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Understanding Users through Brand Research: an Interview with Mitch McCasland

by Christine Perfetti
on September 18, 2002

Mitch McCasland of Brand Inquiry Partners is
an expert in brand strategy and Account Planning and has worked with
such clients as Proctor & Gamble, Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up, and Verizon/GTE.
User Interface Engineering’s Christine Perfetti recently sat down with
Mitch to talk about how Account Planning techniques can benefit designers.

UIE: Many development teams we work with
tell us they want to "know their users" and understand
their customers’ needs at a deeper level. How can techniques from
Account Planning help these designers?

Mitch: Account Planning enables designers to
develop an intimate understanding of users’ behaviors, attitudes, motivations,
and lifestyles. Using techniques from Account Planning, designers can
better understand what happens in a user’s daily life, as well as the
motivational role a web site has in evoking real-world responses by
users. This is important in selecting and designing a web site’s imagery,
content, tonality, functions, and features.

Are there any organizations you’ve worked
with who have successfully gathered customer insights using Account
Planning techniques?

I worked with the American Diabetes Association
(ADA) to help them understand their users’ needs at a deeper level.
The ADA is a wonderful organization. It’s the nation’s leading nonprofit
health organization providing diabetes research, information, and advocacy.
The organization’s mission is to prevent diabetes, support the search
for a cure, and improve the lives of people affected by the disease.

In pursuing this mission, the ADA publishes scientific
findings and provides information and services to people with diabetes,
their families, health care professionals, and the public. The
web site
plays a vital part in disseminating this information to
its various audiences.

Why did the ADA get you involved?

ADA’s site was not organized in a way to support
quick access to information. For example, the content concerning Type
1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, was not uniformly written
to the layperson’s understanding. As a result, parents of children
with Type 1 diabetes who came to the site were not able to quickly
gather the information they needed. Plus, the site had grown in bits
and pieces, patched together over time, and users were having an increasingly
difficult time finding the information they needed.

How did you go about solving the ADA’s problems?

We considered several methods for reorganizing
the content about Type 1 diabetes. We identified consumer focus groups
as the most appropriate and efficient means of evaluating the reorganization
of the site’s content and creating new messaging and imagery.

We recruited parents of children with diabetes to
participate in focus groups. During the groups, parents revealed a strong
sense of urgency in their search for diabetes information following initial
diagnosis of their child. All of the parents feared the same thing–seeing
their children die from complications of the disease. As a result, easy
access to information was critical to parents, particularly in consideration
of their distressed state of mind.

Our research revealed that parents wanted information
that helped them manage their child’s condition. They also wanted the
information organized in way that helped them address daily lifestyle
issues: What to tell teachers at school, what to tell babysitters, what
to tell the child, etc. Parents also wanted to know how best to communicate
this complex medical condition to their children of different ages. The
concern was that a toddler’s ability to understand diabetes was different
than a teenager’s ability.

What was the outcome from these focus groups?

As a result of our research, we organized the
Type 1 section of the site according to a child’s age and life events.
Prior to the focus groups, the development team was divided. There
were a number of differing opinions about the best way to reorganize
the site’s content and how the copy should be written. After we interviewed
the focus groups, the development team and the client unanimously agreed
that the consumers themselves had found the best solution.

In addition to your work gathering customer
insights, you spend a large amount of your time studying brands online.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest design factors that
impact a site’s brand strength?

Imagery and copywriting are the two most important
components of online branding. It seems simplistic to mention these
two elements, but it’s surprising how often a design team can get caught
up in adding cool features like streaming video or other rich media
component they think would look good on a web site, or something to
really "WOW" a client.

To create a strong brand, a web site must have a
clear communication goal and the site’s imagery and content must support
that goal. However, it’s important to remember that a web site is part
of a much larger communication plan. Brand managers and designers need
to appreciate the strengths and roles of each medium–broadcast, print,
direct marketing, specialty advertising, and interactive. To be successful,
designers must understand the contribution each medium makes in building
the brand’s value.

In our research at User Interface Engineering,
we’ve found that the best sites create strong brands by helping users
achieve their goals. (More details at
Do you disagree with this finding?

I do agree that a web site that is not usable
will cause some users to lose their sense of goodwill for a brand,
at least in the short run. However, a site has obligations to a brand
that extend beyond the online world. I can’t stress enough how important
it is for designers to remember that a web site is often part of a
much larger branding strategy.

