Websites had an interesting year. Parallax scrolling, which came under scrutiny in 2013 for making iPhone iOS 7 users queasy, became a top design trend. And brands invested in content, turning staid sites into online magazines.
There are a million and one "best of" roundups out there. What makes this one different? It's a compilation of the brand sites that slapped us with the clown shoe of awesomeness, but it also includes some little-known winners that took an interesting angle or just quietly strutted onto the internet with something new while nobody was watching.
Let's take a look.
Named "Company of the Year," Airbnb is doing digital right. Its approach to content marketing, which merges brand storytelling with useful neighborhood guides and economic impact studies, is so robust that it includes a recently launched print magazine.
To complement these efforts, the company underwent a rebranding effort this year that included an entirely redesigned brand site. Consumers were treated to larger and more "cinematic" photos (Airbnb hires local professionals to shoot its rental listings), a new typeface and color palette, a booking widget on every listing page, and a greater focus on the stories generated by its most distinctive hosts and guests. A new logo is coupled with an interactive online tool that lets consumers customize the symbol to their tastes. The result is an immersive site experience drenched with the brand culture that makes Airbnb so unique.
Another 2014 brand refresh came courtesy of Southwest Airlines, which aimed to improve its image by highlighting the improvements it's making to its airports, along with the commitment of its employees. The "Southwest Heart" microsite combines video, animation, and social media, pulling in tweets and Instagram posts that display Southwest's new look and feel by showcasing its people and planes.
This site is all about putting the brand's core values front and center, and the interactivity of the design goes a long way toward making the effort feel authentic. There's a nice balance of company-produced and consumer-generated media, something all brands should aspire to attain.
As brands continue to shift their digital investments from banner ads to sponsored content (according to eMarketer, brands will spend $4.3 billion on native advertising next year -- up 34 percent from 2014), Microsoft offers up "Microsoft Stories," a collection of narratives about "the people, places and ideas that move" the brand.
An inside-look at Microsoft's 24-hour "idea factory" and profiles of such employees as the company's Xbox creative producer, Office general manager, and CTO mean a robust stream of interesting business content. "Microsoft Stories" are penned by professional writers, which results in an authentic, journalistic feel. The site delivers a rich content experience and big, bold images creating an overall sense that you're reading a high-quality brand magazine.
Many a tech company grabbed our attention this year, and IBM was among them. Like Airbnb, this is a brand that prizes content marketing. This year's series of new "Made with IBM" commercials profiled IBM clients and garnered hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, but it's the company's corporate site that impresses us the most. It includes a whopping 45 employee blogs, a video web series about urban innovators, and a look back at the company's top tech breakthroughs of the year (oh, and there's a Tumblr too).
I shave my head every other day, so I go through a lot of razors. With its two-to-three-click subscription process, the brilliantly commoditized model of new razor manufacturer Harry's is sure to leave Schick and Gillette with fewer customers. The Harry's site is delightfully clean and simple, with a focus on crisp, large images of product. The only vibrant spots of color have been reserved for razor handles and other product features the brand hopes to highlight.
From an e-commerce perspective, Harry's does a fantastic job of upselling and cross-selling to the point you barely realize you're being up- or cross-sold. Overall, the site is masterfully crafted (and, responsively, quite silky). What's striking about Harry's is that it's essentially the "grown man" version of Dollar Shave Club. Proof of its refinement is baked into its brand proposition -- an idea the company calls "Harry's 1 + 1" whereby 1 percent of all sales go to charity and employees must volunteer 1 percent of their time. Of course, the biggest coup for this challenger brand in 2014 was securing "Official Shave Partner" status for The Movember Foundation in the U.S. and Canada. That alone is something that should make the marketing teams at Schick and Gillette (and Dollar Shave Club) feel Harry's is a little too close for comfort.
Coca-Cola and will.i.am's Ekocycle
This year Coca-Cola and will.i.am launched a new brand initiative to educate consumers about recycling and conservation. Ekocycle is a corporate social responsibility and social good effort that promotes a product line made from recycled materials.
Coke lingers behind the scenes on this one, letting the newly formed brand shine -- and that's the way it should be when a brand hopes to show its commitment to the environment and sustainability in a genuine way. But even though there are only a handful of references to Coca-Cola on the Ekocycle site, there's a clever use of the Coke color palette to remind consumers who's behind it (Coke is donating its licensing profits to "additional recycling and community improvement organizations").
After a string of recent successes on the European soccer stage and heightened U.S. interest in German football thanks to the World Cup win, German soccer club team Bayern Munich launched a North American website. The goal is to engage U.S. fans after record viewership numbers and to capitalize on the excitement surrounding German soccer activities. The site features news, information on the players, a community page, and a range of links to branded apps and social media -- but it's all customized to appeal to American interests and remain as relevant to U.S. fans as it can be.
Stories like "Bayern partners with Goethe-Institute to engage American kids" are featured in a home page carousel -- another design trend of the times. Player quotes and bold story titles are used to draw users in to both the content and the newly created U.S. online store.
This site isn't a brand site per se, but it's definitely worthy of a mention. As marketing and advertising service providers, "the deck" is often the bane of our existence. Our presentations need to look good and tell a scintillating story that's on par with the work we're recommending. I'm partial to Keynote, but when I stumbled onto Haiku Deck, the sky opened up and rained Skittles.
From a pure UX perspective, it's difficult not to think, "Why do the PowerPoint and Keynote interfaces look the way they do?" with every click. Haiku is dead simple and seems to have been designed by people who have spent a lot of time making visually striking decks. Not only are the layout options well thought out and typography choices gorgeous, there's an integrated image search of well-curated photography to use for backgrounds.
In October, a story in Inc. Magazine called brands to arms: Redesign your website, it said -- it's the 21st century! The site that received the majority of the story's attention was Vogue, which underwent a redesign of its own in advance of this year's "Fashion Week." The new site is responsive, interactive, and heavy on visuals, with some photos running full screen. Community is also a prominent feature, as share and comment buttons are given equal weight, while "most shared" stories run across the top of each site page. The atmosphere at Vogue.com is modern and incredibly hip. If this is a 21st century website, we're in the midst of a pretty great time.
Hey, agencies are brands too, so a "best of" list wouldn't be complete without an agency shout-out. There are many great agency sites, but this little studio located in the U.K. has designed a truly delightful offering. You don't have to have worked with the shop to know that the site is the perfect embodiment of the brand's culture and people. Quite frankly, LMNOP Studios deserves an award just for using primary colors without looking like a daycare brand.
In a nutshell, this site has gorgeous forms and simple navigation that leads you where you want to go. And kudos to LMNOP for achieving a tone that's approachable and smart without being bombastically cocky (other agencies, you know who you are).
These are just some of the sites that made a mark on consumers this year. But they're the ones that I think will stand the test of time and usher us into an equally innovative new year.
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"Hand held medal against a stormy sky" image via Shuttestock.