When Uri and I first met a little over one year ago, we couldn’t have been more different. He’s a third-generation Israeli with decades of experience branding some of the world’s greatest companies and consulting with high tech leaders on everything from user experience to design and product strategy. I was an American olah and a BBC journalist who loved meeting people, telling stories, creating films and exploring the power of the written word.
We still have literally nothing in common. He’s calm, quiet, thoughtful, and measured. I’m loud, emotional, impulsive, and high energy. We don’t like the same music (I haven’t even heard of his favorite bands), we don’t share the same political views (don’t even go there) and one of us believes in God while the other doesn’t.
But we’ve both spent our entire professional careers focused on one vital thing — how to connect in a meaningful way with the people of the world.
Branding is all about building relationships, setting expectations and defining your commitments. User experience is about maintaining those relationships, meeting the expectations and delivering on the commitments in consistent, meaningful and relevant ways across all of the brand’s touch points.
Journalism is the art of communicating with the world. It’s telling people important stories that matter in a way that is relevant, interesting and accessible to them. It’s storytelling with a purpose. It empowers people by providing valuable information that makes them informed. Innate to being a journalist is understanding your audiences, what makes a good story, and how to deliver it in the best way possible.
All this requires a deep understanding of people, human perception and behavior. So when Uri and I started working together with Aleph’s portfolio companies, we realized that despite our differences, we were of one mind about how these startups should be building their brand, strategizing about their product, creating content and messaging, and engaging with their audiences.
When it simply became too much of an effort for people to ask for a meeting with both “Uri and Erica,” “Urica” was born, from the Greek word, “eureka,” a word used to express the triumph of discovery.
We advise startups to help them define their company philosophy, guide their ensuing strategy and infuse their story and values throughout everything they do.
One year into Urica, we want to share our process in the hope you can adapt it to your branding, communications and product design needs:
1. The Brand Story
Your brand story is the basis for your company’s communication with anybody and everybody. It explains who you are and why anyone should care that you exist. Quite literally, it is a number of very carefully crafted sentences that will serve as a benchmark for everything else that you do — from your elevator pitch and onboarding new employees, to conducting user interviews and constructing your entire messaging strategy.
You already have a brand and a brand story, whether you’ve paid attention to it or not. It is what people believe about you and what they tell others about you. As Jeff Bezos said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” We’d like to suggest that it is also the story that you tell yourself. Telling your story is not just about being noticed or saying what your product does — it is also about communicating your personality, value, uniqueness and scarcity in a way that makes people care.
Be it a salesperson at a convention, a jobseeker reading your ad or an employee explaining to their parents where they work (if you’re in tech, you know what we’re talking about…), or a customer telling a friend about your service — you want your story told in a way that closely communicates your vision and commitment. This story is retold with every interaction you have with any person, so it should inform everything you do and serve as a touchstone for evaluating everything you do, from your marketing copy, through your product development to your billing and support.
Creating this brand story requires a comprehensive, involved approach, including interviewing the founders and relevant stakeholders, conducting research on the audiences and actors and understanding the competitive landscape.
Once we’ve gathered all the necessary information, we help structure the story around the fundamentals of storytelling, the five W’s — Who, What, Where, When, Why and How (not necessarily in that order):
- Why do you need to exist? Why should anyone care? Why you? What is your impact on the world? What role do you play in their life? Address your purpose for your audience and what the person on the other side cares about. This defines the nature of your relationship with your audience and determines both how loyal and how forgiving they will be to you in the future.
- Where and When? Give context and set the stage. Appeal to your audience’s emotions and turn the problem into an opportunity. If you are appealing to a wider audience, look at your playing field through rose-colored glasses of what could be. For example, if you’re entering an area that is antiquated, talk about how introducing new technology can help meet the user’s expectations of increasingly frictionless experiences. If you’re speaking to a more narrow or specialized audience, they already know the context too well. Tell them how they’ll feel when you make it better.
- Now What is it that you do? You’ve piqued an interest; now what’s the bottom line? Explain your value proposition in one clear sentence that includes the logical rationalization for using your product or service. This is also the place to add use cases. Address whatever concerns you anticipate they may have to remove the friction before it even occurs. If a concern could be price, forestall it by saying reasonably priced; if a concern could be bureaucracy, say the process is streamlined.
- How are you different? Explain your differentiator, and talk about it in a way that makes people understand why this is important. What claim can you make that the audience cares about that none of your competitors can make? As we say at Aleph, different is better than better.
- Who do you already have a relationship with? Gain trust and give examples of brand-name clients, partners, and certifications, if relevant.
- Gumdrop. Finally, leave a positive taste in their mouth, something to remember — maybe a tagline, or something they can connect to emotionally: something that hints at your company’s personality.
When you have these elements in place, read it out loud to make sure it’s believable. Very often, messaging or stories can come across as inauthentic when they incorporate too many overused buzzwords. When you focus on communicating your actual value, using a tone that reflects your company’s true character, this story evolves into a tool that will resonate with others.
Language and tone are important. If you’re direct and to the point, don’t use long-winded sentences. If your brand is elite and sophisticated, don’t use slang. It is important to remember that brands are relationships, so your tone may change based on the context and scenario, but your voice and personality should remain the same. If you’re an insurance service, you are the same service regardless of the situation. However, your tone will probably be different when someone is signing up than when someone is making a claim for life insurance.
Once all that’s done, edit. Remove everything that’s obvious. Toyota doesn’t need to say their cars have wheels.
2. The Brand Values
Company values can often be misunderstood. Sometimes these can seem like cliched fluff, but they are actually super important. Clearly articulating these values is much more meaningful than randomly choosing a bunch of buzzwords like “innovation” and “empowering.” These are words that you truly live by. These values determine your actions as a company, and guide your relationship with your consumer audience. They represent a commitment.
