The value of product design in branding, and why you should be doing it different

by | SLIMDESIGN | Last updated : May 31, 2021

Every company, no matter its focus, knows the value of a good and strong brand. We’ve all seen a countless amount of start-ups who see themselves as the “new Apple of *insert very specific market segment here* ”, and build their brand and story around these claims. It’s not wrong to have such ambitious credos, for if you don’t believe in your company why should anybody else? But in the end, companies sometimes forget the most important advocate of their brand: their product. 

This might sound like a no-brainer but translating your core brand value into understandable product design features should be the main focus of you and your company. Yet, we see a lot of companies where the product is just an afterthought in their (re-) branding process, or worse, isn’t even mentioned. If you had to explain why you love a certain brand, where would you start? You would start with the product. 

Branding is not the same as marketing

A common misconception is the interchangeability of the words branding and marketing. It’s best to see branding as your brand’s story, your company values, and the part that makes your brand unique and stand out. In other words, the act of branding is shaping your brand. In most cases, the process of branding leads to a brand guide, which captures your brand story, mission, and vision. Such a guide also provides guidelines for the use of your key brand elements, your logo, and tone of voice. 

Marketing on the other hand encompasses all activities and expressions you use to promote your brand, product, or service. It’s used to keep the customer’s attention. Marketing is announcing: “I’m here” and Branding is the story told. This explanation immediately exposes the biggest problem with most Brand Guides, most companies think the biggest use-case for these brand books is to be the guideline for their marketing department. You know your brand story, now only your customers need to know through marketing and you’re done, right? 

Wrong. Or at least, partly wrong. This would be correct if your brand stops after the sale. Your customer’s brand experience doesn’t end after they click the buy button or pay the cashier, however. That’s precisely the moment it starts. 

Do you know how your brand is perceived?

There are several tools available to analyze how customers experience a certain product, service, or brand. 

The first one I would like to focus on is the touchpoint diagram. This tool is used to research a customer’s behavior and emotional journey and divides the buying process into 3 areas of contact: 

  1. Pre-purchase
  2. Purchase  
  3. Post-purchase

Pre-purchase focuses on everything before the customer decides to buy: your website, your marketing campaign, and your social media accounts. The Purchase area concentrates on your product assortment and the point of purchase: how it’s presented in the (web-)shop, and most importantly, its availability. Finally, the Post-purchase area consists of your after-sales department, the product quality, and your story. 

Another popular tool used to assess the emotional experience is the customer journey analysis. With this tool, we cut up the entire journey a customer goes through when buying and using a product into different phases. From the moment he first becomes aware of the brand or product, to the moment they purchase, use, and finally disregard or replace the product. For each phase, we analyze the customer’s activities goals and experience. This gives insight into how your brand is perceived by the end-user and finds possible discrepancies between your branding and the perception. 

Your product is your most important brand expression.

From a marketing perspective, the focus for both of these methods is the start of these customer journeys, as the main goal is to increase sales. After the purchase, the only metrics used to make sure the marketing campaign is a success, are the product reviews and possible complaints. 

But if you look at the time the customer is confronted most with your brand, it’s not in the Pre-purchase or Purchase phase. Instead, it’s when the customer uses your product in their daily routine: in the Post-purchase phase. This means you could and should use all of these moments of contact to reinforce their belief in your product quality and strengthen brand awareness. 

Customers vs Brand Ambassadors

The main reason you want to strengthen brand awareness with your customers after the sale is the fact that no customer journey is linear. It’s circular in two ways. The first and most obvious purpose is when the product gets to the end of its lifecycle and needs to be replaced. You want your customer to be satisfied with their initial decision to choose your product/brand. Although this is of course important, this goes beyond just your product’s quality. If we look at the start of your customer’s journey, they are probably convinced by your marketing to buy product X. When your marketing is done right, the reason they bought your product is that they trust your brand and the story you’re telling. So, when the moment is there to replace product X, you want your customer to be convinced of not just the product, but more importantly, have a stronger belief in the brand and its story. Ergo, this can only be achieved by telling your brand’s story through your product design. This is what is called the loyalty loop

A great example of product groups with very valuable loyalty loops are consumer electronics, cars, household equipment, and profession related tools. Think of people buying an iPhone year after year, or the car enthusiast that sticks to “his/her brand” for an entire lifetime. If you take a closer look at the brands that do this very well, you will find they have one thing in common: their brand DNA is expressed through their product design. 

The second way your customer journey is not circular is the oldest and best sales pitch in the book; word of mouth marketing. If you look at your own decision-making process when buying a new product, you’ll find that every time you buy a high-end, or more expensive product, you will ask friends and family and people you trust on that specific subject. It’s also the reason so many brands rely on influencers and marketing deals with celebrities. This consumer-driven marketing strategy only works as long as your customer is excited about the product and your brand. The longer they “feel” your brand while using your product, the longer they will advocate for your brand to friends and family. Transforming customers into brand ambassadors is the end goal and can only be done if your brand and story are present in the product they are using.  

Branding your product is more than slapping another logo on the front. 

If we look at the visual brand guides companies use, the chapter describing product design is often minimal or non-existent. Yes, every guide mentions logo placement and possibly color use, but here is where it usually ends. The chapters that can be used in their marketing campaign are far more detailed. Logo use, website, packaging, all get their fair share of attention. Conversely, the longest-lasting customer touchpoint, the product use, doesn’t get the attention it needs to ensure proper brand storytelling through product design. 

This is understandable because branding through product design is not a simple task. Telling your brand’s story and capturing the DNA of your brand in a product can’t be done by placing your logo on the front and call it day. However, if the instructions in the brand guide are too specific, it limits the designer in creating the best possible product. So, what should be in your Brand Guide regarding product design?

Branding Guides for Product Design

We’ve written another article with examples of all aspects you can use for the product design guide, but its core should always be your brand’s DNA. This DNA can be translated into all aspects of product design but should always be formulated in a way that won’t obstruct the designer in their product design. Creating a design guide with relevant guidelines is a combination of creating boundaries and limitations as well as room to explore options. These guidelines can be applied to all aspects of product design, such as colors, materials, finishes, key elements, hero elements, signature shapes, user interaction, etc. Make sure to use examples of the design elements for all of these aspects and explain why they are part of your brand’s story. Make sure to use elements that translate well into product design, as well as examples of how it should not be done. 

An example of this could be material use. In this example, your brand’s story is built around honesty, sustainability, and making the world a better place. This translates in your design to the use of recyclable, biodegradable, or reusable materials. Is your brand DNA built around technology and being the best in your field? Then the material use in your products should also reflect this. Describe the materials that should be used and why to use these, like high-grade metals or glass for a smartphone design. This can be combined with more complicated production techniques which also help to convey your “technology-brand” story to your customer. 

Together all of these guidelines should form a “recipe” for your product design department or the design agency you are working with. When creating these, make sure to explain the story you’re trying to convey, not a final form or product. In the end, the goal is to translate that carefully formed brand into your design, making sure your users are always reminded of your brand and what it stands for on both a conscious and subconscious level. 

Want to see more examples of product design elements in brand guides? Or need help with your design project? Let’s start a new project together!