I was sitting at Barrel Republic with my friends, Allyson, her husband, Brandon, and her sister, Jessica, and her husband, Joey (that's Allyson and Brandon, Jessica and Joey for you comma haters).
I don't drink, but beer branding has always fascinated me. Mostly because it's incredibly well done and shows the magnitude branding has on a product with thousands of companies to choose from. I was curious, though, if this group had any favorites.
Allyson is a fan of Coronado Brewing Company. Brandon chooses Ballast Point. For Jessica, Modern Times. And lastly, Joey went with Stone.
There are a couple things to keep in mind here. Some overarching themes in the brands they chose are as follows: local, independently rooted, craft beer from their hometown of San Diego. Seems to be the baseline.
A deeper dive: each person's personality is reflected in the brand of beer they chose.
Allyson loves to be at the beach and spending time with good people. When she's having a beer, her goal is to simply relax and enjoy herself.
Brandon also loves the beach, but he's also a craftsman and skilled woodworker. He loves to build things and has immense attention to detail. It's no wonder he opted to go with a beer brand "dedicated to the craft." When he has a beer, he wants to relax, but he's still looking for that craftsmanship.
Jessica is a neo-hippy with a passion for eccentricity and flair (funky, one-a-kind clothes and such). What better brewery for Jessica than one with a post-it mural of Michael Jackson in it's tasting room?
Joey is rugged and straightforward. Need I say more? He aligns with the gritty independent nature of Stone's ethos and can respect their rebellious attitude.
Here's the thing:
The beer itself is relatively similar. The flavors these companies provide could be swapped and no one would really know the difference. However, the personalities and attitudes of these breweries resonate with specific people.
Each of my friends made their choice for a reason: that beer brand was intentionally made for someone like them.
You've heard it from me before that logos are not the most important part of your brand, however, they are a part of the experience nonetheless. With that in mind, it's important to get them right.
What are the core indicators of a successful logo? According so Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff, Geismar and Haviv (the identity agency responsible for the Chase Bank, MSNBC, Nat Geo, and Conservation International logos), it comes down to three things:
Simple, distinct, and appropriate.
Simple, meaning that it could be replicated at various sizes and applications without additional effort.
Distinct, meaning that it could be described after looking at it or perhaps doodled on a piece of paper and different from others in the same field.
Lastly, appropriate, meaning that you wouldn't have the same logo for a heavy metal band that you would for a cooking line designed to make people feel calm and tranquil. This doesn't mean tell the whole story, it means don't contradict yourself emotionally.
Simple, distinct, and appropriate. Logos that fail to meet this end up becoming blemishes wherever they are placed. The most elegant package, flyer, or product becomes tarnished with your hideous zit of a logo.
Take a look at your marketing collateral, your website, billboards, ads, business cards, etc.
Now ask yourself, do you have a logo or do you have a blemish?
Let's get on the same page. By "boring," I mean logos that are less detailed. They don't have 10,000 colors, multiple elements, nor do they convey every detail of the company they represent. Truth be told, without being placed in a specific context, they are useless (unless you're a logo designer interested in analyzing them). It would seem that it is the elements that surround the logo that give the logo power, its longevity, and then structure would be last on the list.
Logos live on things. Lots of things. From app icons, billboards, collateral, even products. These logos are almost always accompanied by some form of messaging or other interactive piece. What's the point? The point is that the logo has little influence in making someone respect a company. Not nearly as much as the surrounding colors schemes, messaging, calls to action, or personality of the brand that it is encased within. If anything, the logo's job is to be there without becoming a blemish.
Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have spent decades (over a century for Coca-Cola) using the same shape as their logo. There might have been slight adjustments in color or structure over time, but nothing that would make you think the mark was completely new. There's a reason for this and it's to drill the mark into people's minds. Thankfully, they have logos that have been able to serve them regardless of the surrounding political climate, era, or trends that make other companies feel the need to change their logos. It's the same reason cartoon characters don't change their clothes, the artists are making it easy for you, the viewer, to be visually primed for their character. By keeping the logo the same for decades, you are more likely to let your guard down when you see that logo, assuming the company is one you cherish.
This is the last point because a logo it's the cherry on top of the branding sundae. If the rest of a company's marketing, positioning, service record, products, and messages are on point, they can get away with having a less-than-great logo. Having a good one just seems to add the little extra delight or, at the very least, give a potential customer one less thing to have an issue with. This is accomplished be keeping the mark consistently recognizable regardless of where it is placed.
That's what all great logos have in common, they are boring and do their job really well.
My favorite color to wear is black. Typically, I'm wearing a Buck Mason black T-shirt, Levi's blue jeans, and white sneakers. However, I would not wear that to the gym. In the gym I wear a black dri-fit, black shorts, and black training shoes. And while that's great attire for the gym, I would not wear that to a wedding. Instead you'd find me in an all black suit. Regardless of what I'm wearing though, I'm still the same person. I have patterns, yes, like wearing black, but it's important to fit the occasion.
You can run with the design of your branding the same way. What is the occasion we are designing for and how do we flex our visual identity to match? What matters most is whether or not the personality underneath stays the same and can be felt.
Dress for the occasion and be yourself.
Alright, let's make sure we're on the same page, as one of the biggest issues with being professional is lack of concrete definition. You probably think of professional as suit and tie, clean cut, and stoic. But that's bogus. And it is off-base for what the actual definition of professional would entail.
relating to or connected with a profession.
"young professional people"
engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
"a professional boxer"
a person engaged or qualified in a profession.
"professionals such as lawyers and surveyors"
Nothing in those definitions implies that one has to give up their personality, character, or style to be a professional. It seems that the only defining characteristic would be the practice of a specific activity that one gets paid for. You could pop pimples for a living and you'd still be considered a professional, so long as you get paid for it. Do you hear that? So long as you do a job and get paid for it, you are a professional. You don't have to wear a suit, you don't have to refrain from saying what you think or using slang, you have to provide something deemed valuable to be a professional.
Why do I want you to stop being "professional?" Because you box yourself in with your definition (the clean cut, suit and tie version). It makes you boring and totally diminishes the elements of your personality that make you special. Granted, this doesn't mean you should stop taking care of yourself or give the impression that you aren't put together, but that's not a hard standard to meet. If you wear a nice, unwrinkled t-shirt with a good pair of jeans, and sneakers, no one is going to think you're a slob. If they do, screw 'em. They are clearly not supposed to do business with you, but instead with someone who takes pride in posturing themselves to look wealthy rather than doing good work.
Stop trying to be professional and instead double down on being yourself, whatever that means. If you like getting dressed up, go for it! But don't let those fancy clothes become a shock collar that stops you from being yourself, telling your jokes, and saying what you feel is right.
Nothing could be more discouraging than pitching your heart and soul to investors or having a potential customer visit your site only to hear them say it looked unprofessional. Ouch. It sucks because you put time and effort into your products and services, but because you had a poorly constructed deck, a shitty website, janky business cards, you were perceived as incompetent and unworthy of their time. Despite your capabilities, you got kicked in the teeth based on presentation.
Two harsh truths are coming:
We live in a shallow world, flooded with messages and things asking for our attention. It is not the fault of other people that they make shallow judgements in an effort to stave off wasting their time and energy.
You can bitch and complain about how people shouldn't judge your startup by its looks, but you won't change anything. So suck it up and roll with it.
What do you need? You need a haircut. Something to turn that hairy mess of ideas and thoughts you have into something presentable and trustworthy. Just like the guy in this video:
Even from the thumbnail. Simply cleaning him up makes him appear more trustworthy and dependable. However, unlike this guy, your startup is not an alcoholic and is ready to get out there and make something for other people. Tired of investors and customers not trusting you with their time and money? Make yourself appear more trustworthy.
Also, good luck not crying and laughing during this video.
I've been racking my head around this since the initial quarantine mandates were put into place. It sucks that we are in a situation like this, but there is one key things that has seemed prevalent throughout all the chaos:
Remote Work is now commonplace and it actually helps in a lot of ways.
Obviously, I'm biased, since I work from home normally, but it seems that COVID-19 was the push we needed to expand our abilities in working from home or outside the office.
What makes this important is showing the flexibility of the workforce when forced to adapt. Maybe there is something more there, a microcosm of a greater potential to overcome adversity, but I digress. Anyway, back to remote work. It's a good thing and for many reasons. These would be the top three:
More time doing things instead of commuting
Double-edged sword on this one, as more people working from home means the people that have to go in will endure less traffic. On average, this would save people two hours per day, 10 hours per week, and 520 hours per year (give or take). Wow! Can you imagine putting that time toward personal health, cooking, or spending time with family? You'd be a different person if you really took advantage of all that time.
