Drive and Convert (Ep. 069): Why Brand-First CRO Won’t Replace User-First CRO

In this episode, Jon and Ryan talk about the ongoing debate between brand-first and user-first CRO. They discuss what brand-first CRO means, the pros and cons of each approach and how to blend the two together in order to achieve the best results.

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About This Episode:

What’s more important–delivering a seamless journey for users or sticking to the branding guidelines driving this unique approach? This is the question people hope to answer when trying to choose between brand-first and user-first CRO. This week, Jon and Ryan suggest a third option: the best outcomes come from aligning user goals AND brand goals. 

They discuss why there is an argument over brand-first and user-first CRO, finding a middle ground between the two and what CRO is ultimately about.  

Listen to the full episode if you want to learn:

  1. Why branding is important
  2. Why customer experience can’t be replaced  
  3. How to blend user goals and brand goals

If you have questions, ideas, or feedback to share, hit us up on Twitter. We’re @jonmacdonald and @ryangarrow.

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Episode Transcript:

Announcer:
You’re listening to Drive and Convert, a podcast about helping online brands to build a better e-commerce growth engine with Jon MacDonald and Ryan Garrow.

Ryan:
Hey, Jon. Hope you enjoyed too much turkey and wine over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Jon:
More of one than the other, let’s put it that way.

Ryan:
I know. My family did a lot of recycling going out this week in the glass bin. Our neighbors are always impressed. So Jon, there’s been some interesting things in the e-commerce, I guess Twitter sphere, LinkedIn sphere, if that’s actually even a real term about something that caught my eye or caught my ears about this term called brand-first CRO. It sounds really cool and I don’t know why anybody would not be interested in talking about or learning or improving their brand-first CRO because obviously, if I own a brand, I want my brand to be in first place. So it sounds great, but I have seen some rumblings in maybe some of your comments that you may not be bought into brand-first CRO and all that is coming out of that. And man, there may be some online debates that if you want to look for that, you might be able to find some of Jon’s comments. But to start off, what is this brand-first CRO? What does it actually mean? It sounds cool.

Jon:
Yeah. Well, look, I think that your guess is as good as mine, but here’s the reality, that more revenue, more conversions, increased time on site, all of these things are great outcomes for a brand, but those metrics, they’re just not important to customers at all. What customers really care about is solving their need and that’s it. They’re not at your site to hang out. They’re not at your site to learn about your brand for the heck of it. They’re there because they have a need to be solved and they think your brand can help them do that and they want to know if that’s true and your brand can support that, but it certainly is not first. I think this misalignment in general has really just created an argument around what’s better in terms of brand first or user first conversion optimization.

Ryan:
Got it. So when somebody is talking about brand-first CRO, would you even consider what you’ve seen of that term? Would it actually be CRO? What is it trying to do, I guess, or what are they trying to come across?

Jon:
Yeah. I think that the common argument is that brand-first CRO really eliminates things that might not look as good. That’s a initial first comment. Here’s the thing, the word brand means so many different things to so many different people that it’s this catch-all term. It’s actually quite genius that, you start hearing about this a lot, that there’s a whole contingent of folks utilizing this term now. The reality is it means something different to every single person that uses the term and reads it, and that’s why it’s hard to put an opinion what exactly it means. But the issue around why this came up, it really stems from the fact that key stakeholders in the online experience said brands have very different opinions. Executives really believe branding is a key differentiator, especially in crowded markets, which is the majority of e-comm these days unfortunately.

Ryan:
For sure.

Jon:
Then you’ve got UX and UI people, those professionals really want to prioritize the user. And users want an enjoyable and friction free shopping experience, again, solve their pain or need. But if you really are in favor of brand-centric CRO, you are looking to maintain the brand integrity, but what happens out of that is you risk compromising the user experience and then end up leaving money on the table.

Ryan:
Yes.

Jon:
Alternatively, looking at the other side of that, if you are really all about user-centric CRO, you end up with just the sterile purchasing experience that has no personality and gets lost in the sea of sameness that you’ve heard me talk about. That’s why I think that any agency that really blindly applies best practices and sells you the value of running hundreds of tests probably isn’t the best option. But the reality is, after implementing a high volume of best practices, no brand is going to stand out in that crowd. So it’s really hard to support just taking the user’s needs off the table and really focusing on the brand side of that because what’s going to happen is you’re going to end up in a sea of sameness.

