Brand UX

“Pushing the Envelope” from ACM <interactions>, July/August 2005

By Fred Sampson

In the old American west, ranchers branded their cattle to identify their owners. Today, Apple Macintosh faithful tattoo the Apple logo on themselves, as a sign of loyalty rather than ownership. Branding is everywhere: it’s part of the user experience.

Branding is an experience, according to AIGA. Brand experience is defined as “all the interactions people have with a product, service, or organization; the raw material of a brand.” (1) There’s that word: interactions. Even this magazine is a brand.

So where does branding fit with user experience, with interaction design, with human-computer interaction?

Dirk Knemeyer, member of the board of directors for the AIGA Center for Brand Experience, says of brand and user experience:

I’m often asked about the difference between “brand experience” and “user experience”. My distinction is that brand experience relates to the strategic coordination of all the touchpoints people have with a company or product, whereas user experience is limited to the interaction between an individual and a particular digital product or system. That is, each user experience is a component of the entire brand experience. . . Brand lives in each of us: it is our perception of what a company or product is. It is not a logo or an ad campaign or an image, it is how we frame those various interactions in our own personal context. An effective brand is, quite literally, the effective control of the perceptions and behaviors of people. (2)

Aaron Marcus, in an <interactions> article last fall (3), covered some of the factors linking user experience and interaction design with branding. The November/December 2005 issue of <interactions> will provide an opportunity for you to tell us how you see it. I’m sure you have something to say, so don’t be shy.

In his recent bestseller, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells several stories about the impact of brand loyalty on our perceptions. Branding is what makes millions of people assert that Coca-Cola tastes better than Pepsi, despite the evidence of repeated blind taste tests. “We transfer to our sensation of the Coca-Cola taste all of the unconscious associations we have of the brand, the image, the can, and even the unmistakable red of the logo.”(4) Add branding and our taste experience changes.

Branding is what distinguishes Dell, HP, IBM, and Gateway computers from white-box computers. Branding is the Linux penguin. Branding is marketing, it’s sales, it’s a way of life.

Some brands have more impact than their associated products. Naomi Klein, in her 1999 book No Logo, looks at Nike and its famous (also sometimes-tattooed) swoosh, and declares that Nike is a “product-free brand.” (5) Nike sells image more than it sells shoes (which it doesn’t manufacture itself). Brand Nike is built on the hero-athletes it pays to endorse Nike shoes and clothing. Brand is image.

Near the height of the bubble, Tom Peters declared Brand You as the new new thing. While Fast Company, where the concept first appeared in print, has since questioned its wisdom and applicability, (6) I believe that Brand You operates today inside some of the biggest companies in the world. It’s what distinguishes you the employee from every other employee. It’s what distinguishes you the contractor from every other contractor. It’s what distinguishes client from client, customer from customer, user from user. The employee as just another cog in the wheel of industry is gone. The contractor without brand identity doesn’t get the job.

We all identify and distinguish ourselves, intentionally or not, as a Brand You (Brand Me?). We identify and distinguish ourselves by the schools we attended, the degrees we attained, where we teach, and the students we mentor. We identify and distinguish ourselves by the clients we work for, by the projects we produce, by the books and articles we write, by our publishers, by the periodicals we write for. We identify and distinguish ourselves by the conferences we attend, by the organizations we volunteer for, by the committees we contribute to, by the positions we’ve held. We identify and distinguish ourselves by the clothes we wear, by the cars we drive, by how we style our names, by our public and private identities. As Tom Peters said when talking about Brand You, “I am my projects.” (7)

Peters declared in 1999 that “Logo loyalty is dead; Rolodex loyalty is essential.” (7) He got it half right: logos still count (think Mac tattoos), but our networks count more. We are who we know.

Brand Jared Spool. Brand Jakob Nielsen. Brand Donald Trump (some say it’s all he has to offer). Is Apple the brand, or is it Brand Steve Jobs?

Even those of us captive to a full-time job at a name-brand company create our own brand identity by the department we work in, the projects we work on, our outside—but work-related—activities. We can make ourselves more or less visible among our compatriots, and by so doing we can act as virtual free agents, picking and choosing the projects and teammates that will best showcase our talents—and enhance our personal brand.

What part does brand play in your user experience? Share your thoughts with <interactions>.


(1) Neumeier, Marty, ed. (2004). The Dictionary of Brand. New York: AIGA Press. p. 14

(2) Knemeyer, Dirk (2005): personal communication.

(3) Marcus, Aaron (September/October, 2004). Branding 101. interactions, pp. 14-21

(4) Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink. New York: Little, Brown and Company, p. 166

(5) Klein, Naomi (1999). No Logo. New York: Picador USA. pp. 198, 369

(6) Lidsky, David (March, 2005) Me Inc.: the Rethink. Fast Company, p. 16

(7) Peters, Tom (1999). The Brand You 50. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. p. 41, 108


AIGA Center for Brand Experience.

The Apple Collection.

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, a member of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in <interactions>, Volume XII.4, ISSN 1072-5520 (July/August 2005)