Less chit-chat, more deep work
Being an extrovert, like me, has its advantages, but the downside is that I will always prefer to talk with people rather than being left alone to do important work. When I worked for a startup after college, I would lock myself in a private room to focus for a couple hours because I knew I would take any opportunity to talk with coworkers. And while interaction is not a bad thing and should be used when doing brainstorming or collaborating on projects, a majority of our work can be (and should be) done independently. Why? So you can focus, dive deep into the problem, and get the thing done. Which segues into the next point.
Intentional social interaction
Though working from home has its benefits, we all need genuine social interaction. This is a shot in the dark, but if everyone is able to focus on the actual work they need to get done while working at home, then they can dive deeper during social interaction, especially with coworkers. Follow me for a sec, would you rather have 10, five minute conversations spread out over eight hours, or one, hour-long conversation without interruption? If you're like me, I prefer the latter. Deep conversations, like deep work, cannot be interrupted. My guess is that working remotely will create an environment where longer conversations take the place of spaced-out small ones as meeting up in person will be more intentional and focused.
What does this have to do with design and branding? I'm not entirely sure at the moment, but there is definitely a connection to the depth attained when working by yourself on a project without interruption. Maybe this shows that work, like design, is all about intention. If you intentionally make time to work, have conversations, or have fun instead of juggling them all at once, we'll be better off.
Before you touch a new name, logo, or messaging, it is imperative to list out the values of your startup. I know what you're thinking, "values? We have those. Honesty, Courage, and Innovation."
Cool, but do you know what they mean? What they really mean? I think I know what they mean, but there are nuances about these virtues that unlock their importance.
Values are nothing without their definitions. Specifically, they are nothing without your definition of them.
Here's what I mean: I define honesty as telling the truth regardless of how it will make others feel or what it does to your image. Is that how you define honesty? Maybe, but you can't instill that into your startup and turn it into an actionable element unless you define it for yourself. Your definition will vary slightly and that's where the magic of your brand comes into play.
Give it a go, whatever your values are, define them in your own words.
Before we jump into details, we gotta get one thing straight:
A brand is the gut-feeling has toward a business. By definition, being "on brand" would mean that the feeling you want people to have is being felt by your target consumer. Being off brand would mean they feel the opposite or something unrelated. For example, if I want people to feel "rebellious," then similar feelings like edgy, badass, and cool are right up my alley. What I'm looking to avoid is the opposite; safe, quaint, pretty, timid, etc. With me so far? Cool, here are the three steps:
Define your brand
This is done through a brand discovery workshop, it's borderline therapy for business owners. Founders sit in a room with an objective third-party and tell everything they can about their business. Their customers, their dreams and goals, the culture they desire, all of it is put on the table. In doing so, nuggets of information can be pulled that show what someone should feel about the business. The goal is to create a definition of the brand that can be used as a yardstick.
Review all marketing collateral
Social posts, brochures, swag, websites, the name, logo, identity systems, business cards, email templates, everything that comes into contact with a customer is put up for review. It goes without saying that if you're jumping into a rebrand, you are probably not happy with all of these assets anyway, but you need to clarify why that's the case. If you don't you open the door to repeat the same mistakes in recreating them.
Make a game plan
Using the items in the review, make a plan of action prioritizing the elements that would have the greatest impact on the brand. Then, get to work updating them and getting them on brand.
With every challenge comes new opportunity, especially in times of crisis.
With that said, you can curl up into a ball and let the world trample over your dreams or you can do something about it. Whether you have founded a company or are involved in making a company awesome as an employee, here are three things that every brand could do right now to beef up their brand.
Set up Virtual Meetings with Customers
Think you're alone in feeling alone? Not remotely. If you have a long-standing relationship with good customers, see if they're willing to talk with you over the phone or using a screen-share. Ask them specific questions like why they chose you over your competitors, what they think could be improved about your business, and if there are other things (besides COVID-19) they wish were better in their life. You might find they show new opportunities and that recurring patterns are going on within all their lives.
Do a Brand Audit
You've got a lot of time to yourself right now. Take this as a chance to look inward and see where the gaps are. Take a look at your marketing collateral, your social media feeds, your website, anything a customer might come into contact with. Are you doing the best you can to make them feel a cohesive, emotional connection with your company? Do you look like a company that is worth talking to and doing business with? Is it out of the question to think it could be improved?
Try New Digital Marketing Tactics
You will probably suck at this when you start, but what do you have to lose? You can't meet with anyone face-to-face, so you need to have a strong presence online. Create a newsletter using Mailchimp (it's free to start), create a YouTube Channel (also free), host a webinar using Google Hangout (also free). It's estimated that we are going to be distanced for the next three months, but you can close the gap by getting online in someway. Just pick one and go for it.
I'll keep this short.
Things are weird right now, but you have two options:
Keep playing or quit.
You might fail if you keep playing, but I guarantee you will fail if you quit.
Get in the game.
When it comes to design and startups, a common misconception is if everyone in your industry looks terrible and has unpleasant experiences, it's ok for follow suit.
This has been disproven time and time again by the companies we all love. Design-driven companies yield a greater emotional connection with their customers and are an all around better company to work with. Even something as simple as having an easier website to navigate makes a big difference.
The difference? A customer being stuck with you instead of sticking with you. If given the chance, they will leave and pay a premium to someone who can treat them better. You have to design an experience that makes you irreplaceable.
Don't use the excuse, "everyone does it that way," when surrounded by mediocrity. Take it as an opportunity to be a diamond in the rough.
It's common practice for business owners to take great pride in their craft and their industry. I know this all too well, as I love being a designer and creating things. But, it's not the most important part of my business. Far from it actually. If it was, I'd be out of a job as websites like Fiverr and Upwork can beat me on price, they will give more options, and they are accessible 24/7.
Thankfully, people buy on emotion. Buying is a method of joining a tribe, what you buy says something about who you are. Think about it. If I buy a Tesla, it says something different about me than if I bought a Ford Mustang. It's a car, they have the same function, but there is a different sense of meaning established by joining either of those tribes.
All this to say, when people buy from your company, what are they saying about themselves? A couple things:
They believe what you believe and they are cool being associated with you. More succinctly, they are buying YOU. Not what you do, not because you're cheap, not because you're stronger, faster, better, they are buying from you because they connect with YOU emotionally.
That is what matters the most. You. Everything about you. All of your quirks, your experiences, your dreams, your vision, all of those things that construct you are what they buy.
Who you are matters most. You do the world a disservice in trying to be something you're not.
You cannot expect things to change without making a change yourself. Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
Why the title "Cambio Falso?" I've been watching Narcos, so Spanish is on my mind. It translates to "false change." Meaning, a benign attempt that yields little progression, a band-aid to cure cancer.
The point? Dive deep. Look the ugly of your company in the face and decide to make a freaking change, a real change. One that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you fail, you're no better off than where you are now.
Luke Skywalker is the greatest example of the "hero" archetype. He has humble beginnings and does not understand his full potential. At least, not until he is called to adventure after the murder of his Aunt, Uncle, and the desperate call of Princess Leia. Facing down this behemoth of a journey, you gotta wonder what was going on in his head at the time.
"I have no skills beyond moisture farming and I'm a decent pilot, but taking on the Empire? I need help."
That's where Obi-Wan Kenobi comes into play. The old wizard who sees the greatness within Luke and helps him to overcome his own, self-imposed limits. Despite the fact that Luke is lost without him, Obi-Wan never lets it be known. He's not focused on his own success, he's focused on the success of Luke. If Luke succeeds, that is his victory. Granted, he does all he can offering mentorship (guidance and knowledge of the Force), tools (lightsaber), instruction and feedback, and, most importantly, honest encouragement.
Here's the thing:
Most companies see themselves as Luke.They think they are the hero, that saving the world depends on them. They are wrong and their self-interest will not inspire others to be better. To quote Marty Neumeier "the best brand builders see greatness in their customers, and figure out ways to enable it."
Unleash your inner Obi-Wan, you rebel.
It's astonishing the amount of business owners and sales people who want to be better. They want more customers, they want higher value customers, more of anything that will help them get to the next level. Where this gets interesting is how few of them are willing to do something different to make an impact.