Ryan:
Yeah. I think, as with most things that we talk to, it’s like, yeah, it’s going to be somewhere in the middle, generally speaking, around it. We have this tension a lot, [inaudible 00:04:49]. I am primarily driving top line. I want conversions. I want people coming to the site, finding what they want and getting out. So I would be generally an advocate for CRO, CRO, CRO. Who cares what it looks like? I just need it to flow and I need it to be solid for the person coming, trying to execute and transact. I have a partner that is much more visual, wants things to look a certain way and have a certain feel and there’s this constant tension, which I think is a good thing for brands,-

Jon:
I agree.

Ryan:
… but he wants to pull us all the way over here. I can have all of these brand stories and all these things on the side about brand. I’m like, yes, but some of that doesn’t matter and some of it is going to hurt some of the other things we’re trying to do. Just let people check out. They don’t need to read our story.

Jon:
And this is exactly going back. The reason I think this term is a little, maybe triggering is the right word for me, is going back to my days as being a big part of the Flash community. Everybody complained about Flash about being too brand-heavy, not being easy to use websites. Instead, what happened, people would build sites because they could that were impossible to use, but were beautiful.

Ryan:
We’re totally dating ourselves the fact that we know Flash, Jon. We’re dinosaurs in e-commerce at this point.

Jon:
Exactly. That’s reality, unfortunately. I guess the way I look at it is, I don’t want to go back there. That debate has been settled. We’ve been there as an internet and especially in e-comm to where it can get abused. I see that coming back and I’m concerned about that. Now again, the pendulum swings. It’s going to swing right back and come back. The reality here though is you really want to focus on a conversion partner that blends user-first CRO with, I call it brand centricity, meaning, it all involves the brand. The correct approach, I think, is to do the legwork of really gaining a deep understanding of both a brand identity and their user’s preferences, then try to blend both of those into a testing program that respects both parties. But just swinging to one side of that pendulum, all users, you have a really sterile website that really isn’t going to stand out at all.
If you go all brand, you’re going to have a website that’s really impossible to use and you’re going to be focusing on talking about yourself the whole time. I just really want to be clear that conversion optimization is ultimately about what the user wants and needs. That doesn’t mean your branding isn’t important. It is, but optimizations that align user goals and brand goals are going to have the best outcome. So keep that in mind. I’m not saying brand doesn’t matter. 100% it does, but it has to be used in the right place and in the right supporting way for that buying journey.

Ryan:
Mm-hmm. [inaudible 00:07:46] if we even oversimplify a little bit and say the majority of new customers to your brand at this exact moment in e-commerce time are probably landing on a product page and they should see in the header who you are and the brand-

Jon:
Of course.

Ryan:
… and the fact that you are the brand and the product is your brand, therefore the alignment’s there much more than that before they can click a button or pick a variant. At that point, why are you stuffing that in there? That’s not where you sell your brand. They saw it on social and found you because of a search. I would say there’s even just better ways to interject your brand into that experience than in the middle of the PDP page where they’re trying to just buy a product.

Jon:
I would wholeheartedly agree. I think that those who are really pushing for brand-first CRO, what they would say is all of those things you just mentioned are true. However, the biggest issue that they have is that you are eliminating the brand from that. And I would argue that’s not true. What they want is, okay, let’s have the brand story, why I should care. Let’s really focus on the messaging of why it’s important you buy from them as opposed to focusing on what pain or need you’re solving by buying this product.

Ryan:
This is perfect for coffee. For whatever reason, I’ve talked to a lot of coffee brands in the last year. I spoke at some coffee event because they focus on Portland because we drink a lot of coffee in Portland.

Jon:
Yes.

Ryan:
I drink a lot coffee.

Jon:
Love it.

Ryan:
Yeah, I like it.

Jon:
Same here.

