Branding from the trenches

It has to be cool, and not suck.


A lot of advice that gets doled out is idealistic. That’s okay. Idealism gives us something to strive for. Sometimes, however, the practical application gets lost in the comparison; we end up saying wouldn’t it be nice to have those ideal circumstances, instead of the ones we are facing.

That’s what is was like for me. I was recruited by a group of friends and partners to head up the marketing for their startup. It wasn’t really their startup. It was a company founded by others and they had essentially acquired it in distress. “Startup” makes it sound like it was squeaky clean, a blank slate, the perfect untarnished foundation upon which to build a brand. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We weren’t starting with a clean slate. We had history—a string of business decisions that had led us to a current reality where the company had to either change or die.

It was a messy pile of baggage. The company needed consistency. It had flux. It needed clarity in its message. It had confusion. It needed unity around the product. It had a pile of seemingly unrelated features. It needed certainty around its purpose. It had competing visions. It needed focus. It had what I call magpie syndromedecision-makers were seduced by the allure of the next shiny new thing. Most of all, the customer needed to be able to trust us. They couldn’t.

We were not bereft of advantages. We had a knot of skilled, smart and capable people. We needed to focus those resources to reforge our brand, and it wasn’t going to be easy. At the root of it all, we needed to change our decision-making behavior in order to execute in a consistent manner.

Enter the irony of constraints. Enslaved by the decisions of the past, our only hope of freeing ourselves and giving the company its wings lay in imposing constraints on ourselves. (An excellent read on this principle is Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds.)

I believed that this could be led by marketing. If we could focus one area of the company on relentless and consistent execution, the results would encourage others to follow suit and we could establish a sense of ourselves that others would rally behind. I believed that the root of our erratic past was a lack of identity. Not identity in the sense of our logo or colors, but identity in the sense of our culture. What were our values and how did they translate into what we were all about? What purpose did we serve?

To start we needed to establish the constraints within which we would discipline ourselves to act. They needed to be loose enough that (as one department) we weren’t strangling the rest of the company, but firm enough that we were imposing discipline on ourselves and taking clear steps, however small, away from the chaos of the past. In the beginning, we just needed something that would act like bumpers in our bowling lane. If we treated each product iteration or marketing campaign as its own MVP, we needed a consistent standard for what was acceptable.

Simple as it was, our standard became, It has to be cool, and not suck.

In the terms of Scott Bedbury’s New Brand World, this became the motto that helped us make the commitment and sacrifice needed to put down the roots of our brand. If it was cool, we were interested. If it sucked, we said no.

It has to be cool and not suck, became the emblem of our company culture. As simple and seemingly subjective as this motto was, it gave us what we needed to combat both the total perfectionism and “anything goes” behaviors of the past. Culture drives consistency in decision-making, which, in our case, caused a chain reaction that helped solidify the company. We clarified our business plan, unified the product, executed a consistent integrated marketing strategy across all channels, developed consistent and clear messaging, created simple branding and style guides, and harmonized web and product design with our traditional marketing and communications efforts.

The story is still being written. It would be a gross oversimplification to say that this decision solved all of our problems for us. But it did provide the lodestone we needed to extract ourselves from the morass of the company’s past sins. It did guide us to build a solid brand and help define our culture. And, in the end, we had a company that was definitely cool—and didn’t suck.