Image showing customer navigating online product's page

Why Brand-Centric CRO Won’t Replace User-First CRO

CRO is ultimately about what the user wants and needs. But that doesn’t mean your branding isn’t important. Companies can create a successful synergy between the two by maintaining brand values and uniqueness while optimizing for a better customer experience.

KPIs tend to be brand-centric.

More revenue, more conversions, and an increased time on site are all great outcomes for a brand – but those metrics aren’t important to customers.

All they care about is solving a need.

The misalignment has created an argument around what’s better: Brand-centric or user-first CRO?

The brand-centric camp believes that over-optimization results in “sameness” and a loss of brand personality because everyone’s applying the same best practices.

It’s understandable–we’ve seen an influx in “UX best practice” articles, many of which regurgitate the same old tips and tricks regardless of the brand’s values, mission, and customer base.

While brand-first CRO might sound like a justifiable approach to stand out against competitors, it minimizes users’ needs.

What do they want when they visit a site? What are their KPIs?

What is brand-centric CRO? And why now – after years of collectively advocating for a culture of caring customer experience?

Many companies want to prioritize “brand” because they hear from all kinds of sources that products are becoming increasingly commoditized.

If two companies have the same features and don’t want to compete on price, one way they can differentiate themselves is through their brand.

For companies in this situation, for those at risk of stifling sameness, “brand” has become a sacred part of everything they do. If you truly lack competitive differentiators, appealing to lifestyle aspirations is a compelling alternative. Any tweaks and alterations in favor of “ease of use” or “convention” run the risk of diluting the brand and making it the same as other brands out there.

Some of the arguments for brand-centric CRO make sense.

Here’s a hypothetical example. A company with an attractive, well-branded website hears, anecdotally, about a frustrating friction point in their user journey: users don’t know what to do when they land on a product page. The page is arguably gorgeous, but it’s non-standard. Users don’t know how to bundle, where to click, or even where their products go if they can manage to add them to their cart.

Cue the argument: What’s more important–delivering a seamless journey for users or sticking to the branding guidelines driving this unique approach?

Research shows that 90% of customers want a consistent experience with a brand across all touchpoints, and 64% say that shared values are one of the main reasons they stick with a brand.

When you consider that consistency in branding relies on memorable touchpoints, emotions, and values, it can be difficult to marry that up with the hard data of CRO.

Brand-first vs user-first CRO

The issue stems from the fact that the key stakeholders in the experience have different opinions.

  • Executives believe branding is a key differentiator in crowded markets.
  • UX and UI professionals want to prioritize the user.
  • Users want an enjoyable, friction-free shopping experience.

If you favor brand-centric CRO too much, you maintain brand integrity but you risk compromising the user experience and leaving money on the table.

To add some color to the idea, one of our favorite sayings is, “you can’t read the label from inside the jar.” When you work in your business every day, it’s very hard to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. To remove bias and find conversion opportunities, you have to understand your customer and build a website experience that helps them solve problems.

Alternatively, if you favor user-centric CRO too much, you end up with a sterile purchasing experience that has no personality and gets lost in a “sea of sameness.” This is why any agency that blindly applies best practices and sells you on the value of running hundreds of tests probably isn’t the best option.

After implementing a high volume of best practices, no brand will stand out in the crowd.

So what is the solution?

A CRO partner that blends together user-first CRO with brand-centricity. The right agency can help you balance all of these elements and prioritize needs for both the user and the brand.

Model showing where a brand wants to be in between the sea of sameness (functional but forgettable) and brand-first (memorable but violates convention) to being optimized for user goals and for business

The solution: Blending user-first CRO with brand-centricity

The good news: There’s a happy middle ground between hitting your KPIs, providing an excellent customer experience, and keeping your brand image intact.

Consider CRO as a subset of your brand. Any conversion-focused change to your website should also follow your brand guidelines.

There’s room for both user optimization and maintaining strict branding measures. Keeping both in mind will help you maintain consistency across every webpage while still putting the user experience first.

The correct approach is to do the legwork of gaining a deep understanding of both brand identity and user preferences.

Then, blend the two into a testing program that respects both parties.

Optimizations that align both user goals and brand goals will have the best outcomes. But most brands don’t have the patience and aren’t willing to put in the work to get there.

