How to Balance Design for Brand and Demand

If you sit in the marketing world, there is a good chance that your role has you primarily focused on building out a brand or in some way driving more demand. Both forces have their place. Eloquently exuding a great brand and driving demand, and the measurable business results that follow, are both important. Perhaps even equally important. 

It would be easy to then conclude that we marketeers should just strive for excelling at both. It’s a sensible goal and certainly an achievable one. But in practice, when deploying designs, content and messaging broadly and doing rigorous testing and measurement, it is common to find a point of tension between the brand and demand forces. 

Let’s dig deeper.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Good branding demands consistency. Yet, engagement increases at points where the design offers an unexpected experience.
  • Experiment judiciously, bearing in mind the nuances of your industry or niche.
  • Think about the natural flow of the user journey. Design keeping in mind the next steps.
  • Use data to drive the direction of your testing. Make changes in a collaborative way.

Consistency vs. Change

Branding, almost always, strives for consistency – in tone, messaging as well as design principles. There is great logic in a purely consistent approach to design. When using consistent design treatments. color schemes and layouts, the more obvious benefit that results is a “professional” look and feel.

Yet there is psychology woven into this approach as well. Particularly for repeat visitors to a given site, staying consistent with design treatments and color schemes makes it more intuitive and natural for visitors to take that next step that the site (and business) is designed to drive them towards. When shopping on Amazon’s site, for instance, when we see those yellow buttons, Simon says go to the next step in the buying process. Eyes are trained by repeat interactions so that in future visits, hitting that finish line, in accordance with the site goals, are simply easier.

Yet data from A/B and multivariate testing – be it in B2B, B2C or non-profit land – often proves out that when doing something different – for example an add to cart button that stands out from the surrounding design scheme – engagement actually increases. This increased engagement can lead to non-trivial impacts in business critical metrics.

Particularly for sites that involve loads of “regulars” – visitors that come back frequently over time – even the very simple notion of change can elicit more response. Again, psychology is at play here – but in this case, for reasons that are opposite to consistency

Something that looks different or unique naturally more captures visual attention, thereby increasing the chances of engagement with a particular area, call-to-action (and user flow). We hear about the benefits of “change” from songwriters, politicians and leaders frequently. But “change” is also a good thing to consider with content – in order to maximize engagement from your site visitors.

So with the demand-oriented benefits of changing content and the notion of having key elements on the page, stand out from the surrounding content crowd weighed against the brand-oriented tenets of design consistency, what wins out? How do you balance for both? Here are some ideas on how to find that delicate balance.

Pick Your Spots Wisely

A way to balance is to abide by brand standards in general, but judiciously pick those spots to experiment with slight departures from the norm. If you’re an ecommerce brand where the whole business depends on getting people into the checkout flow, consider using secondary or tertiary – or even non-standard colors – for those Add to Cart CTAs.

If you’re a non-profit, for example, focused on donation user flows make that donate button scream for attention. Your survival as an organization is counting on every visitor knowing within a nanosecond where to click in order to donate. 

If you’re an insurance or financial services company focused on the quoting or application funnel, test visual departures inside these key flows – knowing that the masses are generally not in them. This “isolation” from the home and other high level site pages enables a chance to balance exploration of design departures, while generally staying on brand.

Test, Test, Test

At a minimum, test A/B style to understand what value is generated by going over the branding guardrails.

Frame initiatives that test visual departures as data explorations, not intents, in order to immediately scale out a new way forward. When testing the boundaries of a brand guideline or color design system, avoid getting a ticket from the design police. Do what you need to do upfront, prior to testing, to openly discuss the exploration you want to pursue.

Test boundaries more liberally where it makes sense to. Sites for brands that are less known amongst the masses have less to lose when it comes to brand preservation. Here you can test color schemes and styling of your most important site interactions more freely and regularly. Obviously it is important still to be conscious of staying within the guidelines as being consistent is also a part of that brand building process. But through testing, find the right balance.

Optimize in alignment with stakeholder groups, including branding and design teams. It is more about researching what value certain changes yield and nothing more. Focus on gaining buy in to just run a test and make it clear that this is the only focus. Once you have hard data, then discussions of potentially pivoting and scaling to something different can take place. Having these discussions in a collaborative way, and not in a combative way, is the only way to successfully navigate this balancing act.

Building a data-driven culture around testing depends of having design and branding groups seeing testing as a resource and benefit. Rocking the boat here can put a dent in this important cultural development.

Align Your Path to the Value of Your Brand

If you’re a well known brand, the value of the brand is generally higher. In these circumstances greater care should be taken to preserve that consistency and stay closer to the branding guidelines. There is more to lose when you create visual juxtapositions across your user experience.

Even for the high end, more well known brands, there are still places to experiment with different design treatments. 

Use isolated user flows such as a standalone landing page without the typical global navigation of the website may create a more amenable testing ground for trying something different.

Create design treatments that both stand out and fit in at the same time. This may not seem logical, but it can be done with careful thought. Perhaps it’s a rare use of a color that is still part of the design system, but not found in surrounding areas of the page or pages in general. Or a style of iconography or image type that isn’t used anywhere else. 

Design with what the natural next step should be. Thinking about what the next step should be in a given context should consider both business needs and user needs. Ideally that ideal next step is the same when considering both.

Think long and hard where, from a business perspective, you want visitors to go to next from a given context, and design accordingly. Make sure those areas users click to get to that next step are easy and quick for their eyes to “lock into”. 

Change Elicits More Response

In contexts where you can be more liberal with slight design departures, and only in those scenarios, you may find that changing important elements via a test works well, but then six months later, reverting back to a previous color works better, at that point. These back and forth type results understandably invoke questions and the most straightforward answer is the notion of change – and its natural ability to attract attention and curiosity. 

When change is being applied to how a button is presented (text, color, size, positioning, etc.), the button will often get clicked on more. There is a reason why those street peddlers doling out flyers for local establishments wear those outlandish costumes. They attract attention and that attention parlays into more hot dog sales or electronics sales – whatever it may be. Buttons in important digital user flows are similar. They’re the digital peddlers begging for your visual attention which can lead to meaningful online transactions.

The digital work behind the Obama campaigns included relentless A/B testing and one of the many findings from that work, was that mere changing of content increased responsiveness and this impacted donation rates.

In Conclusion

As with many things in life, it is about finding the right balance. Optimally exuding brand and driving business demand are both critically important. With careful thought balanced with a culture and spirit of testing, it is very possible to nail it with both – at the same time.

Originally published on LinkedIn

1 thought on “How to Balance Design for Brand and Demand

  1. Since split testing in any form became widespread in the industry, it’s helped SO many businesses and companies level up there marketing, conversion, and over course their revenue like crazy.

    Love to see this, a lot of larger marketing blogs, training resources, and other companies cover to much of the basics and not the nitty gritty that matters as well.


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