Great Branding Is Invisible

The thumpf of a BMW's door closing, the muted click of calculator buttons, a human on the phone. It hooks you in.

"The devil is in the detail" is a cliché that happens to be true, but let’s turn it around: The magic is in the detail. What constitutes quality in a product, besides the raw materials you choose? The attention paid to detail.

Look at a knock-off Gucci handbag and consider its original counterpart: The difference, besides the "leather" chosen, is in the stitching, the inside lining, the zippers, and so on. In short, quality resides in the hidden details that aren't obvious to most—until you touch the product and look at it up close. It's craftsmanship that gives luxury fashion brands longevity and which lets them weather trends.

Brands are no different from the products and services that they represent. Frantically searching for the one "Unique Positioning Statement (UPS)" or logo design that is going to simultaneously sum up precisely what your company stands for and differentiate it from the rest of the pack is in some ways a meaningless battle. Taglines may be catchy, but they don't, in the end, make people buy products. What determines whether a woman buys Chanel No. 5 or Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey Florale? Not taglines but how either smells on her skin.

What makes you so special?

What makes your brand unique and better than the competition is the compounded totality of many little things. That means you can’t just consider the attention given to producing an outstanding service or product—you also have to think about how the sales force and support team treats its customers and how the receptionist answers the phone.

The Jawbone UP24 fitness tracking device is a good example. After diligently tracking my sleep, workout regime, and diet, I became properly addicted to the wristband and to its accompanying iOS app. When the band suddenly stopped working, after three months, I flew into a minor panic. All my data (and exercise momentum) would be lost, I worried. But Jawbone turned out to have an excellent support system. They troubleshot the problem with me seamlessly, on email and over the phone. They used human beings, not robots. I followed the progress of my issue via a concise thread on their support ticketing system. After they quickly exhausted all possible solutions and saw that the device was still malfunctioning, they shipped me a replacement band immediately. I became loyal to the brand thanks to the humane and efficient treatment I received. The extra attention taken by Jawbone to make sure that their staff was professional and courteous—while making sure that I never got lost in a maze of telephone drones or automated emails—made a huge difference.

Keep the details invisible.

It’s the combination of myriad details that shapes brand image in the minds of customers. These details may be transmitted subconsciously. Not everyone recognizes that hand stitching makes a serious difference. Expertly executed details, imperceptible to most, should create a sense of magic and wonder. Think of an upmarket German car, such as an Audi, BMW or Mercedes. When you are at the BMW showroom and you step into, say, a 5 Series model, the satisfyingly clean thumpf sound that the door makes as you shut it signifies quality. There’s no rattling, no sound of sheet metal being slammed, just that confidence-inspiring, compact sound. It’s the sound of outside noise and discomfort being sealed off while you enter a safe, comfortable place. Behind the steering wheel are carefully wrought details, too: the smell, the way the seat feels, the feel of your hands on the steering wheel, the way the dashboard buttons have a certain resistance, and so on.

For those who remember, think about the perfect resistance and muted click of the Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator buttons, compared to their competitors Casio and Texas Instruments. The latter two companies clearly hadn’t spent a lot of energy thinking about what it would feel like to press down the keys. And it made a difference.

Advertising and branding should be thought of in the same way. Yes, the big idea is important, but success hinges on its execution, consistency, and attention to each and every word. Do define the brand with succinct messaging, but also trust that consumers will recognize the collective positive attributes of the brand rather than just its tagline. Make sure your communications are well crafted and recognizable. All touch points need to be carefully considered, down to every HTML email campaign.

Apple and Crate & Barrel stand out as excellent examples of how to design the perfect email. Google’s emails, on the other hand, lack consistency and seem rather haphazardly generated. Emails from Apple and Crate & Barrel are advantageously laid out, with beautiful imagery that's logically arranged and information that's easy to digest (if not concise). They're not afraid to make us scroll; they don't cram content above the fold.

All these details, you may think, aren't invisible at all. What's really invisible is the brand's aptitude to carefully organize every detail, whether we see it or not. It all adds up, and that's a lot.

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  • Josh Jensen

    I completely agree with this article. Visual brand is important, but visual is only part of it. If you don't take into account the intangibles of a brand you fall short. A brand perception is created from the experience you have with a product or company not the logo you see. The logo is key so the user visually remembers the experience. Overall, a good brand is a multi-sensory experience.

