Branding a Startup
How one little diagram can help you design a challenger brand and compete with established players
Before we started OHNO, the last business we ran, Nazori, was one of the first B Corps in Australia. The process of becoming a B Corp was a rewarding one, but if I were to point to one thing that really added value — the certification process created some space to think about our business and ask some questions of ourselves.
- What kind of business do we want to be?
- Can we clearly define what our brand is all about, and
- What stages could we optimise for our customers, and how might our brand colour those stages.
I want to talk about #3 in this article, because it’s something I don’t see a lot of folks talk about. So how exactly can branding can help you decide how to optimise each step of the customer journey? I’ll show you how we did it.
I am certainly no marketing expert. I have never worked in advertising, and I have never been a brand specialist, so my approach here is probably ridiculous — but when you’re a scrappy startup making things work, you have to learn a few things a long the way that help you shape a brand until you can bring on expertise that can really own it.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given was by Graham Robertson, who was then the CEO of McCormick Foods. We both were participating in a government program to help young people with their startups, and he recommended a book to me called Eating the Big Fish: How challenger brands can compete against brand leaders. I read the book, and a particular activity has stuck with me. It’s a simple exercise you can do, drawing up a small chart, and asking some questions of you and your business. I’m going to explain how it works in this article.
At the time I was reading the book, I was also heavily influenced by a friend from IDEO, who had imparted on me some wisdom about design thinking, and how that plays into experience design. We were thinking about one of IDEO’s ‘innovation roles’ called the set designer. It’s a psychological frame of mind you assign someone, who thinks about how they can change physical space to give a better experience for customers.
What I took away from these observations and lessons was this. From the moment someone hears about your brand, all the way through to them becoming a customer, and even churning out the other end — every step in that process can be tweaked a little. And if you can tweak it, you can tweak it on-brand, and use those adjustments to drive growth.
To give you a real world example, i’ll talk about Nazori. Our primary business was building Android apps. Our mission, was to work with the worlds most interesting companies, and we did a good job of that. One element of our branding was to utilise a lot of hand-made, artisanal products in our interactions with customers. We wanted to show a real attention to detail and finesse when it came to design — so we invested heavily here.
This lead us to re-arrange our offices to include some small experience adjustments for customers when they would visit.
- We would brew coffee about 20 minutes before someone arrived, so when they walked in, the office smelled great. We brewed the coffee in a very visible, large cold drip tower, which became a kind of talking point.
- We replaced our meeting rooms with stylish lounge rooms, with nice arm chairs, bright colours.
- We served cold-drip coffee in whiskey glasses, so when they would pick up the drink, it was heavy. It felt of quality. We looked at things people would touch, and tried to ensure that every sensory experience made people think of attention to detail, and quality.
- When guests would arrive, we brought coffee out without asking if people wanted it. We found people felt guilty asking for something — like coffee, but if we just brought it out, it became a surprise treat. This was a trick we stole from Aesop. We attended a meeting there one day, and they brought out a large pot of tea with beautiful cups, and simply served it to everyone in the meeting.
- When projects were completed, we would send beautifully hand written thank-you letters, drafted up by a calligrapher. We used a really basic service for this. We found a website where we would email the letter, and they would outsource it to calligraphers, and send it out on our behalf. We got lots of phone calls and emails about these letters. They brought so much joy to people’s lives — no one gets letters like this anymore, and they would tell us how nice it was to get.
- We decided when a customer would call, we would guarantee to get back to them within 20 minutes. We decided speed of access to us was going to be a defining characteristic of how we did business. We became known as reliable in this regard. If you called, we’d call straight back. Our NPS score was 80. I would say this was somewhat to do with product quality, but mostly about delivering good customer service, quickly.
Simply by being fast, we found that competitors who were roughly as capable, would simply not get the business because they’d take weeks to turn around quotes or proposals. We could turn things around in hours. We optimised for it.
