Edit: A version of this post has now been published in Edsurge.
Brands can be difficult for startups, especially since the product you’re building will change often as you grow. To be sure, great products can overcome mediocre brands and great brands will certainly not overcome inadequate products. But if you’re founding a company, launching a product, or considering rebranding you have the opportunity to create a lasting advantage if your brand can capture your unique positioning in the marketplace.
The examples in this post are drawn from the Edtech space since that’s the space my company Trinket is in. As I’ve written before, Edtech is a space in which humble companies win. But the principles apply to startups in any industry.
Battle of the Brands
Before getting into the How, I want to zoom in to the Why. What benefits can branding offer your startup? Let’s look at some examples.
Blackboard vs. Canvas
Blackboard is an excellent, durable brand, even if has become the company everyone loves to hate. Blackboards were ubiquitous in the 1990s, when the company was founded. By chosing this central, pervasive piece of the classroom experience, Blackboard was able to say “we’re everywhere, crucial, and a product you’ll use in class every day. Rely on us.” There were many elements to the company’s success but their strong brand was absolutely a contributing factor.
Instructure’s Canvas was a new approach to LMSs. For teachers, the Brand suggests a blank slate, not cold and heavy like a blackboard but light, bright, and full of possibility. Capturing ease of use for teachers and IT people (because of their then-novel cloud-based architecture), the Canvas brand helped the product stick in people’s minds as the light, fun, creative alternative to Blackboard. Again, there were many elements to the success of Canvas the product but the brand has played a central role.
Codecademy vs Treehouse
Codecademy burst onto the scene and instantly defined the category of online code school. Their straightforward, functional name left no doubt as to what they did and was, initially, as much of an advertisement for the category as it was for them as a company. Functional names like theirs are often a huge asset when a category doesn’t exist or is growing quickly. Codecademy has set a standard with their brand and is the biggest player in the space. Their brand has done them well.
Treehouse is an evocative brand that clearly differentiates the company’s product in an increasingly crowded space. Evoking a sense of community, fun, and playfulness, the brand prepares users for the social experience their product delivers through integrated members-only forums. Coding education is growing fast, but the Treehouse brand (and tree frog logo) help the company stand out and win users. Interestingly, the brand itself wouldn’t be as strong if Codecademy didn’t already exist in users’ minds. The Treehouse brand works especially well as a direct contrast to an Academy in terms of market positioning.
Igor is Your Guide
We’ve seen a few examples, but to effectively position yourself in the marketplace you need an effective brand landscape to work from. Igor Naming Agency has made a free naming guide available that I highly recommend for any company considering branding or rebranding. categorizes all brands into four types: Functional, Invented, Experiential, and Evocative. The Edtech brand space is very crowded, with brands that have widely varying degrees of effectiveness. Here’s a great visualization of this crowded forest of brands, courtesy of @Eduventuresinc:
Igor’s Functional, Invented, Experiential, and Evocative categories can help break this complexity down. Here’s my (entirely subjective!) classification of companies in the space:
You can learn more about most of these brands in the excellent edSurge index.
Igor suggests that the ratings you choose reflect how well the brand enhances the product/company’s positioning. A crappy product that seems better than it is or is clearly differentiated becasue of a great brand would get a high score, whereas a great product with a horrible brand or that’s poorly differentiated from competitors would get a low score.
Some initial observations: Functional brands seem more likely to not contribute value to their companies. The Invented space is quite crowded in Edtech. The Experiential and Evocative spaces can be hit-or-miss in terms of company success.
You can see we were quite taken with Inkling as a brand that enhances the value of its company. Inkling and brands like Wikispaces, Coursera, and Remind aren’t direct competitors to Trinket, but belong in our brand landscape because they play a role in our users’ lives.
Remember the Battle of the Brands above? You’ll find Codecademy as a 3-rated Functional brand, while we’ve rated Treehouse as a 4-point Evocative brand. Code.org is an incredibly effective Functional brand that is defining the category of online coding experiences. Scratch is an powerful Experiential brand that dominates the early coding education space, and differentiates its product as playful and open-ended.
There’s a lot of insight packed into this little chart, and I hope you’ll take time to explore it and remix it to make it your own. Here it is as a public Google doc to use as a starting point: just modify my rankings or delete them and start over with the companies that matter to you. I’d suggest adding the companies in the zero row first, then ranking from there. I’d love to see what you come up with- Tweet me your changes!
