On this week’s episode of Performance Delivered, we’re joined by special guest, Haraldur Thorleifsson, CEO of Ueno. Ueno is an agency that creates brands, products, and experiences using strategy, design, content, and technology. They focus on creating a strong through-line of brand energy with every project they take on.

“Ultimately, a brand is how you feel about a certain company or a certain product,” says Haraldur. “If you think about it through that lens, everything that the company does influences their branding because everything the company does influences how people feel about them. So, good branding comes through at every single touchpoint that you have with a company, whether it’s their marketing campaign, the customer experience of using their product, or when you have to reach the company.”

We chat in detail about digital branding, as well as:

  • What elements constitute successful branding
  • Why strong branding is often overlooked by young businesses
  • Whether there is a difference between traditional and digital branding
  • Creating an emotional connection between your audience and your brand
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:



Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. Today, we’re going to talk about digital branding. Here to speak with me about the topic is Haraldur Thorliefsson. He is the CEO at Ueno, an agency that creates brands, products and experiences and uses strategy, design and content as well as technology to do it. Haraldur, welcome to the Performance Delivered Podcast.

Haraldur Thorleifsson: Thank you so much, Steffen. Great to meet you.

Steffen: Before we dive into today’s topic, I want to start off with telling our listeners a little bit more about yourself. Can you let us know, you know, how did you start your career? How and what exactly does your company do?

Haraldur: Yeah, quickly on the career I grew up in Iceland, so, and I wasn’t really interested in design or branding for a very long time, I went to school to study philosophy and then finance. And while I was in school, I started to play around with design and sort of slowly grow into taking that on as a career. But for the work that we do here at Uneo, we work with a lot of companies. Mostly they are in the tech space, but we also have a lot of clients in finance and media and other industries.

And what we primarily work on with them is physical experiences and branding. So this could be anything from a standard marketing website to which is to product design meaning, apps, and those types of things. And then we make sure that everything we do has a very strong through-line of a brand.

Steffen: What is branding in your words?

Branding as Defined by Haraldur

Haraldur: I think we, if you ask sort of the regular person, if they have an answer, they will probably say it’s something like it’s a logo. They may even think if they’re, you know, they say things like it’s a logo, it’s the colors. Maybe they’ll say something like icons. Probably not. But branding is ultimately, your brand is how you feel about a certain company or a certain product.

And if you think about it through that lens, then everything that the company does influences their branding because everything in the company does influences how people feel about them.

So good branding comes through in every single touchpoint that you have with a company, whether it’s their marketing campaign, which is sort of maybe the most traditional part, but also it’s the customer experience of using your product, or its when you have to reach the company and who answers the phone and how do they answer the phone. How do they help you solve their problems? I think those are all sort of under the umbrella of branding. So it’s a very big question and it’s a very broad topic.

Steffen: Yeah, yeah. So I think in general, based on what you said, it’s like literally everything that surrounds the company, right? As you mentioned, from the receptionist that answers the way how they answer, how you know what your tagline is, logo, color codes, etc. I mean, it goes on and on and on at the end of the day.

Haraldur: Yes. What it should be. It’s sort of a fairly honest representation of who you are as a business and how and why you do the things that you do.

Steffen: Yeah. And obviously, the reason why you create a brand is because, as you said, you want to create emotions with someone. I mean, the reason why people buy certain products, you know, obviously, it’s because the product might be good, but they might also like what the brand stands for, what their aim is to achieve with their brand.

Haraldur: Yeah, absolutely.

Steffen: Yeah. Are there certain elements that guarantee successful branding?

Haraldur: I think, again, going back to what I said before, I think it’s very hard to fake a brand. It’s very hard for a group of people, because you know, a company ultimately is, to all share the same fake idea of what it is that they do and why they do it. And so, at the core, the most successful brands have something that ignites the company and then the brand is just the external expression of that without that sort of core, without something that unites why people show up to work every day, then a brand is just a veneer and it will slowly get unraveled.

Steffen: Yeah. Do you think it’s wrong to say that probably for smaller companies that they might not spend enough time or a lot of time thinking about their brand? They’re just founding a business and then the brand develops on the way?

