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Branding and Usability

by Jared M. Spool
on January 1, 1996

Many web sites exist primarily to create or strengthen the brand for a product
or service. We’re finding that a site’s usability can dramatically affect branding.
And the graphical aspects of the site — such as logos or evocative pictures — have
much less effect on branding than we expected.

Ford vs. Edmund’s

Try this experiment: go to the Ford site ( and try to determine the
estimated miles per gallon for a Ford Windstar van. Then go to the Edmund’s
site ( and look for the same information.

Most people quickly find the information on Edmund’s and have a tough time
finding it on the Ford site. But here’s the surprise: Edmund’s does a better
job of strengthening Ford’s brand than Ford does. We’ve found that users have
a better impression of Ford and the Windstar after using the Edmund’s site
than they do after using the Ford site.

What’s going on here? The two sites convey information quite differently.
Edmund’s has long pages of textual information about specific vehicles and
few graphics other than pictures of the vehicles and a couple of banner ads.
The Ford site has lots of images of smiling people, beautiful scenery — along
with many Ford logos and slogans. But the site doesn’t make it easy to get
concrete information, such as vehicle specifications.

Based on our experiments, we believe that the Edmund’s site is more successful
at branding because it gives users a more successful experience.

A Bit Of Marketing Theory

Branding is more than just ensuring that customers recognize a logo or product
name. Branding means creating an emotional association (such as the feeling
of success, happiness, or relief) that customers forms with the product, service,
or company. There are two basic techniques for branding: direct experience
and indirect messaging.

With direct-experience branding, users attribute emotions directly.
For example, when customers test drive a car or eat a restaurant meal, their
direct experience influences their feelings toward that vehicle or establishment.

However, marketers can’t give users a direct experience for most products
and services, so they need to use indirect messaging for their branding.
For example, Nike sponsors sporting events to encourage the attendees to associate
Nike products with the fun and excitement of the sport. Companies also create
slogans ("Avis: We Try Harder," or "Built Ford Tough")
and use them everywhere. TV commercials, magazine ads, and billboards are all
indirect messaging. But this form of branding needs repeated exposure — conventional
advertising wisdom says that a message isn’t effective until the customer has
received it at least 10 times.

Direct Trumps Indirect

The key to understanding branding on web sites is that web sites are interactive,
not passive. There is always a direct experience. Because this direct experience
is so powerful, the effects of indirect messaging can disappear. With indirect
message branding, the user is passive and may not even be paying attention
to the message.

Assuming that users visit web sites for a specific purpose, the better the
site fulfills that purpose, the better the direct experience. In the Ford and
Edmund’s example, users want to gather information before making a purchase
decision, and the Edmund’s site does this better. Ironically, the indirect
messages on the Ford site (all those feel-good images) actually get in the
way of the users’ purpose: they take up space that could be used to display
information users want to see.

Fun = Success

We have some solid evidence that users consider a site "fun" if
it lets them find what they’re looking for. In our research, we asked users
to find specific information on web sites. We measured many objective variables
about each site, such as the number of graphics, the colors used, and the length
of links. We also measured subjective variables, including the user’s scaled
ranking of how much "fun" the site was.

When we analyzed our data, we discovered that the strongest correlation with
success (that is, finding information) was the users’ perception of how much
fun the site was. In other words, the more successful they were at finding
information, the more likely users would call the site "fun."

Interestingly, we found no significant correlation between fun and any of
the graphical variables we measured (such as number of images). We think that
the users’ direct experience with the site played a greater role in shaping
their impressions than the indirect messaging did.

Some Examples

In trying to understand what it takes to design for branding in a web site
or product, we found one other good example of successful branding.

Now Everybody Knows eBay

You may not have heard of eBay ( We never had. Not until we went
to a regional antiques fair and interviewed more than 90 antique collectors
and dealers.

The eBay site provides an online auction. At first glance, it’s not very sophisticated.
In fact, it’s effectively a modified message board, where each thread is an
item for sale and each reply is a bid. Other than the site logo, it uses few
decorative graphics and consists mostly of user-supplied text, often all in
uppercase. What graphics are on the site are images of the items the users
have provided — mostly amateur-taken snapshots.

Many of the people we interviewed already knew about eBay — including
some who’d never used the Internet before. Users told us story after story
about friends who’d made or saved bundles of money by using eBay. Most told
us they knew about eBay through word of mouth from a fellow dealer or collector.

When we showed eBay to collectors and dealers who had never seen it, they
got excited when they saw all the great stuff they’d been looking for. This
initial positive experience created the eBay brand for these people. In fact,
users new to computing told us that eBay will be their first Internet destination
when they get their own computers — showing us that eBay has developed
the emotional ties that make branding successful.

We think eBay’s most important aspect was the fact that users consistently
found interesting stuff quickly and easily. Its presentation is far less important
to user success.

The eBay site contrasts significantly with the Ford site, which relies heavily
on lots of logos and slogans, such as messages from recent marketing campaigns: "Built
Ford Tough," "Go Anywhere," and "Every picture has a story
and every story has a Ford in it." These messages themselves seemed to
prevent users from finding the information they were seeking and thus from
having a positive experience on the site.

If our theory is correct, eBay’s direct-experience branding works better than
Ford’s indirect-message branding at giving users a positive opinion of the
brand. Therefore, we believe that usability is essential for effective branding.
It appears that any obstacles users face will directly (and negatively) affect
how they perceive the brand.

What Can Designers Do?

Designers have a choice: build a site that uses direct-experience branding
or build one that uses indirect-message branding. It’s theoretically possible
to develop a site that does both, but we’ve never seen that done successfully. •

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.