Designers often tell us part of their responsibilities is to enhance the branding of a site, product, or organization. In recent years, we've focused our research on understanding how design can have a positive effect on a brand.

In our research, we've learned that brands are an investment instrument. With a savings account, money is deposited so that interest accrues -- the investment grows over time.

Similarly, with branding, money is spent on building the perception of the brand with individuals -- we call this: strengthening the brand. At some point, the brand will be strong enough to have a serious effect on an individual's purchase behavior, such as paying more for a product because it's a "brand I trust."

For an individual, brands are a perception. Harvard University is a brand. Many people perceive Harvard University as an outstanding educational institution. Many people also perceive Harvard University as being extremely expensive. These two perceptions (among others) make up Harvard's brand.

Brand elements, such as names, logos, tag lines, trademarks, and packaging, are shortcuts to those perceptions. People use these shortcuts when making purchase decisions. For example, if a consumer has a perception that the film produced by Kodak makes better pictures, they'll use the Kodak logo and trademarks as a shortcut to decide which product to purchase.

We are currently studying what designers can do to strengthen brands and create the shortcuts between brand elements and individuals' brand perceptions. For example, on e-commerce sites a strong site brand could translate into repeat sales. During a customer's initial visit, what could designers do to strengthen the site's brand so that the shopper returns to the site for future purchases?

In recent studies, we've been measuring the strength of key brands at predetermined points in the user's online experience with a site. We've been trying to see if we can spot a correlation between design elements and changes in the strength of these brands.

Our initial results are very encouraging. We've found that when people are done shopping on certain e-commerce sites, their perceptions of the brand are often strengthened, while other sites seem to consistently weaken their brands.

For example, in a recent study of apparel and home goods sites, we found that when people shopped on the sites for the Gap and Lands' End, their perceptions of those brands were more positive after the shopping experience than before. In the same study, shoppers on Macys.com consistently reported that their attitudes towards the Macy's brand were substantially reduced after their experience than before.

It could be that the Gap and Lands' End offer better quality products than Macy's, and that's why we saw the difference in attitude changes. However, when we asked the shoppers about the quality of the products, they basically rated them all equivalently.

In reviewing our data from the study, we found some fascinating correlations:

These two findings tell us that when we create designs that focus on ensuring users accomplish their goals, we are likely having a long-term positive effect on the strength of the brand.

This also helps us understand why sites that have always focused on helping users accomplish their goals are now reporting profits. Amazon and eBay (eBay has always been profitable) spend a lot of their development effort innovating new designs elements that ensure users achieve what they come to the site for. Whereas, companies like Boo.com and Pets.com, who spent millions on advertising campaigns, failed to strengthen their brand.

We're very encouraged by our initial findings. We believe that we're on the trail to identifying how designers can affect the strengthening of brands. From this, we can calculate ROI using the investment in a design and the return that comes from brand strength. •

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