Haraldur: Yes, absolutely. And I think, I mean, for what it’s worth, there’s a lot of companies that are successful despite their brand and have been, or the lack of effort that they put into their brand. So there’s, you know, there’s a number of companies that have succeeded without a very strong brand. But I do think that in the long term that becomes very, very hard to maintain. And there is, there will be some one of the competitors will come into your space and overtake you if they have a stronger brand.

But yeah, and in the beginning, it’s very natural for founders and founding teams to really focus on finding the product market fit before they start to focus on the brand. And I think in many ways, that’s totally natural because it takes a while to really understand what your brand should be. Again, going back to that sort of idea of what it is that you really do and why do you do it. That takes often a long time for people to be able to even articulate let alone visualize or put into action.

Steffen: Yeah. The reason why I asked that is obviously, I believe that your branding is never set in stone, right? You should always work on your brand, fine-tune your brand, adjust your brand depending on market situation or other outside factors, potentially,

Haraldur: Yes and no, I think the strongest brands, obviously adapt, but they don’t really change because what the brand is, is that visualization or articulation of why they do things that they do. And most strong brands have a very core human need that they’re trying to solve for. And once they find that, and that those, obviously things change, markets change, but human needs don’t really change. So if the company just keeps evolving and serving for that human need, then yes, in some ways, the brand will get updated. It will, you know, go through a few changes, but the core of it won’t really change. The why of it won’t change.

Steffen: Yeah. You know, when people start their business, as we said a second ago, and they don’t really spend time in defining their brand, but at some point, they’re like, you know what, we really need to work on it. Are there specific steps they should go through in order to start outlining their brand, how they want people to think about them, what they want to be seen as?

Brand is Much More Than Your Color Palette

Haraldur: I don’t think there’s a specific path towards this. But very often, people come to agencies like us and they ask for, let’s say, a rebranding or a branding process. And what they’re envisioning is a new logo or color palette and, you know, sort of a new design. And we always have to take them through the process of, before we get to that we do have to understand you as a business and as people.

And if you’re not able to articulate very clearly what it is that you do and why you do it, that has to become the first part of the journey. And for a lot of companies, especially If they wait too long and have grown too much without this, this can become a very introspective and sometimes painful journey where people realize that they’re not all in it for the same reasons. And that becomes something that has to get unraveled and packaged up in a way that makes sense for the company while still not just making it so diluted that it doesn’t mean anything.

So it’s, the first thing that I would always ask is, you know, again, what is it that you do and why do you do it? From there, you can start to identify all sorts of things like what is your mission or what is your vision? What are the core values that your company operates under? And once you have that you can start to discuss and find ways to visualize this and put it into some sort of a packet that can be expressed outside of the company and inside the company.

Steffen: Yeah, obviously today we want to talk about specifically digital branding. Haraldur, what is the difference between digital branding and branding in general? Is there one?

Haraldur: Well, I think at the core, no. I think they’re ultimately again, the same because, you know, it’s really trying to solve the same types of problems but in a new type of medium. The difference though, often becomes that scale is very different.

So you, if you go back pre-internet you could reach obviously a lot of people through things like TV, but when you have products that say like Facebook or Twitter or Tik Tok, like, anything social products or other products that are used by often hundreds of millions of people every day, the way to do branding becomes very, very different. And on top of that, most of these things are very tactically-driven so you use apps to try and perform a specific thing. You want to be entertained, you want to pay your bills, you want to talk to someone.

There’s this very tactical layer that most products are built on. And with that, a lot of the emotional aspects of branding and in general, just human connection, gets very stripped out. So you may have a product that’s functional and that people are able to use to achieve the tasks that they want to achieve but it might still be completely devoid of any kind of emotional connection, which ultimately is gonna leave your users feeling like they’re not really connected to anything, They’re not connected to you as a brand and not connected to the world around them.

And honestly, I think that’s been happening over the last 10, 15 years, people have used these products that are purely functional but they don’t really help them feel like they belong or feel like they have a place in the world and they don’t feel like they’re connected to these brands in any way or, you know, connected to much of anything. So all of this means that because of the scale and because of the way these products have been built, there is a huge need to build much stronger branding into these products that I use. Branding in this case, in this sense, has some kind of an emotional layer on top of the functional layer of your product.

Steffen: So what I heard, there’s not really a need to take you offline brand, you know, if you’re coming from an offline world and adjusted to the digital world in order to continue or to have success.

