Design is subjective... if you don't have a defined brand. I've sat through meetings hashing over which icons, photos, and colors to use. It sucks. Most likely, these kinds of conversations fall onto the executive order of whoever is in charge, like a CEO or equivalent position. Apart from the issues of scalability and freeing someone like a CEO to do what they are best at, it's a shitty situation to be in. Spending all that time trying to figure this stuff out only to have the decision be made by someone else. Not because it's the right decision, but because it was their decision.
Get aligned. Spend time diving into strategy. You will save hours in the long run. More importantly, you will have an objective viewpoint for creating things in the future and give your team freedom to move.
If you don't know where you're going, nothing will help you get there. No map, no compass, hell, not even the stars can guide you if you have no aim.
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.
I'm a huge fan of Buck Mason shirts. Pima cotton, well-cut, breathable, and classic. Que bella.
Something that dawned on me though was this question: why do I admire this brand so much and why do I go out of my way to buy almost exclusively from them.
Back up to my college years. The hipster movement of adorning button-up shirts, chukka boots, and thrifting your way to style was in full swing. I recall spending hours searching through thrift stores to find trendy looking shirts that would match my barrage of beaded bracelets and my patina ring made out of a quarter. But, I didn't believe all that stuff was really cool. In truth, I found myself hating how much time I spent shopping for all that trendy shit and how complicated the process was. Turns out, I believed more in simplicity.
Flash forward to today. I keep a Buck Mason tag in my bible as a bookmark. What's the first line on it? "We make fashion less complicated."
Boom. Instant brand alignment.
Here's the thing: the reason I buy exclusively from Buck Mason is because of this shared value. If you want to build a rebellious brand, you must find that overlapping belief residing within both of you.