Warning signs your brand foundation isn't web-ready
by Shachar Meron 08.19.21
Before starting a web development project, make sure you have a solid brand foundation in place. Hear what Orbit Media CMO and cofounder Andy Crestodina says about the risks and red flags of building a site on a shaky brand.
Effective websites are built on strong brands. But if your foundation isn’t all there—unclear positioning, scattered messaging, undefined design—you risk losing time, money, and opportunity.
We spoke to veterans at three leading digital firms about what brand elements must be in place before building a site. In this first of three interviews, Andy Crestodina gave us some common examples of what’s often missing and where things go wrong.
Here are five warning signs a brand isn’t ready for web development to begin:
1. Target audience isn’t well known.
Who are your visitors? Where are they in their process? What are they looking for, from your business and on your site?
The more you know about your target audience, the better. At the very least you want to know who they are, what they care about, what they think about you, and how they buy. “We don’t know how to make an effective webpage until we’ve interviewed your salespeople and talked to your clients to understand what information they need,” says Andy.
Then to really make your site convert, you want to understand the ins and outs of the sales conversation: frequently (and infrequently) asked questions, top objections, fears and pain points, etc. These are “the questions that will get to deeper understanding or hidden reasons people may buy, or the deeper fear that the prospect may be addressing with the purchase.”
2. Brand positioning (the strategic core of your brand foundation) isn’t defined.
Orbit sends out an intake questionnaire to clients before beginning a web project, to help frame up the conversation with the visitor. “Our first question is ‘what is the six-word version of what you do?’ That’s your homepage H1 tag,” says Andy. “When translated to the website, it lets people know they’re in the right place.” (Orbit’s homepage headline: “Award-winning Chicago design and development.”)
And if you can’t explain what you do in 6-10 words, Andy says its a sign you have bigger issues than your website. “Companies that struggle on this should figure this out before investing in a website…or marketing of any sort.”
It also helps to understand the general shape of your market landscape. For example, if your category is considered “high consideration” (relationship-driven, consultative, expensive, sophisticated audience) vs “low consideration” (quick, transactional, feature-driven, layman audience). This can shape the navigation and content on your site.
3. Messaging and writing isn’t clear.
There are places to be crystal clear: homepage, headlines, navigation. (“No weird crap in your headline,” Andy insists.) These exist to help people find their way, so clarity trumps creativity. As brand strategists we want to incorporate differentiation up front and center, and that’s fine; it’s just not always H1 material.
Then there are places to be differentiated and infuse your brand voice: lower on the homepage, on the about page, sometimes offerings, some blog content. Knowing what goes where can make sure you rank better in search, while also converting more users into strong leads. (Orbit knows content strategy.)
But if you’re tweaking generic language in a crowded market, that may not be enough. “There’s a gray area between brand and conversion copywriting,” says Andy. “What we come up with is going to be clear, concise, and informative, but …they may be seriously undifferentiated. So if the visitor is looking at this page and five others, we might not win.” Identifying your differentiators requires an entirely different messaging approach.
4. Logo and design standards (the graphic layer of your brand foundation) aren’t set.
As one of your brand’s most visible and identifiable elements, your logo should be clearly established before you get deep into development.
Andy described engagements where the logo wasn’t designed yet, or is being designed concurrently with web design. In one case, the client even mentioned Orbit could change their logo if they felt like it, which was alarming. “Are you so uncommitted to your own assets that you’re willing to throw everything out if someone has a stronger opinion?” wondered Andy. You should believe in all your stuff, including your visual foundation.”
That includes fonts, colors, and overall design style as well. And if illustrations or photography are part of your visual language, you want a library of assets to work with. Some of these things can be swapped out later, but often that means extensive time and money to redo—especially if it goes beyond just reskinning.
5. Company leadership isn’t aligned (yet).
You’ve seen it all before: a committee has been tasked with overseeing web development without a clear POV. Marketing and Sales don’t agree on messaging and positioning. People have different tastes in design. Everyone wants to weigh in, nobody wants to make a call.
When everyone isn’t on the same page about what you do, that has business (and web) ramifications. “If there’s not agreement between the teams and the executives…[that] would be a sign that you’ve got branding issues,” says Andy.
Since a website is often a microcosm of the brand, it’s only natural that some of these conversations and decisions would come to a head during web development. But as much as possible, many of these big issues should be worked out ahead of time, and the team overseeing the site need goals and process clearly established before bringing in an external partner.
* * *
We talked about areas where a brand foundation may fall short. So let’s play Devil’s advocate: who cares? What does it matter if these things aren’t established when you start developing your site? Does it hurt your business or cost anything?
Here are some common risks and costs of starting before your brand is ready:
Risk #1: Lower conversion rates, lost opportunities
When you build a site before your brand is ready, the most likely outcome is underperformance. Your site might look good or sound clever, but it will be less effective in driving the right people to your site (without the right search terms) and through to the next action (without conversion copywriting). The analytics often show exactly where you lose your audience.
You may also overlook bigger questions or potential game changers. “You can build a page that emulates a sales conversation. That doesn’t mean it’s the right conversation,” says Andy. “There may be a need or opportunity we aren’t discovering,” the kind of thing you may uncovered in a fuller brand strategy engagement.
Risk #2: Inefficient process, starts and stops
Most web development projects have aggressive deadlines. (How many clients want their new site up ASAP? “All of them,” says Andy.)
Starting to build a site before your brand foundation is set is guaranteed to throw a wrench in the process. Suddenly a carefully planned sequence is thrown off. Meetings on navigation turn into esoteric debates around target audience. Approvals need to be revisited and start to lose meaning.
As a result the entire process takes longer (and costs more) and the process stumbles, grind to a halt, or even goes backwards at times.
Risk #3: Weak brand foundation now means redesigning your website sooner
“See you when we do this again next year!” Enough said.
* * *
Bluegreen Branding provides brand strategy consulting with a focus on B2B tech and financial companies. From rapid deployments to long-range missions, we help ambitious brand and marketing leaders articulate their vision, craft communications, and launch impactful campaigns. After interviewing Andy, we wanted to make sure not to put any weird crap in our headline...how'd we do?