Haraldur: Again, yes and no. I think you have to take the core of whatever your brand was in the physical world and you have to figure out a way to transform that into the digital world. Or if you were always a digital company, you have to still really think about building these products so that they are from the get-go but they have this strong layer of branding because same as I mentioned before, with companies, if once a product takes off and has a lot of users, trying to retrofit any kind of purse becomes very hard.

Steffen: So if you want to focus more on digital branding, is there a specific approach that the company has to take to do that?

How Should You Approach a Digital Branding Campaign?

Haraldur: So there are some very tactical things that companies have to figure out like, there are technical considerations that people have to think through. There are things like accessibility, there’s things like how does color and typography work and all of that, and those, that’s, again, a very practical, functional aspect of branding. And a lot of companies are still, haven’t still figured this out now, even, you know, 25 years after the internet started to become big.

So there’s a lot of catch up to do there. But there’s also again, this emotional layer that’s weaving through all your decision making. Why do we do the things that we do so that when people experience your product or your brand, they may not be able to articulate it, but they should be able to feel it in every interaction that they have.

So, I would always, you know, the question I always go back to is when we work with our clients is why. And if the why is just because it’s cool or it’s the new thing, then that’s not really good enough. But if it’s because it aligns with our values and here’s how, then that becomes an answer that can scale across all aspects of the product or the interaction.

Steffen: Yeah. You mentioned a few things that a part of branding earlier. Are there specific things from a digital perspective that brands need to have to be successful from a branding perspective?

Haraldur: Yeah, yes, absolutely. There’s so when we talk, when we work through branding projects, they always take a digital-first approach because our clients and most of the world has gone digital. There is a lot of branding agencies out there that do great work, but their lens is still through the, you know, what does it look like on a poster or as a t-shirt or the swag or, you know, these physical objects and that’s how they think through what the brand should look like. And we’ve even seen brands that have that are purely digital, where their whole brand packet is, you know, 80 to 100 pages of, with no digital assets, no digital touchpoint.

And when you do that, you often end up with something that you can’t actually take from this physical world, which is much of placing under very different rules again, saying something like color is very different in the physical world than it is in a product world. Something like illustrations or photography is something that you probably won’t be able to use in the same way. So there’s a lot of very different considerations when you take something from the physical world and you put it into the digital asset, into digital that a lot of companies don’t consider or don’t think through.

So when we work on a branding project, again, when, once we’ve figured out this core why and we’ve identified the core underlying factors, values and so on, we really start to put all our explorations on the visual, through the lens of digital. So what does it look like in your website? What’s does it look like if you have a product? What does it look like, and, in social or any other touchpoint obviously, including some physical expressions, but even though those are fun and cool, that’s honestly, most likely, maybe 1% of how your customers will interact with you.

Steffen: You know, obviously, people can go out and hire you to help them with their branding, plus digital branding. If companies want to tackle that start off with themselves, where would you advise him to start? Is there a specific point they should start the journey in order to come out at the end successful?

Haraldur: Yes, I think it’s not, you know, it’s not that complicated. Obviously, I would want people to hire us, but I do think that it’s also just a question of how you set up the process. If your success metrics are, what’s it look like on a poster or on a brand campaign? And you, and none of your success metrics include what does it look like on our website? How does that influence it? So what does it look like then? If the small touchpoints on social or, and if you have a digital product, what does it look like there?

If that isn’t one of your main considerations, then most likely, you will fail this test. So anyone that goes through this would just, I would urge them to make sure that there is a core part of the project is focused on these touchpoints where most of your clients will interact with you, which most likely again, I mean, this does not apply to every company, but most likely, most of those interactions will be digital.

Steffen: Okay. When you have companies come to you and they might have worked on this before themselves, or haven’t even considered this, where do you see most of the mistakes happen or where did the big mistakes they did? Thinking either about the digital brand and then working on it or having not thought about it?

Haraldur: I’m gonna keep saying the same thing, but it’s usually the core mistakes that I feel people make is they don’t have a clear understanding of what it is or why they do it, what it is they do or why they do it. And then once, but that’s more sort of a high level, but once it comes to execution, they’re mostly focused on all types of media. And they’re mostly focused on interactions that will be fairly low impact in the grand scheme of things. So those are the two main mistakes that the companies make. And then from there, there’s all sorts of fallout but the root cause is usually those two things.

