Is responsive design the end of differentiating online brand experiences?

I’m sure I am are neither the first nor the last to comment on this topic. So it’s not just me.

But in looking at not only a number of well-established organizations, as well as virtually every startup on the planet, it seems that virtually every responsive website looks identical in look, feel, content and navigation. Most dramatically fail the “cover the logo test” big time.  And it’s not just in general across the web, but more importantly within their own category.

The question is: Does it really matter?

Should User Experience trump Customer Experience (because they are different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)? As a staunch believer in user-centered design when it comes to products, services, interfaces and communication in general, it throws up some interesting challenges.

Conventional brand building would suggest that while certain standards should apply to ensure the optimum user experience, of comparable importance is the experience created. Is the online experience delivering on the brand’s promise? Is the content aligned to the brand’s messaging, personality, tone of voice? Is it different and distinctive from direct and (increasingly today) indirect competitors and substitutes?

My view is that many of these sites are failing to do this, particularly in the startup, rapid growth and entrepreneurial space. In a couple of sectors – most notably in emerging sectors such as health care analytics and any of a range of cloud and mobile business solutions – not only are the sites the same, the “insider jargon-loaded” content itself is often gobbledygook filling a defined space in the template with little regard given to the information architecture, user journey, customer benefits and indeed the brand story itself.

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried seems to agree: http://www.inc.com/magazine/201404/jason-fried/do-not-overdesign-your-website.html

“Most of these designs can be described like this: First, you see a huge photo with some text over it. Then, as you scroll down, the background slides away and another big photo with more text on it pops up. And so on…. Maybe you’ve seen this style—it’s starting to crop up everywhere. To a designer’s eye, it looks good, and it’stechnically impressive, but I’m not sure it says anything meaningful about the companies using it. Worse (for those companies), it’s created a new kind of clutter: Too many companies look the same—all style and not enough substance.”

Three observations:

First, responsive web design is a requirement that needs to be addressed, not a destination.  According to Wikipedia, Responsive Design means that “Users across a broad range of devices and browsers will have access to a single source of content, laid out so as to be easy to read and navigate with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling.”

So grabbing a template and populating it, with the confidence that it works across mobile platforms, is not a substitute for a considered approach to a site that effectively expresses the brand and the desired experience.

There is certainly a case to be made for the expedience of this idea: http://www.designyourway.net/blog/inspiration/the-case-against-using-bootstrap-to-design-websites/.   Let’s face it, an organization with limited resources to allocate to talent, product and service development, sales and marketing and operational expenses is going to want cost-effective shortcuts wherever and whenever they can be found.  The challenge is regarding the discipline and decision-making at work when it comes to following this path.  Bootstrap and templates can make it almost too easy to make something look good that works without thinking about the impact on the distinctiveness, clarity, credibility and relevance of what’s on offer – both visually and in terms of messages.

Second, Steven Bradley makes a compelling case for letting it evolve: Give it more time … but don’t just grab a template, populate it and think the job’s done.http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/responsive-sites-look-the-same/

“Give it more time: Responsive design hasn’t matured to the point where we can shift focus away from the underlying structure and back to aesthetics and originality.”

Third, your brand experience still trumps everything else – there are less than brilliant websites for many leading brands when it comes to their performance and mobile UX.  But as Greg Storey notes http://cognition.happycog.com/article/and-they-all-look-just-the-same :

It does nobody any good to have a web that all looks the same. Be mindful of the user’s needs and business requirements, but for the sake of success, go a different route.

Your online experience remains an increasingly important customer experience touchpoint. Don’t mistake a cool responsive site with a responsive, branded, exceptional and distinct customer experience.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Brand flexibility

Conventional wisdom in the brand strategy world seems to be that for a brand to succeed, it needs to occupy a single territory on any of a range of spectrums relating to positioning. Whether that’s its product features, its sense of belief/purpose, its people, its product-service offer, or any of a number of potential positionings that allow it to express why it’s distinctive, in a way that is true to the brand and meaningful to its users.

The new landscape might make this a lot more challenging than it used to be. A big challenge to this thinking seems to have emerged.

Predictive analytics and automated advertising creates a dynamic landscape that traditional approaches to brand positioning might find challenging.

This dynamism could mean that control of messaging becomes so segmented as to render traditional positioning impossible if not planned and managed effectively.

The ability to precisely target audiences (individuals) makes it possible to segment with laser precision – which equally can result in dilution of positioning if not planned and managed effectively. Knowing the precise interests and drivers of two different audiences with two different reasons to believe in your brand can challenge the idea of a central brand positioning.

Recently, thinking around vision and purpose pioneered by the likes of Collins & Porras and many others has made a (welcome) re-emergence as organizations and consumers seek to make sense of the chaos and diluted trust in government and business in the wake of the financial crisis. This certainly offers one way to tie together potentially different stakeholder messages.

The real challenge is creative – can an idea be created that occupies a space that can cater to these different audiences without dilution. So maybe we’ve come full circle, after all.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Keep it simple

In addition to getting back to basics, even in a world where data and technology allow us to customize and segment messages and channels, it’s still important to keep it simple. This is as true – if not more true – in employer/talent branding as it is in product/service branding. Many employment value propositions and employer brands become over-complicated, and sometimes in so doing muddle their messages or confuse the potential applicant.

With a war for talent and a small percentage of active and passive candidates engaging with talent marketing communications, I’m a big fan of keeping it simple. You can always add detail later, but it’s often a barrier to starting the conversations.