  • hope you don't mind the remark but, agreeing in general with your expressed opinion the part where you mention intangibles is actually incoherent with the notion of multi-sensory experience. It's not about intangibles but about the diverse tangible relations of the senses and their co-related synaesthetic and proprioceptive levels, producing a cognitive emotional experience.

  • The basic title/premise is flawed.

    The whole premise of a 'brand' is having a visible marque which identifies both the origin and the promise of a product/service.

    Thus by definition it cannot be invisible.

    More accurately building a brand can be in part invisible, bringing the consistency of performance, delivery and the growth of expectations and signals to the fore.

    Branding is the process of developing and moulding these qualities and then connecting those assumptions, desires and aspirations to sensorary input. Be it a visual shorthand in the form or a logo, typeface, and palette or a auditory tone burst or repeated phrase. You need something (visual) to trigger the response which the brand signifies.

    Advertising serves to educate, entertain, challenge and persuade. But it still needs to do so within the established brand vocabulary. Otherwise it suffers an uncomfortable disconnection or confusion.

    Otherwise you're doing designers a disservice.

  • I think you've confused branding with brand. Invisible branding is very real, while invisible brands are not. Reread the headline maybe?

  • Von Betelgeuse

    I'll add to this that Chanel is by no means an invisible brand. Everyone knows what a Chanel handbag looks like with it's interlocking Cs.

  • Jess Mägdefrau

    I take offense to this article especially because I am a graphic designer, in which I disagree with the " a logo and tagline doesn't make you buy the product, the smell of the perfume does." If you see a hideous logo and awful packaging, you are not even going to want to smell the perfume let alone buy it. So in more ways than one, the whole branding concept is what lures you into actually buying the product.

  • Jeffrey Daigle

    No, it lures you into trying the product. What the product is is what makes you buy it (and keep buying it). And I'm a designer. I wasn't offended by this article at all. Good design or branding will not save an objectively bad product.

  • All what is written in this article makes sense. Nothing new, nothing breakthrough, just common sense although absolutely true. The question is why so many companies, corporations, institutions haven't got it right yet. We, designers, are fighting for this since ages... only very few companies have understood the importance of the consistency of their brand across all touch points... and the problem is that it is always the companies that are referenced as Best in Class... Am I not right?

  • Great branding CAN be invisible, not should.

    A 'UPS' as you refer to it isn't a tagline and some 'taglines' do sell product (Just Do It - heard of that one?). Advertising and branding should absolutely, definitely, never in a million years be thought of in the same way. One is strategic, the other is tactical. Unless we're talking about brand-building communications, or 'BBCs' if you fancy giving it an acronym.

    Be a little less reductionist and you have some interesting points, otherwise you're just feeding the confusion.

    And my BMW makes a decidedly dodgy noise when I shut the doors and the wipers broke in the rain on the weekend, but I still love the brand.

  • It's the old winning formula of the good marketer: CS = CE - PQ - CE.

    Customer Satisfaction = Customer Expectations - Perceived Quality - Customer Experience

    And this can be obtained only by companies applying the "kaizen" principle: a continuous improving, fixing all issues as soon as possible and as better is for the customer satisfaction.

  • Patrick Newbery

    We suggest a very similar formula in the book Experience Design. The point we see made in taking such a view is that brand is BOTH visible and invisible, and needs to be intentionally managed all the time (not simply during the design process or the stages of customer acquisition).

    Patrick Newbery

  • Perhaps the point of a great experience is not that it is invisible but rather that it becomes visible. The former remains unseen by definition, whereas the latter is seen when people engage with the brand. That unfolding, I would suggest, is where the "magic" happens.

  • Barry Williams Enderwick

    I agree with you that all of those things add up to the "Brand" in the consumers mind and thus need to be thoughtfully considered. But they're also all expressions of the Brand. The Brand needs to be clearly defined internally as should the positioning. That way all of the expressions, both internal and external, not only grow the company but do so with the same Brand goal(s).

    In the case of Google, their Brand was a sprawl created by the sum of each product manager's efforts (see also not planned). I'd be willing to bet that in the beginning there was no positioning work/statement other than "do no evil". At least, it sure looked that way.

  • Daniel Arkley

    Ironic that in a post about attention to detail you mention a BMW 5-series but the picture you post is a BMW 3-series coupe...