Steffen: Yeah. How do you create an emotional connection between people and a brand? I mean, that’s, from what you said earlier, that’s one of the things you want to achieve, obviously, because that might trigger someone buying your product. So how do you go about doing it?

Creating an Emotional Connection

Haraldur: I think the shortest answer is that you don’t. And that’s the only way to create emotional connection is to have something that you connect with that is, in some ways, human. So, the, really the emotion that you feel towards a specific brand comes through the core values of a company. Why do they do the things they do? And I keep saying the same thing, but, you know, how do they do the things that they do and why do they do them?

And if that’s very, very clear to everyone inside the company, then that becomes something that’s expressed throughout their brand and those are very human emotions and connections that people feel even though they’re not, you know, they don’t know these people that work inside these companies, but they feel them when they interact with them. They feel it when they interact with the brand. And that becomes this sort of halo that gets created and ultimately becomes a brand is sort of the shared vision and mission of a group of people that come together for a specific purpose. And then you just keep being consistent.

Who can same as when you, not unlike this work of personal branding, when people are branding themselves, it’s really about having a very clear idea of who you are and then being very, very consistent in your messaging so that when you think about this person or this thing, you have a very particular type of, first of all, emotion that you think about when you think about these people but also tied with some kind of a benefit where I’m going to go to these people when I need to do this thing because I know that they’re very good at it, but I also feel through their brand that are in it for the right reasons and they’re in it for reasons that resonate with me.

Steffen: So what I heard you just said basically, is, you know, once you have a clear idea of who you are, that allows you to have kind of a clear communication with which kind of avoids one day seeing A and one day seeing B as your goal or your approach which will confuse your customers at the end of the day. You want to have a clear and consistent messaging approach, or approach in general, to communicate to your target audience.

Haraldur: Very much. And I think, you see this all the time with brands when they don’t have a very clear why and a company who doesn’t understand why they do the things they do, they will often go into and pivots or changes where it completely confuses their audience and they don’t understand, you know, it’s like if your friend all of a sudden just changes personality, that becomes very disorienting. And so the strongest brands have, you know, for decades, often built up this very clear why if you look at, you know, anything from Nike to Apple, which is sort of a bit cliche, but for a reason.

Brands that have a very clearly articulated and expressed view of who they are and why they do the things that they do. And that allows them to keep changing and going into new markets. But they do it in a way that feels honest and feels like it’s to a consumer or person that views these brands, you feel like it’s not a change in personality. It’s just like an extension of what they’ve always been doing.

Steffen: So, Haraldur before we come to an end of this episode, what I want to know from you is how has branding evolved over the last 20 years? Has there been an evolvement and what will it look like in the future?

Evolution of Digital Branding

Haraldur: I think it’s similar to how I’ve answered some of these other questions. I think in the core, it hasn’t evolved. At the core, it’s still about these same things. Who are you and why do you do the things that you do? So in that way it hasn’t. But the really big change, again, going back to what I said before, is how brands are able to interact at a much larger scale than they were before. So you have, obviously, we have always had big companies, but now you have companies that are over $2 trillion. We’re gonna have multiple companies potentially over $2 trillion in the not too distant future, where it wasn’t that long ago, $1 trillion seemed absurd.

So you have the rise of these mega-companies, these mega-brands that have completely taken over not just in their original market for their local markets, but they’ve taken over, you know, sometimes become known all around the world. And with that level of impact and scale, the way that they operate becomes very interesting to look at because they have to be able to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

And the way that they do that, the most successful ones, is they identify something that isn’t, too many, that isn’t local, but it’s global. A human need that goes across every boundary and then they try and serve that in the best possible way that they can. And by having that extreme focus, they are able to become these mega-corporations, which in many ways, saddens me because I do you think that what we’re going to move away from is a world of diversity and local markets and local companies to a world of a handful of companies controlling a very large part of the global economy.

Steffen: Well, Haraldur, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered Podcast and sharing your thoughts on digital branding. If people want to find out more about you, your company or even need help with their branding, how can they get in touch?

Haraldur: Best way is through our website. So company’s called Ueno, which is UENO, and ueno.com is our website. So that’s where you can look at some of our work. You can find all our other digital channels. You can reach out if you want help with anything.

Steffen: Great. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered Podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.