They repeat the same message they have for years, fear to break the mold, but expect that things will change. They pour countless amounts of dollars into marketing, expecting that somehow the same old message will get through.
It's like running on a treadmill. No matter how fast you go, you stay in the same place. If you want to go somewhere you have to run in unconfined territory. You have to break free of what's already there.
Applying this to your brand: say something different, look different, act different, be different. Change.
Nothing is ever perfect. Every brochure, marketing collateral piece, logo, company name, website, all of them have things that could be better. Now, you have two choices: try and attain perfection, or make something good and prepare to iterate based on feedback.
You cannot keep throwing spaghetti at the wall and expect to go anywhere. You need to launch, get actual feedback, and then pivot.
Whatever you are working on, launch it. If it sucks, at least now you know and can change.
Most startup founders associate branding with identity design (logos, color, patterns, etc.). While visuals are an important part of the branding process, it isn't everything. In fact, they are the last step taken.
It stands to reason that your logo is not your brand, and your brand is not your logo. Period.
Logos are symbols, a brand is a feeling. Specifically, the feeling one would associate with your company.
Think of it this way, if a blind individual could not see your logo, but they could hear the things you say and how you want to make an impact on the world, would they understand who you are? Or would they be presented a shallow articulation of who you are and how you're different.
Branding is not a logo. If you do not know how to communicate who you are to someone who cannot see, you're in trouble. You should sound different, act different, and feel different. Only then can you make a case for looking different.
Saving the world, one (blank) at a time.
Are you really? What is your metric for doing so? How are you different from companies x, y, and z that are also saving the world, one (blank) at a time? Lastly, what good does it do for me, your intended customer?
You weren't thinking of that when you first wrote that tagline, were you? Probably because it's bullshit and it's not really why you're in business. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you don't care about whatever cause you want to help, but if this phrase has crossed your lips in trying to build your brand, it means you are not diving deep enough.
You are choosing to piggyback off a phrase that has no intrinsic meaning other than being a cliché that won't offend anyone.
You can do better. You and your brand are worth more than a worn out phrase void of passion.
How would you fix it? Take a look at some of the best taglines ever written:
Just Do It.
What do they have in common? They're simple, they break from convention, and they encourage the user to be something more. To be more creative, to be a champion, to feel secure, to be happier. These taglines don't impose the idea that a user needs your company, they inform the user that this company has a shared aspiration whether they use their product or not.
They're not salesy, they're not imposing, and they are not trying to make it about themselves. These taglines are calls that signal the user to a new adventure.
You want people to be inspired by your tagline? Don't settle for cliché bullshit. Dig deep and think about how you can encourage a user to be something they never thought they could have been. Most importantly, do it in a way that brings your unique flavor to it.
A brand is not a logo, it's not a product, it's not your reputation, it's not your name, so what is it?
A brand is the gut-feeling someone has toward your business. You make them feel a certain way through your company's behavior, it's appearance, and the experiences you provide.
All of this to say that making someone feel a certain way requires you, the business owner, to stop thinking about yourself and think about how you will impact someone else.
It doesn't matter what you like, what matters is what the person you are making this company for likes.
It doesn't matter if you don't like the name of your company, what matters is how it impacts your user.
It doesn't matter that you don't like your logo, what matters is how easy it is for your ideal customer to recognize it.
You get the picture.
The beauty of this, is that the pressure is taken off of you and your subjective standards, and instead focused on how much you can affect someone else.
It's not about you.
In my last article, I touched on the fact that I don't bill by the hour. In summary, hourly billing is a loose-cannon way of determining the value services bring to the table and one that favors things taking longer rather than being done efficiently and strategically.
It begs the question though, how do you structure payment for such services? The way I see it, there are three options:
Pay for design services up front
This is the most common method of paying for design services. It's pretty straightforward, client and designer decide on a price based on the value created through the services, client pays for the work, and the designer does the work. Usually the payment is made upfront or on a specific cadence like 50% to start and 50% after 30 days or before deliverables are transferred.
Lease the design work
It's no secret that good designers charge a pretty penny for their work. At least, they will charge a pretty penny to part ways with ownership of it. This is where leasing becomes a viable option to get quality work, but without the initial upfront cost of buying the rights to the work out-right. For example, let's say an identity package of a new logo and style guide will cost $6,725. Rather than paying for the entire thing upfront, the client could pay 8% of the total cost per month to get up and running. If the client decides they want full ownership of the work, there is a clause within the contract stating how much the buy-out fee will be in addition to the lease payment.
If the client is willing to share profits based on the impact the design work has had on the business, then a third option becomes available. Similar to trading equity, profit sharing or performance-based compensation puts everyone's time and resources on the line. The designer and client establish the key metrics they are looking to improve and then share profits based on the value generated from the change.
When it comes to pricing design services, the key is to be as creative and nimble with pricing as would be expected in the actual work. The next time you speak with a designer and you want to work with them, but can't afford to pay their fees, see if they are open to these alternative pricing structures.
An email from Jonathan Stark came through my inbox today and brought up a good analogy. One worth sharing with all of you on this lovely Friday.
The gist of it is as follows:
When you buy a sandwich, the person making the sandwich doesn't say, "this might cost $5, we won't know until we're done making it."
What's the difference between that and saying a logo and a website might cost $20,000, but we won't know until we're done?
Geez, that sounds like a pain in the ass and disconcerting for the client on the other side of the transaction. This is the trap that hourly billing gets people in, both clients and service providers, a journey through the fog of unknowns that is costly and annoying.
The alternative? Diagnose for a set price (roughly 10% of the anticipated budget) and come up with three, tiered options at set prices. This might not be the best solution, but it's better than keeping a running clock and an hourly rate that never seems to stay under budget. At least a set price is predictable for both the client and the designer.
Why don't I bill hourly? Because I don't like leaving clients in a state of uncertainty.
As the glue-sticks, scissors, and magazine cut-outs were thrown about, my friend Hayley called my name.
"Zach, I found your word."
She held up a magazine page to show me the word REBEL in all caps and in black and white nonetheless.
Now, here is what's flattering: that is my word, and I've been using it since I started working for myself in late 2017. It's a small thing, but that fact that I did not have to claim that as my word and instead had someone else claim it for me means that I've become synonymous with it.
Why does this matter?
Building a brand is about making people feel a certain way about your business. If you're lucky, you can get the same emotional response from different people that interact with your company. So when someone says the exact word I want them to feel about me, it shows that I'm on the right track.
If I had tried owning all the words, there's no way Hayley would've made that comment yesterday. But because I've invested and gone all in on the word REBEL, she made the connection instantly.
Find your word.
Startups dilute their branding potential when they set their eyes on big brands like Apple or Nike. Not saying those brands aren't respectable, they are for many reasons, but they are not startups. They can't afford to be something unique because the reputation at stake is too high. In short, they cannot afford to turn people off.
But you, the scrappy startup, can.
You can nurture your brand to be bold, daring, and different from what is expected and it will give you the edge you are looking for. In fact, it would be a good bet to double-down on the elements of your startup's personality to make sure you are recognized as something different.
Now, I want to be clear, I'm not asking you to go Miley Cyrus and do weird shit for shock value (please don't twerk on Robert Thicke). But you can absolutely veer away from the staid and trite phraseology, colors, and rigid nature you see from your competitors. You can turn on a dime and move fast without getting approval from 30 people. You can do something truly impactful for you and your audience. All the while saying, "you don't have to like what we're doing, because it's probably not for you."
The win of being small is that you can do the things big brands cannot. Small wins.
I was the best man in my cousin's wedding yesterday. I'd spent weeks trying to write a speech for this occasion, but found myself tearing up when I would start writing introductions. The memories I share with my cousin are that powerful.
Needless to say, the attendees of the wedding felt something when I was speaking with plenty of "awws," laughs, and, of course, tears responding to the speech.
Whatever the audience was feeling, the strange thing was that I felt it too. I was reminded of this quote from Robert Frost, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
Here's the thing:
When coming up with the personality of your brand, its values, mission, and purpose, YOU need to feel something. If you don't, how do you expect anyone else to?
No heart in the founder, no heart in the buyer.
In a cluttered market where people buy on emotion, it's the safest bet you have against becoming a commodity.
