Brands and Bagels: 10 Things We Learned at Our First Consumer Tech Brands Event

Deepka Rana
Nov 21, 2018 · 7 min read

If you were anywhere near London’s Brick Lane last Wednesday evening, you may have seen me running down the street with three blue carrier bags full of freshly baked bagels (thank you Beigel Bake). Lone carb-loading session? Not that night. I was on the way to our first Consumer Tech Brands event, which I co-hosted with Lola.

Our line-up: James Greenfield, Creative Director and Co-founder at Koto; JP, founder at Allplants; Kirsty Macdonald, Head of Customer Experience at Bloom & Wild; Alexis Cuddyre, VP of Brand at ADAY; and Katie Marrache, Partner at JamJar Investments. I know, don’t you wish you had come along?

Here’s a couple of points that came up during the course of the evening that I wanted to share.

  1. James kicked off the evening with a presentation on themes he’s seen in branding this year. He highlighted that tech brands are falling into ‘good tech’ and ‘bad tech’ camps. In some cases, the rationale behind the consumer perception is very clear (e.g. Facebook’s shambles of a year that won’t seem to end). Sometimes, it’s not as obvious. Either way, it’s a powerful force. An example of this is how Lyft was able to narrow the gap between itself and the ‘unassailable’ Uber. The average consumer, who isn’t plugged into tech news (and what type of practices Travis Kalanick may or may not have signed off on at Uber) is likely, on some level, to believe that Lyft is a ‘better’ company than Uber. Objectively, it doesn’t seem like Lyft has done anything out of the ordinary to warrant this. However, something as simple as flying under the radar and having an open, responsible tone of voice as a brand has elevated them in the eyes of the consumer. Personally, I agree with the idea that companies will have to figure out where they want to stand earlier in their life before it’s decided for them.
  2. You can make bold moves with your brand if you know your customer really well. James highlighted the recent Nike x Colin Kaepernick campaign and how it was described as ‘controversial’, ‘risky’ and ‘genius’. It may well have been genius and controversial but not necessarily risky. Nike has a deep understanding of who their target customer is, both today and in the years to come. They “know that America by 2050 may no longer be a white-dominated country and they know that their key buyers index young”. With this in mind, the campaign doesn’t seem so risky at all.
  3. Don’t sabotage your brand to chase a larger addressable market. In other words, do one thing well first. James highlighted his experience of working with founders who obsess about expanding what they do. They’ll shift their focus, often at the expense of their young brand. We get why. Large total addressable markets resonate strongly with investors. However, in most cases, it won’t mean very much to the consumer, whose perception is built by the product or service they’re receiving. Make sure you nail your hero product/service and don’t move on before you’re ready. Examples of brands that had executed well on that front included Monzo, Deliveroo, and a classic such as Dr Martens. They’ve been known for their iconic boots for decades. Sure, they now sell other types of footwear (yes, even sandals) but the boots remain front and centre of the brand. On the technology side, a fad that grabbed a lot of attention this year was the headline ‘How smart speakers stole the show from smartphones’. This had a lot of teams fret about the need for ‘audio brand guidelines’ and if they were doing enough on that front. So far, it feels like the only real use cases for smart speakers are alarms, reminders and the occasional weather update. James’ conclusion? If you and your team sit down and can’t collectively come up with some really compelling use cases yourselves, your consumer won’t either and it’s probably not worth your time.
  4. How do older brands manage to move with the times and stay relevant? James remarked that any consumer brand should have a singular vision that consumers can understand. Over time, you will have to innovate on how that message is delivered, perhaps diversify your product offering, but that central narrative has to stay consistent. Consumers will interpret it in different ways given their own experiences but it should bubble down to the same core. This consistency enables authenticity, which is what consumers crave in an age where they feel like they can’t trust traditional sources or believe most companies don’t have their interests at heart.
  5. The concept of community has changed. Historically, and as recently as a few decades ago, your community was largely defined by geography. It was mainly your family, your village, the place you went to school or work. By and large, you shared a similar set of values. As JP from Allplants remarked, this has drastically changed over time. Today it’s likely we may feel like we're surrounded by people who don’t share the same values as us. The internet, primarily through social media, has allowed consumers across the world to find their own ‘special interest’ groups online and build communities around that. It can be a powerful force for companies that appeal to a certain set of values that lets them transcend geographic restrictions. Allplants sell plant-based food directly to consumers in the UK but the community it appeals to is global and can’t be neatly defined. JP commented that “we have a very clear set of values that we stand for which really lights up a lot of different people for their own personal reasons. Whether it’s for sustainability, or health and wellness, or the rights and lives of billions of animals”.
  6. Your community doesn’t just have to involve customers. Alexis described how the company treats anyone that touches the brand as part of their community. That will include the photographers, stylists, interns, and wear-testers who may not have bought anything yet. “Thinking much more broadly about people that care about us and are interested in what we’re doing has really shifted the way in which we approach outreach”. She added that the way you treat and interact with all of these people can give them the right tools, information and passion to talk about your brand in a more compelling way when they go out into their own communities.
  7. JP highlighted that whilst customers are part of the community, there are important differences between the two that a brand should understand. Customers are a group that believe in the company, but also speak about it in a very practical, product-centric way. Ideally, you’re solving a very real problem for them. Your community, however, will talk about your brand, the values and mission you embody. “…if you’re going to become a brand that’s truly going to become impactful, global, become a household name, I don’t think the aspiration should be to convert everyone who’s in your community to a customer, necessarily”. Another brand that comes to mind on this topic is Patagonia. They’ve created something people are enthusiastic and willing to stand behind, even if they aren’t big customers of the brand. In fact, Patagonia actively ‘discourages’ consumers to buy more of their products by offering lifetime guarantees and repair services.
  8. Balancing customer input on product development and brand. Kirsty from Bloom & Wild talked about how critical is it to constantly listen to the customer (everyone on your team should do a Zendesk shift at least once). The feedback has to feed through to the whole organisation, not just specific silos. However, as a brand they want to be ‘Bloom & Wild’ so there’s a tricky balance to maintain between taking in feedback but not letting it constantly shift your tone of voice and values as a brand.
  9. Is the customer always right? Usually, but don’t let them tell you exactly where to go or what you’re about. JP weighed in on how Allplants uses customer feedback. When it comes to the existing products, listening to customer feedback and iterating on the product is critical. However, your roadmap doesn’t have to follow every weird and wonderful suggestion you receive. And finally, customer feedback shouldn’t really define your brand. “Ideally you should have something that is really crisply defined, and maybe you’re refining how you communicate it, but not what your brand is and what your purpose is”.
  10. Your product is the very essence of the brand. Katie from JamJar made the excellent point of reminding us all that product is the foundation of any brand and community. “That’s the number one thing that defines and communicates who you are, whether that’s a physical product or an online product”.