Ryan:
Every coffee company I’ve ever talked to, what makes you stand out? Oh, we help all the farmers in these really remote places and we give back, then we meet with them. We sniff every bean and it’s… Every single one of them has the exact same reason. At the end of the day, I just assume that’s part of a coffee brand at this point. I’m going to a brand to buy something, I don’t care. I know you’re probably supporting something because if you’re not, why would people rebuy you? I’m not going to get that experience. So it’s like let me buy it, experience it, and if your product backs up what I expected and it’s a good quality coffee, it’s very easy to send me an email to get a repurchase because you probably know when I’m going to run out or you have a good guess and get me to subscription because you’re going to add an extra dollar to Bob the farmer in Ethiopia because of my subscription.
Oh, great. I love your coffee. It’s great. I’m going to keep coming back, but I don’t care about Bob in Ethiopia yet when I’m on your product page and haven’t bought from you yet. I don’t care that you give back yet. I need to see that your product backs it up and I like it first, then your brand story becomes more, I guess, a reason for me to get involved since it’s so hard, I think, to have that brand story before I’ve ever experienced your product and believe in it. It’s like the brand story for most companies backs up and justifies my purchase rather than convinces me, because everybody’s got this crazy brand story about how they’re serving all these underprivileged people, which is good and I like that for businesses to do, but it’s just not going to shine through clutter anymore.

Jon:
Well, and let’s look at this, continuing with the coffee trend, two other ways as well. One is, I don’t like Ethiopian coffee. I don’t care if the only coffee you sell is Ethiopia coffee. I don’t care anything else about your brand. I’m not going to buy that coffee because it’s just not a flavor profile I like. So I stay away from it. Again, brand is not going to influence my job to be done there, which is find coffee that I like. Now, there’s a second coffee company called Death Wish Coffee that I think we’ve both worked with over the years. Death Wish does a great job of being different and having some brand to it. The brand being this is a hardcore coffee that is way more caffeinated than your normal coffee. Now even in that brand, what is the job to be done? Be more caffeinated.
I’m going for the caffeine. I don’t care about flavor. So that’s who their market is and they’re able to communicate that. But if the website, when we were optimizing their site, we clearly found people were coming to the site and they wanted to know more about this highly caffeinated coffee. That’s why they were there. They didn’t care that they saw an ad during the Super Bowl, which they actually did run a Super Bowl ad because they won a contest with QuickBooks and a whole thing went on. They got a lot of attention out of that. It was a cool ad, but the reality was the ad was like, want to be more caffeinated? This is the coffee you need, and that’s why people came to the site. Now, if they came to the site and it was all just look at us, we’re Death Wish, nobody would know what that meant. They wouldn’t know why I’m here.

Ryan:
Mm-hmm.

Jon:
Is this coffee going to kill me?

Ryan:
[inaudible 00:12:32].

Jon:
So I think really, the way to think about it is what are people looking to do and that needs to be the focus. It doesn’t mean that you put Death Wish aside. It just means that you really give it a secondary place in my opinion. Now you could say the same thing about what is it? Death water? What’s the water? Why is everything death? Liquid Death.

Ryan:
Oh, Liquid Death, Liquid Death.

Jon:
It’s sparkling water in a can that-

Ryan:
Sparkling water.

Jon:
… looks cool.

Ryan:
That’s it.

Jon:
If you ask the founder-

Ryan:
That’s so awesome.

Jon:
… of Liquid Death why he came out with that, he said it’s because people want to look cool at a concert, at a party even though they’re not drinking alcohol. Just holding a can of Pellegrino or whatever was not cool. He’s like, “So what did I do? I put a better label on it.” Again, what was the job to be done here? Very clear, it was to look cool at a party. It was not that they sell better sparkling water. You ask anybody, does this water taste amazing? They’re like, “Yeah, I don’t know. It’s sparkling water.” That’s it, sparkling water.

Ryan:
Yeah.

Jon:
So here’s the reality. If they just focus on only the brand of Liquid Death, people would be like, why am I drinking Liquid Death? But instead it’s like, “Hey, the job here is to have a water that doesn’t look like water. That’s my goal,” and so that’s how you then convert people by explaining that. So I think there’s a big divide here between what the users are looking to do and why a brand is talking about themselves.

Ryan:
I agree. I think people have to know who you are, but that also becomes a function of a quality product that people enjoy and have a reason for it after the fact. That’s where the word of mouth comes into play.

