Branding your early-stage software company
A short summary of what I’ve learned about branding reading a bunch of articles online ….and preparing for Point Nine’s upcoming rebrand (!)
When, like us at Point Nine, you’re a VC primarily focused on B2B businesses, the rise of DTC companies is somewhat puzzling. Many of these have raised a lot of money over the past few years but if barriers to entry are what’s driving outsized successes in VC, what barriers to entry do these companies build? What prevents another Glossier from starting to sell exactly the same products at the same (or even lower) prices? The answer is often their brand.
B2B businesses also build brands and as an investor in many B2B businesses at Point Nine, we’ve been fortunate enough to observe in a few cases such as Zendesk or Typeform how powerful a brand can be in making a B2B business successful.
Trying to assess the potential of an early-stage company to successfully create a brand is therefore critical, so I spent some time reading about What it takes to build a strong brand. We’re also about to launch a new branding project at P(oint) 9/N(ine) (?) (stay tuned!), so it felt like a useful exercise to go through.
This post is just a combination of a bunch of readings I have done over the past few days on tech blogs, in academic literature and meeting with branding agencies to select one for Point Nine. It is, by no means, one of a branding expert but in case this summarisation exercise is helpful for any founder, I thought I would share it!
What’s a “brand” and why is it important?
There are many different definitions of a brand. My favourite is the one that Alex Antolino, Creative Director at Typeform, shared with our portfolio companies at the last P9 Founder Summit in Barcelona: “your brand is what customers say about your company when you leave the room”. If you’re looking for a more theoretical definition, your brand can be “your organizational story” (link), “your company’s identity” (link), “the narrative that you have around your company and the reason that your company exists” (link)”, or as Bill Macaitis, former CMO of Slack and Zendesk, explains here: “every single touchpoints your customer has with you during his journey”.
It is by no means (only) your logo.
Working on your brand is important because:
- people buy with their heads but also with their hearts. As mentioned on Initialized()’s blog: “Logic + Emotion drives product adoption”. The greatest product minds master the functional features of their product (i.e. the logic) but they also manage to create an emotional link with the consumer. Hence, if you don’t work on the emotions you’re creating, you’re only doing half the job.
- it’s a great way to stand out from the competition. As this article about Drift’s branding strategy points out, in the now quite crowded SaaS world, everything from your product, your content marketing strategy or your pricing grid can and eventually will be copied. Your brand cannot. Rodrigo would even say that Google’s strongest moat today is rather its brand than its ranking algorithm. If you doubt that, start wondering if you’ve ever “binged” “how to build a brand in software”? Now, have you ever googled “how to build a brand in software”?
As the schema below illustrates, this is particularly important for growth businesses (or startups) as they’re constantly trying to attract new customers.
In the rest of the post, I’ll outline the different steps of the branding process. The first step is to work on defining your company’s identity (step 1), the second is to define your company voice and tone (step 2) in order to create a brand guideline (step 3) that you can then operationalize (step 4). The post ends with a few additional recommendations.
Step 1: Start with getting your story or identity right
As Ryan Hubbard from Intercom explains well in this post, the first step of the branding process is to define what’s unique about your company. “The one thing you should probably have buttoned up prior to investing in brand is some kind of clear point of view about who you are as a company and what makes you different.” Said differently, “What’s the special thing only YOU can do that your customers will miss out on if you never existed?”
One way to think about your identity is to think about the “Why”, “How” and “What” of your organisation. Simon Sinek expands on that in this video.
Intercom’s Why is “Make Internet business personal”, AirBnB’s is “Belong Anywhere”, Typeform’s is “Makes things a little more human” (or People First), Calldesk’s is “Deliver happiness through customer service”. If you’re looking for more inspiration about how to find your “why”, Typeform created a video about their rebranding process here — check it out, it’s great!
You can then go through a positioning exercise (which we always try to do with our portfolio companies right after the investment) using e.g. this framework to turn this identity into something more operational. My colleague Rodrigo gave it a try for a (not so) fictional helpdesk startups in this post.
Now that you know more about the identity of your company, you can start thinking about how you want to communicate it to the world.
Step 2: Define your voice and tone
The next step is to choose your voice: “Your company’s overall verbal persona and attitude.” Would you rather be formal or casual? What is the type of vocabulary that you’ll be using?
As outlined by First Round Review here, one way to go about it is to think about 3–5 adjectives that characterize your company and/or to think about the person that would best represent your brand. Once you’ve identified these adjectives, you can do a quick consistency check by asking yourself: ‘What celebrity or historical figure would this brand be? Is it George Clooney? Is it George Washington?’ Okay, what would George Washington say about this? What would he do? Would he put that ad there? Would he work with this partner? Does this feel right?’”. Now, would this celebrity who could represent your brand behave and/or communicate according to the adjectives that you’ve defined earlier?
