Keys to Creating an Authentic Digital Brand

By Scott Theisen

Today there’s a lot of conversation about all websites looking the same. Whether it’s similar brands using the same stock imagery, having the same layouts or using virtually identical voices, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for your brand to be distinct.

Enterprise websites are the main online platform where users come to engage with brands, products and services. And, not-so-shockingly, many corporate sites still fall short when it comes to genuinely establishing an ownable territory and drawing a line in the sand about what their brand offers. And in an increasingly competitive world, being differentiated and standing out can make all the difference.

So, in order to create a site with personality, brand managers and marketers need to be asking: How do you demonstrate what’s unique about a brand via a website? Getting from “I want our site to do X” to “Our site does Y”—you need to think through the following areas.

1. Start with the basics: Why and Who?

The most important questions you can ask at the start of a website project are, “Why are we rebuilding this site?” and “Who are we building this for?” Well-considered and well-defined answers to these will guide all decisions going forward.

Why? When you start a web project, it’s most likely because your current system is failing—technology from the previous launch hasn’t kept pace, the workloads of your internal content publishers have become difficult, or your competition has become fierce. Maybe your company has changed its business strategy or a recent acquisition is fueling brand and messaging implications?

Who? Who needs to know about your site, and how do those people matter to your business? Are you looking to gain traffic, increase time on pages or drive sales? To learn more about these critical customers, user research is key to discovering your user. If you can understand which humans are coming to your site and their main purpose, you can better express your real differentiation or unique selling point in a more effective way.

Clarity around “why?” and “who?” is crucial as you move forward. The path ahead will change, but this knowledge will be your compass.

2. First impressions matter.

Most users decide within four seconds whether they’ve arrived at the site they were expecting. If they don’t have that immediate understanding of “I’m at the right place,” a user will be quick to leave. This means you need to instantly affirm your personality to get people stay. What reaction do you want them to have when they arrive? What do you want people to see, think, feel about your brand upon arrival?

At this point, feel free to audit competitor websites. See what your competition has to say, what they look like. Try to guess what type of personality they are projecting. What type of imagery are they using? What is their voice? Are they using motion? How does their site behave, is it loading fast or slow? Figuring out your competition’s personality will greatly help you establish your unique point of view and leave a stronger impression with users.

It might be worthwhile to engage a third party or unbiased party, such as a design or digital agency partner. Make sure they give you a considered POV and help establish a differentiating personality compared to your competition.

3. Get comfortable with who you are as a company.

You have to come to terms with your company culture. Don’t force it and don’t mimic the competition you’ve just audited. Be you. If you start from a place of self-awareness when it comes to your company’s strengths (and weaknesses) you can better tailor your website to fit who you want to be. Are you family-owned? Sustainability-first? Give it a hard think as to how you want to be represented.

It might help to start by revisiting your brand—pull out your brand manual from five years ago or look for the latest version of your brand PDF. What is still true in those documents? Aside from color, type, images and pattern, what does your brand really stand for? What traits define your culture? Thoughtful? Deliberate? Independent? Are you Heady or Carefree? Gathering adjectives can help provide a plan for the kind of presence and sentiment you want to project online.

Your site will be more effective when it’s authentic—when your internal culture and thoughtfulness permeates throughout all of your messaging.

4. Establish your brand’s voice.

The way you write and layout content online will affect user engagement. Keep in mind that most users have short attention spans, so keeping copy short and interesting is key. Writing less is hard, but you must choose your words wisely. (Fun fact: Only 28% of what you put on a web page is being read.)

It’s also important to ensure your voice is recognizable and consistent. Make sure everyone on your team is on-board—this will be essential as more people begin creating content. It will benefit your company to create a style guide for your voice. (Pro tip: Frame up your style guide with things your company would never say as contrast to what you should say.)

5. Use visuals & motion to your advantage.  

Your site needs to bring personality through inspiring visuals and use of motion.

It’s always best to have original imagery or photography, but if you’re using stock imagery, make it your own—crop it in unusual ways, colorize it, make it your own. In general, color is an often overlooked, but powerful tool. Use color to draw attention to UI elements, call to action button, hover states or transitions. Similarly, patterns specific to your brand can add a sense of unity and authenticity in a way that your competition can’t.

Motion is one of the most overlooked design elements on a site. Start thinking about how motion can help get your visuals and voice to resonate. Choreography of movement—fast, slow, spacey, active, graceful—and nuanced motion are instinctually understood by humans. Pixar spends hundreds of hours thinking about how motion influences a character’s personality. You can specifically take advantage of movement in navigation, hover states, page loads and refreshes. It’s also crucial to user-test motion elements to make sure you’re striking the right balance between enough and too much.

Overall, it takes time and effort to create brand distinction online, but it’ll make life easier in the minds of those whose attention you need to be keeping.

 

Scott Theisen is Associate Partner, Digital Design Lead at VSA Partners. For more than 15 years, Scott has led creative teams of brand and digital designers on projects for clients such as Thomson Reuters, Google, Northern Trust and Harley-Davidson. He specializes in concepting and developing new online visual experiences with the rest of the larger Digital team. Since receiving his MFA, his work has been recognized by the Chicago Emmys, The Webby Awards, Graphis, Communication Arts, AR100, the American Association of Museums, CASE, Coupe and Print magazine. 

To reach Scott directly, stheisen@vsapartners.com.