Bonus question: Is Amazon a vulnerable brand? This point sparked an animated debate on the power of value vs. values. James believes that Amazon’s ‘Be Frugal’ mantra is too entrenched in the company’s culture, as demonstrated by their horrible user interface and questionable work conditions. Also, the fact that they sell an array of private label products under different names shows they understand the limitations of the ‘Amazon’ brand name. Whilst consumers will always be attracted to value, there is little inherent brand loyalty, and if anyone were able to undercut them on price, consumers would flock elsewhere. JP, on the other hand, asserted that Amazon’s frugal philosophy is very deliberately part of their external face to the world. Given the operational excellence they have built over time and the value they can offer because of that, it’s hard to avoid, even for the most righteous consumer among us. “They chose their defensible moat of things to get world-class at really well”. We know their warehouse workers aren’t getting a great deal, we know (particularly in Europe) that the money you spend is circumventing domestic tax systems. And yet, we keep coming back.

The truth is most likely somewhere between the two stances. I agree that Amazon probably doesn’t hold the same place in our hearts as other successful brands. However, as it continues to enter new industries and increase its lock-in through Prime, I find it very hard to see anyone close the gap without some form of external (i.e. regulatory) intervention.


Thanks again to our panelists and everyone that attended, we had a great time. See you again (maybe?) in the New Year !

Agree/disagree with any of the above? Just want to say hi? HMU at @deeeepka 🤙🏼

Thanks to Caroline Steele and Doug McKechnie

Deepka Rana

Written by

Venture capital @northzoneVC . Prev @HeartcoreCap. Former banker, physics @imperialcollege 🇬🇧 🇩🇪 🇮🇳

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