The second statement provides a near opposite viewpoint. This organization probably has no official brand guidelines and very few creatives on either the marketing or product teams. Leadership likely thinks that a logo and a brand amount to the same thing.

I envision a single UX designer borrowing writing time from a content marketing person — the two poor souls trying to MacGyver a not-awful user experience with duct tape and string.

Although this company clearly conflates "aesthetics" with branding, which is a massive error, it gets one thing right:

Solving problems for users is the ultimate goal. If a product or service performs the necessary function as advertised, users form a positive brand impression and keep coming back.

The catch? It also needs to perform the said function better than all competitors.

The term "better" can stand for many different attributes: price, convenience, customer service, usability, social impact, and much more. All of these traits factor into brand perceptions and help shape the user experience.

Both of the companies described by the quotes above will struggle if they don't build a brand that anticipates the needs and wants of their specific customer base.

Distinctive identities
Lyft app on iPhone
In an increasingly crowded landscape, tech companies can break away from the pack by defining what "better" means for their brand — all with the help of user feedback.

Everyone wants to be a unicorn. Who wouldn't love to launch a company that's first to market with a unique and world-changing concept?

The vast majority of successful businesses, however, are just really good horses. No magical powers, no rainbow mane or sparkly horn — they may be a stallion among ponies, but they're still part of a herd.

Just look at the the Fortune 500 list. Health insurance companies hold several top spots, along with retailers, banks, energy companies, phone and internet providers, and even the largest paper company in the world, International Paper. (Thanks to them, now all I can think about is the Michael Scott Paper Company.)

These companies may be first in their industry, but they are not unique concepts by any stretch of the imagination.

No matter what service or product a company supplies, it has competitors. You have to give users a reason to choose your company over the rest. This is where brand identity comes in.

Many think of brand identity as a purely visual effort. Yes, the colors and fonts and logos all matter, but it's so much more than that.

A brand identity, if well-executed and crafted to truly speak to a company's purpose, can translate into a powerful brand image that inspires loyalty. Great design breeds trust, after all.

The strategy behind a brand identity should align with both user sensibilities and the core functions of a digital product. Key interactions should speak to the spirit of the brand, thereby differentiating it from similar tools or services.

For example, Asana sends delightful creatures shooting across the screen when a user checks an item off their task list. This speaks to the satisfaction one feels when completing a project. It also reinforces the distinct brand identity behind the work management tool.

Can Asana precisely quantify the market share gained through flying narwhals? No. But, it's memorable moments like these that drive continuous engagement. And frankly, it's a big part of the reason I personally use Asana.

By developing a distinct identity and leveraging key interactions to make a positive impression, companies are finding novel ways to separate themselves from the herd.
Promises, promises
When an identity is managed in a vacuum, it's obvious. By leaving the UX team out of the process, companies risk making brand promises that their product isn't built to deliver.

A marketing team may come up with a genius tagline to entice customers and inadvertently come across as misleading.

Companies without a cohesive vision for both marketing and product often end up in the following scenario:

  1. Channels advertise messaging points that work for conversion but only highlight select functions of the actual product, leaving out key information.

  2. Users sign up for the product with certain expectations of what they'll receive in return.

  3. Frustration and distrust ensue when users discover that the product is misaligned with their exact needs.

  4. The company's brand image is forever tarnished in the eye of said customer and crucial word-of-mouth marketing is lost.

Essentially, the brand promises made to customers, although not overtly dishonest, fail to match the expectations of the user, leading to increased churn rate.

For example, let's say the marketing team at Company X tests language about the speed of their product's search function and finds it to work spectactularly for conversion, so they include the messaging in recommended brand copy. The phrase "Find what you need a flash!" starts proliferating across advertising channels.

The search function works fine but isn't anything spectacular, and the product team doesn't have space on their roadmap for major improvements. They likely don't even know that search has been added to standard messaging...until retention rates start dropping and the customer service team chimes in with feedback.

The product team then broaches the issue with the marketing team, but they reply with data showing the spike in conversion with the newly approved brand copy. The marketing team has cash goals to meet and is feeling serious pressure from leadership, so the argument reaches a stalemate. Either the product team must scramble to improve search speed or the marketing team must miss another month's growth targets, potentially jeopardizing their careers.

It's easy to point the finger in this scenario and many teams do. The true culprit, though, is the lack of a unified vision and brand management process.

Every touchpoint in a user's journey comprises a portion of the experience, from top funnel advertising to email to in-product activity. By treating the marketing and UX contributions as mutually exclusive, brands miss the opportunity to craft a consistent story across all interactions.

Jeff Bezos once asserted, "Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room."

When people talk, it's about the entirety of their user experience — from first touch to last. So, it's time for marketing and products teams to get real friendly (if they're not already) and build beautiful things together.

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Written by Melissa Mapes, Founder of Real Big Words

Lead image by Luca Laurence on Unsplash