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Why Traditional Branding Won't Work for Your Digital Product

"Branding" is a pretty dirty word in the world of startups. Using it among hardcore tech-heads will pretty much guarantee eye-rolling and a body language that screams "whatever." However, many of the elements traditionally discussed under the umbrella of "branding strategies" remain important; in fact, they are now getting a lot of focus in our digital startup world under the labels "user experience," "company narrative," and "user flow and virality." The difference is that in digital companies you cannot separate product and brand in the same way that you can with a package of, say, cereal or shampoo. With standard packaged goods, the utility of the product is often fairly commoditized, so the thing that makes one shampoo different from another is how it's packaged and promoted. The brand defines the product. Offline companies are masters of this by now. (For more, read about P&G in "Usability and Experience Are Not the Same: 3 Things Google Can Learn From Apple.")

At Prehype, we have had the pleasure of working with Wolff Olins—the world's leading branding company over the past eight weeks. Besides having been blown away by the creativity we saw during the internal venture competition we hosted for them, we also learned a great deal about branding, creative strategies, and design. Interestingly, their approach to reenergizing a corporate brand is very similar to best practices in the world of startups. We just use different terminology.

Besides different words, we have also identified four reasons why digital startups' brands are extensions of their products:

1. First, few digital products are true commodities. Besides e-mail (and maybe Groupon clones :), we can't think of many digital product types where the brand is more important than the utility. Digital products are instead successful when they solve a problem and also look pretty and feel good—not the other way around. The importance of the packaging will of course change as more digital products get made and their utility becomes commoditized. But for now, the product creates the brand.

2. Digital products often have many more touch points with their users than packaged goods do. This makes it hard to keep up an appearance that is vastly different from the internal DNA of the company. This is especially true with startups, which are often just a few people. Staying "on brand" is tough if the brand is very different from the people working in your startup and someone (or a agency) need to check all those external communications. This is amplified when features change often and quickly. There is just not time to build something and then "brand it."

3. Computers and mobile and web services are becoming a closer part of our daily lives. If you believe the experiments documented in "The Media Equation, we personalize our computers and mobile devices, treating them as though they are individuals, making the emotional impact of digital services important. With this in mind, it's clear that you can't create a product that acts too differently from how it looks. If you do, the user will notice, and the dissonance will feel uncomfortable.

So with that in mind, a digital company really do need to think about a bunch of factors that traditionally are considered "branding." The best way to do this is to build your digital product and think about the best way to articulate what problem it solves. Then extend your and your team's best personal character and attitude into all communication between you and your users. That becomes your brand. And it will be a far more powerful than any "brand" you could retrofit onto your digital product. (except if you're making cereals or shampoo—in which case you're reading the wrong blog :-).

Thanks to Paul, head of strategy at Wolff Olins (blog|twitter) for the interesting conversation about the difference between branding packaged goods and branding services that triggered this post.

Reprinted from Hello Henrik

Henrik Werdelin was named one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business. He is a partner at Prehype, and adviser at Sunstone Capital. Before that, CCO of Joost & VP of MTV Development—check his CV for more details. Follow him at

[Image by Brian Solis]