Here are two good examples of a simple overarching idea supported by three key messages. You don’t need any extra information or to be an expert in employer branding to decode these messages; they’re explicit.

Coca-Cola Enterprises This employer brand is several years old now, but I still am a fan. It’s simple and it achieves its objective – which is covered here http://www.recruiter.co.uk/opinion/2012/07/finding-talent-with-a-thirst-to-be-at-the-top/. If you look at the careers site – http://careers.cokecce.com/en/experienced/ – it’s just as unambiguous: The overarching idea is THIRST – do you have it? And then three questions ask you if you might be right for the culture – it’s about Pace, Influence and Impact. It’s flexible enough to apply to range of roles. There’s another great presentation of the work here.

BP I’m not sure if this talent brand/EVP is even still in use, but I consider it a good example of a clear, simple and very flexible system. In this ad for BP Canada, you can see that the overarching message is “Are you up for the challenge?”. Then, there are three supporting message components – about the challenge itself; about you and the role you play in facing it; and what BP brings to help address it. Again, you don’t need any special knowledge to decode the message. It is simple, clear, direct and flexible. See https://gprc.ab.ca/files/careers/ktIJXRNOyLI7fMY4cukQ.pdf When connected to initiatives like the very cool BP Ultimate Field Trip for students — http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/careers/hot-topics/uft-uk-winners.html – it’s a pretty powerful idea. Both of these examples might have neared or exceeded their shelf life and utility – since circumstancs change – but they are good examples and reminders of the power of a big idea and three simple supporting messages as a principle in good communications.

Back to basics?

MISSOULA, Montana – After a chunk of time off, I’m struck by how over-complicated the world of branding and brand transformation is often presented as.

Bow ties; 2x2s; 3-,5-,7-,9-,12-step approaches; bridges; onions; venn diagrams; radar charts … but they really all boil down to the same thing. Collins said it, Porras said it, Sinek says it, HBR says it, Gallup has said it, Wally Olins certainly said it too — and I’m sure many others as well who aren’t top of mind:

There are some immutable principles, although the technologies and tools used to manage a brand are in constant motion, constantly evolving. It starts with a core principle or central organizing idea – call it essence, DNA, purpose, vision, mission, values, or what you will (in numerous combinations). It then needs to permeate every operational facet of your organization and connect to your people, so they can engage effectively with each other and with your external stakeholders. And then you need to ensure that everything you do to influence your marketplace (and drive sustainable growth – probably the newest idea among the lot) is aligned to that – across product, service, communication, talent acquisition and management, etc.

Then again, it’s much easier said than done … which keeps consultants and agencies and in-house teams busy, and will continue to do so.

Today we have more tools, more data, more channels and more ways of creating and co-creating systems, content and ideas to connect people with our brands. Tomorrow we’ll have even more. But the basics never really change, no matter how you dress them up.

B is for Brand

kevink:

Nice words about my recent book ‘Brand & Talent’ …

Originally posted on Nothing but hoopla:

B I have to confess that I’ve recently changed my thinking about the intersection of brand and engagement. Not having been educated or experience in the world of brand, I wasn’t party to the thinking behind the value of brand and it’s place in the success of organisations. Over the last 5 years as businesses search for a post-crash formula for success, I think taxonomy has got in the way of simplicity and what it all really means. Employee engagement has so many definitions and like many, I couldn’t articulate employer brand well enough to make the argument for its place either. Even the term internal communications is being debated – should we call it employee communications now?

As we strive to make work better for people, does it really mattter who ‘owns’ the relationship with employees or who is responsible for engagement. There is one commonality for every employee and I believe that’s brand. And

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The ingredients for success? Purpose, People, Failure, Luck and Learning.

PALM SPRINGS, CA – I had the real privilege to attend EY’s Strategic Growth Forum (SGF) in Palm Springs last week. An amazing event focusing on mid-cap growth businesses and entrepreneurial startups from across the Americas.

The event itself was flawlessly executed. Quality and attention to detail at a level I have never before experienced in corporate events and hospitality – so kudos to the EY team that made the event happen.

In terms of takeaways, it was a real honor to be relatively up close and personal with some inspirational and highly effective leaders – (I didn’t manage to attend them all as I was working after all) but  managed to squeeze in some really amazing talks – Jeffery Immelt from GE, David Rubenstein CEO of the Carlyle Group (maybe the best speaker I have ever seen on the topic of business), Kathy Ireland, Dr Kjell Nordstrom from Stockholm School of Economics, Jeffrey Sprecher of ICE who just bought the NYSE,  Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani, and Andre Agassi.

What did I take away? Here are my key thoughts:

  • Purpose. It is essential in life and as a business. In my world, this is good news since BrandPie helps companies find their purpose and bring it to life internally and externally.
  • People. Every speaker made no bones about it: get the best people, (almost) at any cost, so long as they fit your culture.
  • Failure. It is good. Do it. Do it fast. Learn from it and move forward.
  • Luck. All modestly, but probably accurately, credited luck as a powerful factor in any success.
  • Learning. Every single one was passionate about constantly learning and its importance.

Of course, there were many more points made – I particularly related to Jeff Immelt’s passion for focus on outcomes as well as a culture of “zero optionality” at GE; and Kjell Nordstrom’s point that technology has abolished the need for “the centre” so that relationships, organisations and communities can operate “periphery to periphery.”

Time well spent.