The topic of branding seem very much ‘en vogue’ at the moment so following on from the NUX2 conference a few weeks ago, below is a few pointers I picked up from a talk at NUX2 by Mike Atherton.

Introducing The Branding Ladder

Building a brand is no doubt a hard and long process, hopefully building a unique and authoritative identity that many can form a relationship with. This is a mission in itself with a series of objectives. A sequence of steps and all these steps must be taken in sequence, with each step dependant on the success of the previous step. Brand building is not just about creating a website or a logo, these are merely cornerstones to support the brand and to give it a public face.

These steps are:

  • Who are you?
  • What are you?
  • What do I think about you?
  • What about you and me?

Think of it like a ladder, a brand ladder Mike suggests. At the bottom step, we start with who are you? What is your identity then a step up on to what are you? Give your brand meaning, how you will be different. Then another step further up to what I think about you? The response from others that the brand generates then finally on the final step at the top of the ladder is what about you and me? The relationship between the brand and your end-users or customers.

The Brand Vision and Mission Statement

Mike highlighted a quote from Wally Olins,

“A brand is an idea that you stand for, made real by what you do and expressed by your personality.”

The iconic things that you stand for above all else is the value of your brand and the personality of your brand is the specific characteristics that describe you or how others would describe you. Identifying those two attributes leads to finding what makes the brand unique, where the brand has evolved from, it stems from your values, telling a story about your brand’s past, your brand’s present and it’s future. Tell your potential customers where you came from and what you’re here to do. Tell everyone about your vision.

However, doing all that isn’t just for your end-users or your customers benefit, it’s also for yourself and the team which you work with who are developing and working on the brand. Both you and the team will know what you all stand for, what makes you as a collective entity unique and more importantly where you are all going, working to strive towards the same common goal with a common voice and how you are all going to go about achieving that through your own personality. It comes down to finding your voice, yet aiming for the unique, the authentic, yet talkable and of course, remaining relevant to your product. This all voices your intent, your mission statement and the brand is everybody’s responsibility.

Mike touched upon a quote by John F Kennedy in 1962, We choose to go to the Moon. It resonates with the above I think. Here it is in full:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win (and the others, too).”

Kennedy never saw his vision realised seven years later as Man first set foot on the Moon on July 20th 1969, just about achieving his target of a manned Moon landing before the decade ended. Coincidentally, it’s almost 50 years to the day of his assassination in Dallas that I write this article.

Within those few lines of his speech, Kennedy set the tone and the objective for the next several years. He didn’t want to simply follow the Russians lead after their successes with Sputnik I (the first artificial satellite) and Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space in 1961). He wanted to change the game, achieve something different and told everyone exactly how he was going to do just that. So everyone involved knew what he or she was there to do, help put a man on the moon. It didn’t matter where within the enterprise they were, be it a mission controller or a cleaner. Each person and their role was equally as important as the astronauts themselves and each knew what they were helping to achieve, how they were going to achieve that and where they were ultimately all going.

Having a uniform brand voice or tone is important as there is now so many different channels and touch points where your end-users and customers can potentially interact with your brand. Cute is a tone we see all too often these days (think wackaging) but it isn’t the only tone available. Of course, we can make the tone an integral part of the overall brand experience but has to be unique.

Giving your Brand Focus

Mike points out:

“Brands own a corner of your mind. Brand is a small differentiated idea.”

For instance, what do you associate with the phrase ‘Safe Car’, ‘Volvo’ perhaps? Instant Camera, Polaroid? Those were the answers given out by the audience when Mike poised that question. Such associations bring the brand a focus, it’s the first law of branding – owning a single idea in the customer’s mind. But Mike points out, to find that single unique idea may actually mean saying no to a hundred other good ideas and references the below from Steve Jobs:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

There is a need for not just being unique but having focus opens the brand up to becoming an authority. The customer might say something along the lines of ‘this brand knows what it is talking about…’, this will invoke trust with them and inevitably that customer will be loyal to that brand from that point onwards, one hopes. Potentially, that customer may let others know how the brand has helped them through word of mouth or via social media. However, whilst this is all positive for your brand to gain traction within the marketplace consider what happens if that trust is abused. People are all too ready to vent their ire on social media in this day and age as those channels are readily available at the end of our fingertips through our mobile devices at any point in time. The result could be a public relations nightmare of which a brand may never fully recover unless the problem is resolved rapidly and to everyone’s satisfaction. The longer the problem remains to linger, the more damage to the brand’s reputation is done.

Challenge ideas but never attack them…

From developing the brand’s personality it leads to positioning that brand within the marketplace but the brand still has to tell the story as to why you are different from all the others, what you will do differently from your competitors that exist within the same marketplace. Again, let your voice tell the story as to why you are different. This can ultimately lead your brand to becoming a challenger brand and may in fact lead to considering the marketplace category in a different way or opening a completely new category within that marketplace. Live your values, but never attack products that already exist within the space, Mike says. Instead, change them – strive to solve the problem in a better way and find the uncontested ground. Mike in this instance mentioned the iPhone has a good recent example of this.

Any product however, must always meet the basic needs of the end-user before delighting them. It is the underlying principle of the user experience (UX) hierarchy, the core functionality forms the foundation, the design is near the pinnacle.


Once you have found your values, voice, personality and what makes you unique, you can put all this into your designs. The designs are driven by the brand and form the heart of your product(s). Customers always want better products faster. The future of digital products will be interoperable small parts, loosely joined but all will have focus. Challenge, don’t attack existing ideas. Solve the problem in a better way and find that uncontested ground whilst remaining unique, authentic and talkable. Think about what specific benefits your brand can offer that your competitors cannot offer, yet being strong enough to pull new customers to your product.

Mike summed this up as knowing your heart, reframe your category, define your mission and find your voice. The important part of all this is to make your difference shine.


Mike Atherton’s presentation slides:

Sean Callaghan’s Sketch Notes:

The Top 20 Inspiring Steve Jobs quotes: