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Do the Brand First

Don't build your product until you know who you are.

I’ve learned this the hard way, too many times. Clients come to Postlight and they say, “We need to stand up a new version of our website…”

Go on…

“—and we need to start right away—”

Okay…

“—and we’ve engaged a great branding firm. You’ll be working with them!”

Hmm…

It seems to make sense. After all, branding and product design are two different disciplines. Some colors might change, the logo might grow or shrink. But can’t we have Team A work on the brand and Team B work on the wireframes and even start prototyping, and meet up later?

The answer is no, and after a career of saying “yes,” I’ve started saying “you need to work out your brand first.” You can hire Postlight to do it, you can do it in-house, you can hire another firm, but until you know what you are you shouldn’t start to design or redesign your app or web platform.

The whole world of branding can be ridiculous, what with “engaging with brands” and all. But a well-executed brand influences everything. It’s an entire organizational strategy embodied in type, color, words, and shapes, and it communicates that strategy to people both inside and outside an organization. When you need to focus people’s attention on what you are, and aren’t, as an organization, a truly good rebrand can get you a long way.

Brands don’t just define a logo and palette, of course. They have a lot to say about audience, the vibe, the thing that in the 70’s they used to call gestalt. Done well, brands guide decision-making. They help designers and visual thinkers (or PowerPoint makers, or letter writers) know what to do next. They give shape to a voice. This is true for a giant bank or a socialist collective. Brand identities are how humans explain who they are in different contexts.

So you can’t skip steps. What are you building? Is this a cheerful, bright, well-lit kind of community, like Etsy? A deeply serious news platform for justice like the Marshall Project? Or an activist organization like Black Lives Matter? A financial megacorp like J.P. Morgan? Look at each: their core identities filter out through so much of their web presence, the way their copy works, the actual navigation of the pages.

Consider Medium.com and Genius.com. One is for writing new things and one is for annotating things. But both are web platforms that have users, logins, long-form text, annotations, and rich media. You could, with some stretching, build Medium on top of Genius, or Genius on top of Medium. They’re different under the hood, but it’s not like one is Photoshop and the other is TurboTax. They kind of do the same thing.

But in practice they are radically different sites and communities. Look at how different they are, the color choices, the way they communicate with the users, the promises they make. Copy, design, implementation, style. If you want to know what “product” is just look at those two sites—the difference between them is “product.” And it filters down from their brands, which filter down from their goals.

When you say “we’re doing a branding exercise but let’s start building the site,” you’re saying, “I don’t know. Make it somewhere between Medium and Genius.” Or: “We need something between TIME magazine and The Marshall Project. We can true it up with the new brand assets before we launch.” Or: “Etsy is good, but so is Amazon. It’ll all come down to colors and type anyway.” Or: “It should feel like J.P. Morgan or maybe Betterment. Whichever gets us there soonest. We’ll plug in the logo later.”

For us, as a client service product firm, it’s frustrating. We don’t have ownership of the design. We sit there like goofballs, waiting for the branding firm, which is run by brand geniuses, to share their work. We have to do our work three times instead of once, and everyone is annoyed with everyone else, and we end up feeling like we could have done better for our clients, which sucks.

It’s hard to wait for the brand to land when the big CEO clock is ticking. And you can hurry the brand work along; you can do a huge amount in a month, for example.

It’s hard for us, as a client service firm, to say “we need to wait.” But don’t start designing your website, apps, or expecting that somehow the platform you choose will guide these decisions for you. You can use WordPress to sell shoes or publish a global news magazine. The thing that will guide you is your brand.

This doesn’t mean you can’t plan, collaborate, experiment, and let digital goals influence the brand. It doesn’t mean you can’t set up WordPress on a server or start in on the Salesforce integration. It just means: Do the brand first, because it’ll get you a better digital product when everything is done.

Paul Ford is the CEO of Postlight. Drop him a note: [email protected].

Story published on Apr 10, 2019.