The importance of brand whitespace

Brand builders are generally very familiar with the concept of “whitespace” used by designers. In design, whitespace is usually defined as the space between elements in a composition. This is not “empty” space but an organizing force in its own right, one that can add considerable power and emotion to a design or layout.

A related kind of whitespace plays an important role in brands. What I call “brand whitespace” is conceptually akin to the whitespace of designers, but in brands it’s a behavioral space for customers rather than a graphic one for layouts. Brand whitespace is the new maneuvering room that a brand creates for its customers. It can make a dramatic difference in how customers perceive a brand, and interact with it.

Brand whitespace is engagement space

Brand whitespace flows from the brand context that we create for, and around, customers. It forms the “engagement space” of the brand, where customer potential meets brand potential. The larger the brand whitespace, the more freedom the customer has to interact with the brand, to do something proactive with it, and to extend it. With this customer freedom, brand whitespace helps us create customers who can add value back to the brand.

Breathing room

You can think of brand whitespace as the breathing room of a brand. Creative brands offer lots of whitespace because they want the customer to be creative, too. Brand whitespace is that blast of fresh, bracing air that customers inhale in the presence of your brand programs. The more nourishing that atmosphere the more sustaining the brand engagement, and the more new life customers can breathe back into the brand.

Why brand whitespace matters

Brands suffer when they fail to create sufficient whitespace for customers. This can occur when a brand tries to impose a belief system from above, using campaigns of messaging, theatrics and special effects. Such an approach can choke the customer out of the brand. Without whitespace the brand becomes a series of pronouncements about itself: one-dimensional, top-heavy, closed, cloistered and stale. With no space of their own, customers can’t freely interact with the brand or with each other. With a diminished air supply they become passive and dull. The brand itself eventually withers to doctrine and drill, kept alive only by inertia.

Brand whitespace is interaction space

Brand whitespace is brand interaction space. It is where the brand and the customer join to advance their mutual agenda. Brands, of course, are a two-way street. An airy brand whitespace can transform that street from a cramped, one-way alley into a bustling two-way thoroughfare, opening the gates to ideas, insights, innovations and emotions. The more freedom that the whitespace affords the customer, the more the customer can interact with the company, the brand, and other customers to generate new forms of brand value.

Brand whitespace is collaboration space

We design brand whitespace as a context of collaboration and joint discovery. It’s an open work space where the customer and the brand join forces. This is a space of partners, and of equals. The more stimulating the brand whitespace that you provide, the more your customers are free to grow in new directions, taking your brands with them into potential new markets.

Brand whitespace is innovation space

We need brand whitespace so our brands can fully benefit from the initiative and innovation of the customers we create. In this context, brand whitespace is the customer’s opportunity space, mediated by the brand. I like to think of it as a virtual sandbox, where the brand and the customer are free to experiment, explore, prototype and iterate.

Brand whitespace helps advance the customer

Brand whitespace is customer growth space. It helps advance your customers beyond the reach of competitors. In the process it helps transform customers from lowly marketing “targets” to a living brand resources with value-adding potential. By giving customers the freedom to maneuver in the context of the brand, the brand can elevate customers from passive “consumers” to active brand participants and partners.

The brand goal here is twofold: 1) leverage customer insight and initiative to create new forms of value that competitors can’t match; 2) let customers take the brand into new markets where competitors can’t follow.

From a brand perspective, your customers are your greatest competitive weapon. Creating a stimulating whitespace is one way to build out your competitive arsenal.

The measure of brand whitespace

The measure of brand whitespace lies in the degrees of freedom that the brand makes available to customers, within the brand context. These can stem from the company, the product, the brand and the customer. On an axis, the low end of whitespace would be propaganda, and the high end would be partnership.

How to create brand whitespace

How do we create the brand whitespace that both brands and customers need? The answer will differ with every brand, but here are some general guidelines:

  1. Understand that your brand is a method for creating customer value. Brand whitespace is one of your premier tools. It’s a new context of freedom that you deliver.
  2. Your brand whitespace will determine how freely your customers interact and interoperate with your brand. The greater the freedom your brand confers, the greater your potential brand drive from below.
  3. Conceive your brand as a shared innovation platform with customers. Brand whitespace forms an innovation sandbox where you and customers can tinker.
  4. Build your brand as a means, rather than an essence. A brand that enables customers to shape new forms of self and to do new things will have plenty of whitespace where customers can re-create themselves through the brand.
  5. Design your brand to deliver freedoms that competitors can’t match. Use your whitespace as a competitive weapon to win customers to your side.
  6. Brands designed as messaging campaigns usually offer very little whitespace for customers. They clutter the customer’s world, and are vulnerable to brands that take a whitespace approach.
  7. Brand whitespace is customer headroom. It’s a sign that you respect your customers.
  8. Create a brand context larger than the company. Share this context with customers. Ask them to help shape it, and to move it forward.
  9. Use your brand whitespace to open avenues of collaboration, initiative and innovation between customers and the brand, and between customers themselves.
  10. How you present your brand can prefigure the brand whitespace you make available to customers.

In future posts I’ll identity specific cases of brand whitespace and how they help build strategic advantage for the brands involved.

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