The point of reviewing these changes was to adjust hundreds of little steps, and make each step an opportunity where we could surprise and delight our customers. We tried the right types of music, we even looked at the way we greeted customers.
When we started reviewing this stuff, we wrote up a complete customer journey and just pointed out all the bits in the process where customers interacted with us, and thought to ourselves, how can we make all the boring things — slightly better, slightly more on brand.
This meant that everything from which cups we selected, to how the ice-cube trays worked, could be a conscious decision to make our clients lives better.
We spent a great deal of time on designing our proposals too. We made the proposals black, to discourage those from printing them (which fell in line with our philosophies on the environment).
These tweaks in isolation were great, but the reason we could craft each step to a fine point, was because we understood the agendas we wanted to push, and how far to push each one.
This was the lesson from the book, Eating the big Fish, and I’m going to paraphrase how to decide what your brand should look like here.
I feel there is a bit of a misconception about branding among startup founders. Most think a brand — is really the design you have. Or — we think brands are what we think we are to our customers. How we describe our businesses. But I feel it doesn’t quite work that way. Your brand is how someone else describes your business. That’s the true brand — the set of behaviours and emotions that come to mind when someone thinks of your business.
As an example, if you were to think of BP (British Petroleum) — what comes to mind? It’s certainly not their investments in renewable energy. Instead, it’s an oil platform dumping crude oil into the ocean, and a company who has created a lot of wealth from polluting the environment. Their brand is how I feel about it, not how they think I should feel about it.
What really matters, is what companies do that projects a point of view, and what agenda they use to pursue it.
Why should you care about branding?
I cannot speak to the wisdom of branding very much. This is not my lane. But my experience has taught me this. When you have competition, if you don’t start defining your brand — your competition will. I think it’s good to have a clear, concise idea of who the company wants to be. Staff should be clear about it, you should be clear about it — and to a good degree, your customers should be clear on it, but that’s the hard bit.
A simple activity you can do
We need to understand, and start to define what our agendas are, and we can do that using the following diagram. An agenda comes from the latin “I do”, or “I make happen”, so think of your business along those lines. What are we going to “make happen” with 4 different agendas.
The following diagram shows the 4 most common areas of necessary impact for us as a challenger brand. By visualising our brand strategy this way, it helps us understand where we will overcommit, and where we might sacrifice.
Each area outlines where we might be the same as the competition, and where we will be surprisingly different in our actions, and our thought leadership.
If you look at the centre of the diagram you will see the product rock (or brand truth). This is which everything we do is based upon. Our ‘Lighthouse identity” is what we wrap around it, then the four agendas come from this.
These four agendas are where most challenger brands today, flex their muscle.
The ease & convenience agenda
How convenient is it for our customers to get to our product? Do we make it easy to try? Can we play with it at a time where it’s convenient for us? let me outline this with a comparison of two very different companies.
Company 1 is a Software company who sells OKR software — and it’s very expensive. Because it’s a high margin item, they spend a good deal of time trying to qualify out deals. They don’t want to waste time dealing with people who can’t afford it, so company 1 decides convenience is not a huge priority for them.
In order to try the software, you need to sign up online with your name, phone number and email address, plus 10 other qualifying questions like how big your company is, what industry you’re from, and what kind of goals your team has now. Then, a few days later, you get an email from a sales rep. The sales rep says they want to setup a time to demo you the software. You see the email on your way to work while you’re on the train, and you reply that Wednesday morning is a good time. Wednesday morning rolls around, and you do the demo with the sales rep. You get to see the product via a screensharing, and then finally, you’re sent a login code so that you can log in and check it out.
In this scenario, huge amounts of time is chewed up. You stop and start a lot. When you wanted to check it out - that was weeks ago. Now you’ve gone cold on using it because you’ve become busy again.
Let’s compare this to company 2.