A friend of mine and I met up yesterday. She's a talented artist and creative thinker, but she's struggling with getting her work out there and attracting commissions/clients. It's a common issue for creative types to stall the display of any kind of work to the public unless they deem it perfect. The truth... it's never going to be perfect. You have a better chance at winning the lottery than you do creating the perfect piece to show, especially if you have particular expectations.
She had asked, "what do I need to do to get out there?"
"You need to make something everyday, for fun, for yourself, and show it to the world."
Lo and behold, within the span of 45 minutes today, she had an awesome collage piece completed and ready to go. I'd call that a win.
Here's the thing:
You will always be nervous taking the first steps into a new venture. Be it founding a startup, putting yourself out there as an artist, starting a band, you name it. If you want to get to the top of the mountain, you have to take the first step. It's gonna suck at first, you're going to suck at first. But you will get better and it will get easier if you dedicate yourself to small habits that will make up your success.
Go for it, I believe in you.
Be sure to read pillars one and two before diving into this article:
The problem with most companies, especially startups and small businesses is that they cast wide nets. They can't say certain things because it will offend people, and they have to appeal to everyone that walks through their doors regardless of how anomalous. It's in this fallacy of trying to please everyone that rebels gain the upper hand. Rebels are honest, so they know that even if they wanted to, they cannot help out everyone. It's physically impossible. Diving deeper, rebels have the confidence to stand firm and say, "I know that I cannot help everyone, but that's ok because I can help someone."
This gives rebels the opportunity to narrow their focus on a specific group of people with a specific problem. Everything else is a distraction to the mission at hand. You see, to rebels, it is better to have 100 true fans who cannot live without their services, than to have 10,000 fair weather fans that will leave them at the drop of a hat. Focusing on a specific group of people creates a virtuous cycle of respect and care for both the business and the people it seeks to serve. One that can only be achieved by having the courage to say, "this is not for everyone, but it is for someone who believes and needs this."
Rebels are honest.
Rebels are confident.
Rebels are focused.
Be sure to read pillar one before diving into this article:
Being honest opens the door to a hidden superpower: confidence. Because of their honest nature, rebels exude confidence. Why is that? When you consistently tell the truth, you get really good at it. Unlike their deceptive counterparts who constantly have to watch their words to make sure the lies add up, an honest person can speak the truth with the same effortlessness as drawing a breath.
Furthermore, because of their willingness to accept the truth that things are imperfect, rebels can be themselves without feeling the need to impress other people. It's confidence that allows a rebel to say, "I don't have a Ferrari, I don't have 50k followers on Instagram, and I'm not a millionaire, but it doesn't matter to me. I'm still going to get out there and make a difference."
As the old adage goes: confidence is not having everyone like you, it's the ability to be yourself whether people like you or not.
Rebels are honest.
Rebels are confident.
The influx of social media has created a vortex of lies. Lies about how many followers you have, lies about how well your life is going, lies about the good a company does for the world, lies about how cool you are. But rebels are not like that. Rebels are honest.
What does that mean? Honesty is telling the truth regardless of how it makes you look.
This means putting aside vanity metrics in exchange for something deeper and more meaningful. It means being real when you mess up. It means giving accurate descriptions of what you could do for someone, instead of boosting your capabilities. It's having the courage to stand before the facts available and admit that things could improve. The beauty of that is that you can genuinely move forward rather than living a lie that everything is perfect.
Rebels are honest.
The beauty of being literate is that it opens up the door to improve... always. That being said, a lot of startup founders and creatives overlook the fact that marketing masters and branding savants have put their thoughts on paper for the whole world to access. When it comes to differentiation and being rebellious, these are my top three choices:
Zag by Marty Neumeier
Neumeier is the granddaddy of all branding brooks. His cornerstone guide, The Brand Gap, set the record straight on what branding actually is and why it matters in business. He followed up with Zag to hyper-focus on differentiation. The significance of Zag lies in the step-by-step structure that walks readers through how to be different. Granted, he does not dive extremely deep into every step (i.e. crafting a logo or a name), but you'd be foolish not to follow the principles listed in these pages.
Positioning by Ries and Trout
An oldie, but a goodie. Nearly every 21st century marketing book I've read has referenced Ries and Trout's strategies within Positioning. A word of caution, this book is super heady and can seem boring at times, but the examples provided from actual companies within this book are eternally applicable. Expect to learn a lot of great terminology and systemized thinking that will explain all of the marketing efforts you see everyday.
This is Marketing by Seth Godin
This was the first Seth Godin book I had ever read, needless to say it did not disappoint and I rated it as one of my top five books read in 2019. Marketing has almost become synonymous with spammed advertising, clickbait laden emails, and down right annoying. Seth's definitions of service-oriented marketing and the frameworks for niching down are the most clear and articulated I've ever seen. Furthermore, he uses real-world examples to demonstrate how it is the most generous brands that win, not the ones with the sexiest ads or the most keywords.
Startups frequently align with the idea that you need to be absolutely perfect before you launch your product/service. That's a surefire way to never make progress.
Part of me thinks it's because they want to be seen as the best and idealized, rather than being something good.
I'll be honest, I know my website could improve. I know I launch articles and newsletters with spelling errors. I know that I sometimes forget pieces of information that would have made a difference in a sales call. But we cannot go on expecting that everything has to be, or will be for that matter, perfect.
It's as if startups conflate being vulnerable and human with being undesirable. That fear of being undesirable is a dragon, snarling and biting, waiting to inevitably breakdown your door and consume you rotisserie style.
Screw that, take the offensive. Launch with imperfections, bumps, and blemishes to say, "we are not perfect, but we will continue to get better."
Slay the dragon.
The Startup San Diego team and I launched the new San Diego Startup Week website yesterday. We thought we'd covered everything. We had tested user flows, we'd checked all of our links, but we could not have anticipated one thing: how much engagement we got.
For an hour we had unresponsive voting features because our automation service was at max capacity (and we'd already beefed it up).
However, this paled in comparison to the fact that we had record breaking numbers of users, ticket sales, etc. Small bump int he grander narrative.
The point is this:
you can plan for everything in the world for your brand, a new website, etc. but you will not burst into flames from having small bumps in the road.
One of my closest friends lives in London, but he's in San Diego now for his sister's wedding. It was a pleasant surprise. I hit him up and he told me he'd only be in town until tomorrow evening.
Tomorrow evening!? Dang, that's not a lot of time to get together.
I checked my calendar and saw a bunch of scheduled items. All of them are black, so there's no distinction between them. How could I have scheduled so much stuff on one day?
Cue color coding. I created some alternative colors to use to showcase different meeting types I have. Red for in-person and green for digital meetings.
Sure enough, I have three red items today. That's a lot of meetings in a very short amount a time. Don't get me wrong, I love people (a lot more than most designers, I'd think), but this showed me that I'm spreading myself thin for time. This burns the most when I don't have flexibility to see friends from out of town because of it. Something had to change.
So I set a rule: if I see two red/green slots in one day, that's it. No more. A red flag, if you will.
Color-code your calendar.
I got pretty sick this week.
Worst I've felt in over a year.
Today is the first day that I don't feel like complete shit, though still not 100%. It really sucks because the first week of this month was packed with 6 appointments and meetings with others. Even if you're sick, you still feel the need to at least try and get out there because meeting other people is important, especially in business. I'd wake up each day hoping I'd feel better, but I was still hacking up lungs and blowing outrageous amounts of gunk from my nose until this afternoon.
What I thought about was this: I could get out there and meet people regardless of how I was feeling, but it wouldn't have been a pleasant experience for the other people involved.
Could you imagine being on the other side of the table as I coughed to the point of puking (that actually happened)? Or seeing globs of snot drip onto my mustache? It'd be freaking disgusting.
Here's the thing:
While it might seem heroic and dignified to go at the day regardless of how I'm feeling, the fact that it would've been awful for someone else to endure my company is what matters more. It's about them, not me.
Stuck on whether or not you should pursue a new product, feature, or campaign for your brand? Think about the person on the other end, it'll give you a better sense of direction.
There are two camps for prioritizing brand elements and how much investment should be given to them:
Doing it Right and Doing it Now.
"Doing it Right" elements can be distinguished by one key characteristic: longevity.
Meaning, they should not change drastically over time because it would diminish their value. Items that come to mind are pieces of the core identity like a name and logo. Without the necessary attention given to them, they easily become lost among competitors or run into issues later. For example, a neglected logo will have difficult placement on varying applications, improper formatting, or general discontent from the owners of a company. Neglected names follow a similar trajectory, as they lose their appeal fast and are difficult to expand. "Do it Right" elements left unattended fall victim to sunk-loss fallacy, working their way deeper and deeper under the skin. Until you finally pull them out and they take pieces with them. Ouch.
