Designing disruptive brand experiences

5 minutes with Gabor Schreier

5 Minutes with Gabor Schreier, Chief Creative Officer at Saffron and co-author of  ‘Disruptive Branding: How to win in times of change’.

What role does design play in building a brand?

In building a disruptive brand, strategy and design go hand in hand. A brand may have a compelling strategy and product, but without making its promise visual and tangible, it will struggle to communicate the benefits it brings in a clear and engaging way. Good design helps convey a brand’s message to the world. It allows a brand to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, and provides a distinctive identity that serves as a reference point for employees and customers alike.

Design can also be a key disruptive force – some of the most successful challenger brands of the last decade can be characterised as much by their attention to design as by the quality of their products. Similarly, poor, clunky design can often be a warning sign of a brand ripe for disruption. As the standard of design improves, customers expect it more and more; whether in the form of an app, a smartphone or a simple potato peeler, great design is seductive. Those brands that do decide to invest in design are raising the bar of what is expected. This means that even if an organisation does not believe in design, chances its competitors will.

What are the major challenges brands encounter when it comes to design?

Not understanding the importance of design. Surprisingly we still see many businesses underestimate design’s worth; even if they do admire and appreciate design, the challenge is persuading them that it is something worth investment. There is a scepticism about the role of design itself within brand, with many people wondering if it is really an efficient use of time and money. And if they’re willing to invest, sometimes the concept of design is reduced to a superficial exercise. As some of the brands that have achieved success recently prove, employing the power of design from the outset can set you apart – and even make you exciting in an industry where incumbents have ignored the potential of design; think about Monzo in personal banking or Transferwise in currency exchange.

Without support from the top of your organisation, the chances of running and completing a brand project successfully are fairly low. In our experience, the quality and longevity of a redesign or total rebrand diminish proportionally to the power and influence its project leaders have within an organisation. When we look at the world’s most successful brands, the CEO and top management have had a direct role in the design to make sure a brand project has tangible results. This ensures that strategy and the design work in tandem, preventing silos or fragmentation. At the end of the day, design needs to serve the business.

Many traditionally disruptive brands created game-changing products. Is this a requirement for disruption?

It is true that many iconic brands grew up around a single product. But there is equally no product without brand. A great product will only get businesses so far – at some point they also need to consider their brand, or suffer set-backs. This is often the case with start-ups. As they grow, they discover that a “build it and they will come” mentality is no longer enough to keep progressing. Although a simple logo and design can be enough in the early days, growth and commercial success often mean that brands are compelled to belatedly implement a design system – Airbnb, Uber and YouTube are all examples of brands that focused on their design at a later stage. Many of them now have a considered designed behaviour in place that goes from the identity to the UI of the app and the way complaints are handled by customer service teams.

Branded environments are becoming more important than ever before. What are the key factors to consider when designing stand-out brand environments?

Branded environments present a big opportunity to convey the essence and feeling of a brand. They  allow intangible elements such as purpose and values to come alive in a visible, tangible experience. They are much more than simply a place in which a product or service is delivered or sold – they are a crucial part of the overall experience of the brand. The world's most successful brands realize this, and consciously design their environments to shape their customer and employee experiences. This is especially relevant to brands that were born “digital” – like Amazon – and went physical recently to complement their customer experience with another dimension.

The key to designing environments is to consider a space – be that a retail store, a waiting lounge or an office – and to ask what they can achieve beyond simply fulfilling a function. Perhaps they can be used to foster an emotional connection between the intended audience and the brand - consider Lego stores and the many ways in which they deliver on the brand’s mission “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”. Or else, environments can help communicate a brand’s ethos to potential employees. Google’s offices famously include features like a running track, a slide and unlimited free food, helping them stand out when it comes to attracting talent.

What points in the life cycle of a brand are the most crucial?

While of course all moments in a brand’s life are significant in different ways, the launch phase is always a point of great opportunity – and peril, like a plane taking off. After all the work that goes into creating a brand, it is essential to make a good first impression through a successful launch and fulfil the promise you’re making to your internal and external audiences.

But the work then continues. It is crucial to remember that branding does not stop after launch. It is not a one-time activity; it is an ongoing state of being. For a brand to stay in step with a changing world, it is important to adopt an attitude of constant maintenance. More and more we see that brands have to be agile and strive less for the best case scenarios, but rather evolve and adapt to the day-to-day, based on clear and authentic principles as opposed to rigid guidelines. In large organisations it is easy for brand principles to be forgotten and standards to slip, which in turn erode the visual integrity and power of brand. Remaining vigilant to this and nipping it in the bud early on helps keep a brand healthy long after launch day.

‘Disruptive Branding: How to win in times of change’ is co-written by Jacob Benbunan, Gabor Schreier and Benjamin Knapp and available from Kogan Page.