What you need to know about brand building for B2B startups.
Most startups don’t use the most powerful tool at their disposal when it comes to building their business. After 25 years of starting companies, I still can’t understand why.
Part of the problem is entrepreneurs who can’t walk the talk when it comes to their own brand. “Brand” is a word like “literally,” a word everyone uses but few people seem to understand.
Consumer marketing types talk about “brand” as the emotional value proposition of a product or service. It’s not your name, your logo, your UX, or your identity. It’s users’ collective response to those things — something that lives out there in the hearts and minds of your target audience. It’s what they say about you when you’re not around; a glowing halo of perception that surrounds your product, guiding people toward it, or scaring them away.
B2B = B2P
If you think something as soft as “emotional value” doesn’t matter in the sale of hardcore enterprise technology to men (mostly) in short-sleeved dress shirts, you don’t understand how human beings make decisions. Just think about the way you’ve made even the biggest decisions in your life. How did you decide what to do for a living or which house to buy, where to go to college or even who to marry? Odds are you had some rational justification for these choices, but if you reflect a little more deeply, you’ll find emotion played a huge role in the options you explored, the short list you winnowed down to, and the final choice from among attractive options.
Think you’re selling to “companies” and not “people?” That’s wrong again. Companies don’t buy anything. People inside companies buy things, and those people are influenced by the same biological forces in the workplace as they are when they get home.
You build a brand with a story
A brand is built through the creation, telling, and sharing of a story. I’ve written a lot about startup storytelling lately, and if you’re not sure why it’s such a big deal (or you’re just struggling to write one) read How to Tell A Startup Story.
A good story of how your B2B startup helps customers is fundamental to your success. It’s necessary not just to attract those customers — pretty important in itself — but also to attract talent and capital to your business, pretty useful assets in their own right.
Remember the customers, employees, and investors you need to survive (let alone win) are busy, distracted human beings just like you; caught up in their responsibilities, ailments, grievances, wants, desires, obligations, and imagined victory narratives. To cut through all that you need a well-honed machete, and the edge of that machete is a quick story that moves people from where they are when you show up to where you need them to be when you leave.
Let me give you an example, from a business of mine not long ago.
When Actifio described what it did in the terms most entrepreneurs do, it did so like this:
Actifio is a protection and availability storage platform company that pioneered the industry’s first storage system optimized for managing copies of production data, eliminating redundant silos of IT infrastructure and data management applications. By introducing virtualization into data management, Actifio delivers an application-centric, SLA-driven solution that decouples the management of data from storage, network and server infrastructure and reduces costs by 10X.
Here’s what Actifio does, told as a story:
Actifio liberates your data from the siloed infrastructure that keeps you from advancing your most urgent priorities; freeing you from the excess cost, complexity, and stress of managing cloud-scale application data on infrastructure designed for the client-server era.
Which would you be interested in learning more about?
Odds are it’s the latter, as demonstrated by the way the growth rate shifted in the face of this change.
The Value of Storytelling
The value of a great startup story goes way beyond brand building, and way beyond marketing. Creating it surfaces important strategic questions, and gets your team on the same page. Using it consistently makes your marketing more effective and shapes the priorities of your product, reducing friction in attracting capital, talent, and customers. Refining it marks your progress from what you think you’re selling today to what the world actually wants to buy.
Storytelling and brand building are like startup superpowers, because while every entrepreneur recognizes the importance of demand gen programs, only some bring the power of brands to bear in differentiating themselves from competition, and winning their categories.
The reason for this isn’t it’s something only big, well-funded startups can do.
Building a consumer brand like Coke takes billions of dollars and decades to do, which is why scrappy entrepreneurs sometimes think it’s not for them.
But you can build an enterprise tech brand by convincing a very small group of important people — as few as 20 or 30 thousand, worldwide — that what you’re doing matters to them.
You don’t need to spend like Coke to do that, or for anywhere near as long. But you do need to understand the game you’re playing, and what it takes to win.
Where do I start?
Start by trying a few things, to see what works building awareness and excitement across that small group of people. Focus your PR effort, and your analyst program, and extend it to include influencers in the space. Who do your customers follow, read, listen to, respect? Make yourself visible in the social networks and blogs, mostly by participating in ways that bring value to the community. Tighten up the messaging on your web site. Invest in design, freshen up your identity, improve the frequency and production values of your audio and video content.
Expect to fail a few times, and focus on learning from it. Listen, and always ask new prospects you come across how they heard about you. Keep going. Stay focused, leading with the same story at every point of contact with your marketplace, every time. At the point you’re sick of it and desperate to move on to something else, the people you need to be excited about what you’re doing will likely only be hearing it for the first time. It’s their response that will either tell you to keep going, or that it’s time to move on to something new.
Either way, you’ll be better off than you are now, connected to the truth of whether you’re onto something big, or spending time and money solving a problem the world just doesn’t have.
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