Understanding Users through Brand Research: an Interview with Mitch McCasland

by Christine Perfetti

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 here). 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 Presto. 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 it.

What are some of the benefits of archetype branding?

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!

About the Author

Christine Perfetti picked up on these approaches, refined them, and started using them in her daily work at leading companies like Acquia and Carbonite. Not only has she built successful design teams who’ve created business-changing products, but she’s transformed a design team from a siloed group into collaborative partners. Her ability to bridge gaps and fuse product management with engineering will be evident in this talk.

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