Human Centered Branding

Courage to Look Away from the Mirror

After spending so much time thinking about human-centered design and consumer-centered marketing, its easy to see the right choices. Its easy to see the difference between a voice that is self-aggrandizing and one of authentic empathy and service. But it’s also easy to see how hard it could be for a marketer to take the leap.

Recently I’ve been listening to friend review the brand rebuild at his company—a company that produces protective gear for athletes. The process has been difficult in that Sales, Marketing, and Product haven’t been able to agree on messaging.

Product wants to focus on visual and technical differentiators: the pads and other impact guards are slimmer and more modern looking than competitor’s. The patented material science behind the product is visually distinctive and more effective against impact.

Sales wants to use broad messaging that will work for all markets, so that they’ll be better positioned to approach buyers from the youth and team sports markets, as well as professional athletes.

And Marketing wants to say it all, but in a slogan-length epic message that is as un forgettable as it is hyperbolic.

And these are completely natural impulses: tell the customer how awesome our product is, how its unique in the market, and how buying it will elevate coolness beyond your wildest aspirations. Tell the customer these things and the costumer will be impressed and convinced to buy.

Or maybe not.

Maybe they’ll be bored by your lecture. Maybe they’ll simply hear that YOU think the product is great. Maybe they’ve already clicked away because, well, the is what everyone says about their own products. And no one had time to sift through the bullshit anymore.

A user-centered brand wouldn’t tell the customer about the product. Because that brand is in service to the customer. That brand would tell the customer that you should be able to rule the world, reach the heights of your athletic potential, without being held back. To get out there and kick some ass without fear. In other words, just do it :).

Planning: Brand Focus

So, I’m starting by attempting to outline the steps for each category of work. Starting with the most foundational piece:

Brand Purpose

  • Identify Leadership Team (LT) and Key Stakeholders (KS)
  • Work with LT and KS to establish definition of core motivation
  • Work with LT/KS to establish 3 focus areas or pillars, which turn core motivation in to focused behaviors/actions
  • Work with KS including focus-area experts, to determine the methodology practiced that has led to Client achieving expertise, giving Client unique selling proposition
  • Work with LT to determine key markets that warrant custom messaging; work with writers/editors to finalize language
  • Work with KS to determine which existing products best articulate expertise in a focus area, and create focused descriptions of these projects with highlighted achievements and learnings.
  • Identify copy editor resource to review copy holistically before final “going live” stage

Human Centered Branding (HCB): Wireframes

A website seemed like the right platform to bring this project to life. A website offers a 'show, don't tell' experience that you couldn't achieve with a deck. The wireframe site will serve as a pitch when working with other teams throughout he process, and eventually become the "living organism" that it describes. 

A quick note about the client. This project is being designed for my current employer. This model, which I'm calling Human Centered Branding (HCB), should be applicable to any brand, so it doesn't seem necessary to mention the client directly and risk the confusion that this model would only work well for a specific industry. 

This wireframe is the core model for HCB:

I made these wireframes using Adobe's Xd program, and as a new user, the experience was intuitive and useful.

I made these wireframes using Adobe's Xd program, and as a new user, the experience was intuitive and useful.

The Brand in the center represents culminated content from the 4 modules that surround it. All of the modules are connected, informing and being informed by each other. 

The Brand Purpose module is a space that identifies the primary motivation or "soul" of the brand. Within the space, we learn the how that primary motivation has developed into services or products, and then, how the brand is uniquely positioned in its markets. For example, if we were talking about Nike, the primary motivation or soul of the brand might be 'fitness,' and its product 'running shoes.' Its unique position in the market might be 'a superlative commitment to increasing user-performance through innovative design and materials.'

The Brand Experience Module provides key experiences that allow users to come to understand the brand through more engaging and interactive storytelling devices, such as games, interactive videos, and learning sessions. When a user enters this space, they should feel invited to explore. And when they leave, they should have a new emotional understanding--if not connection--with the brand as a humanized organism. This is the device that will help users come to believe in a brand, rather than just buy a brand's product. 

Community Input is a space dedicated to aggregating research such as social listening, and actively seeking input through surveys and other tools to acquire user-feedback that can inform the brand. Everyone values customer feedback, and a rand cannot thrive without market support, but how often do brands actually design an infrastructure that puts that feedback directly into an algorithm that incrementally informs/modifies the actual DNA of the brand. This feature, feedback collection resulting in real-time brand refinement, is crucial to the concept. It measures and ensures the authenticity of a brand's relationship with its users. 

The Brand Out Tools module gives users a toolkit for what you might call "brand advocacy." This would include the nuts and bolts, like logos, but also more significant assets, like repots and other information that empower the user with knowledge and a sense of expertise within the brand's areas of focus. 

So these are the four essential components, and each one carries a hefty load of responsibility, My hope is that the site's creative direction and use of emerging technologies will drive users to explore, connect, and start to feel integrated, and even somewhat accountable for the brand. 


Human Centered Branding: Getting Starting

After sketching out some wireframes for a website that would bring this idea to life, I was able to get approval to move forward, but while pitching this idea, I realized it was a bigger ask than I thought. The idea, which is to create and implement a brand model that is as much about user input as it is about the brand's presenting values and goals, is exciting, I hope, if you are already a brand nerd, but not necessarily to anyone else. In the worst light, it looks like a project with considerable challenges:

• Large draw on the time of senior-level creatives
• Long-term collaboration with teams across the organization
• Costly
• The value of a solidified brand identity is difficult to convey to some groups, whose buy-in is essential
• Success relies on input from employees and consumers
• The website will require ongoing monitoring and maintenance, which would require the generation of a new governance structure
• The result may not deliver on it's promise
• And (worst of all) there's no direct relationship between brand awareness work and revenue

I'm not deterred. Perhaps this is a naive optimism, but I believe we can achieve a better relationship between users and brands with radical honesty. An honesty that allows the brand and its users to change in real-time based on new information.

There seems to be a simple truth at the core of what should make this work. Every brand is influenced and affected by the people who work behind it and the markets who support it. But as marketers, we let brand act as a veil between these two groups and that veil almost always includes an inauthentic posturing. What do we have to hide? And who do we think we're fooling? 

Tomorrow, I'l get into the structure for the site, or at least post images of the wireframe sketches and hopefully a planning calendar for the initial construction of a test site. Full expecting to practice a rapid prototyping approach to all off this. Inspired by something one of the Kelley brothers said, 'what might we accomplish in just one day?'