What is a digital brand?

Our co-founder David Eccles explores what digital brands are, how they’ve evolved, and why they need to be holistically considered across the entire digital experience.

The term "branding" refers to the process of creating a unique name, design, symbol, or image that identifies and distinguishes a product or service from others in the market. So, is digital branding just making sure that your logo looks fine when it’s displayed on a small screen, or is a digital brand something more?

As this isn’t a click bait ‘Here are 5 things you need to make your digital brand shine!’, I’m going to take a bit of time and get into what a brand is and what the impact of networked (looking at you, internet!), interactive mediums (and you iPhone!) have had on how we perceive brands.

I’d like to take you on a brief journey of how brands were born in ancient civilisations, how they evolved through the industrial revolution, and how we should now think about branding differently in the digital age.

The history of branding

The word itself comes from the verb, brand. Over 4000 years ago, ancient farmers began to mark their cattle with symbols – different farmers used different symbols to denote their ownership, essentially developing the precursor of logos.

In the markets of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, merchants would use pictorial symbols to ‘advertise’ their wares of spices, wines and rugs to a largely illiterate population. These markings are still visible in the on the ruins of storefronts in Pompeii.

Skip forward to the 1800s, when mass-produced products began to be manufactured in the thundering factories of England. With the introduction of canals and railways, products could be moved over long distances. Buyers and sellers no longer knew each other personally as they would have done in face-to-face markets. Branding, or marking a product allowed a buyer to know that a bag of flour did indeed come from Mr. Miller’s flour mill just by looking at the mark or logo on the sack.

Mechanised production, powered by coal and steam, led to a huge increase in the number of products on the market. Manufacturers needed a way to make their products stand out in a competitive marketplace that didn’t just rely on them being the cheapest. This need to differentiate products led to the birth of the very first advertising agencies, emerging in England in the 1800s whose job it was to differentiate products ( by defining USPs), and make them recognisable on the shelves of stores ( by designing on-pack branded packaging).

During the 1900s, branding became more than simply differentiating between two similar products. It evolved to capitalise on the subconscious mind of the consumer. The early pioneer of this approach was Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud; part-time advertiser, part-time propagandist. His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist "Torches of Freedom".

Branding became more creative, but still it was a one-way relationship for most. Companies developed brands to appeal to their target demographics and this engendered a desire in the consumer to buy into that brand. This worked very well for many years; creative, non-conformists bought into Apple. Skoda rebranded itself as the obvious choice for the cost-conscious, independently-minded driver who really didn’t care what their next-door neighbour may think (because they were smarter than them anyway). Powerful stuff!

Experience is the brand

Then along came the web which changed everything forever. Now, consumers research their options. Whether it’s which laptop they should buy or what university they should attend – all are influenced by what they read online. Most of what influences them is not under the control of the organisation; peer-to-peer review sites such as Trustpilot or WhatUni, Facebook, Reddit, or trusted review sites are ubiquitous . A negative experience of your brand by just a single consumer can now be read by thousands of others who were considering your offering. This is before they even get to the ‘owned’ properties you do have control over, such as your website or social media presence.

Let’s think about a consumer's experience of your brand online in the context of your website. Your existing brand agency will hopefully have considered the basics, such as whether your logo works on the small screen of an iPhone. Hopefully they did this before they were considering how your logo would appear on a tote bag, bus shelter or on their agency’s award entry that your brand will definitely win. Ideally, they will have chosen a brand colour scheme that doesn’t immediately fail WCAG guidelines on colour contrast when used on your website. This is where most traditional brand agencies will get to (if you’re lucky). That’s why we think it’s so important to get web experts in the room with brand designers early in the process so they can add their expertise and ensure these things are considered.

Let’s use a metaphor to explore just how complicated managing brand experience has become in the digital age. If we imagine a beautiful product sitting on a beautiful stand in a shop. The branding agency of course can control the way the product is packaged, and possibly the stand on which it sits. However, they have no control over the environment of the shop, the staff who work in the shop, the location of the shop in the city, or the ‘word on the street’ – how people outside the shop are talking about the product.

Before they even set eyes on the product, a consumer will have heard things about the product, they will have to find the shop, they must feel welcome on entering the shop. When inside the shop, they need to be able to find the product, they have to have a positive interaction with the sales staff if they have any questions about the product. The aesthetic of the packaging and the stand on which the product sits are the very last thing that the consumer will consider, and yet this is still the primary focus for a lot of brand agencies (not all, but a lot).

The real issue is that their discipline has been too narrow to survive contact with the internet. They struggle with the messiness of how consumers now come in to contact with brands. They are used to total control; specific fonts at specific sizes, pantone references that can never change, a predictable sequence of how a consumer moves through a decision. But none of this can be fully controlled online. To this day, many brand guidelines that we see only dedicate 10% to how the brand operates online, which is madness when 90% of consumers’ brand interactions take place online.

Creating a digital brand

So, let's tie up the metaphor. A consumer’s experience of a brand is now influenced by the following:

  • Word on the street’ monitoring and managing the reputation of your brand where it is being discussed online.
  • Providing directions to the shop – excellent SEO that helps people find your online presence.
  • A welcoming shop – the design, tone of voice and user experience of your website.
  • Being able to find the product in the shop – clear navigation and intuitive information architecture of your website(s).
  • Positive interaction with the sales staff – does the information on the site support decision making for the user? Can they get answers to their questions? Is making the purchase frictionless? Think about how to make their purchase/conversion experience as effortless as possible.
  • The shelf – are you providing a usable way for your 'products' to be viewed in the best possible way? Whether this is a physical product, a university course, or a piece of research, are you providing supplementary information that gives people reasons to chose your product above your competitors? These could be quotes from happy customers, statistics or other 'nudges'.
  • The product – how do you show your product digitally? – How can the advantages of an interactive medium be leveraged to allow users to connect with your product? Online configurators can let users choose their desired product attributes, so you can show them what they want, not what you’ve guessed at. For example, letting the user choose from a range of colour options and seeing the product in that colour, or an online course configurator where prospective students can select modules that interest them.

The most important thing you need to know about creating a digital brand is that to do it successfully, you need to think holistically. Getting one element perfect won’t mean a great impression for your customers if another aspect lets them down. That makes it difficult to pull off a truly excellent digital brand, especially for large, complex organisations who may have multiple different stakeholders to manage. Your organisation is likely to require expert help across this stack to deliver an excellent digital brand. That’s where our team of experts come in. We can help with:

Ultimately, the perception of your digital brand is driven by the experience of the user. Our experienced team of developers and UX experts know how to craft exceptional websites that users love. So, if you’re looking to take your digital brand to the next level, we’d love to talk.