Branding After the DotCom Burst: Social Media, Authenticity, Content

Branding Since the Dot Com BurstMy interview with Elizabeth Amorose, Founder & Partner at Thinkso, a creative agency in New York City.

1. When you think back to what you were designing in 2003, what trends/changes had real legs since then (in any market sector)

Let’s see. 2003 was when the Internet—the real Internet—came alive. The “bubble” had burst, and so many people were saying the Internet wasn’t going to be any big thing, that there wasn’t a good way to monetize it. But that clearly wasn’t true and things started to turn around in 2003. Companies were getting serious about their web presence, and started to really invest in it, so our web practice really took off. Today at least 50% of our projects are purely digital and just about every print or branding project has some web component.Content creation was in its early stages back then. (Side rant: I hate that term “content,” because it’s so generic and people throw it around without understanding what it means. A media buyer recently handed us a “strategy” that basically said we needed to put content into ads and tweets of the client campaign we were working on. “Content” is a big category—like “branding” or “advertising.” It isn’t a strategy unto itself. You first have to understand what the target audience wants and what the client is able to give them in order to begin to formulate a content strategy. But I digress.)

Ten years ago, businesses and marketers were starting to realize that the value of the Internet was its vast library-like ability to inform and entertain, and part of monetizing their web activities meant providing this content. Luckily, this is such a natural fit for Thinkso. Our mantra from Day 1 has been to give the content as much thought as we do the strategy and design. We’ve always written (we have full-time writers on staff) nearly every project we work on. I think this is what kept our agency humming along in 2008 and 2009 when so many were suffering.

A more general trend—very closely tied to the interwebs—is the sophistication of projects. Across the board, from consumers to clients, everyone expects more from a brand. Consumers are surrounded by a lot of great design and innovation, delivered to their desktop. (Mind you, they are still subject to a lot of really bad design too, but it creates context for the good design.) This translates into consumer expectations being way higher than they were 10 or even 5 years ago. An organization has to have all of its marketing and design “Ts” crossed and “Is” dotted to impress and retain a “loyal” customer. For us, as a creative agency, this means that the work we do has to be more creative, more sophisticated, and utilize more channels than ever before. Our clients’ needs are great; therefore, we have to deliver more. (The only thing that hasn’t gone up are the budgets. Wah wah.) I remember a time when we were designing sites without even thinking about a CMS. Now our website projects require responsive design using an open-source CMS integrated with social media and with Google Analytics baked in.

2. What do you think the impact of social media and user-generated content has had on design?

Social media has greatly affected content strategy and user experience design because it’s no longer enough for a website to be a rich source of information. It also needs to provide timely, sound bite-level content that users can comment on and share. Social media has also created a new set of visual and utilitarian nomenclature that users expect from your site. I get annoyed when I’m looking for the Facebook “share” button on sites and am only provided with the option to “like” an article—or if the web designer decided to be different and make the LinkedIn button pink instead of blue. The standardization of visual language and placement can determine whether your blog post or site information is going to get shared or not.

3. Are trends like “flat design”, “big data”, “responsive design”, “type as logo” on your radar or other trends and why? (feel free to speak to the trends you think are important even if not in this group)

Flat design is an aesthetic trend (with practical purposes, of course). So I’m not sure how long it’s going to last. But it’s organically been on our radar because it’s the natural style of my business partner and our Creative Director, Brett Traylor. Just as I work with our writers to get them to use the fewest, simplest words to express the essence of a communication, Brett has always encouraged clean, clear, bold design. It’s less for the mind to process (just like it’s less for the smartphone to render). Our philosophy is there’s enough information overload already; we don’t need to make websites—or even brochures or ads—with lots of junk weighing down the communication. Of course, if we’re designing a site for Game of Thrones action figures, we’re not going to use flat design. First and foremost, we develop visuals that meet clients’ marketing goals. But flat design can be a welcome differentiator in the B2B world; I expect to see a lot more of it in financial and professional services.

Responsive design is definitely very important and here to stay for the foreseeable future. I don’t know why anyone would design a site today that isn’t a responsive site. It wouldn’t be a wise investment. Just as marketing channels have become so fragmented, so have Internet channels. Going back to that “higher expectations” thing, I get so annoyed when I can’t buy the thing that I saw online at work on my iPhone when I’m on my way home from work. We also have to realize that for many audiences, a smart phone is all they have. This is certainly true for developing countries—and many of the first world countries outside of the U.S. And 25% of the traffic on our B2B clients’ sites is coming from tablets. That’s pretty considerable—especially considering the demographic using tablets is likely the most affluent and the decision makers. Mobile cannot be ignored or deprioritized and, in my view, responsive makes the most sense.

4. How has trauma in the global economy changed the branding or strategy or anything of financial services?

Financial services brands are demonstrating a lot more humility, I believe. I’ve noticed a lot less desire to chest beat, a lot more authenticity. I think this is a great thing, because it forces marketers to dig deep and find the real attributes to differentiate and sell with.

5. If you started a new brand tomorrow that was really future-proof, what would it be?

It would be a brand built on truth and authenticity. I think this is a timeless, foolproof strategy. Like people, companies and organizations need to be really honest with themselves. They need to identify what their weaknesses are and work on those, and they need to embrace what’s real about them and let it shine. Brands get so watered down by companies being afraid to take a position or commit to their real personality. The sectors in which this is prevalent are the places there are real opportunities to be authentic, stand out, and yes, of course, make money.