Trust is built by showing up consistently. It's why we remember our friends who we see regularly, but forget the person we sat next to on the bus.
Software companies operate under the same parameters.
Every single interaction with your software company, from the ad the user sees on Facebook, to the website they land on, to the experience of signing up, to the onboarding experience, all the way to the follow-up afterward is part of building that trust.
If these experiences are misaligned or disjointed, you lose cohesion. You lose trust.
Getting these experiences to line up uniformly and in a way that delights your user is called branding.
Most startups think they have to wait until they have a lot of money to build a brand. Truth is, you don't have a choice. The brand is how people feel about your company and whether you have a lot of money or not, they will still have an emotional opinion of your startup. So, it's better to be aware of how branding helps startups at varying stages.
Ensures your startup is unified toward one goal. In mind, in actions, and in voice.
Ensures you aren’t pegged as a copycat and that you know how you're different from your competitors.
Ensures you talk to somebodyinstead of trying to reach everybody.
Ensures your startup appears trustworthy to investors and customers. You can't get that from Fiverr.
Ensures you get emotional buy-in to your startup and get more investment. This means more 0's in those investor checks and greater connection with customers.
Streamlined Marketing and Design
Ensures you don’t reinvent the wheel when creating content about your startup. You can then focus on expanding to new markets and creating great content.
Ensures those marketing efforts are trusted and get a higher return that grows with time. As opposed to relying on discounts and cutting margins to increase sales.
Ensures you coherently and cohesively expand your team. Specifically, it ensures you hire people whose values align with the company and augment the brand rather than detract from it.
Ensures you can leverage brand equity to command a higher exit price. There is a reason Apple is worth trillions and Samsung is not (hint: it's the brand).
Ensures their isn’t a massive overhaul of the company post-exit.
Ensures you left your mark and made an impact beyond financial gain.
Branding exists at every stage of a startup's life. The question is, will it help you or hurt you?
In 2019 I started a small segment called the Brand Spotlight in my weekly newsletter. They were awesome and I really enjoyed writing them, but they were scattered. I was covering everything from lifestyle brands, digital products, video games, jeez I needed focus. That being said, the structure of them was useful, especially to those who need a tangible example to associate with the branding principles I speak on. I'll be resurrecting this every month with a focus on software and breaking it up into five pieces over a week.
It seemed fitting to write about the pillars themselves since they make up the foundation of building a software brand.
Positioning is a framework that was laid out by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book bearing the same title. Without getting too far into the weeds, the premise is that the top three companies in a market category are the big players and that everything else is fighting over scraps. Reason being is that people only have so much of a cognitive load that only the top three per category will stick (unless you study brands for a living). For example, name three ESPs. Easy, right? Can you name a fourth? Probably not.
Positioning is crucial to a brand's success because market categories are created based on a user's need and those needs vary from individual to individual. If you can get inside their head and claim a position, you have a shot at growing your user base to people who fall under the same market. It puts the focus of the brand on solving a specific problem for a specific group of people.
Ranging from tone of voice to the actual calls to action, messaging is the first step out of the emotional ether of branding. It's a concrete, tangible part of an organization that is used to speak truth and tell a user how you will impact their life. If done properly, messaging will spur creative ideas, generate effective campaigns, delightfully guide your user, and make it possible for them to understand who you are, what you stand for, and how you can be of service.
You thought design would've been first, didn't you? Not today! The best way to describe the impact of visuals is to compare it with a person's clothes. They say a lot about you. From the colors of your shirt, the material it's made of, how it's cut, the accessories and small details like the watch on your wrist, all of it gives insight into who you are and what we can expect from you. Good visuals, like messaging, help users identify who you are and make it easy for us to recognize something from you. Akin to a countries flag, they are a symbol igniting a user's trust.
The most impactful amalgam of the above pillars is, of course, the product your company creates. If anything should reflect your positioning, your messaging, and your visual identity the most, it's the software people are expecting will change their life (no matter how great or small). In this pillar it's important to be aware of the other pieces of your brand that are out there for others to interact with. Including your website, your email marketing, digital and physical ads, physical collateral like business cards, social campaigns. All of these experiences add up to a cohesive brand or divide it. A good user experience feels the same no matter the medium.
Wasn't sure if I should include this last pillar, but I like odd numbers and it seems like a useful place to end the analysis of a brand. More importantly, it's something that a software company should be doing regularly anyway. After defining a brand, you will always be working to move closer toward a pure, concentrated manifestation of it. Since brands are emotions and it's difficult to constantly hit the nail on the head every time. But if we can use that emotional value, after having defined it in great detail, as a yardstick of aspiration, we can move toward it objectively.