Company’s 2 website you don’t even need to sign up. There is a link on the site that says Try me now. You click on it, and it logs you into a demo account where you can setup all your OKRs right away. You setup teams, play around with it, and invite some colleagues to see what they think. Before you leave, you save your work, and then, and only then, does it ask for your email address so you can come back later and retain the data you’ve setup.
Company 2 has made huge efforts to prioritise their convenience agenda. This is a priority for them.
Neither option is right or wrong, but knowing which of these companies you want to be, and how you want to compete on the convenience agenda is important as it helps you answer questions like.
- Can customers email & call us? How easy do we want to be to contact?
- How simple should we make cancelling an account?
- Can customers use our product in any language they want?
- Should we give 1 on 1 product tours? or should we bundle customers all into a group session?
It’s important to see convenience and ease of use differently. Convenience is things like, can we put our product in our customers arms right when they need it. Ease of use has to do with your interactions with the product once you are using it.
The product agenda
How do we want our product or service to be? What can we do with our product that is in line with our brand? There are 3 interesting elements to our product agenda.
Over the last 10 years, marketing emphasis has swung back in favour of products performing well. Apple has perhaps done more for customers expectations around product performance than anyone. They have shown us what truely wonderful product performance can do for customer loyalty.
Some categories may see product performance as negligible. Electricity suppliers, for instance, are probably not overly worried about product performance because the performance between suppliers is mostly the same (Unless of course your power keeps going out). So thinking about how much your brand can leverage product performance when supplying power to residential houses, is probably not worth spending any time on.
At Nazori, we decided we would put a big focus on polysensory engagement. This is why we tried to adjust things related to touch, smell and sound in many aspects of what we did. Hand made iPad covers, music, the smells of coffee, we knew this would be important to us because we decided it should be a differentiator.
One of the most imitated design aesthetics in the world would have to be Aesop. Their old-world style bottles of hand creams is recognisable, and features in every design magazine around the world. Aesop have decided to invest in this element of their product and today, and the outcomes from this focus have been huge.
The participative agenda
The world is much more social (good or bad) than it used to be. So today, brands can engage with their customers in totally new ways. There are 3 dimensions to this agenda.
They say retail spaces today need to be much less about managing stock and inventory, and must become more destinations in and of themselves. Customers want some level of interactivity. Museums are perhaps the best adopters of this shift. Today, a visit to a museum can be accompanied by a walking tour headphone set. Or perhaps an app that allows you to view the artwork, and hear from the curator about what the artist was trying to say.
When you think of your product, how interactive could the customer experience be?
But basic interactivity is sometimes not enough. Now, some companies use community managers that deeply engage with their users, talking to them like you would friends on tools like Twitter and Slack.
A great brand who does this particularly well is Productboard. Productboard is a product management tool, but one of the notable elements of their participative agenda is how much work they put into interacting with their community. Their public slack channel is live with action. The staff at Productboard are constantly asking questions about features, showing off what they are working on, and creating real, authentic dialogue between the customer and the company.
One way to get customers engaged with your brand is through personalisation and customisation of their product. If you’ve ever purchased a car online, the act of customising the wheels and leather seats means you get something that’s just for you. It’s special. Made your way.
Or have you ever been to a fancy restaurant or bar where the waiter offers to bring something that isn’t on the menu? Something that’s just a one-off thing for you? How did that make you feel? Special I bet.
Perhaps you can do something with your product to allow more customisation? Or not. Don’t allow it at all. But know to what degree you want to pursue this agenda, so that your activities are consistent with your brand.
The social and ethical agenda
There is increasing pressure on brands to do the right thing for the environment, society, and their communities. So brands today are wise to consider how much they want to push their social and ethical agendas. B Corps often make this a huge focus — one could argue that’s kind of the point of becoming a B Corp.
The planet & the community
Many companies (and especially B Corps) put a huge emphasis on activities that help the planet. This agenda has exploded in recent years, and there are those who really are working towards helping, and those simply ‘green-washing’ their brands to join the crowd.
