It’s no secret that a bad brand can kill a business.
But often, bad brands become bad because their product, service, or customer experience is bad. What businesses often don’t realize is that great products can have bad brands. It’s just that the problems they cause may not be clear to end customers for a long time. Brands can be a silent killer, or they can be a great multiplier. How can you tell the difference?
Brands can be a silent killer, or they can be a great multiplier.
Here’s the secret: a great brand is more than just visual identity (fonts, color, logos)—it is a business driver.
That’s right; just like sales conversions, revenue, margins, and any other business metric, efficient brand can also drive positive returns for companies. In fact, a great brand should be as compelling to a COO and CFO as it is to the creative director and CMO.
In this article, I’m going to break out of the visual lens, and apply the ROI lens to illustrate:
Good brands get startups earlier traction.
You can (and should) develop a brand long before your product launches. This allows you to build market awareness and identity, as well as a captive audience. You’ll excite your market, assert your credibility, and create a path for your product to make a greater impact at launch. Not to mention, the process of developing your brand will generate new insights about your users and target audience, which benefits your business and product development.
Brand is powerful in these early stages because it forces new conversations and decisions about your product. You will think about your target audience and users through a different lens. For example, in our brand workshops, I’ll often ask clients questions such as:
These aren’t typical conversations that come up during feature development but you can start to see how they may impact a digital product. Instead of just focusing on “the what,” you’re thinking about “the why.” As a result, your product will be built on shared values, not just feature offerings, which has tremendous long-term benefits (I’ll get to those later in this article).
Takeaway: Be intentional about brand early. The process will establish credibility, a stronger place in the market, and build a better product for launch.
Gone are the days of your brand operating in isolation, or on static mediums (think: one logo on the outside of the building, maybe a piece of letterhead). There are literally thousands of brand touchpoints and marketing channels today: tweets, demos, emails, articles, pages of your website, etc.
You are wasting your time if a consistent brand strategy isn’t applied across every touchpoint.
It’s in your best interest to leverage these thousands of touchpoints to grow awareness and loyalty among your customers. If each interaction presents an inconsistent experience or message, you might as well be operating multiple companies. Imagine if you went on a date with someone who was loud and aggressive on the first date, quiet and down-to-earth on the second, and elegantly refined on the third. Who is the real person? Simply put, you are wasting your time if a consistent brand strategy isn’t applied across every touchpoint.
However, brand perception doesn’t stop here. In startups, every team member is an ambassador, which means that brand is everyone’s responsibility. As a result, they must be on the same page in understanding and executing your brand strategy. And when this happens, every interaction will serve a dual purpose of further reinforcing your unique identity and delivering the task at hand. Two birds. One stone.
Takeaway: Brands interact with the world in far too many ways for them to be relegated to one individual or team. Activate your team, get on the same page, and stay consistent.
I hate wasting time. This is why I love brands. To me, the beauty of brands lies not in their beauty, but in how they create efficiency. Let’s look at how companies often treat their brands and see where the waste begins.
Typically, companies look at creating a brand as a one-time event, like waterfall in software development. The problem is that when you don’t pay attention to how your brand evolves and is communicated over time, it leaves your brand to be shaped by others. It’s like riding a bike without hands; it will work for a while, but at some point, you’re going to want to grab those handlebars and take back control.
Once a driverless brand is out in the open, startups will often remedy this by over-investing in marketing distribution and ads, so that they can reach their audience. But if you haven’t aligned your brand, you’re probably wasting money on marketing the wrong message. What sense does it make to buy Facebook ads, if you aren’t even clear what you want to be saying, or how you want to say it, or who you want to talk to?
Recently, KFC faced a chicken shortage and had to close quite a few restaurants in the U.K. They handled this on-brand by issuing a light-hearted apology in the Metro. Because they have such a strong and well-directed brand, dealing with this issue was quick and will probably retain strong customer loyalty. Most importantly, they did it cost-effectively. Many other brands would be spending much more over the next several months doing damage control. For KFC, it was dealt with immediately, and efficiently.
When you think about your brand, think of efficiency.
All interactions reinforce your market position and demonstrate alignment to the overall vision. Think about how much time you save when every member of the team can communicate clearly and do their jobs without creating market confusion. Think about how much time you save when you don’t have to re-explain your value prop, differentiators, and positioning to every team member before every trade show. Think about how easily your company can handle problems with a strong brand to leverage.
Takeaway: Brands build efficiency. They save time, effort, and waste. Don’t waste your time or money on missing this critical opportunity to be in the driver’s seat. It’s hard to put in an investment up front but the return is huge.
Imagine you’re building a house. Your conversation with the builder starts with your interests and values: you want to live in a walkable neighborhood, or maybe it’s making enough space for your growing family. From there you dive into some specifics like how many bedrooms you want or where the kitchen should go. At the end, you’ll finalize on the detailed offerings, like how many light switches go in each room and which sound your doorbell makes. The builder would never meet a prospect and start talking about light-switch placement, but people do that with digital products all the time, leading with feature overload and not even talking about the big-picture value.
There’s a reason that Tesla can sell cars in a shopping mall. They don’t need a massive inventory and dozens of pricing sheets explaining what’s under the hood. They just need a few employees working the floor, a few floor models, and a couple interactive displays. Car technology—just like most digital technology—has been commoditized today.
Rather than building a brand off features and tech, instead set up a relationship with your customers.
This takes the conversation up a level, distancing yourself from your competitors and establishing long-term trust with customers that stands the tests of time and product transitions. Today, Tesla can be known for electric cars, tomorrow it can be solar panels on houses. By connecting your brand to a larger picture, one founded on true customer relationship and value, you set yourself up for growth.
There are countless examples of this, from Tesla to Amazon to Google to Apple. Simon Sinek discusses this at-length in his book Start With Why (though his 15-minute TED Talk does the trick). Bottom line (as Simon says) people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Takeaway: Create a visionary brand that people enjoy, recognize, and believe in, and it will set you up for long-term growth and flexibility.
There’s an art and a science to what makes good brands, well, good. And that really depends on your company, goals, market, product, and priorities.
Especially for founders, it is easy to have tunnel vision about making your product amazing. All brands need great products behind them. But those great products also need customers who know who you are and why your product is valuable to them.
To have a competitive edge, people have to know about you.
We’d love to live in a world where great design sells itself—but it doesn’t. If you want to win, you need to stand out against your competitors. A feature-driven arms race is going to end poorly. Get out in front with a brand that positions your value to your target audience.
By understanding how your brand can make you more efficient and effective as a company, you can be sure you are giving your stellar products the best chance to compete in a rapidly evolving market.
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