How to design your brand to feel safe, or exciting
Use structured designs (e.g. straight lines) to be perceived as effective and reliable. Use unstructured designs (e.g. incomplete shapes) to be perceived as fun and exciting.
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Intuitively, we know that the designs we use should match what we are trying to communicate in our messaging.
But how, exactly?
Imagine a website headline that claims “The most fun travel experience you will ever have”. And then uses 90s-style blocky fonts and is divided into squares and straight lines. That doesn’t feel very exciting.
Or what about a business card that claims “The most reliable tax advisor in town”, and then is full of squiggly lines and psychedelic shapes. That doesn’t feel very stable and predictable, does it?
“This is obvious”, you may think. In hindsight, most things usually are. Yet, our gut feeling deceives us all the time (you probably wouldn’t publicly show your costs, would you?).
So here is what you should do to drive results, according to the latest scientific research.
P.S.: This research integrates many strands of existing research in branding design. We’ve seen some of them in the past. For example, depending on your product, you should use fonts that seem handwritten.
Structured designs make you feel reliable. Unstructured designs make you seem enjoyable.
Channels: Brand design | Website | Retail store | Social media | Ads | Packaging | Marketing communications
For: Both B2C and B2B
Research date: November 2022
If people mainly buy your product because it is effective, safe, and reliable (e.g. bug repellent, work safety boots, health insurance), use designs that look and feel structured (e.g. geometrical shapes, straight lines, symmetrical layouts).
If people mainly buy your product because it is exciting, fun, and enjoyable (e.g. scented candle, fashionable sneakers, romantic restaurant), use designs that look and feel unstructured (e.g. incomplete shapes, rounded lines, unpredictable layouts).
Use these design principles everywhere (e.g. your product’s design, brand logo, ads, website, store layout, packaging). People will like your brand more and will be more likely to choose you.
A perfume ad received 39% to 25% higher clicks when the design of the perfume matched its described positioning
Visual designs (e.g. fonts, shapes, organization of content) can feel either structured (e.g. straight lines) or unstructured (e.g. irregular shapes).
Brands and products can be positioned and described more as fun and enjoyable (known as ‘hedonic products or positioning’) or more as effective and reliable (known as ‘utilitarian products or positioning’).
Matching hedonic products with structured designs, and utilitarian products with unstructured designs, increases how much people like them and are likely to choose them.
For example, as part of a series of 6 experiments, researchers:
Ran Facebook ads for a fictional perfume, which were clicked 2,503 times:
The perfume was described as either hedonic (“Delightful. Great for special and fun occasions”) or utilitarian (“Long-lasting. Great for work and everyday occasions”)
The perfume bottle in the ad had either straight (structured) or wavy (unstructured) lines on it
Clicks were 39% higher (2.53% vs 1.82% CTR) when the ad used the utilitarian description with the structured design (vs the unstructured design)
Clicks were 25% higher (2.54% vs 2.03% CTR) when the ad used the hedonic description with the unstructured design (vs structured design)
Analyzed 128 logos of top brands and found that companies that have their design structure aligned with their brand positioning (hedonic - such as KFC - or utilitarian - such as UPS), are more valuable and have higher brand equity.
When people already know a product or company is what it claims to be (e.g. very reliable), because they have experienced it before or have other means to verify it (e.g. certifications, strong social proof), the effect of appropriate design structure becomes less important.
🧠 Why it works
When brands claim that they are effective and reliable, or fun and exciting, we look for cues and information that confirms that they are. Structured or unstructured designs are signals that back up those claims.
Structured designs feel organized, stable, and predictable. So the brand seems effective and reliable too.
Unstructured designs feel surprising, dynamic, and unpredictable. So the brand seems fun and exciting too.
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Utilitarian vs hedonic positioning is a spectrum. Some products sit in the middle (e.g. it’s important for a sound system to be both effective and enjoyable). It’s unclear which design such brands should use. It probably doesn’t matter much.
The researchers did not analyze in detail which exact design elements, and combinations, are most important in driving structured vs unstructured perceptions. For example, does a square or a perfect circle feel more structured?
🏢 Companies using this
Intel (computer processors) uses a structured design that reinforces its positioning as effective and reliable. It uses symmetry and balanced proportions in its designs, from its logo to its ads.
Pepsi (soft drinks) uses unstructured designs that emphasize how enjoyable and exciting it is.
Walgreens (pharmacy chain) incorrectly uses unstructured designs, which probably hurt its brand perceptions.
Subway (sandwich chain) incorrectly uses structured designs, which probably makes products appear less enjoyable.
You can find design examples of these companies here.
⚡ Steps to implement
Structured designs are symmetric, balanced, and regular - such as straight lines and complete geometrical elements (e.g. rectangles, full circles).
Unstructured designs are asymmetric, unbalanced, and irregular - such as unpredictable lines and incomplete shapes.
Consider whether you are positioning your products as hedonic or utilitarian.
Match every design element of your brand to your positioning. From your ads to website to logo to store layout to social media graphics.
Before rolling out your designs, test them by asking people whether they think they look structured or unstructured. For example, run a quick survey on a service like PickFu.
🔍 Study type
Online experiments, field experiment (Facebook ads of a fictional perfume), and market observation (of 128 brand logos).
Marketing by Design: The Influence of Perceptual Structure on Brand Performance. Journal of Marketing (November 2022).
Felipe M. Affonso. Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University
Chris Janiszewski. Warrington College of Business Administration, University of Florida
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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