Whose brand is it anyway?

With digital products central to the success of modern brands, the need to balance performance and expression creates tension. New skills will help you crack the marketing and product conundrum.
Rob Coke
Rob Coke
Founding Partner

Familiar foes sit on opposite sides of a long, 12-seater meeting room table. Gazes are narrow, most arms folded. You can cut the tension with a knife.

A ClickShare lead is yanked from a laptop at the end of the table. The wall-mounted screen above it turns as dark as the mood. It appears the latest conversation between the marketing and digital product teams has reached an impasse.

I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. In digitally led businesses, it’s common for marketing and product teams to not be reading the same book, let alone be on the same page, when it comes to decisions that will impact the future of a brand. Fundamentally, that’s because each team has different needs and priorities. Although they both care deeply about their audience, one wants to build the brand, the other is all about optimising product performance.

The brand-building brigade

There was a time when brand guardianship was simpler. Marketing or brand teams would be responsible for it all, with little input from other parts of the business. Now, with digital products central to so many brands’ success, ‘ownership’ has become more complex. It involves more people, with more opinions and different agendas. Even so, the priority for marketing teams remains the same – to make their brand as visible and coherent as possible.

For digital product teams, optimisation is king. Brand often isn’t a core focus at all. It might even be seen as a hindrance, something to be stripped away if it interferes with improving performance.”
The digital product perspective

From the other side of the table comes a different point of view. For digital product teams, optimisation is king. Brand often isn’t a core focus at all. It might even be seen as a hindrance, something to be stripped away if it interferes with improving performance.

We’ve witnessed and worked with countless businesses where this difference of opinion, and ethos, is a sticky issue. It’s not easy to join up the dots between marketing and digital product teams, but it’s an essential part of what we do when it comes to helping brands adapt and thrive.

We try to think of needs of marketing and the digital product as two sides of the same coin. Your brand can inform the experience of your product, and the experience of your digital product can inform your brand. There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting it right, but we’ve learned how to make it happen over the past few years.

Look through the same lens

The first step is often the hardest to get right but is perhaps the most important. Every brand – regardless how big, small, new or established they are – needs a core central idea that can inspire solutions and guide decision-making across teams.

While working with Pottermore, the digital platform for J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, we witnessed first-hand the importance of getting buy-in from multiple teams that would ultimately work together to deliver the new brand and proposition. To get them aligned, we developed a creative strategy – ‘unlocking imagination’ – that served as a north star for UX, design language and content planning throughout the project, and beyond. It helped both marketing and digital product teams to look through the same lens, guiding decisions and making potentially tricky conversations much easier. Everyone bought in.

Working together helps keep everyone on the same page
Need and feed flows both ways

It should be recognised that marketing and digital product teams need and feed each other. The way a brand is expressed and experienced in digital form is paramount to how it’s perceived. Brands can’t be built over the long-term (the main objective of a marketing team) without having an effective online presence (created by a digital product team).

Likewise, the idea that sits at the heart of a brand should be felt across its digital experiences. Customers view brands as unified entities, so they expect an equal degree of integrity across every touchpoint and experience. The best experience they have online sets their level of expectation from every other brand.

It doesn’t need to be a cosy relationship, and friction is inevitable when people are striving to do their best. But compromise should be a two-way street – where the value each team brings to the table is recognised and where the role each plays in brand-building is appreciated.

Define what’s fixed and what flexes

Absolute consistency across platforms is outdated and unhelpful. Instead, brands should aim for coherence – to be recognisable but flexible. But to make that happen, the teams that sit behind the brand need to know what aspects should be fixed and what can flex. When should the brand be at its most expressive? Where should performance be prioritised? And what’s the most effective way to test those all those areas in between?

We worked alongside both the marketing and digital product teams at Auto Trader to do exactly that. Getting to grips with the needs and motivations of both teams – before we refreshed the brand with a new design language, UX and motion principles – was vital to the project’s success. In a new way of working for them, we brought the teams together to ensure everyone felt involved and listened to. Each team was clear on the new principles behind the refreshed brand, having helped to create them, and understood where there was room for interpretation and flexibility in the future.

None of this happens overnight. We’ve found it takes a certain mindset to be instilled across different teams before brands can be at their most effective and ready to thrive. But looking through the same lens, appreciating each other’s contributions and understanding a brand’s parameters can go a long way in getting marketing and product teams to enjoy being in the same room.

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