Emotional Sustainability in Brand and Product Design


What does it take to design a brand that really sticks with users?
Product design is a creative discipline that challenges designers to build an aesthetic, functional and marketable product. The rapid speed of innovation has stimulated interest and change in designing the user experience. The discipline is now responsible to create a new paradigm in the product design process, as there are many more factors to explore. Human behaviour has been studied to inform the design of this curated user experience.
Creating an emotional connection to your target market can translate into conversion, sales, as well as online and offline interaction. Good design is a huge part of this process. In order to understand the role of design, when establishing consumer relationships, we have to define design. Design is not just embellishing content , or the crafting of a clean site or application. Design can also be a way of thinking that is mindful of your market’s needs, and ideally addresses them before they are even known.
To build an emotionally sustainable brand, Design thinking requires a focus on building personalities and stories in tandem with building a product in order to establish an emotionally sustainable brand. Giving a product a life beyond its base function is how Apple gets us so excited about their latest release or why your favourite restaurant has a line.

The Emotional Levels of Brand Design

In the startup world, there is a term called “Unique Value Proposition.” This proposition is a clear statement that communicates to potential customers how your product or service will improve their lives. Instead of focusing on the unique value proposition, I often pitch the concept of the emotional value proposition. The difference between the two is that the latter is based on narratives or personality, while the former often occupies a more practical space.
Author Donald Norman offers a digestible breakdown of a concept he refers to as the levels of processing. These levels can be directly applied in product design.

The Visceral

The first emotional level is visceral. We have all experienced this level of emotion, as it is usually outside of our control and directly related to our physical senses. The visceral is an automatic, “prewired” level of emotion. When experiencing visceral emotions we make rapid judgments that are largely biologically determined. We are quickly able to categorize experiences as good or bad – safe or dangerous. This level is dominated by our senses.
In a three dimensional sense, the visceral is our environment. We react to the senses in the air, the touch on our skin, the sounds nearby and any taste we experience. Hearing a loud, unexpected sounds while relaxing on a quiet beach may ignite the classic flight or fight reaction. This would be an example of a visceral reaction.
Translated into design, the User Interface as a product would be a great example of designing for the visceral. The two dimensional world of our phones may not include smell, and a wide variety of touch – but color and fonts can have a similar effect.
These initial, visceral reactions shape our immediate experience of a product or brand.
How can design elements create sensory, visceral emotion within users?            How can design elements create sensory, visceral emotion within users?


The behavioral emotional level mostly involves cognitive processing within the mind. Behavioral, is the interaction between your product or service and the consumer over time. This level occurs as the user moves through the cognitive process of planning, expecting and learning within your product.
In the world of web or application design, the behavioral level could be seen as the User Experience design. How is the consumer interacting with your brand or product?
How easy is it to reach customer support on your website, for example? A hard to react support team may build narratives with a lack of trust and therefore reduce the emotional connection. A very interactive site with many members, for example, may build a sense of community in the user’s narrative of the brand or product.


The third emotional level is reflective and it’s about the message. The reflective level thinks back to the behavioral user experience and the visceral reactions to the user interface and gives the experience meanings. The reflective stage is when the user makes a connection between the experience and their own sense of self.
The meaning assigned to an experience will be contingent on a variety of variables; including the user’s culture, past experiences, and the situation they find themselves in when interacting with your product.
The reflective state is the most conscious of the three levels of emotion and can observe the impact of both the visceral and behavioural levels.
Can your users see themselves in your product?

                                   Can your users see themselves in your product?

Addressing the Cognitive Levels in Product Design

Building emotional ties with a brand and their customers requires the designer to know their market. Each generation enters the world with a new set of needs and understanding of how the world is. Understanding the beliefs and priorities of your market is vital for your brand’s emotional durability.
For example, marketing to millennials has become a challenge because of the noncommittal, value based, experience oriented relationship this age group has towards brands. Understanding the value systems of your target market will help you build your product’s value.

Identify Your Market, and be Specific

Target market selection is a very important decision for many companies. Identifying your target market starts with looking at the problem you are trying to solve, or the ways you are attempting to make your user’s life better. It is imperative to tailor your marketing and sales efforts to reach the specific segment of the population that will most likely interact with you brand. As much as we may like to think our products or services will be useful and beneficial to all markets, this is often not the case. A broad market is a great starting place, but defining the specifics of your market will allow you to create a more curated experience for your users. Targeting a specific market attracts loyal first users or customers who then can become advocates for your brand or product.
Identifying a customer’s desire to buy your product or interact with your service is a question of customer values. Understanding the value your product offers goes beyond knowing its ‘features’. A feature is a default characteristic of your product or service. Today, iPhones now come with the ability to scan your fingerprint. This feature is used to unlock your phone, make purchases and to open certain application. To some, the value or benefit of this feature is safety. Understanding that your market is not looking for a fingerprint scanner in a phone but rather values safety is a very important distinction to make.
What value does your product or service have?
Using the iPhone as example, safety is a largely universal value and will only segment your target market so far. Technical factors such as geography, demographics, psychographics as well as behaviour will help dissect your market further.

Don’t Create User Story, Listen to Them

After identifying your market, listen to them. It is important that your brand has an internalized sense of who it is speaking and interacting with. Qualitative research is a method focused on understanding the motives behind thought patterns and behaviours. Interviews are a great source of data in qualitative research, so are observations. Observations are extremely important when designing an emotionally sustainable brand, as they take place in a setting that naturally occurs in contrast to a formal interview.
Renata Tesch, a qualitative researcher, outlines three major approaches to qualitative research that we can apply to product or brand design.


