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Design Driven Branding

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Co-written by Tim Luscher

A brand is a company's promise to its customers and one's brand value reflects what people say about you, not what you say to them. Countless companies have suffered from grand illusions only to abruptly wake up and find themselves in bankruptcy (think, GM, Continental, Blockbuster and Borders).

A brand's value, and the subsequent price premium a firm commands can quickly collapse when unsupported by superior design quality. The Interbrand Global Brand Index of the top 100 brands, is littered with examples of brands whose value have abruptly tanked (Nokia losing 15%, Sony, 13%, Nintendo, 14% and Yahoo, 11% from 2010 to 2011).

Studies of stock performance show that design drives investor's expectations five percentage points over brand. However, combined firms with strong brands and design do ten percentage points better than brand alone. Since design is the vehicle that drives brand value when rooted in a firm's design performance, how can a brand's promises provide a well-managed sustainable growth path rather than just hollow brand attributes?

The process for aligning brand and design fundamentally consists of three phases: Direction, Design and Development. In the Direction phase, the corporate philosophy is established and renewed, determining the corporation's location in the current business environment and establishing its desired location in a predicted future environment. Branding seeks to upgrade the current brand by translating the corporate philosophy into brand attributes expressed by key words and images.

These attributes will then be embedded across all touch-points ensuring a cohesive communication of the brand in the corporation's design. If the corporation already has a well-established and desirable design philosophy that is expressed in its innovation, design language, design principles and signature elements, the product development will be informed by the updated brand attributes and brand identity.

In the Design phase, the brand-inspired design language is applied to products, services, experiences and symbols. Ideally, the upgrade reaches across the whole organization's culture, architecture and routine, from social interaction, reporting, collaboration, building exterior and exterior to logo, taglines and slogans.

In the Development phase, design is tested in the target market and adjustments are made to both the design and the brand communication. Failures can occur at any stage of the product development process, but more so in the development phase where reading the markets' behavior is key.

Periodically, corporations' strategy calls for a radical shift from incremental to breakthrough innovation that requires a breakthrough re-branding and re-design. Such radical changes in brand demand an advanced design project starting before and running concurrently with the regular product development projects and continuously feeding into these projects. As an example, when BMW Group decided to reach out for a younger and broader market, their Z3 and Z7 sports cars and 3, 5 and 7 series sports salon car offerings were both differentiated and augmented with new products. Because of the restyling and new additions, BMW went from a luxury car group to the believability of "The Ultimate Driving Machine."

In conclusion, the most important things to get right in the design process are:

a) Consistency -- Throughout all phases of the design process, the updated brand identity must be maintained.

b) Cohesion -- The brand message must be exhibited not only in the physical attributes of the product but also in corporate communications, the touch points leading to a purchase decision, and ultimately the user experience.

c) Believability -- The user will consciously or unconsciously note any disconnection between brand message and user experience, reducing trust and tarnishing the brand.

For a brand to be successful, all the tangible and intangible elements must be considered throughout the design process. Design drives the brand; however, it must be rooted in a message that the user can relate to and trust.

Special thanks to Tim Luscher for researching and co-writing this article.