The Web-first Brand

What old-school brands can learn from all these newfangled digital brands (and vice versa).

“I agree with you that it’s a good idea and would be awesome for our customers, but we just can’t do that. The Business wouldn’t go for it, much less Legal.”

That’s it, the idea is squashed. Or is it? The question you ask next is important, so think about it carefully.

“Why is that?”

I submit there are two brand archetypes:

  1. Old-school brands that were born before the digital explosion (like, say, Hilton Worldwide, est. 1919). Let’s call them World-first Brands.
  2. New-school brands that have been digital since day one (the likes of AirBNB, est. 2008). We’ll call these Web-first Brands.

I picked these two companies because they’re both solid businesses that are in the black, and while they’re in a similar line of business, they couldn’t be more different (mostly because of when they were founded).

And I’m not going to pick on one archetype more than the other. In fact, I think they both have something to teach the other.

Let’s talk about traditional brand development.

Historically, a brand is formed where a product or service overlaps with its marketing. In other words, it happens where what you do and what you say you do overlap.

Fig. 1: Traditional brand development

While a brand is a brand is a brand, the key difference between World-first and Web-first Brands is two-part:

  1. On the one hand, World-first Brands have had more time to firm up their brand and offering, which involves real-world customer experiences and business considerations.
  2. On the other hand, Web-first Brands brands are nimble and can implement customer-friendly digital practices more quickly, because they’re working with pixels and code, as opposed to brick and mortar.

World-first Brands should be worried about new brands beating them at digital experience, while Web-first Brands have a thing or two to learn about delivering the real-world value and experience these older brands have had time to perfect.

There’s nothing wrong with the formula of traditional brand development, but it’s incomplete. It’s missing a variable that accounts for the way digital experiences have impacted everything from how we socialize to how we make purchasing decisions to how we get our work done.

The missing piece is User Experience.

Product designers and marketers both care about User Experience, but it’s only part of their jobs. At the end of the day, their job is to make a product that creates value and to find people who are willing to pay for that value. A UX designer has something to contribute to the brand, too, though, because their entire job is to think about the end-user’s point of view.

Which is appropriate and timely, considering how the digital boom has given people more access to try a product or service out for free, or with less commitment. Someone’s experience with your product or service and your marketing of it will inform their brand perception before, during and after they are customers.

A new kind of brand development.

World-first Brands have had decades to figure out their entire customer experience from beginning to end.

When you’re in their hotels, Hilton knows how to treat you well in any imaginable scenario. And while no brand standard is going to be executed flawlessly every time, they do have a brand standard for how to handle pretty much any situation you can encounter, from how sheets are tucked in, to what happens when you’re starving from a long day of travel and ask the front desk for more of those deliciously warm Doubletree cookies. Hint: they’ll give you as many as you want.

So yeah, Hilton has the real-world experience down. But they struggle with digital, since it’s not what they have traditionally seen as their core product. In fact, when I was working there not that many years ago, they still referred to it as a marketing and sales channel. As many other companies have in the last decade, I’m sure they are moving towards thinking of digital as a core product in their business. But it’s a slow process to get there, and I’m positive it’s full of corporate speak and uphill battles.

Fig 2: User Experience Brand Development

AirBNB, on the other hand, has their digital User Experience down pat. They don’t think of digital as a sales channel, they think of it as their product. Since they handle so much of their business through a mobile interface and don’t have much control over what happens in the real world, it’s natural they’d be better at it. It’s what’s in their control, unlike many of the real-world interactions between their customers.

Web-first Brands think digitally first, and they’re building their businesses around digital while World-first Brands are retrofitting their business with digital.

So, what is it that gives Web-first Brands an advantage in digital, besides having less baggage from the real world business to consider? I think they understand that brand development today should include a new component, User Experience, which creates what I call User Experience Brand Development.

What can World-first Brands learn from Web-first Brands?

People these days have gotten used to the great digital experiences that come out of Web-first Brands, and they want World-first Brands to figure it out.

So, here’s how World-first Brands can think and act like Web-first Brands without risking their existing brand equity.

Digital is bigger than marketing.

If you think of digital as a marketing or sales channel, you’re missing the point—it’s actually one of the best ways you can deliver your product or service. Meet people where they are. Build digital products to give people what they want, not to take what you want. If they want something small from you, give them that first. You can re-market and up-sell later.

