There are these moments when someone sneaks up to you from behind and you know exactly who it is, just based on how the person’s walking sounds. The better we get to know a person, the fewer information we need to recognize someone.
And that’s the same with brands. The more we learn about brands, the more we see and hear about them, the fewer impulses we need to recognize them. McDonald’s launched a campaign this year that doesn’t contain any logo or brand name, and we still know who is talking to us. Already in 2011, Starbucks dropped its name from the logo, because the green image was powerful enough to recognize the brand.
Snack company Doritos launched a campaign in 2019 which did not mention the company name or logo once. Instead, the viewer learns “It’s the chip so iconic … we don’t need to name it”. The famous triangle shape as well as red and blue bags serve as anchors for recognition within the The Logo goes here campaign.
On their company website, Telekom makes clear how important their colours are for being recognized as a brand: “We are one of just a very few companies that are recognized internationally via their brand color. When the company was founded, we made a point of carefully selecting a magenta hue that would enable us to position ourselves“.
Fonts, shapes, color: If your brand is powerful enough, consumers need very few stimuli to recognize you. But how do these mechanisms translate into digital, especially app territory? If you build an app, you need to follow very strict guidelines, both by Apple and Google, to match their platform specific design guidelines. For the two major smartphone OS platforms, platform recognitions comes before your individual brand recognition. Apple states in their guidelines: “A consistent app implements familiar standards and paradigms by using system-provided interface elements, well-known icons, standard text styles, and uniform terminology. The app incorporates features and behaviors in ways people expect“. Google agrees: “Android users expect your app to look and behave in a way that’s consistent with the platform.“
Branding in mobile UI
Colors are powerful, as we have seen with Telekom. But colors are hard to protect and competitors can use a color similar to yours. While Facebook and Twitter managed to find their unique kinds of blue, iMessage, Facebook Messenger and the recently relaunched LinkedIn blue are quite difficult to differentiate. I find the old LinkedIn blue more recognizable. On the other hand, you will also find some digital products which found their very own and recognizable brand color:
While all of the platforms above use their brand color on their app logos (besides iMessage, which is green, interestingly), you will have a hard time finding the brand colors within the products directly.
Most modern apps today are pretty clean and reduced. Over the years since the original launch of the AppStore in 2008, apps have strongly aligned on their look and feel. As a consequence, there is less space to bring your individual brand to life.
Most platforms that rely on user generated content, like Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, have no influence on what the user will see on their platform. If the platform allows to share any image, link, video or text, there is not much the platform can do to make the content feel branded.
From a branding perspective, this comes with challenges: While they control the overall stream layout, they have no control over images or other visuals popping up in the users’ streams. YouTube has no impact on what video thumbnails their users will create. Twitter can not impact the look of the content being shared on their own platform. Therefore their brand needs to stay in the background and live outside the content. So brand colors exist as accent colors on logos, CTAs and info bubbles, not within the actual streams.
While UI aligns, branding hides in the details
When the content itself is not a place for branding, the space around the content could be. Instagram with its very colorful logo offers an app which is plain white. The app does not push their brand into your face, they let the content run the show. But here and there you find elements of minimal branding: In the rings around stories. When Instagram introduced stories, their UI solution was new and unique. For the first time, there was a new approach to access fresh, short content pieces outside the regular endless scrolling streams. The more people you follow, the harder it is to see everything that was posted and the more an algorithm tries to figure out what to push upwards.
Stories were different: You did not know what you would get, they used the entire screen, you could play with tags and emojis and they would disappear after 24 hours. Even though Snapchat invested stories, for a time they were truly an Instagram thing. Today, 500 million people post stories every day. Instagram’s stories were so unique, they served as a branding element. There was just no other place where you could share your content in such a fun and engaging way: UX as branding. Not surprisingly, the design has been introduced by other players as well: Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn all offer integrations pretty similar to Instagram. Give it a few more months, and stories will no longer serve as a unique branding element for Instagram.
While interesting concepts are copied, applied and adapted, the same is true for other navigation solutions. Menu icons follow similar patterns, are recognizable across platforms and don’t are not the place for experimentation and brand expression. A house is a house, Tap me to come home. A bell is for notifications. This is not the place to express your creativity, but rather to stick to recognizable patterns. On basic navigation, branding has no space.
Unique interactions and wordings
In order to establish a brand recognition within your mobile product, companies find smart ways within the niche to place their brand.
While on Facebook and Twitter you like something, on Strava you give Kudos! This term is unique to the Strava experience and sets them apart from other social platforms. Also, while Google, Apple and HERE color routes in blue, Strava uses their recognizable orange.
Another example of minimal branding is WhatsApp’s double ticks. Not only do they serve a functional purpose, but they are strongly connected to WhatsApp as an experience. On iOS, the blue iMessage bubble serves as a signaling mechanism and clear ingroup / outgroup differentiator. These are all design details, but very powerful in terms of brand buiding, since these kinds of interactions and signaling could only happen in this particular way on that particular platform. It‘s the UX, more than the UI, that creates brand recognition. The UI is pretty similiar wherever you go. The biggest brand element Twitter has is the #hashtag as a core experience, not so much icon design or color palette. Digital branding is created by unique experiences.
Ultimately, building a connection to a brand comes down to the experience with a product, the minutes waiting for the two WhatsApp checks to finally turn blue, the moment when a friends gives Kudos for the morning run, your discovery of trending hastags. It‘s not the UI that creates brand recognition, but more the UX. Even if these elements are sometimes very minimal.