Jon:
Yeah. They have to have a reason to buy your product and it can’t be just because it’s a cool product. There’s a differentiating point there and that’s what they’re at your site for. If you focus on the story of only about Liquid Death, then people are going to be like, “Yeah, okay, whatever.” But if you’re like, “Hey, I like sparkling water and I want to look cool drinking it,” then probably that’s what you need to be stating on your site.

Announcer:
You’re listening to Drive and Convert, a podcast focused on e-commerce growth. Your hosts are Jon MacDonald, founder of The Good, a conversion rate optimization agency that works with e-commerce brands to help convert more of their visitors into buyers, and Ryan Garrow of Logical Position, a digital marketing agency offering pay-per-click management, search engine optimization, and website design services to brands of all sizes. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us out by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts and sharing it with a friend or colleague. Thank you.

Ryan:
How are you taking this? Because you have to be talking to people now as they come in through your lead generation thinking, “Ooh, I want brand-first CRO. That sounds cool.” And you’re like, “Well, really?” So you’re trying to get them to focus on the brand. Yes, can’t go away, but brand-centric CRO. So what is that starting to look like as you’re having these conversations and executing, I’m assuming, on some of these brand-centric CRO programs?

Jon:
Yeah. Most people are coming to us that want to prioritize brand because they’re recognizing their products are becoming increasingly commoditized and they’re in a commoditized marketplace. If two companies have the same features and they don’t want to compete on price, the only way they can compete is on their brand. I think for companies in this situation, brand has become a sacred part of everything they do, and that’s just unfortunate. Because if you truly lack competitive differentiators, appealing to a lifestyle operation, aspiration, excuse me, is really the only compelling alternative. Again, this is where Liquid Death comes in versus Death Wish coffee for instance.
So any tweaks or alterations to the site in favor of ease of use or convention, I think it just runs the risk of diluting the brand. So I think there are some arguments for brand-centric CRO that makes sense, but the reality here is again, those companies have bigger issues. So you’re defaulting to brand because you don’t have any other differentiating points that you can find. That is where it becomes an issue. If you just have sparkling water in a can, what else do you have to sell on other than the label-

Ryan:
That’s true.

Jon:
… that’s on the can?

Ryan:
They charge four bucks a can for it though. They’re crazy.

Jon:
But they’re an outlier too. How many brands have you seen do that well? My point here is that eventually, people are going to be like, why am I paying $4 a can for this when I can pay 50 cents a can and get the exact same thing without the pretty label? That’s likely going to be what happens over the long term. So yeah, there’s more examples to be had here even. It’s a hypothetical example. There’s a company with, I don’t know, an attractive, well-branded website and they hear anecdotally that there’s a frustrating friction point in their user journey. Maybe it’s that users don’t know what to do when they land on a product page. So the page, it’s arguably gorgeous, but it’s non-standard, so harking back to those Flash days. We all make pretty things that were hard to figure out.
So let’s say users just don’t know where to buy on that site. They don’t know where to click and even where the products go, how they get them in the cart or where to even go once they add them to the cart. So now you really end up queuing the argument. What’s more important, delivering that seamless journey for users or sticking to the branding guidelines that are driving this unique approach? Research shows that 90% of customers want a consistent experience with the brand across all touchpoints. 64% of those say that shared values are one of the main reasons they stick with a brand. When you consider that consistency and branding relies on memorable touchpoints, emotions, I don’t know, values, it’s really difficult to marry that up with the hard data of CRO and I think that’s why people default to brand, because it’s really hard to do both of these things, to combine them, really difficult.
If you just say, we’re going to do brand for CRO, it’s almost like a shortcut, just makes it super easy because then you’re like, “Well, I don’t have to worry about figuring out what people want. I’m just going to default to the fact that I can convince people we’re cooler.” And if you can do that, then great, but I argue at that point, you’re not solving problems. You’re creating an unsustainable hamster wheel for yourself.