"Do it Now" elements can be distinguished by one key characteristic: change.
Meaning, it is expected that at some point these will change because it will increase their value. In the digital age, we have a lot of flexibility to adjust things like a website, social campaigns, email templates, printed marketing collateral, etc. In fact, as technology progresses, it's not even certain whether those mediums will still be relevant. However, it is certain that those elements will change to be better optimized and catered to reflect the brand, or that they will eventually run out of stock and need to be revisited anyway. "Do it Now" elements can start rocky and gradually get better. For example, a website might start out as a single page and move toward a robust, e-commerce site with membership logins, custom CMS platforms, gated content, etc. Change made for the better that adds value rather than detracting from it.
Debating whether or not a brand element needs to be done right or done now?
Ask yourself, "how long do I expect this to stay the same?"
If the answer is, "a long time, hopefully forever," give it the attention it deserves.
If the answer is, "it will have to change eventually," get rolling fast and iterate.
I'm a huge Jordan Peterson fan. I've read his books, I listen to his podcast, I watch his YouTube videos, and I seek him out on other people's podcasts as well.
I've even caught myself repeating some of his phrases to others. Things like "set your house in order before you judge the world," "hierarchies are built on conscientiousness and competence," "tell the truth or, at least, don't lie," and "walk the line between chaos and order, that's where you find fulfillment."
You might think it's impressive on my part (and if you do, stop it, you're making me blush), but it's impossible to forget those ideas if you listen to the guy more than once. Truth be told, he doesn't deviate a whole lot from a few central tenants, which makes them easy to recognize and remember. It's these central ideas that become the pillars for all his other ideas to stand upon. Even when he does deviate, you can link it back to his core beliefs.
What does this have to do with branding?
Beat the hell out of one idea and let your brand become known for it, that's how you gain brand authority.
If you aren't getting tired of touting your idea about how the world should be different, then you aren't sending your message enough.
An anecdotal example: I've tried to become synonymous with the word "rebel," I've been using it for over a year. It wasn't until a couple months ago that I started having others say the word to me. Point being, it took more than a year of getting that idea out there to have others recognize it and associate me with it.
Say your idea. After that, say it again. Finally, say it again to my face. Eventually, I'll remember it.
I woke up feeling like crap today.
Figures, a lot of my friends had gotten sick so it was a matter of time before it came my way.
I still feel like crap so I'll keep this one short:
It's better to dedicate one whole day to getting healthy than to draw out a cold over the course of a couple days. And so, I'm taking a sick day.
Check back in tomorrow for a real MF Punch.
What do you mean a rebellious logo?
Well, rebellion in its simplest form is this: when everyone goes left, are you willing to go right? Rebellion means looking at the context your company is in and figuring out what is missing.
At the onset of every identity project there needs to be a common goal between the designer and the owner of the logo. This goal is assessed by drilling down on the story, voice and tone, character, ideal customer, and the mission, vision, and purpose of the brand.
After getting introspective about who you are, you need to see what's already out there, especially in terms of a logo. It's astounding to see how the marks used by your competitors are similar. In fact, I'd guarantee you find at least two recurring motifs like an image or color palette used multiple times. The goal here is ascertaining what NOT to do.
After observing what's already out there, now you can formulate concepts that are different from your competitors. My recommendation is to think of them in categories: a pictorial mark (something that is a representation of a real object), typographic (word-based mark), and abstract icons (shape-based marks that don't resemble something real). You'll find that at least one of these categories makes up the majority of your competitors' logos. Don't pick that one.
Black and White:
Every good mark works in both a solid black and a solid white version. If you have to rely on color to make the mark effective, go back to the drawing board.
If you're good to go on the black and white versions of your logo, move into choosing colors. Remember, the key is to choose elements that are different from what's already out there.
Logos are special because of the things they live on. By placing your mark on business cards, marketing collateral, signage, digital environments, and at varying scales, you can forecast against placement issues in the future. This saves thousands of dollars ensuring that the mark doesn't incur printing hazards down the line and can retain its structure regardless of where it goes.
Go get em rebels.
I'm currently working on a new website or San Diego Startup Week. Yesterday, the former director of the program looked at the new site and commented on how much it had improved from the previous rendition. Obviously, I was flattered. But at the same time, I felt a void within that work.
What is missing is personality, voice, and character. The cherries that make the entire sundae memorable. The new site works and has a streamlined flow to it. But it has no personality other than being well designed.
It's as if design has a brand in and of itself; sterile, refined, clean, simplistic, lots of white space, you get the picture. The next level is using design to communicate a unique feeling that reflects your company.
That's the difference between design and branding. Design is a set of principles that any creative wields as second nature. Using it to build a brand is the ability to bend those principles toward a personality.
I met with Rocky Roark, a local illustrator in San Diego yesterday (here is a link to his work, enjoy!). As we conversed over Topo Chico and coconut cream iced tea, marketing came up. Rocky has over 40k followers on Instagram and he was shocked I had not made use of the platform for business. It's done a lot of good for him financially. Despite his success, it's still not going to be a part of my life anytime soon.
Here's why: I believe that platforms like Instagram and Facebook have made human social interaction harder and less authentic. The evidence for this is staggering suicide rates and anecdotal tales of the platforms being used to showcase what we wish our life was like rather than connecting with people. It's a mechanism that has propelled isolation and narcissism to heights we could not have anticipated.
I do not like those things. Not everyone, especially not Rocky, uses those platforms that way, but the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that loneliness and depression have skyrocketed parallel to the rise of social media. The thing is, people like Rocky are the exception and not the rule when it comes to those platforms.
I believe the world would be better if those platforms were used less. Granted, my view isn't going to change the fact that millions of people use them everyday, but it doesn't matter. I still believe that to be true. This doesn't mean I have a distaste for people who use the platform. I don't drink alcohol either, but have no problem with anyone who does. It's simply not for me. I'd rather drive to three networking events per week, meet 5 people, and spend 45 minutes talking with each one of them.
Here's the thing:
Have some conviction. If you feel strongly about something, don't let the expectations of others change that. Stand up for it. Defend your thinking. Be a champion for something different. Be a rebel.
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?
When training for an athletic event, we subject ourselves to pain in hopes of getting better. We strain our muscles to the point that cells begin to breakdown. Another way of thinking about this, is that a they die. However a new, stronger cell or group of cells takes its place.
Without the initial expiration of the first cell, the new ones can't exist.
The same goes for your brand. If you are going to change the way people feel about you, or at the very least continue to build and improve upon it, you must say goodbye to the parts that have grown weary.
Some examples of what this would look like:
Cutting services or offerings that don't align with your positioning.
Changing your name to better reflect your brand's character.
Refining the culture of your company to foster the brand.
Creating a unique identity that is totally different from the previous one.
Letting go of toxic people who don't align with your values.
Having the courage to throw it all away in the hopes of creating something greater.
"I want to be original," says the young startup founder. Well, I've got news for ya pal, you never will be and you will kill yourself trying to go down that road.
Everything is a derivative of something else. There is no new idea under the sun. Now, you can see this as negative or you can realize the opportunity you have to explore and put your spin on something already successful. The best creative work I come across is stolen. Meaning, the people that made it did not come up with the idea on their own, but they put it into a new context.
I'll give you an example, my friend Luis rebranded an agency a while ago. This agency's office overlooks a harbor in San Diego. So, he took the brand down a nautical path and turned them into a rebellious rouse of scallywags. They changed their name from Digital Style to VSSL, shifted all of their lingo to mirror a gang of pirates, and even named the rooms in their space after the places on a ship (the brig, the gulley, even the poop deck).
Here's the thing, Luis found every single element that went into that brand, he didn't conjure it out of thin air. The logo, the name, the language, the visuals, even the culture of the company is rooted in life at sea.
Find something inspirational and different, then steal it.
Branding and marketing appear inextricable. At least that's what thousands of handshakes and responses to "I build rebellious brands," has let me know. So let's set the record straight.
Branding expert Marty Neumeier phrases it, "marketing is any effort to get customers, branding is any effort to keep them." Or, branding is the emotional glue that makes someone prefer your business after you've shown that you can meet their needs.