The ethnographic approach, in regards to qualitative research, is largely based on the understanding of culture and its influences in a potential customer’s or user’s behaviour. Originally, designers could assume concepts of culture around ethnicity and geographic location. Today the concept of culture is much more broad as it includes groups, organizations, sexuality and much more. The most common way to study the ethnography of your target market is through observation.


Phenomenology is the focus on the individual and their understanding of the world. This research method focuses on the individual’s subjective experience and personal interpretation of the world. With this method of research we can understand a collective ideology of our market through individuals, to perhaps create a related brand culture. A great way to collect this type of data would be through formal and informal interviews.

Field Research

Field research is an extremely broach approach to qualitative research but will certain help create a more internalized sense of your target market. Field research is when the researcher enters a natural setting where their market can be found and observers. Notes are critical for successful field research.
Identify your market, and listen to them!

                                            Identify your market, and listen to them!

Create a Personality

A brand personality can be defined as a set of human characteristics associated with a brand. To illustrate, GoPro personifies itself as an adventurous, sporty, young, and creative brand. Consumers can easily relate to a brand if they can project their identity onto the values of the product. Research around brand building techniques has suggested that the greater the connection between the human characteristics that describe an individual idealized or actual self and those that describe the brand, the higher preference the user or consumer will have for that specific brand.
Although there may be similarities in the adjectives used to describe human characteristics and brand traits, they are very different the ways that they are formed. Human traits are based on attitudes, beliefs, physical appearance as well as behaviour. Brand personalities are built based on direct or indirect contact with the consumer or user. People begin to build personas of brands based on the employees, the CEO, brand endorsements – and many more factors. Brand personalities are also built in indirect ways such as the brand name, logo, advertising and price for example.
There are many different aspects of a brand and consumers will continue to draw new links, that expand your brand identity further. Here are some dimensions of your brand to be mindful of:


These are distinctive features that concisely characterize the product or brand name. For example the feature can be intrinsic – which would relate to product performance, features, and unique abilities of your product. In contrast, the attribute can be extrinsic and relate to the personality or history of your brand or product.


The benefits outline the individual value the consumer has attached to your products attributes. For example, the iPhone may be known by some for its easy to use interface. For many consumers, that is the primary attribute of the iPhone. Yet, the benefit looks at what an “easy to use” phone means for the consumer. How does it relate to their sense of self? For some the benefit may include a strong family connection – as even your grandmother can use this phone. For others, this benefit may include more family time because you spend less time figuring functions out on your phone. In Apple commercials, they often highlight the attribute in response to the benefit. Now they are more connected as a family, because of Apples’ easy to use interface.


Visual information is often closely linked with a brand personality and overall voice. Imagery can be concrete and deliberate, sourced from your company, or they can naturally occuring. An example of a naturally occurring image could be a consumer wearing or using your product, seen by another consumer.


An experience of a brand can occur at purchase, contemplation of purchase, and during consumption. These experiences shape the narrative of your brand. If the purchasing experience is difficult, your product and whole identity as a brand could be interpreted less positively.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of User Testing

Usability testing is extremely important in product design. Understanding areas where people may struggle with your product, opens up space for recommendations and possibly a strong end result. The goal is to have a better and more accurate understanding of how your product is being used and where it needs to improve. User testing often happens in a controlled environment that allows for live/real time observation or instant feedback.
When testing with users it is important to understand what aspect of your product you are testing. Although it may be tempting to test the entire interaction, more valuable specific data can be collected when goals are established. What do you hope to learn with this test?
Testing can be done at each stage of product design, allowing for your product to be highly consumer centric. Here are the stages of product testing:

Low-Fidelity Prototype or Paper Prototype

This stage of testing is done very early in the product design process. A mockup, wireframe or hand drawn version of the product or website allows businesses to test basic assumptions and flows.

High-Fidelity Prototype

An interactive version of the product, usually computer based, is used in this level of testing. The form of the product varies significantly depending on if it is natively digital or a three dimensional product, but interaction is the key to this stage. The product responds to user inputs at this stage of testing.

Alpha and Beta Version

These products are not ready to be released, but are stable enough to have an accurate idea of usability.

Release Version

At this level of testing, the product has been released to the mass market. This is an opportune time to test entire user flows from beginning to end.

Comparative or A/B Test

Multiple versions of the product are designed to measure the impact of small changes. These designs are alternated between consumers to test the performance and satisfaction. During comparative testing it is important in emotional branding that concept are also tested, not solely elements. For example, when testing which headliner works better – refer to your qualitative data about your target market and build concepts around their values in regards to the words you are using in the headline.

Optimize for the Emotional Journey

This article has provided a series of tools that will allow your brand to be optimized for the user or customers emotional journey. In no way has this article summarized all of the tools that are available to aid in building an emotionally sustainable brand, but simply serves as a launch point. Consumer values translate into consumer preferences. Understanding the “why” behind your target markets behaviour will aid you in building a strong emotional brand. Emotional brands not only translate into conversion, sales and offline and online interaction, but build strong consumer connections for your product or service and in turn strong consumer communities.

Danielle Thompson

Danielle is a seasoned user interface designer, product developer, and team leader. She’s an expert in creating relatable brands, and building sustainable product communities. Danielle has been recognized for successful branding pitches and for her ability to emotionally engage millennial and Generation Z markets.