Younger demographics do value brands who appear to be doing the right thing by the environment. Some companies have decided to push this agenda even further.
Patagonia, perhaps one of the strongest along this agenda recently spent $10m on helping fight climate change. Some of their marketing material is even encouraging their customers to consume less of their product, to ensure there is as little waste as possible.
American Apparel, not only makes sweatshop free clothes, but will use its customer email database to lobby customers to vote for particular political candidates based on their views on labor laws.
For most socially conscious brands, a social and ethical agenda will be important internally, but perhaps be less of a focus on the outside. This is because good leaders know, when it boils down to it, a product of poor performance, despite the ethical intentions of the founders, will mostly decide the fate of the company.
An organic apple that tastes like shit - won’t sell for long, regardless of the ethical and cruelty free practices that produced it.
Where should you focus?
It’s important when drawing up this diagram for your brand, to know about a concept called the brilliant basics. You might not want the environment to be part of your story, but that doesn’t mean you should pollute the environment. You need to have a basic approach to all of these elements.
We need to know what we’re going to do well, but will not, by themselves, be a defining characteristic of the brand.
Then, we need to know where we will extend beyond the expectations? What agendas do we want to push, and which ones will become part of our challenger story?
Case Study: Apple
Draw up a copy of this map with your team and discuss the brilliant basics. What should you just deliver, but not worry about too much in your story.
Then work out which areas you want to push out on.
This map is not meant to be a document of profound insights but rather a tool to help your business discuss what areas will become part of your special story. Ask yourself on each element, what areas should we push on, and what activities could we do, that further our chosen agendas. I’ll use Apple as an example below.
- There is probably room to argue with my assessment below, but my point is not to criticise Apple’s brand, but to highlight messages that most would agree with.
Apple does focus on a lot of areas, but first, let’s look at areas that aren’t really part of their story, at least from my point of view. What things do we assume Apple don’t care too much about.
- Apple probably doesn’t worry too much about the environment or society and I say this for a few reasons. It makes its phones in China using Foxconn, which has well documented human rights violations. It’s not to say Apple is not trying to improve things here, but it’s not part of their story.
When we look at Apple’s investor website, we can see two elements present. Something about suppliers responsibility (Note the very happy looking Foxconn employees), and something about the environment, (which appears to be a photo of a robot holding a phone — more than a photo of, you know, the environment).
What they are trying to tell investors is that they care about their suppliers at Foxconn who make their phones, and that they have some kind of environmental policy. But from the outside looking in, I’d say this probably isn’t as huge a focus as say, how slick the new iPhone is. Of product performance of things like the iPhone camera.
- I would also say that Apple are not very big in terms of community participation. They don’t chat to customers. They don’t really hold very many community events. Yes. Their retail experience is outstanding, but I would place that more in the bucket of interactivity, which is why I scored it about half way.
But they do focus on these things.
- They make it very easy to buy product. You can buy online. They do free returns. They even do loans for students. In fact, if you buy something less than $100 and have a problem with it, they’ll often just give it to you, and refund you the money. This means they reduce as much friction as possible on the Convenience agenda to get you to purchase product.
- When it comes to product performance, Apple really sets the bar high here.
- While Apple do allow some level of customisation, they don’t really go to far here. I would say they push slightly beyond “Brilliant basics”, but only just.
If you’ve spent no time thinking about your brand, grab a pen and some paper, draw up the diagram, and
- Work out the brilliant basics you want to commit to in each area.
- Next, work out which agendas you think can become part of your brand story the most. What opportunities are there to be different?
- Which audiences are feeling left out? Is there an ideal customer that feels they are under-represented. Can you speak their language. What do they care about?
- Which agendas do you want to pursue aggressively.
- What actions can we take on each agenda we want to pursue?
- And finally, what is your product rock? What’s the one thing that you do. The one thing everyone knows about you — really start to solidify that.
The exercise can uncover some great ideas and activities that can become part of your story, and help you challenge the market leaders.