In his latest book, Business Made Simple, Donald Miller regales readers with the analogy of a business as an airplane.
The Plane Body is Overhead
It's filled with people and those people weigh down the plane with cost.
The Wings are Products and Services
These are the things that give a company lift and can allow the air to get under it.
The Engines are Sales and Marketing
These propel the company forward and allow for increased velocity. Allowing the plane to take on more overhead and go more places.
The Fuel is Cashflow
Run out of this stuff and you crash.
Here's how design and branding fits in to all of these:
The people who work for you will earn their keep if they are guided by a strong mission. Something that inspires them to get out of bed, go to work, and make shit happen. You enable that to happen when you have a strong emotional value they cling to. That's your brand. Good people are expensive, however their ROI is worth it. Give them a reason to push the company forward with a strong brand.
Products and Services
In software, a poorly designed product will kill a company. Do it right. Make it something your sales people want to sell, rather than being forced to sell it. More importantly, add pieces of delight throughout all of these so that the product becomes irreplaceable to your users. That is design.
Sales and Marketing
Following up on the previous point, a well designed product is one your sales team is encouraged to offer. Make your product appear trustworthy by branding your marketing efforts and getting the word out in an exciting, useful manner. Make it easy for customers to recognize and like you. That is design thinking 101.
If you're running low and need to rally investors to your cause, design a mission for them to get behind. Articulate it uniquely and in a way that is easily understood. Create a deck that is trusted at a glance and represents your company well.
Apply your brand and design the part of your business accordingly so that you can go anywhere.
Let's set the record straight: brand = gut-feeling. Done. No if's, and's, or but's. The brand is the emotional resonance someone has with an entity. More importantly, the brand manifests itself differently in each person who forms an emotional connection. Your job as the founder of a company or the person responsible for brand management is to ensure that the feelings are not disparate.
Why? Because if an emotional connection is established, a business will recoup more customers, at a greater value, for a longer amount of time. Cult-like brand followers are hard-pressed to leave their brand of choice. Where this becomes an issue is when the mood shifts frequently (i.e. voice and tone misalignment, a rash, "salesy" email, negative customer experiences).
So how do you know if something is off-base for the brand? You define it. Usually in the form of a purpose and brand personality. You see this all the time. McDonald's focuses on happiness, while Jack in the Box focuses on comedy and poking fun at the establishment. It's why McDonald's creates Happy Meals for smiling children while Jack in the Box creates Munchie Meals for stoned college students.
Point is, both of these brands are defined and manifest in visual identity and even in the marketing initiatives they take.
Here are the questions I ask founders to extract a brand:
1. Your company dies twenty years from now, what is on the tombstone?
This practice sets your gaze on the future and how people will remember you and your impact. Pretend you are giving a eulogy for your beloved company.
2. KYC. Know your customer intimately.
Beyond demographics. Walk a day in their shoes. What goals do they have? What keeps them up at night? What is making them seek your help? What's at stake? What do they love? What patterns can you derive from their lifestyle?
What macro movements are having an impact on your industry? Is there one that you can use to propel your positioning?
4. What is missing in your industry?
Take a look at the alternatives your customer has to your company, what is missing? What irritates your customer with these alternatives? How can you be different emotionally? How can you be different tactically and in your offerings?
5. Who are you?
Yes, you, the founder with an amazing story. Whether you believe it or not, your story has an impact on your brand and you need to put it on paper. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you?
6. What qualifies you?
What puts your company in a position of authority to lead your customer to their goals? What helps you empathize with their current predicament?
7. Brand Attributes
Describe the culture, customers, voice and tone, feeling (post-interaction), and impact of the brand. Simple, one-word answers work best.
8. Establish a brand archetype
I like to use this cheat sheet.
What do you offer?
How has your customer changed after working with you?
Why you do what you do.
These questions go deep. Don't be satisfied with surface-level answers. Dive into them. Think them over. It's ok to take time. Most importantly, be honest and don't be afraid to tell your story, it has more impact than you know. Remember, if you do not establish this foundation, no messaging or visuals will ever feel right.
Softwares can help a lot of people in many different ways. Which is another way of saying, there is an infinite number of replacements for your product. Venmo does the same thing as Paypal, Mailchimp does the same thing as SendGrid, Freshbooks does the same thing as Quickbooks, and Notion does the same thing as Asana.
How do you stand out? You decide to help someone specific.
If your software can help anyone, then you have your pick of the litter and can make the decision to build something special for someone.
"But won't I get bored or lose the opportunity to expand?"
Doubtful. There is so much hidden need for specific user groups that the list of new features and ideas to make your ideal user's life easier are endless. Plus, you can always expand once you've exhausted your initial market or duplicate your tech for another market with slight modification.
Doing so makes you irreplaceable, makes it easy to market and sell, and makes it easy to build an awesome brand. Why? Because you are able to focus rather than constantly chasing shiny objects.
It takes courage, but if you can answer the question, "who do you want to help?" Building your brand will get immensely easier.