Ryan:
Mm-hmm, yeah. And this is a big area. I tell companies all the time, you can’t just look at a competitor and see what they’re doing and assume it’s better or working just because you think they’re worth… If you were competing with Liquid Death and you’re like, “Wait. It’s easy. I can put a badass label on this can and let’s go do it.” No. Or they have a really confusing checkout process. We should do that because it’s working for Liquid Death. Look, they’re all over. There are so many points to building a brand that’s successful that go way beyond what your website looks like even. It’s just there are so-

Jon:
For sure.

Ryan:
… many things that go into that your brand-centric PR brand, whatever, focused PDP pages for CRO, that is not going to build your brand. I’m sorry. I’d love to be able to say, “We have that power. We’re going to drive shopping traffic to PDP page and we’re going to put brand all over it and they’re going to love you and you are going to be worth 10X what you are this month just in six months. It’d be great.” It’s just not going to happen that way.

Jon:
Well, look, I still think you can blend them and that’s the good news. I think there is a middle ground between hitting those KPIs and providing excellent customer experience. Along with that, you can also keep your brand image intact. It’s difficult, but I think there is a middle ground here. First of all, I would consider CROs a subset of your brand. So any conversion focus change that you’re going to make to your site should also follow your brand guidelines. Pretty simple. This is something our team at The Good does every day. We’re never reinventing the brand. We’re working within the confines of a brand to optimize.

Ryan:
Yeah, you’re not going to suggest a button of color of your biggest competitor.

Jon:
Right, or hey, we’re not going to come in and change your logo. We’re not going to completely change the messaging around the product or the brand. We’ll work within the confines there. We’ll make suggestions, small improvements, but we’re never going to come in and wholesale recommend changes of those sorts that are going to make you redo entire marketing campaigns for instance. Now, there might be insights that come from that, and I think this is where there’s room for both user optimization and maintaining strict brand measures, but keeping in mind that you have to maintain consistency across your entire site, and I think that is part of putting the user experience first. So if you just have a landing page that looks completely different from the rest of your site, people are going to go to your site and they’re going to get confused when they cut off to that landing page. So I think the correct approach is to do the legwork of really gaining that deep understanding of both your brand identity and your user preferences.
So blend them both together and respect both parties. I think you’re going to have the best outcomes that way. There’s brands that don’t have the patience, that aren’t willing to put in the work to get there and those are the ones who are going to focus just on the brand and optimize around brand and say, “Hey, we need to make this better-looking or we need to really sell the message, sell the label” as opposed to saying, “Hey, we’re selling a brand that’s going to get you the most caffeinated and out the door and ready for your day. Here are the benefits for you.” It all goes back to jobs to be done, in my opinion.

Ryan:
Got it. I agree. I think those are all phenomenal points. Have you seen yet a brand that’s putting this into action well that’s being able to blend both of those?

Jon:
I can think of a couple off the top of my head. The first is Beckett Simonon, which is a high-end custom shoe manufacturer that we’ve worked with. What we did there was highlight brand differentiators on product category pages. This is a great way to combine the two. Shoppers did not understand what differentiated the brand from other high-end shoe people, shoe manufacturers. What happened was shoppers replaced a huge emphasis on the images because that’s all they had to rely on. So they would look and say, “Oh, that shoe looks great, but how do I know what I’m going to get?” So to tackle that problem, we tested language that really just focused on the company’s ethical responsibility through key image-driven moments. What I mean by that is we went on a category page where you would have 20 shoes showing, 20 styles of shoes.
We would take each of those panels and we would weave the brand messaging into some of those panels. So you’d have four products and the fifth tile would be a brand message tile. Then you’d have four more products, the fifth tile will be a brand message tile. What that allowed us to do is people were scrolling through the site. They would stop and they would see some brand messaging worked in. So was this brand first? No. Was this brand-centric? Yes. We integrated the brand into the category page. As people were trying to get their tasks done, we were able to support that measure by saying, here’s some other stuff you may care about that might influence your decision. But on the category pages, not that we put up a huge header, what the messaging around good things the brand was doing, and then we made people scroll way down just to get to the products. No, we get them straight to the products, what they were there to do. We helped them filter very easily, and then within that flow, at that point, we would show some brand messaging.