As explained in this article at Drift, they “write as if we’re talking to our friends over lunch. That means we’re friendly, conversational, human, warm, and helpful. So if we wouldn’t say it out loud to a friend, we wouldn’t use it in our copy.”
At Point Nine, we’re a “down to earth” crew of people and while we get a lot of solicitations, it’s important to us to always be approachable. We also believe that we should not take ourselves too seriously because, well…we’re not building (great) companies ourselves. We hope you can see that reading our monthly newsletter, cleaning your hands with our funding napkins or observing the fact that Christoph never managed to wear a white shirt so far.
You can then slightly adapt your voice depending on the type of personas you’re speaking to. What this article calls your “tone”. At Point Nine, we communicate (slightly) differently with our LPs than we do with our portfolio founders but we still have this overall casual tone. Simply because no matter who we’re speaking to, this is who we are.
The point is to make sure that this voice & tone are understood and identifiable, because this will make your company relatable to all external parties… And ultimately define what people say about your company when you leave the room. That’s your brand!
Now that you’re clear(er) on your company’s identity, voice and tone, you can work on your Brand Identity System.
Step 3: Create your Brand Identity System
A brand identity system is basically your company’s ID card and it can very often be summarized with simple bullet points / in a simple good doc with:
- Your name
- A one-line company description: the best companies manage to make this one word (more here). Salesforce own CRM, Hubspot own Inbound Marketing.
- A one paragraph company description (or a boilerplate)
- Your voice: it could be only 3 to 5 brand adjectives
- Some visuals: Colors (3–4 complementary colours), Typography (font for emails, <h1..4> on your website, Logo, Icon, Photos used (stock vs. personal))
- The emotions you want to convey through the types of words you use and the ways to express yourself in oral and verbal communication.
This is most often the work that founders need to do with their designer and a copywriter. If you’re looking for inspiration, I added a few examples of brand guidelines at the end of the post.
Step 4: Operationalize your brand
Now that you have a brand guideline, you can operationalize it. This means making sure that you’re aligning all your communication to customers, partners or employees according to it. Branding is all about control and consistency. The more you make sure that your communication through your website, social media pages, case studies, email or even 404 pages is consistent with your brand identity system, the stronger your brand will be. David Anastacio, Rekki’s (awesome) designer, puts it perfectly: “repetition leads to identification. Identification leads to assimilation.”
Express your brand in your communication AND in the functionality of your product. As well put here, “Core Brand Experience = Offering + Service”. Hence, it’s not enough to align your communication with your brand identity system. You also need to align your product choices with the values of your brand. At Point Nine, we’re approachable and friendly in the way we communicate but also in the way we structure our product (an investment from Point Nine). Our Term Sheet fits in one page and is as simple as it gets (there are no weird lawyer fluffs).
Some final notes
No matter what you do, you’re creating a brand. You can’t set this exercise aside and assume that you’ll be able to work on it after. Each time you’re speaking with a customer, you’re impacting your brand. Good news here, if you do it well, and as Jason Lemkin explains well here, even if you don’t know, you already have a mini brand.
BUT spend a lot of time on it only when you’ve found PMF and know to whom you’re really selling. As explained here: “Branding is about consistency and confidence, while developing your MVP is often about experimentation and iteration”
Understanding your brand is like being clear about your positioning in the market and/or your company culture, the clearer you are about it, the easier many decisions are and the more “antifragile” your organisation becomes:
- Branding aligns your communication while making your marketing more efficient.
- Competitive differentiation makes you stand out in the market and drives product choices.
- Culture makes your organisation special and helps you attract and retain people.
The more it goes and the more I am convinced that there are less and less first-mover advantage in SaaS. But the companies with the strongest brands will be able to win. Drift started more than 5 years after Intercom and Zendesk — let’s meet in 5 years, Christoph ;)
Some inspiring rebranding processes
- Rekki: https://medium.com/rekkiapp/creating-a-brand-to-serve-1b7fc84c55fa
- Typeform: https://www.typeform.com/blog/inside-story/rebranding/
- Drift’s Brand Book: https://www.drift.com/blog/brand-book/
- Slack: the official announcement , a post written by Pentagram, the branding agency that worked with Slack and an interesting review about why Slack evolved their brand.
- AirBnB: https://design.studio/work/airbnb
A big thanks to Marguerite for reviewing a very early draft of this post and for your input on understanding brands — which is (heaps) better than mine!