Designing brand systems for product-led companies

By RocketAir Crew
September 22, 2022

A product-led company has adopted a growth ethos and operating model that centers the needs of the user at the heart of all decisions. In this model, a well-designed user experience and user interface are table stakes, but brand is critical too. Thinking of brand design as separate, secondary, or even a prelude to a product’s design is a mistake. Here’s why. 

Products are brand expressions

Creating brands and products in separate silos often means missing out on key opportunities for empathy and connection. In the literal sense, digital products embody a brand’s most important values and are the most direct touchpoint to convey those values to customers. The best products have many branded moments scattered throughout. A prime example is Mailchimp, which infuses fun brand touches during key moments, like after hitting send on an email campaign. And then there’s Chime, which uses App Store updates as another place to show off brand personality with creative copywriting.

Your product is a core opportunity for brand expression and dialogue with your audience.  At RocketAir, we think about the end-to-end experience a user has with your company as a journey that could lead someone from awareness (billboard), to curiosity (landing page), to a relationship (onboarding sequence), and beyond. 

Brand systems are built to scale

The “beyond” is where the true value of an integrated brand system becomes important. Without dynamic components or flexibility, a brand’s elements aren’t able to adapt and scale to the new realities that inevitably emerge. Imagine if a mobile product wasn’t able to easily adjust to a new screen dimension or type of user behavior like finger scroll or pinch to zoom. Your product would quickly feel outdated and unintuitive. In the same way, your brand needs to be flexible enough to grow through changes without feeling disjointed or needing to be fully reinvented every few years. RocketAir CEO, Taylor Rosenbauer, describes the value of brand systems this way:

As product designers, we’re familiar with creating design systems and component libraries so that when we add new functionality, we know that the experience is consistent and unified. Similarly, when we think about brands, we're also thinking about them in a very systematic way, in fact we call them ‘brand systems.’ A brand system is all of the atomic elements that make up a brand, like art direction, typography, custom iconography, that can be combined to create a unified experience across touch points. Gone are the days of static brand guidelines—brands are living, evolving things, and brand systems allow internal and external teams to tie into the same system and create consistency. Design systems enable brands to grow and scale.

During the early stages, this is especially important. You’re designing both brand and product with both the immediate reality and the full potential of the future in mind. As they prepared to scale after raising their Series A, the Aumni team approached RocketAir to create a fresh brand identity that would grow seamlessly alongside them. Aumni’s technology provides AI-driven data insights for leaders in private capital markets. By structuring the brand and design systems around a simple, elemental motif, we were able to take the core idea of “connecting the dots'' for investors and pull it through every aspect of the brand from illustration style to graphs and charts. 

Brand systems are differentiating

Thoughtful branding throughout a product interface is a big differentiator, and forfeiting this opportunity is often ignoring the territory where your customers spend the most time with your brand. Rosenbauer says:

Oftentimes we find that products were brought to market by engineers and they look almost like white-labeled software. Even though they may work really well, they’re uninspiring. While there are obvious cognitive benefits to having intuitive patterns in the UX, creating from a shared, standardized component library removes the opportunity for truly delightful brand experiences. You lose the opportunity to be somewhere interesting, to remember the company you’re interacting with. We’re all about creating branded experiences within useful products—both solving problems and inspiring and delighting users along the way.

Furthermore, being unimpeachably consistent is in-and-of-itself a differentiating factor. The most stunning thing about the world’s most memorable brands is their superhuman consistency. You’ll never see an official instance where something from Disney or Warby Parker, for example, doesn’t look or feel quite right—but you’re also always seeing new and exciting things from them. Brand systems can help you get there without being cookie cutter, duplicative, or boring. As our Creative Director, Brian Hoff, shares: 

Carrying over brand to a product is one of the best ways to consistently maintain a sense of delight for users. Whether you’re viewing an ad on Instagram or logging into a platform, it’s all one cohesive experience.

Brand systems are grounded in strategy 

There is an incredible amount of strategic thinking that goes into creating dynamic, flexible, empathy-based brand systems. Every element and component must be lined up against the rubric of strategy for strength testing. Sound strategy ensures that each brand component is geared toward the goals of the user and built to scale for the future. 

Following our Orbital Design approach, we lead with empathy and insights—generated from competitive analysis, analogous research, and interviews—to lay a solid foundation for brand systems that can scale across every touch point. To then achieve symbiosis between brand and product, we create technical design systems that are inherited throughout a product interface and work in harmony with the brand system. 

When Olive was developing a revolutionary eco-centered shopping experience, they needed to first understand what mattered most to their target audience. RocketAir conducted user interviews to test various value propositions. We then used the resulting insights to inform the brand identity and scaled them through the product creating a minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic to communicate the simplicity of shopping with Olive. Hoff reflects:

At its core, brand is a way of engaging your customers beyond the interface. Software is inherently sterile, strings of code that follow set patterns to solve problems. Brand is the opportunity to infuse software with personality and empathy—to build loyalty with users by showing them that you remember there is a human on the other end. Brand systems are the mechanism for making that possible throughout a complex and growing product. 

Some fuel for thought

  • Does your product experience match the vibe and emotion of the marketing website or is it jarring for users?
  • How does your product onboarding experience convey your brand’s values and personality? 
  • Which moments are most important for your users within your product? Are you seizing those moments as opportunities to build closer relationships with your users? 
  • Are you turning potentially disappointing product moments (like empty states or loading pages) into opportunities for delight?