To support a strong brand presence, a site
must represent the brand’s creative elements in a manner consistent
with the brand’s portrayal in other media. Recognition of the brand’s
imagery, tonality, and language are important signals to the marketplace
in conveying recognition, consistency, and authenticity. While a usable
site helps support a positive consumer experience with the brand online,
it’s insufficient to fully convey the equities of a brand to an audience.

In your opinion, what sites have done the
best job of strengthening their brand?

Two examples that come immediately to mind
are Target and Nike’s
. Target has revolutionized retail by creating what I like
to call "dignified discount". We all shop at discount stores,
but nobody brags about going to Big Lots, Kmart, or Bubba’s Bargain
Barn. Target has changed all of that and their web site reflects the
brand’s strength. Like the store itself, there is tons of merchandise
on their site. Yet, they’ve managed to make the merchandise easy to
find, just as in their retail stores. They’ve also done a great job
of showcasing the brands name products that draw people to the Target
shopping experience, both online and offline.

Nike launched its Presto brand line of daily
clothing and lifestyle accessories earlier this year. Nike heralded
the kick-off with a series of teaser television spots showing people
doing some amazing and strange feats in everyday life.

The web site takes a decidedly non-selling
approach to the Presto brand. It’s rich with lifestyle elements: music,
imagery and a maze of hotspots that pop up begging the user to click
on them. Keep in mind: the audience for the Presto brand ranges from
teens to twenty-somethings. More mature users are likely to find the
site frustrating, in part, because they are not the intended audience.

This site is directed at a generation that
largely distrusts advertising of most kinds. And, the goal is to establish
a brand line extension. Lots of attitude and relationship building
is required. A visit to this web site is the brand equivalent of stage
diving into the youth generation to do some crowd surfing.

As you mentioned earlier, in your work with
the American Diabetes Association you conducted focus groups to learn
about the audience. Can you tell us about some of the other techniques
you use to better understand customers?

There are many techniques I utilize that move
beyond the type of information that designers can gather from interviews
or focus groups. For example, brand mapping is a technique that evaluates
the relative performance of a brand against criteria that is important
to the customer. Brand mapping enables designers to pinpoint the factors
most important to their customers and evaluate how their brand and
competitor’s brands meet customers’ expectations.

When we create a brand map to evaluate a specific
site or product, we first ask customers to evaluate a brand versus its
competitors on a number of factors that influence their selection of
a brand. We then plot the results in a two-dimensional visual representation.
The graphical nature of brand mapping can provide compelling visual evidence
in support of a given strategy.

You’ve spent a lot of time discussing the
advantages of archetype branding. What are archetypes?

Archetypes are patterns that have recurred
in human societies for thousands of years. They are universally recognized
concepts such as the Innocent, the Hero, the Ruler, the Outlaw, and
the Lover. These patterns can be seen across all cultures throughout
the world. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung asserted that archetypal patterns
were embedded in the collective subconscious of the human species.
He believed that their presence in the collective subconscious accounted
for the instinctive recognition and acceptance of archetypes.

Designers and marketing managers can use archetypes
to guide the direction of brand communication to a deeply rooted place
in the human psyche. By understanding the customer’s relationship with
a brand, they can identify the most appropriate archetype for the brand.
Certain types of products are more suited for particular archetypes based
upon the nature of the product’s usage and function.

For example, Harley Davidson has done a great job
of affiliating itself with the Outlaw archetype–living outside of the
rules, pursuit of freedom, and a product that is viewed by some people
as a little bit dangerous. However, it would seem absurd for a baby food
manufacturer such as Gerber to consider using of the outlaw archetype
to market its brand. "Born to be wild"…literally.

An amazing book on archetypes and brands is "The
Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power
of Archetypes" by Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson. I highly recommend

What are some of the benefits of archetype

The advertising agency Young and Rubicam conducted
a six-year study of 50 brands and found that brands strongly aligned
with single archetypes gained economic and market values at a rate
almost double of brands that had no clear archetypal alignment.

Also, users more readily identify the meaning of
the brand when it is aligned with an archetype. If the design team has
done the proper research and selected the appropriate archetype for a
brand, the process of developing imagery and content becomes more clearly
defined. If a selected image or words goes against the archetype, it’s
likely to diminish the clarity and acceptance of the brand.

For example, Nike uses the Hero archetype. Throughout
its marketing campaign, the brand offers the ordinary person the opportunity
to put on the mantle of the hero by wearing Nike shoes. The brand’s alignment
with sports mega-stars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods places it
solidly in the hero archetype. In fact, the company’s name is derived
from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Thanks Mitch! •