It's kinda like this, any guy can draw the attention of a woman by showing that he is, in fact, a man (assuming she's looking for one). However, it's not the size of his muscles, the amount of money in his wallet, or the car he drives that creates a lasting impression. It's his character and the fact that his character doesn't waver. He markets his features, but wins the heart by triggering emotions. Without them, he's a commodity.
Here is when marketing and branding enter into conflict:
When marketing efforts get pushy/spammy without emotionally priming the customer.
Good marketing doesn't feel like marketing. An example of this is when you get an email from a company you love and happily open it. Without a doubt, the opposite happens too. you know, those emails you get that let you know this company is looking to get into your wallet. At that point, it's clear that the brand has been tarnished. Good luck getting your reputation back.
When the brand is not placed in front of the right people.
It's no surprise that the creative side has trouble putting things out there. The most well-thought-out and cohesive brand is worth nothing if no one sees it. Good marketing puts the brand out in the open to the right people, at the right time, and with the right message. Remember, good marketing doesn't feel like marketing.
You need both and they need to work together.
Rebellion in its purest form is the willingness to go right when everyone else goes left. Meaning, it is an intentional effort to be different from everyone else. Developing a recognizable, bold brand is contingent upon this. What's not always clear though are the tactics used to intentionally differentiate your brand from your competitors.
Ugggghhhhh, research? C'mon man, I thought branding was supposed to be fun? Branding is fun and the best way to ensure it's fun is to do it right. You must know what is already out there within your market to see how you measure up. If you all look and sound exactly the same, this makes it insanely difficult for consumers to make a buying decision. The research doesn't have to be extensive either, especially if you can't afford the time. But you could at the very least do this:
Research your top 7 competitors via their website and social accounts. Ask yourself these three questions:
What do I feel when going through their marketing? List out all the adjectives you can (encouraged, empowered, bold, safe, clean, edgy, rustic, modern, etc.) or if you don't feel anything, write that down too.
Who do I think would buy this product/service? Be specific, write down the person's sex, age, economic status, occupation, etc. if a competitor seems like they are trying to appeal to everyone, write that down.
What is missing? These could be emotional qualities, different tiers in quality or price, or a missing offering that would be useful to the consumer.
With all of this information, you can now assess where the weak points are in the market. For example, if all of your competitors gravitate toward a male audience, perhaps there is a chance to be female-centric. If they all charge a low price, there is an opportunity for a high price, high-quality offering. At the very least, if all of them act the same, there is an opportunity to be different at an emotional level.
Creche le créneau
French for "fill the void." Somewhere in your research is a gaping hole that no one has filled yet. Be it emotionally, quality of goods, accessibility, or catering to a specific user, if something is missing, there is an opportunity. If you can find a hole that fits the purpose and vision of your business, you've got the foundations of a rebellious brand.
Gonna cut straight to the chase on this one: without a potent, different name for your startup, your logo will fall short of its true potential. I'll give you an example using two, famous companies.
Apple. Would the iconic, minimalist icon representing an apple ever exist had it not been for the name? No. That name gave them an advantage over their competitors trapped in acronym oblivion (IBM, HP) and inspired the mark.
Nike. Before the swoosh ever existed, Nike was extremely close to calling itself Blue Ribbon Sports. Compare that to Nike. Blue Ribbon sounds like the name for a freaking mom and pop bakery. There is no way something like the swoosh would have held its weight had it not been for the name it represents.
It seems prevalent that startup founders don't seem to consider the gravitas the name of their company holds. Think about it, when people say "word of mouth" advertising, what do they mean? They mean people repeat the name of the company they are referring to. Can you imagine how many times the name of a company (large or small) is used within six months? Thousands. Maybe even tens of thousands.
It's in your URL, it's on your social pages, it's on name tags, it's on email addresses, it's on all your marketing collateral, and it's on your tongue.
Get your name right before you jump into a logo or risk doing the whole thing over when you finally realize your name sucks. Your designer will thank you.
Here is my favorite book on naming:
Don't Call it That by Eli Altman.
New projects are exciting. After leaving a kickoff meeting with a client, it's impossible not to get amped about the work that is going to be created. The problem is that all the excitement propels my lizard brain to override anything strategic and necessary to ensure the project runs smoothly. This rarely happens because I have checklists and things of the like reference, but it happens.
Here is the number one thing I've learned this month from a design project: get ALL the copy finalized before handing off to a designer.
Before starting, it is completely my fault as the designer if I don't ask for all the necessary materials upfront to get the project moving and on track to be seamless. With that in mind, here is why it's important to get all the copy needed for a project upfront and ready to go:
Type rules the design
Because typography is the core of all graphic communication, if the verbiage changes, so does the design. For example, developing a series of covers for a magazine is going to be seamless if all of the titles have a similar structure (say a 1-2 word headline and a 3-5 word subhead). Easy to manage.
But if the headline length varies from 2-20 words, more thought will go into the initial strategy of making all the covers uniform.
Things fall through the cracks if not packaged succinctly
Hand a designer one word doc with final copy and the transition from ugly word doc to beautiful PDF is easy. Multiple docs with Frankenstein-like parts that need to be communicated in separate emails, things are bound to go haywire. Granted, things do change. But the point is to get as close as humanly possible to final copy before handing off to a designer.
This small shift of getting finalized copy will save you weeks on your next project, guaranteed. Whether you are a designer or someone working with a designer, everyone involved in the project will be happier with getting all copy before moving into design.
It's rare that I would ever post something along these lines, but I've gotten asked about the tools I'm using as a one-man show to make my life easier. Without further adieu, here are my favorite seven.
G Suite by Google
A client of mine recently indicated that he had purchased G Suite but was not using it to its fullest potential. Since it's the base layer for all of my administrative and business responsibilities, it seemed like a great place to start. The core features that every startup should take advantage of are Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive. By getting your whole team on these, the organizational integrity of your startup will get better. No more housing files on individual hard drives or trying to keep up with each other's schedules. It's all put right into a shared system. Apart from admin uses, services like Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides are suitable replacements for Microsoft Office. Think about all the burritos you could buy with an additional $7 per employee a month. That's a lot of frijoles.
As for tracking projects, posting work for clients, and documenting approval, Notion has been a gem. For starters, it's free software that combines the best elements of Trello, Evernote, and Google Docs into one, malleable software. Granted, the drawback is that there is a learning curve to really making this software work its magic for your team. Anyone working on product design, or long-term internal projects would get a kick out of Notion's visual layout for tracking progress.
Sometimes typing out a message just ain't enough and your collaborators need to hear your voice. What Loom allows me to do is send videos to clients to explain my thinking and giving in-depth walkthroughs of a particular project element. It's especially helpful when going over designs, website projects, and giving feedback on other items. The kicker is that it's free and since all of the videos are distributed via URL, it makes for an easy send on any communication or project management platform.
You've got a lot of important shit to do and not a lot of time to do it. Any chance you get to automate a routine process is a chance to get back something invaluable: time. Because of Zapier's no-code principles, it allows users to connect independent web-apps based on a series of "if this, then that" operations. Whether you are looking to do simple things like automatically respond to a website form submission, or doing more complex stuff like webhooks, Zapier is the jam.
Good stock images are hard to come by, and it's even harder to find free images. Unspalsh has been a gem for finding high-resolution images to use on websites, within marketing collateral, or any other task where a good quality image is needed. There is a fault, in that since the images are free, it's easy for others to use the same ones. However, I've found that the workaround with this is to get creative and not be so literal with the images you're using. For example, if you're talking about a business crisis, don't use an image of a business person cringing at their desk. Find a picture of something on fire, or an earthquake to connote the idea of frantic chaos.
Going back and forth trying to figure out a time to meet up with someone is a pain in the ass. Use Calendly instead.
The no-code era is upon us. It's no longer necessary to bring in developers to build out custom websites or online applications. I have little to no code writing expertise, but I can build websites that include upvote features, sell tickets to events, and make it possible for marketing teams to work efficiently within a well-designed website. All without writing code. From a business perspective, this cuts out major bottlenecks like passing designs back and forth between a designer and a developer. Give developers the freedom they need to do heavy lifting on your startup team, let designers make the damn thing beautiful, and allow your marketing team to fire off content without worrying about how it will affect the site.
Links to each of the tools below:
A brand identity is the elements that make up a brand's manifestation in the tangible world; things we can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear. It's commonly limited to a logo, and while a logo is an essential piece, it's the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath the surface is what gives it the ability to rise above the surface.