Remember, the list of companies you use doesn’t have to all be direct competitors; the grid will give you perspective on the brand landscape your customers inhabit and help you grasp how your brand will fare in that landscape.
EduWho? ClassWhat? CodeHuh?
Regardless of how you rank them, the figure above shows the Edtech brand space is crowded. There are a lot of Eduthises, Classwhatsits and Teachwhathaveyous. In the space that Trinket plays in (coding education), Codethisorthats dominate.
There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward, functional brand like Codecademy or Code.org. In fact, the first movers in spaces often have functional names. But the opportunities for Functional brands tend to be taken by the first players; subsequent brands must be considerably more inventive. Invented names can be very successful but are on the whole very difficult for new companies because of memorability. Portmanteaus like Groupon do well for category creation startups because they blend recognizable parts in ways that communicate the product idea clearly. For crowded spaces like Edtech, though, the Experiential and Evocative names have the most potential to differentiate your company over time. They’re the categories I’d recommend you consider most thoroughly. That’s what we did, and it’s been paying dividends ever since.
We rebranded (in what turned out to be a pivot) from Coursefork To Trinket. We were lucky to have an excellent designer named Julia Elman to help us through the process (she’s written her own account of our journey here). Having an expert to help guide you is highly recommended.
We knew we wanted to be evocative. In contrast to experiential, which brings out feelings, Evocative brands clearly communicate your company’s position in the marketplace, relationship to competitors, and competitive edge. Evocative brands are opportunities to embed your unique insight or mission as a company into your identity.
They’re hard to find, though. Great evocative brands like Oracle, Virgin, and Caterpillar often at first may seem horribly weak:
- Oracles are mysterious, a bad quality for a database.
- Virgin has sexual and even religous overtones that make no sense in the music, airline, or cell phone industries.
- Caterpillars are pests that are easily squashed underfoot.
But in each case the brand’s uniqueness evokes its differences from the competition and is part of its durability in our minds. Oracles are trustworthy, majestic, prescient. Virgins are pure, young, coveted. Caterpillars are ubiquitous, unstoppable, and single-minded. Compare these to Microsoft which, as an Invented name, contributes little to the brand’s success, especially relative to the success of the company.
Trinket was initially not a serious contender because it implies cheap or worthless. Why the heck did we pick it?
How We Made Trinket
We didn’t know it at the time but Trinket is not only our brand, it’s helping us define a new product category and user experience: embeddable, runnable, shareable code for teaching and learning. It took us 4–5 meetings over 2 weeks (plus lots of thinking during down time) and time very well spent.
A partial inspiration for us was the Hero with a Thousand Faces, where there is a lowly hero who goes on a journey, seeking to accomplish something great (i.e. slay a dragon). The hero has a transformative experience, acquires a treasure, talisman, etc of some sort, and is able to use that to defeat the dragon. Everyone lives happily ever after (and/or your brand dominates the marketplace). This is an architypal myth found across many human cultures and many modern films and novels.
Too often brands position themselves as the Hero, with the customer relegated to some sort of damsel in distress. This positioning works for some companies, but we knew that we wanted to be the talisman that helped transform our users into heros.
So, what is Trinket? In English, a trinket is small, lightweight thing, simply made, that one carries along and keeps close. It has come to mean jewelry but originally indicated a tool of some sort. Its value is entirely subjective. And, though a necklace of bone or something might make the hero feel powerful, in the end he/she is able to slay the dragon because of who they let themselves be when they’re wearing the trinket rather than any magical powers it has. The Trinket was a catalyst, a support, and its power comes entirely from its wearer.
This also describes the positioning our product has in the coding education space. Many other companies try to take very active, heavyweight roles in their users’ journey, playing the Hero, or perhaps a Master who trains the Hero. We seek to be one of the users’ most cherished possessions but also the most lightweight.
It’s not all roses. If you choose an Evocative brand be prepared for strong reactions. Many users have remarked to us how they love our brand. But initially, some of our investors and advisors were concerned that it was weak and implied cheapness.
If you believe an Evocative brand is right for your company, make sure that the narrative and imagery around your brand reinforce its positive aspects. We did that by incorporating the image of a key into our logo, evoking the older sense of trinket as a tool and emphasizing that the value of our product is what it enables our users to do.
Hope that helps anyone considering a rebrand or naming a product! One final word of advice: if you think you don’t have time to brand or rebrand you’re wrong. The rebranding exercise, if you do it right, will help clarify your product design principles and the strategic positioning that you already know but might not be emphasizing enough.
Questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you on Twitter.