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Creating synergy between brand needs and user needs for increased conversions

The easiest way to show what a blended brand-centric and user-first CRO strategy looks like in action is through live examples.

We’ve worked with a number of brands who wanted to maintain their strong brand image while creating an exceptionally user-friendly experience.

1. Beckett Simonon: Highlighting brand differentiators on product category pages

Beckett Simonon sells handcrafted leather shoes under ethical and sustainable business practices.

But user-testing quickly revealed two things:

  1. Shoppers didn’t understand what differentiated the brand from other high-end shoe manufacturers
  2. Shoppers placed a huge emphasis on images when purchasing

To tackle both problems, we tested language that focused on the company’s ethical responsibility throughout key image-driven moments throughout the customer journey.

Four brand differentiators of Beckett Simonon laid out in four, dark blue rectangles

On the product category page, we replaced two product tiles with the ethical brand messages tiles.

In one variant we focused on ethical production methods and environmentally friendly sourcing. In the other, we focused on craft and heirloom quality.

By testing these two fundamentally different messages we were able to glean which parts of the brand message spoke best to their audience. We didn’t forsake the brand, but we put the user’s priorities first.

Before and after comparison of the Beckett Simonon product's page. Highlights brand-first vs user-first CRO wherein the before photo is brand-centric while after photo is more user-centric

The Ethical Responsibility test variant produced a 5% higher conversion rate than the control which led to an annualized return on investment of 237%. We managed to simultaneously elevate the user experience and inform customers of the brand’s values.

2. Knoll: Compromising on strict brand messaging to resonate with shoppers

Workplace and residential furnishings brand Knoll has a range of uniquely crafted and handmade products, but this wasn’t clear in its copy.

During our partnership, we tested some warmer language around their products with longer lead times to share more of their uniqueness.

Brand-first vs user-first CRO is synergized by putting using warmer language regarding 8-week lead time and making it for the benefit of the customer by adding "made for you"

Changing the wording from “Lead time: 8 weeks” messaging to “Made for you. Ships in 8 weeks” led to our biggest test win of the year in terms of revenue.

It created synergy between the brand’s needs (priming purchasers that shipment won’t happen for a while) and the customer’s needs (understanding why shipment won’t happen for a while). It also had the benefit of turning a challenge (long lead times) into a compelling conversion booster (custom-made).

3. Fully: Emphasizing brand differentiators throughout the customer journey

Sales for DTC furniture brand Fully ramped up during the pandemic. Like many vendors, they faced supply chain issues and found they were losing out to competitors when their bestsellers were out of stock.

Two key problems came to light during the testing stage:

  1. Users struggled to navigate the site
  2. There was no quick and easy way to explore other products when an item was out of stock
Product page of Fully showcasing bamboo desks as a category under materials

One of Fully’s key brand differentiators was its bamboo desks. We combined this differentiator with the user’s need for clearer navigation to create a filter system where shoppers could filter products by material and other factors.

The test led to a 5.97% increase in conversions and a 75:1 ROI for Fully.

4. Diane James: Communicating brand differentiators to remove friction from the customer journey

Luxury faux flower brand Diane James struggled to communicate the quality of its products.

Consumers quickly left when they saw prices that were considered high for live flowers because the brand wasn’t successfully communicating its main selling point and brand differentiator: That its products were high-quality, long-lasting faux flowers that wouldn’t die in a few weeks.

We ran a handful of multivariate tests to determine how we could communicate the quality of the flowers in the hopes that the pricing issue would stop blocking conversions while simultaneously showcasing the brand’s key differentiator.

When we implemented the winning multivariate tests, the bounce rate improved by 52% and overall revenue increased by 50%.

Successful CRO merges both user experience and brand experience

CRO is ultimately about what the user wants and needs. But that doesn’t mean your branding isn’t important. Companies can still maintain solid brand values and uniqueness while optimizing for and creating a better experience by blending both approaches.

A great CRO agency will merge the needs of the brand and the user to create a strategy that tackles both sides of the argument. It’s not easy, but creating a successful synergy between the two can make your conversion rates soar.

Interested in learning the laws of optimization?

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Natalie Thomas

About the Author

Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas is the Director of Digital Experience & UX Strategy at The Good. She works alongside ecommerce and product marketing leaders every day to produce sustainable, long term growth strategies.