You may pivot your company and change your business model, but if one of your values is to be a socially responsible company, you can’t get away with cutting costs by switching your production to sweatshops.
In order to determine these values, think deeply about your mission statement, your purpose as a company, your vision for the future, and what you are committed to consistently provide to your audience.
Your values tell you how you go about achieving your mission.
In a 1997 talk to Apple employees to launch their “Think Different” campaign, Steve Jobs said it best:
“To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us…
…Our customers want to know who is Apple, and what is it that we stand for. Where do we fit in this world.”
Apple isn’t about making boxes to help people do their jobs, he continued. They’re about honoring the people who think differently, move this world forward and have a passion to change the world for the better. How do they honor those people? By creating the best products in the world for them. This was their core value then, it’s still their core value today and it has guided how their products have changed over the years.
Startups have a tendency to be opportunistic, adapting new solutions because they are cheaper, faster, easier, trendy, or just available, often without evaluating the impact.
Does this new feature match your core values, or is it just something cool that doesn’t actually deliver on your promise?
Google has a product inclusion team to ensure their products appeal to a broad base of users and don’t get stuck on biases related to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities. Nike controversially used Colin Kaepernick in a “Just Do It” ad, saying they believed he “is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” which is truly one of the primary values of their brand.
On the other hand, Gilette’s ad supporting the #metoo campaign fell short. It wasn’t perceived as genuine, it disappointed many of its male consumer base because it portrayed them badly and it veered far off from the company’s brand that has been celebrating masculinity for over 100 years.
So bottom line — your values should serve as touchstones by which you should measure anything and everything you do to make sure it’s really “you” and that it delivers on your commitment. This doesn’t mean you can’t be opportunistic; you just have to be smart about it.
3. The Personas
This is a process of identifying your audiences. Who are you talking to? Who are your consumers? Who are your secondary audiences, who cannot be ignored or alienated? In order to create the right product, and then the right messaging, you need to first understand who you’re building it for, who you’re talking to.
This is not a flat or superficial process. It is an in-depth defining of audience groups based on their roles and behaviors. It is based on research that includes interviews, statistical information of usage and analytics, analysis of online social sentiment and discussions with your own customer support reps and salespeople, among other things.
Once we identify each persona, we then examine them individually and emphasize:
- What are their current wants/needs/expectations/habits/concerns?
- What do we do for them?
- How do we make each of them think and feel about themselves?
- How do we make them feel about us, about our brand, with every single interaction?
- What do we make them think — what is their rational reasoning when they think about us?
- What can they consistently expect from us?
This information serves as our measuring stick for anything we do for them, whether it be a new marketing campaign, website messaging, or developing a feature, because it guides us in applying our values in a way that is relevant for our audience.
It’s also important to understand the context and scenario in which your audience is encountering your brand and interacting with it. This determines not only how you market and sell the product, but also how your product is built and designed in the first place.
By understanding your audience’s motivations, the context in which they interact with you and the value you provide them — you can do a better job of mapping, constructing and measuring their user experience as well.
From our perspective, the important thing to remember is that your brand and your product are not different entities, but one and the same. Think about what that really means for your consumers. You’re building a relationship with them, one you hope they will grow to trust, rely upon, and come back to again and again.
Now after all this theory, we thought it would be helpful to provide some practical, actionable examples of how these principles are translated:
1. Marketing, Comms and Design
Tastes and trends very often drive creative decisions. While these can contribute to your thinking, your values and brand promise should be what’s reflected in every design choice you make, from the copy and messaging, to the colors, typography and logo. If one of your values is providing a service for travelers, by travelers, then integrate user-generated photos from actual travelers using your platform around the world, rather than using generic stock images.
2. HR and Recruitment
Your values should determine how you write your recruitment ads, conduct your interview process, send rejection letters and even determine what type of person you hire. Every interaction with your employees or potential employees, including internal corporate activities, onboarding and training, should be guided by your brand. Recently, a portfolio company of ours conducted a huge rebrand that focused on helping their enterprise clients make their employees the center of their business success. So when their HR launched the new brand internally, they used the event as an opportunity to celebrate their own employees.
Your product is the place where your audience interacts very intimately with your brand. This determines how your audience feels about you, and how they feel about themselves while interacting with you. If your product is a navigation app sporting the tagline “making the road safer,” you would make commonly used features easily accessible so that drivers don’t need to look over and read something on their phone while driving.
4. Sales, Biz Dev, Monetization
There is a tendency to be very opportunistic when it comes to monetization, partnerships and sales, and very often, quarterly, short-term thinking prevails. However, this can lead to brand-diluting decisions that can be detrimental in the long term. If one of your brand values is to always provide value to your customers, network advertising that clutters their experience without being particularly relevant to them can affect their perception of your brand and their engagement going forward.
These same principles apply to your customer support, your finance department, and even your engineering team and the way they approach problems. They help you decide which digital manifestations best support your offering — whether it be an app, a website, an online marketplace or community, or something else. This foundation you have built serves as a benchmark you can always refer to with everything you do. You must always ask yourself — does this idea fit into our own story? Does it sound like it was written by the same author? Does it follow through on our promise to our audience? This way of thinking is necessary for maintaining your brand going forward and for remaining authentic, honest and consistent about how you communicate.
Even though we at “Urica” don’t agree on almost anything (including what to have for lunch — ever), we strive to be helpful to our portfolio companies by consistently committing to follow through on our brand promise. We believe startups that stay true to themselves in everything they do can connect with the world in a meaningful way to build enduring relationships and ever-evolving, impactful brands and experiences.