Defining the brand
The entire purpose of brand identity is to have tangible manifestations of the gut feeling you intend people to have about your business. So, you must first define it. This is done through a brand discovery. If done right, these collaborative sessions between a branding expert and client unearth the business' values, story, voice and tone, purpose, and how they are different from their competitors.
Auditing the brand
Upon defining the brand, the branding expert and client will go through the current branding efforts of the business and check for alignment. This involves everything from marketing collateral, stationery, social media posts, email newsletters, the name of the company, even the services and pricing are on the table. The key is that regardless of the touchpoint, all elements must point to the defined brand. Anything misaligned is put up for redesign.
Brand Identity Design
This is where the foundation of the brand's look is laid. It involves the creation of a name (if needed), a logo, color palette, typography, photo styling, illustration and pattern examples, and iconography.
With the core elements of the brand identity laid out, marketing collateral, a website, and other touchpoints can be created without looking scattered.
Here's where this goes wrong: when you try to build the top of the iceberg without giving it the support it needs.
It's a common misconception that you have to be a designer to be a branding expert. False.
Branding is the art of making people feel a certain way about your business. Design is crafting with intention, be it in the physical space, digital, interior, whatever.
The point is that they are different skills. And while they do overlap within people, they are not the same. For example, if you know your values, who your customers are, and how you make them feel, you've got a solid understanding of your brand. But, it doesn't mean you've got the creative prowess to translate those emotions into a logo, a website, or any other marketing collateral. Likewise, you could be the best designer in the world and not know a damn thing about positioning, user profiles, deriving brand values, or even navigating the process of extracting them from a client.
Branding is king. If you had to forgo knowing your brand and being design-conscious, the brand is more important. But, that doesn't mean you can expect to achieve greatness without design. Why?
Because design turns something ordinary into something spectacular, makes complicated things, like a website, easy, and adds the spark of delight that makes a brand irreplaceable.
It's kinda like this: you want a significant other who is a good person and well-intended. Someone who is confident in themselves and has a spirit to match. That's the brand.
But it'd make it easy to start the conversation if they were attractive and well put together. That's design.
When you are creating a startup, it's easy to get sucked into the mindset that your product/service is needed and that everyone could benefit from it. Regardless of how true that is, people just don't seem to get it. You drill down on your marketing efforts talking about the features of what you offer, but no one understands.
You're bitter. You're frustrated. And it's also your fault.
Yea. It's your fault. It's your fault people do not understand the value of what you've created.
"Zach, that's pretty harsh," you might say. But, I believe it's better than the alternative.
Here's the thing: if it's your fault people don't understand the value of what you've created, then you can change. If it's everyone else's fault, you're shit outta luck.
It's never too late, it's all your fault, but that is the absolute best-case scenario. The question is: what are you going to do about it?
The past two Saturdays have been awesome. A client of mine and I have dove deep into the brand of his meal prep company and developed an outline of what his website should look like. It's safe to say that he and I are on the exact same page as to who this website is for, how it should feel, look, and the expected path this person will take. Before diving into the brand discovery, he asked something I thought was fascinating, "do you think we are putting the cart before the horse doing the branding before we do the website?"
I thought about this for a bit, and replied: "not at all."
Looking back at what we've done and the order in which we outlined these deliverables, we are both glad we started where we did.
Currently, my client's branding efforts are minimal and veer toward a male audience looking to get ripped. During the brand discovery, we unearthed that his most successful clients were busy, professional women who valued an easy-going, Southern California lifestyle. Diving deeper, my client had deep connections with farming and the peace that comes from working with your hands. That's a totally different story to tell, for a different audience, and so great a chasm between his current brand and those it was meant to serve.
How would we have come to that conclusion by focusing on building his website first? In short, we would have had a hard time getting aligned and the project would be a bust. We'd still be trying to talk with dudes who want to be ripped. We are going a whole new direction with the entire project. Hell, we're even changing the name of the company.
Here's the thing:
Whether you're building a website, designing a business card, marketing collateral, writing messaging, or coming up with the name for your company, understanding the brand you are trying to build is the foundation for a fluid design process and seeing results.
Yesterday, I wrote about how good logos do not make more money. The essential premise was that a good logo is not meant to earn people more money, but counters the cost of having a bad logo. Such as having to reprint collateral when a good logo finally emerges, losing equity in an image that changed, negative impressions, or having to repurpose/reconstruct the logo for various applications (social icons, favicons, app icons, small scale, etc.).
It got me thinking though, isn't all design about mitigating risk or cutting cost? Some would argue that design can earn more money, like going through a rebrand to appeal to a more affluent market, designing an ad meant to drive revenue, or building a streamlined website to increase conversion. But, I'm not convinced this means design's core function is to earn more money.
When you're rebranding to appear to a more affluent market, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of appearing cheap or scammy.
When designing an ad to increase revenue, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of being off brand or having a Peleton faux pas.
When you're building a streamlined website, what you're really doing is mitigating the risk of user confusion and discomfort.
Focusing on how you can make more money is great, but that doesn't seem to be design's core capacity. Design is meant to mitigate risk.
The risk of appearing unprofessional.
The risk of having a rigid, difficult identity system.
The risk of looking dysfunctional.
The risk of making a user's experience negative.
Whatever it may be, good design is about mitigating risk.
Business is comprised of two key objectives: saving money and earning money. So, if you are in a B2B industry, it is crucial to understand how your service aids a business within these objectives. As an identity and web designer, I'd like to think that my work has an impact on helping businesses succeed. But, I'm not one to throw around lies about my craft either. Which brings me to the point of this punch: good logos do not make more money.
Believe me, it was hard writing out those words, as I'm sure I've got a target painted on my back now because of them. Sorry design friends, but it's true. A logo is not a magic bullet that suddenly gives businesses a truckload of new revenue. We're not done there though, as logos are important in business, but not in the way we'd think.
What a good logo does is mitigate loss. Do you hear that? It's not about what is gained, but about what you keep on the table now and for years to come.
Here's an example:
Put yourself in the shoes of a SaaS startup founder. She has set a few goals for herself.
Right now, her goal is to have business cards, a website, social profiles, and an email newsletter set up for her SaaS product.
1 year from today, her goal is to have 1000 paying customers, an expanded product line, trade booths, monthly investor meetings, and a suite of marketing collateral in addition to her previous goals.
5 years from now, she wants to have an office, 20 employees, run daily content marketing campaigns, expand the online tools for her users, and also product merch in addition to her previous goals.
10 years from now, she could potentially exit the company but hopes to leave behind a legacy.
Let's break this down:
Right now, her goal is to have business cards, a website, social profiles, and an email newsletter set up for her SaaS product.
Attaching some numbers to this, let's say she gets 1000 business cards printed for the year, gets 80 visitors to her site per month, has 10 visitors between her three social platforms per day, and has 30 subscribers to her weekly email list. In the first year, that is over 7,000 touchpoints and the logo is on every single one of them.
Now imagine this: the logo is hideous, poorly designed, and sticks out like a sore thumb on all 7,000 of those impressions. Whether consciously or subconsciously, all 7,000 of those impressions could have been better, if it wasn't for that hideous logo.
I was thinking that'd I'd do the math on every single one of these milestones, but let's just imagine the number of touchpoints increases by 25% each year for those entire 10 years (remember this is impressions, not sales, paying investors, or paying users). At year ten, that's just over 65,000 touchpoints. 65,000 opportunities to make an impression on a potential user. Now imagine 30% of them go away because the design of the logo reminded them of something scammy. Or maybe because it looks like a phallus flying across the sky.
Is it worth the risk of putting all of that revenue at stake because your logo makes people feel gross? Or what about the cost of having to reprint 6,000 brochures because the logo was not delivered in proper formats?
It's not about earning more money, it's about keeping what's on the table. Do not let your logo be the Achilles heel of your business.
It's hard to understand how some fads become established. Across all levels of business, I've seen a formulaic headline being used in ads, on websites, and anywhere else copy is used.
It goes something along the lines of this:
"Our (insert service/product here), your (insert benefit here)."
Most recently, I saw it in a Hootsuite ad that stated "Our social media tool, your success," to provide a concrete example.
There is something about this that feels off. Partly because it feels like I'm being lead by a carrot on a stick. Use our tool and all of your dreams will come true, they say. The thing is that no one actually believes these kind of statements because they know the real meaning behind them is sales. No one likes to be sold to, it seems needy.