For example, we recently helped a leading pest control company realize that when a customer wants a solution to a wasp problem, the company needs to assure the customer they’re going to solve the customer’s wasp problem before up-selling a comprehensive pest protection plan. Their website and app need to be a way to get that service, not an opt-in for promotions.

Tell it like it is.

When you’re real with people, it may feel a little irreverent towards your brand or industry, but in a digital context, people don’t want to be sold. It requires a different tone.

Think hard about how you can shoot straight, whether it’s through a product feature that puts users before short term goals or by saying something that makes your brand more vulnerable and human. Web-first Brands are good at cutting through this, and people like it.

Tell the truth, even if it means you have to make fun of yourself and your industry. You may need to challenge yourself and your industry. If you’re doing it right, you’ll open doors for your customers that they’re unwilling to open for themselves. Some examples of being real:

  1. Hipmunk lets you search flights based on time and price, just like everyone else, but they default to a much more meaningful filter that resonates with anyone who’s flown commercially: agony. Can you imagine airlines allowing their customers to find flights by agony?
  2. Zillow found the courage to give home seekers what they wanted with Zestimates, even though real estate agents hated it. Zillow made the correct bet that end users wanted more data, not less, which would lead to more engagement and leads for agents.
  3. Recently, we had a server hiccup at Ballpark, and this is how we responded:

At the end of the day, that’s a dangerous tweet to send, but we had fun with it and the customer did, too:

World-first businesses can take some lessons from this exchange, even if it is risky, because it humanizes the experience by giving end users what they want: the truth.

Your customers are way more willing to extend forgiveness to fellow humans than they are a faceless company.

PS: We did find a developer who was awake and fixed the problem in less than an hour.

Execute on simpler projects, and ship them.

It seems so simple, but simple is never easy. One thing defines Web-first Brands more than anything else: focus. By focusing on a smaller piece of the pie, many newer companies are able to outmaneuver older World-first Brands and jockey into a competitive position with them.

Don’t try to be all things to all people at all times. While a big business does have an advantage in scale that helps it make a bigger impact when it finally launches something, it still has to launch it.

So choose a core service or function of your company, then bring that to your customers in the smartest way you know how.

Don’t try to be memorable.

Web designers and other industry folks like us are the only people who talk about how awesome user experiences are. No one wants to remember their online experience, they just want to get back to what they were doing before they started using your site.

Do this right, using the advice above, and your users will remember you.

Do all of this to surprise and delight people.

If you meet people where they are, are real with them, stay simple and give them what they want, you will surprise and delight your customers, who don’t expect World-first Brands to be so easy to work with.

Not many people expect World-first Brands to deliver exceptional online experiences because enterprises are known for building software and digital experiences that are bloated and bureaucratic.

What a great opportunity to elevate your brand!

So what can Web-first Brands learn from World-first Brands?

When I was 15, I was helping my dad and grandfather move furniture for an elderly neighbor. I was eager to show how helpful I could be, so I was going hard and fast. I moved a lot more furniture than my dad, but I also put a hole in the wall and scratched their dining room table. My dad took his time and didn’t mess anything up, because he had more experience than me and knew we’d get done eventually.

My grandfather, on the other hand, didn’t lift a finger. Not because he was frail, he was very strong and in good shape. As he said, “My job was to find you guys to do the work. I did my part.”

Similarly, you do things differently when you’ve been in business a hundred years. It has taken a while for World-first Brands to figure out digital, but it’s happening. They’ve been slowly building their teams—this isn’t the first time their business has seen dramatic changes in technology.

One way they’re making progress is by building smaller, focused teams. Some are hiring digital agencies or buying out existing companies and teams that already get it to help them reshape their business for the next twenty years. They have the resources they need.

Turning Around The Ship

Regardless of what approach they’re taking, it’s still not easy to solve these problems. World-first Brands naturally have a lot of procedural challenges and processes that eat into efficiencies. But they also have one big advantage over more nimble startups: changing the course of a big company is like turning around a large warship—the thing’s not nimble at all, but when it’s pointed at its new target, it should have all the firepower it needs.

The challenges of redirecting World-first Brands toward exceptional digital experiences are real, but when there are smart people in place who can make a coherent case to a receptive leadership, great things happen.

Never be afraid to advocate for end users, who are your customers. In business, the effective leaders are always receptive to simple ideas like, “take care of the customer.” And that’s exactly what User Experience Brand Development does.

Simple Focus works with Web-first and World-first Brands to deliver simple, effective digital product design and marketing that is both forward-thinking and based on solid business footing. Reach out to me on Twitter if you’re interested in learning more about us.

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