Performance vs. Branding: How to Design Creative That Works for Both

By David Lachowicz, Creative Director at DMi Partners

There’s on-brand design, there’s beautiful on-brand design, and there’s beautiful on-brand design that achieves performance goals.

It’s not impossible for brand designers to deliver creative that performs – that is, creative that leads users to take the desired action. In fact, I’d argue that a great designer knows how to create for the goal, which means a brand marketer can be taught to deliver performance.

That said, it is a learning process. I speak as a designer who started in branding, moved to designing for web, and now have thousands of creatives from email designs to banner ads to new websites to Shopify instances under my belt: you can do it, but there are steps to take and an overall approach to follow that will get you there quickly.

In this post, I’ll explain how this former brand designer learned to deliver creative that performs – from the research I trust most to the way I approach each project, with more than a little user understanding layered in.

Don’t recreate the wheel

We lean heavily on research and training/certifications from the Nielsen-Norman Group, one of the most highly respected UX-focused organizations in the world, to stay on top of user behavior trends and emerging best practices. Their research and knowledge give all our designers, no matter their background or experience, an incredible base for understanding UX layouts.

It’s also important to keep the fundamentals of high-performing creative in mind: you need your buttons (CTAs) and messaging to pop. Thinking of it from the user’s perspective, the job of good UX and creative is to draw attention to the right elements (usually by smart use of contrast) and make sure the surrounding message is strong enough to provoke the desired action.

Set your priorities: layout, branding, flair

I’ve taught my team to create web experiences by starting with an optimal performance layout, with elements and copy arranged to elicit the desired action. Step two is to apply a layer of branding (fonts, colors, and anything brand standards dictate).

Once you’ve checked those two (required) boxes, use any creative freedom to add flair that you think will add to the vibe without confusing the user. Done in that order, you’ll respect the goals of the design and the branding guidelines, and you’ll know the exact amount of wiggle room you have to come up with a truly differentiated design.

Balance best practices and knowledge of the customer

There are certain best practices – prioritize one CTA, not several; remember that the users read from left to right – that rarely change.

That said, it’s okay to test different ideas, especially when the goal, the brand, and the end user call for something that goes against “the book.” I can think of a few times when the audience of one of our brand clients called for something specific that went against standard practices, and we tested some variations of creative elements until we got the desired response.

In short, best practices are best practices for a reason, but if you have a rich enough understanding of your end customer that tells you it’s time to color outside the lines, follow your instincts.

Final thoughts

Marketing as an industry has been guilty of keeping performance and branding in silos, but creative teams shouldn’t think that way. As I said before, a good designer – even one fresh out of school – knows how to create with a goal in mind. This means with the right training and research tools in place, you can hire the best talent regardless of experience and help them learn to translate different goals into effective web experiences.