Ryan:
I love that example because I’m a big advocate of category pages just because generally, they can capture higher volume, non-brand terms where I don’t quite know what I want yet, but I know like, hey, I want a high heel pump. Great, this is all our high heel pumps. Or I want a casual running shoe. You can get a lot of options there. When I’m searching for a specific product, I go to a product page. I’m just trying to get that exact product and get out of here. But categories are hugely valuable for this. I love that blend.

Jon:
Yeah.

Ryan:
Cool.

Jon:
There is another one, Knoll. If you’re not sure who Knoll is, they make office furniture, really modern office furniture. Mid-century modern is what they’re known for. Design within Reach, all of that same company. What we tested with Knoll was warmer language around their products having longer lead times. We did this to share more of the brand uniqueness. What I mean by that is everything on their site said, “Lead time, eight weeks.” We changed that to be a little more centric to the consumer, made for you, ships in eight weeks. See the difference? Instead of “Lead time, eight weeks,” it’s now, “It’s made for you and it ships in eight weeks.” That led to a massive test win in terms of revenue for the brand, massive. By having a brand-centric approach, we were able to say that really, there was some synergy there.
We were priming purchasers that the shipment wouldn’t happen for a while, which was needed and also the customer’s needs, understanding why the shipment won’t happen for a while. It also had the benefit of turning the challenge of long lead times into a compelling conversion booster, which was custom-made. So it’s really an easy way to think about this of, hey, how can you integrate the brand into what the consumer is trying to do? The consumer is trying to complete the purchase. They want to know how long it’s going to take, full-on CRO approach, not just focusing on user. We just say lead time, bringing a little more of the brand. It’s like, “Hey, you know what? This is custom-made for you,” which almost everything at Knoll is. So that’s really the idea there.

Ryan:
Oh, yeah. That’s cool. I think that’s awesome. I think obviously, brands should be thinking about this through the whole CRO process and they probably likely should have had this top of mind for years, but it takes somebody pushing something into the Twitter world and LinkedIn to try to get people to be like, “Oh, brand is important,” but again, it’s not the most important. It’s a piece of it.

Jon:
Look, I’ve said this a hundred times and I do think it’s true, and I don’t fault people for taking things to an extreme because I do think if, let’s say, you’re sitting on a fence in between two yards. One neighbor is fully on the user side, one neighbor is fully on the brand side. If you don’t get off that fence and take one side or the other, then you’re not going to have either raving fans or you’re not going to be pissing people off. You really have to have both of those things happening in order to get attention. So I understand why some people are really pushing this right now because it gets a lot of attention, but I think it’s probably hurting the industry more than it’s helping. What’s happening is you’re getting people to rally behind a term that is ultimately not going to be sustainable for them, and that’s my concern.
I think CRO is ultimately about what a user wants and needs. It doesn’t mean your branding is not important. I still think companies can maintain solid brand values and keep that uniqueness, well optimizing for, and really even creating a better experience. I think that’s very possible. We do it every day. I think at The Good, we really want to merge the needs of a brand and the user to create that strategy. I just think it really takes both sides to make it work. It’s not easy and that’s why people default to one or the other. But I think if you can find a successful strategy between the two, you can really see your user experience and your conversion rates just soar.

Ryan:
Fully agree after talking to you and understanding it better. So everybody listen, you need to think about brand-centric CRO. Make sure the brand’s in there, but it’s not the most important thing. Thanks for the education, Jon.

Jon:
Of course.

Ryan:
I look forward to seeing people weave brand into their CRO rather than have it be the focus.

Jon:
I will now get off of my soapbox. Thanks for listening. I’m going to go back to drinking wine. How is that?

Ryan:
Yeah. We still got some time left this year. Let’s make sure it [inaudible 00:28:13] well.

Jon:
Thank you, Ryan.

Ryan:
Thanks.

Announcer:
Thanks for listening to Drive and Convert with Jon McDonald and Ryan Garrow. Keep up to date with new episodes. You can subscribe at driveandconvert.com.

Jon MacDonald smiling at the camera for The Good

About the Author

Jon MacDonald

Jon MacDonald is founder and President of The Good, a conversion rate optimization firm that has achieved results for some of the largest online brands including Adobe, Nike, Xerox, Verizon, Intel and more. Jon regularly contributes content on conversion optimization to publications like Entrepreneur and Inc. He knows how to get visitors to take action.