Monday, May 02, 2005


brands as information architecture

I don't think highly of branding in general. Too often it is an exercise in corporate narcissism: companies worrying about whether consumers perceive them as a friendly and happy brand, when consumers really could care less. Though I sometimes see usability practitioners talk about branding as part of the user experience, I have to disagree. Branding is about buying, not using. Brands are created by the same people who make adverts, and generally serve the same function, to build an impression in the customer's mind for the moment of purchase.

Buying decisions are important of course, and branding, if genuine, can help people make purchase decisions. Several years ago I saw a short film at the Victoria & Albert Museum's impressively researched exhibition on branding. Produced by an ad agency in the 1960s, the film show how confusing it would be if supermarket shelves had detergents in shapes and colors that didn't conform to customer stereotypes of what they should be. That is a useful role of branding, to help users sort through the masses of products easily, and see that a certain bottle looks more like kitchen cleaner than hand wash laundry detergent. In this role, brands can act as a proxy information architecture.

Given the potential of branding to help users make buying choices, it is odd that companies sometimes ignore useful opportunities to share brand information with their customers. The most salient example is the book industry. In the past decade or two, the publishing industry has consolidated in mega behemoths. A single publisher will have dozens of "imprints", some of them acquired, some of them intentionally developed by the publisher to address some reading niche. The imprints are brands that convey to readers information about the subject, intended audience, editorial perspective, and so on. I know I look for books from certain imprints, because I often find they cover subjects I enjoy, in a way I enjoy reading about them. For example, I know some imprints offer a more academic treatment of a topic, while others a more popular one.

A book's imprint offers useful information to clued-in readers. But publishers often hide this information. Consider the publishing giant John Wiley. They have many imprints that cover the same broad subject areas, say, business. The different between the imprints is sometimes hard to articulated succinctly, but once one gets familiar with titles from the different imprints, one will catch one quickly that a title from the Jossey-Bass imprint will be different from the Capstone imprint. The user's ability to make such distinctions without needing to articulate them conceptually is the very value of a brand, to consider brands soley from a user perspective. But if you visit John Wiley's Web site looking for titles from Wiley's Capstone imprint, to pick an arbitrary example, good luck. Wiley lump all their imprints together in a single database. True, some users will want to search by subject only, and don't care what the imprint is. But some people may be looking for titles from an imprint, and they can't do it. There is no reason Wiley can't do both.

Wiley adopts a distributor's perspective: we offer everything, whatever you need, we have it, somewhere. Wiley is hardly alone. One can encounter the same problems with Pearson or Prentice Hall. Amazon also is guilty. Search on the imprint name, and you may come up empty handed. Amazon may list the publisher not by the imprint name -- the brand that sticks in your mind -- but by the holding company's name. They are worse when it comes to small publishers. If you want something by "little tiny press ltd", Amazon may list the publisher as "XYZ Distributors." It is another example of information architecture reflecting a business's organization chart rather than the user's needs.

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