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.
Giving startups confidence is my mission. While this is related to design because that's the medium I've experienced these phrases through, it's applicable in other areas like pitching and sales.With that in mind, here are two phrases that make your startup sound desperate.
I just need...
This is a red flag as it implies that you are unaware of the gravitas needed for whatever you're asking for, or that you are aware and are trying to belittle the investment needed from whoever you're asking.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can make it happen?
Damn, look at you and your confidence. This phrase is what would come from someone who is ready to partner up. They know what their goal is and they aren't trying to make it seem insignificant. Because if it was insignificant, they wouldn't care.
It's a simple site/logo/brochure/investment/whatever...
If it was simple you'd do it yourself. Don't bullshit. The truth is that simplicity is the greatest form of sophistication. Making something simple is hard and the fact that you're asking for help shows it.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can we make it happen?
Notice a pattern forming here?
Look, the point is that asking for stuff is hard and it takes courage. But trying to belittle what you're asking for makes the results you want to achieve seem far fetched and not worth the effort.
Ask for things with confidence and be ready to accept answers you don't like. It will get you to the good ones.
Building a brand is about connecting people to a company at an emotional level. What do people connect with? Other people and their stories. No matter how lame and uneventful you believe your journey to have been, your story as a founder, entrepreneur, and business person is exciting to someone else who has never lived it. Every detail is a new experience for them.
For example, I've lived in San Diego my whole life. Naturally, the beach and amazing weather don't surprise or excite me anymore because I've seen them so much. But to someone who lives in Canada who has never seen a wave, felt sand between their toes, or spent an entire day playing beach volleyball, it's completely foreign and interesting to them.
Set aside your products for a second and think about your story. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you? Lastly, how can you embed that story into your brand?
The brand of a startup is almost always a mirror of the founder. If you want to build a stellar brand, you must know yourself first.