Connecting the Dots Between Product and Branding
How rethinking brand expression influenced Microsoft products and vice versa
Imagine a sheet of paper with a couple dozen tiny dots spread out on it. Their placement doesn’t seem random. You can sort of make out a shape, but there’s no obvious way they go together.
Now imagine a sheet with identical tiny dots, only each one is numbered. The dots may still look like a jumble, but the numbers indicate how they link together. You draw a line from one to two, two to three, and so on. Oh look, you’ve drawn a seal balancing a beach ball on its nose! Gold star.
Working for a big company sometimes feels like staring at thousands of dots and having little idea how to connect them. I’ve been with Microsoft since 1995, but I don’t think I understood how these dots could work together until 2015.
That’s when we changed our marketing strategy. Before, the product design team would build and design the experiences, and the marketing team layered a brand identity on top to sell it. With the 2015 change, branding was no longer a “layer” of marketing disconnected from the product experience. Instead, branding became directly tied to and influenced by the product. And maybe, just maybe, the brand could influence the product in return.
In the heavily siloed world of giant corporations, that was practically crazy talk.
One dot at a time
Simplicity became our mission. We first needed to build brand principles and the brand story (in other words, why we exist in the world). Then, we’d figure out how the principles and story inform the product experience. We theorized that connecting experience and expression among product, brand identity, and marketing, and extrapolating those principles into meaningful guidance across the company, would create a better experience for customers.
Numbers started to appear next to those scattered dots staring me in the face. The trick was getting other people to see them, too.
To show people the value of brand creative teams in marketing, we needed to have a lot more conversations with product design. First, we needed to understand what they were building and where they were headed. Second, we needed to create a visual identity closely tied to the product’s visual language, which a worldwide marketing organization could later implement.
Easy enough, right?
Thankfully, our senior leadership encourages us to work together for the greater good of the company, pushing away our own egos as much as possible to bring success to all. We call this One Microsoft. Particularly in our area, acting as One Microsoft is a necessity: we have a tiny creative team and can’t succeed without the assistance of other great creatives, so we need to understand each other’s business and create together. When it works, it’s magical.
Case study: transforming Microsoft Office
Rebranding Office was one such magical example. For the first time, we looked to product teams for cues to lift the brand identity and create simple, scalable guidance. We worked directly with product design, an approach that we’d take later with Azure and HoloLens 2.
Our approach had five steps:
- Create the brand story working across brand strategy, engineering, and marketing, including a deep dive into product design principles and future principles.
- Conduct an end-to-end visual audit of the entire customer journey.
- Identify visual patterns and cues from the product, and from the parent Microsoft brand, to create a visual identity for the brand expression.
- Build creative principles and theories around color, illustration, typography, and photography, then stress test across all communication touchpoints in the marketing funnel.
- Create a simple design system that designers could scale worldwide without much creative oversight.
Our audit concluded that Office needed a more sophisticated yet simplified visual identity connecting our product experience and marketing communications. The marketing teams were doing their best; they followed the Microsoft brand guide for reference, but the broadness of the guide and visual system made it difficult to implement. We pared down the brand system in the name of simplicity.
Our collaboration effectively linked the pre-purchase marketing communications to the post-purchase ones. For example, we used our marketing expertise at engaging users to improve the first-usage experience (for example, the “how to” videos that introduced users to Office online). In that space, the product team focused more on UX, not the kind of branded moments within the product where you can tell a story.
The fifth step in that process was perhaps the toughest, simply because of scale. Several hundred marketers worked on Office, each with their own budget, each choosing their own creative. Because of that, and their concern that we’d just scold them for doing things wrong, none of their work went through a creative review process. We not only had to change how people worked, but we also had to assure them we had their best interests in mind.
In time, people from other teams understood that we weren’t focused solely on creative, that we wanted to help them meet their business objectives and performance metrics. Again, it comes back to that One Microsoft principle of trusting each other and helping each other succeed. Product teams started seeking out our involvement, and marketing trusted us to make more things on their behalf.
Keeping a good thing going
We emulated this turning point elsewhere. We worked directly with principal designers Paul Cooper and Lance Garcia to build creative principles (for everyone keeping track, that’s step 4) that ended up changing the patterns and UX of azure.com. Functionality informed brand choices, which reflected back on the site itself.
The same goes for HoloLens 2, which was perhaps our most daunting task. The product team had worked on it for two years by the time we stepped in to begin branding, so we had catching up to do. (Yes, not ideal.)
HoloLens 2 works in mixed reality, a new medium for most users. Because of that, people need more than product photography or UI to understand how it works. So, I partnered closely John Nguyen and David Wolf from the product design team to come up with a solution. We were inspired by prismatic light in holograms and by the way the product sensors understand the world and generate a 3D map. We believed that this prism and map would tie the marketing and the product experience together in a beautiful way. The product experience largely informed the elegant brand we created for HoloLens 2 and subsequent marketing materials.
These marketing materials turned out well — so well that they influenced the product. Romiro Torres, the creative director for HoloLens 2 UX, was working out the visual expression and experience of how the device maps a room. He integrated the same visualization into the product experience, so users see the same visualization we created for marketing when HoloLens 2 maps the room they’re standing in.
Chances are that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but it felt huge — that “maybe, just maybe” moment I mentioned earlier. If you listen closely, you can hear silo walls cracking.
Those are the kinds of moments we strive to create every day. They become a lot more likely when teams spend the time to truly understand each other. Branding makes that easier. It provides that layer of customer clarity, connecting the dots so that marketing and product can take a step back, look at the lines, and say, “Wow, a seal balancing a beach ball!”