Death to digital branding

OPINION / 30th August 2016

In a world where customers seamlessly jump between the on and offline worlds, your digital brand needs to work harder than ever before. 

In a world where the self-driving car, augmented-reality and natural user interface is part of today’s tech, and not something from Back to the Future, one of the main challenges global companies now face is how to position their brand successfully in the digital space.

Despite the digital evolution, companies still tend to think about their brand execution primarily in terms of billboards, newspapers, TV ads, and then, somewhere way down the line, digital. As a response to that, and borne out of frustration with guidelines that don’t touch on how brand should be adapted for use on digital channels, digital agencies started to create a new service line: ‘digital branding’.

Digital, whether we like it or not, is the main channel by which organisations reach mass audiences, and — as such — is a key part of every brand identity. As a result, the digital manifestation of a brand needs to be addressed first, either in parallel with (or even before) the offline application of the brand.

Learn from the best

Brands such as AirBnB, Mondo and Spotify are considered digital disruptors in their industries. They are extremely successful and instantly recognisable. You can imagine the role that digital had in their brand definition and positioning. I doubt that their brand team (or agency) sat in a meeting talking about ‘online’ and ‘offline’ branding — they would just talk about the brand’s definition.

Blog digital brand image 2Blog digital brand image 2

Put it this way end users only care about understanding you as a brand. They don’t want to spend time thinking about why the same company looks and feels different in print and on the app. That’s because brand is one of the same thing. As such, we must think holistically and co-ordinate the overall experience.

The cost of not thinking ‘digital first’

At ORM we’ve worked on several digital projects for well known companies where the brand guidelines were focused solely on the offline application of the brand. We are still able to supply digital guidelines, but this requires workshops and co-creation sessions with an often frustrated client and the brand agency in order to break down the components and create the digital version of the brand. Without doubt though the whole process feels like a ‘we got there in the end’ approach — and not having this defined upfront was a blocker to project process, ultimately costing time and money.

Blog digital brand image 3Blog digital brand image 3

A new way of thinking about ‘brand’

Which got me thinking: what if digital is part of the brand’s definition, like Uber? Or if it becomes an essential part of a program of digital transformation activity, like National Geographic?

For companies that have been around for years, decades or even centuries it’s difficult to shift the mindset towards digital (that easily). Yet it is possible; case in point is Burberry, which has managed to significantly evolve its digital to such an extent that a large proportion of its profit is attributed to online sales.

Blog digital brand image 4Blog digital brand image 4

One shouldn’t talk about ‘digital branding’ and ‘brand’ as two different entities, as it doesn’t address the main problem of creating a cohesive brand experience that works across all channels. Some businesses are more prepared than others to think digitally, yet they will need the support when it comes to identifying rules for image styles, iconography, video and, let’s not forgot, an accessible colour palette.

At this juncture, it’s best to engage with a digital firm and brand agency together during the brand definition phase. At ORM, this is the approach we take with our clients, and it is a much more efficient way of creating a successful brand experience for all parties.

Are your brand guidelines fit for purpose?

Here are some questions that will test the digital readiness of your guidelines:

· Do your guidelines mention digital? If it’s somewhere near the back of the document, alarm bells should ring

· Is the tone of voice defined for the digital space? Do the guidelines have a section on writing for digital?

· Is the role of images, video and illustration for online use specified in your brand guidelines?

· Are the colours defined for digital and as HEX values?

Unless the answers are yes to the above questions, then it’s likely that you’ll soon need to adjust your brand for digital. This will inevitably cost money, so rather than hold up a project or cause costly re-working, get in touch with someone who has the relevant experience.


The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.” Source: BusinessDictionary.

Matteo Mei Matteo Mei Design Lead Matteo Mei