Who Owns Brand in a Product Organization?

Have you thought that the way brand standards are defined and upheld across departments in your organization is sub-optimal? A recent conversation pushed me to do more research on the topic.

How I Started Down the Rabbit Hole

I was recently talking over coffee with a new friend and, as tends to happen when you are learning about someone, the conversation got around to work. They were in sales for a heavy equipment company — which I generally understood. “So, you call people on your list, check in with them, and if they’re interested you go to them, or they come to you.” Heads nod in agreement.

When it came time to explain Product Design, the reaction to talking about user experience and intuitive products, solving jobs to be done, there were no nods of agreement. Maybe I didn’t simplify it enough? I explained the design system and how we leverage components and documentation in Storybook to make it easy for teams to apply those conventions and standards. Still no nods.

He responded, “Sure those things make sense, but you are designers. You talked about software stuff. What about the logos? The brand stuff?

I paused. No, actually… our design team does care about those things! It’s not that we don’t follow brand guidelines for logo usage, but we set the look and feel of the products, and we are only focused on the in-product experience. I had to tell him “No, we actually don’t do that directly”.

The Split

In all my years in-house at product teams, I’ve never really questioned the division of marketing designers and product designers… we can call this “the split”. We have a company logo and 2 brand colors that stayed persistent, but beyond that a separation exists between what we do in-product and what the marketing team and designers have done with print and marketing site collateral. It would be incredibly difficult to change the visual layer of all 14 products while keeping things mostly homogenous and staying in sync with the team revamping the marketing site on a biannual basis.

We aren’t divergent, it is more of a “yes, and” approach. As an enterprise, B2B SaaS org, a lot of consideration is put in to simplifying and removing ornamentation in products that help our customers focus on what matters for them. On the opposite side of the coin, the marketing site brings in lots of rich media and illustrations to illustrate complex concepts and how we help our buyer personas.

Thinking about this led me to the natural question: are we doing it right? Who should own brand in an agile, product-led org? Is it a co-owning?

Gaining Context

As I often do, focus was turned towards the web to find more data points. As it turns out, there’s several ways orgs handle the split but there’s two main modalities.

At combined orgs, there’s tight coupling… with the marketing site being an extension of the product itself, product marketing and customer success / support are writing documentation that lives in the site, often there is no division at all between the different areas! This is most common with single-product orgs.

Decoupled orgs tend to have fully staffed brand studios / autonomous marketing departments that are governed by shared brand guidelines. These guidelines are either shared by the product teams or — more times than not — are more for marketing and print design purposes and do not speak specifically to product needs, which is where resilient design systems come into play. Large organizations (like Google, IBM) and orgs that have been around since the pre-digital age are almost always decoupled.

It Depends

As you might have guessed, there isn’t one way that works across the board. The motivations behind how products are marketed directly impact how brand is owned. There is a strong divide between enterprise and non-enterprise product organizations.

Non-enterprise organizations are appealing directly to end users in their marketing. They aim for products that have a consistent tone, look/feel, and personality across all channels because every interaction that is consistent is reinforcing the brand. Their user personas ARE their buyer personas and they are buying the brand promise. There’s minimal friction to get started, which is why trust is so crucial.

Contrast this with enterprise organizations which tend to be decoupled in nature. Sales have more of a ‘walled garden’ approach and can often the brand guidelines for enterprise buyers are different than their users and potentially have different narratives and verbiage that resonates with them. Sales cycles are longer and there’s much more back-and-forth to build trust over a number of face-to-face or over-the-phone. In-product you may want to express efficiency and ease of use, while you may want to express security and reliability in marketing efforts.

I was reading an interview with Dropbox’s Darian Newman recently, and a statement of his really encapsulated my thoughts: “There can be tension between upholding a brand identity and meeting product needs, but that’s where the magic happens.”



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