What makes this distaste for a "salesy" ad even greater is when it's used over and over again in the form of a cliché. Think about it, how many times have you seen an ad that touted a similar phrase?
"Our team, your peace of mind."
"Our social media tool, your success."
"Our burgers, your satisfaction."
The list goes on and on and on, and for what? In the hopes that someone is going to feel something from a plug-and-play slogan, they've heard four times in the same day?
This phrase is for companies that don't have anything better to say or the courage to be authentic. Don't let that be you.
"What do you mean?" is the most common response when I tell people I work with rebels.
I proceed to tell my core belief that being different is more important than being better. But there's more to it than that. What drives this core belief home is that I live it. Perhaps not in gigantic ways, but here are a couple examples:
I refuse to be on Facebook and Instagram.
I don't drink or partake in other substances.
I rarely take calls or meetings in the morning.
I plan on staying a small company for the foreseeable future.
These are stories about who I am as a person that seep into my business as well. Stories like these are strong because they are genuine, I don't have to put on a face to live out the truth I proclaim.
When you build your brand, tell your story. Open up your ugly, the things people will think you are weird for. I guarantee there are people who will not like it, but the flip side is that there will others who appreciate it.
Tell YOUR story. Not the one you think people want to hear.
Last year, I was talking to a man at a networking event. He asked what I did for work and I told him, "I work with rebels. Rebels are the startups challenging the status quo. I help them gain more confidence through branding and design."
He paused. "Ok, how would you help me?"
I told him that a brand is a person's gut feeling or perception of a business. The art of branding is using the business's personality, image, and beliefs to foster that gut feeling. This creates trust and an emotional attachment between the customer and the business.
He told me he had named his company Best ______. He said that his industry wasn't exciting, his business couldn't have a personality and that the only actionable "branding" route for him to take was calling himself "the best." His next sentence was what shocked me the most though:
"If I was to build a brand, I'd have to lie."
"You'd have to lie?" I questioned.
He believed that creating a brand would mean that he'd have to create a false personality for his company. I kept talking with him, asked him what he liked to do in his spare time, and what he valued.
Turns out, he builds full-scale medieval catapults in his spare time. He loved comedy. Diving deeper, his greatest desire was that his team would show up to after-work team-building events.
I looked at his logo, the name of his company, their colors, and the way they presented themselves online. Nothing about those elements aligned with who this man is. The brand was stoic, staid, and lacked any character.
What he had built was a brand that others would expect of him. He was putting on his business face, trying with everything that he could to be something he isn't.
If that's not a lie, I don't know what is.
Branding is not covering up who you are in the hopes of appealing to somebody. It's the direct opposite, it's showcasing who you really are and going all-in on it. That is what creates an emotional connection with someone else.
Routine is what produces results. Consistent dedication to a series of habits will beat talent any day of the week. Personally, my morning routine consists of the following:
Obviously, I'm not perfect so this routine gets muddied on occasion. But, it serves as a solid compass for letting me know when I've derailed. So why would I completely forego this routine during the last two weeks of the year? Most productivity hacks will tell you that you should always stick to your routine regardless of what day it is.
I'm gonna be honest and say screw that.
Routines are effective during normal times of the year, when I've got client emails to answer, phone calls to make, and, of course, design work that needs to be done. Here's the difference: none of that happens regularly during the week of Christmas or the following week for New Years. Could it happen? Sure. But the truth is that it doesn't.
This presents two opportunities: stick to your routine despite the change in circumstance or let it go for two weeks. Neither option is wrong, they just present two different outcomes and that's where it gets interesting.
When I give myself these two weeks to completely let go of my routine, I give my willpower a rest. Furthermore, with all of the bustle of the holidays and trips to Las Vegas and Mexico on the horizon, those routines quickly find themselves going out the door.
That's not an excuse to let any obstacle get in the way of your routines. There are 50 weeks out of the year where I don't see a valid excuse to let go of routine. But failing to recognize the significance and abnormality of the holiday season is a recipe for self-defeat. Things will happen and routines are good, but they also become a rut. In the spirit of creativity and constantly adapting, ruts must be broken.
Can you think of a better time to break a routine than two weeks filled with festivities, good food, and time with people you care about? Didn't think so.
So what are my plans for the next two weeks? Eat some good food, stay up late watching Star Wars movies, see my grandmother, and think about all of the good things that have happened to me this year. Lastly, think about my routine and what could be improved for 2020 ;)
That being said, it's time to take a break from these as well. Have a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Check back in 2020 for the MF Punch.
The obsession people have with SEO is mind boggling. It's as if SEO is a silver bullet to make up for having an undefined audience and not knowing what they want. I've seen a lot of marketers and the work that they produce. Most of the time, I'm disappointed because it's obvious what game they are playing. They write keyword stuffed blogs with no soul and refuse to write copy that engages people on an emotional level in the hopes of pointing Google searchers to a page.
It's not that I believe all content should be that way, but in order to actually connect with someone so they convert on your page, you can't write for a search engine. Search engines operate entirely on rationale, humans invest emotionally.
As such, both creative messaging and effective SEO need to be in harmony. You can write for search engines until you're blue in the face, but a search engine is not going to have the emotional nuance as the human who will be making a buying decision. You have to trigger them beyond having all the right keywords on your site.
If I had to put my finger on specific things that focusing solely on writing for search engines fails to consider, it'd be these two things:
In short, make awesome content for humans. If possible, make it search engine friendly.
I was giving an identity presentation to a client today and everything was going phenomenal. He liked the strategy behind the mark, thought it had a lot of character, and he was overall pleased with it. He did ask if he could see a slight variation of the mark.
What he had asked for was not going to work (I could see it in my head and it would've ruined the integrity of the logo). But, in the spirit of transparency, I replied with "let's try it out, right now."
Within five minutes, we had the options side-by-side and could clearly see that the previous mark was the better option.
If I had said, "ok let me get back to you in a day with these revisions," we both would have been frustrated. It's an unfortunate trope within the design community to never show the client your workspace or your design files. Which I don't understand, because I certainly feel engaged and have more respect for other craftsmen who show me their process. More important, it helps me hold it in reverence and respect the decisions they make.
Design is no different. If we are willing to be transparent and walk clients through the entire process, show them how our opinions are formulated, and talk through the solution, everyone is happier.
Show your work and talk about it. Being creative is simply not enough, you have to be able to articulate your thinking.
I go on a run in the morning every Monday-Friday. I frequently pass by a woman who always seems to be loading her kids in her car for school as I run by her house. As she got in the car, she rolled down her window and said, "you should do crossfit!"
My response, "I like to keep it minimal."
What she doesn't know is that I've been to crossfit gyms before. They are expensive and truth be told, the workouts are outrageously intense. Could I do them? Maybe. But that's beside the point. The point is that it is a step I'm not ready to take and taking it would do me more harm than good. Crossfit is designed for people who are looking to go to the extremes of human fitness. While it certainly won't take me there (yet), I've got a good routine that is affordable, keeps me in shape, and that is patiently scalable.
The same principle applies to startups and developing a brand. While your brand is always there, since it's the gut feeling someone has toward your startup, you do not need a fully-fleshed out brand from the get-go. You don't need to hire a full-time designer, you don't need a flawless identity system, and you don't even need a formalized brand strategy to get started. There are many reasons for this but here would be the top three:
If you are getting your startup off the ground, you cannot expect that it will be perfect or that you will be successful overnight. It takes time. So when you hear people selling you services like design, SEO, digital marketing, business planning, and the like, ask yourself: "do I really need this to get started?" Chances are the answer is no. Those things are important and, if you can afford to do them, it would be worth it. But you do not need them to get started.
Caveat: this is not an excuse to release something you are morbidly embarrassed by. You should always do the best you can and be honest with yourself about the quality of what you put into the world. But do not bite off more than you can chew and have the fortitude to be patient.
A LinkedIn connection of mine posted a document yesterday asking what titles his connections give themselves. The post contained 20 different variants of designer titles, here are a few:
Oi vey. That's only half. And he didn't even cover all of the options out there. You might be thinking, isn't the point to distinguish ourselves from people? Yes, it is, but it has to be done in a way that matters to the people that make the purchasing decision. Most business owners don't know the difference between UX and UI, hell most people who ascribe the title to themselves don't even know the difference.
It's like the pointless variants of toothpaste:
The only variant of toothpaste that makes sense to a user is when it speaks to a particular need of theirs. Like sensitive teeth being addressed by Sensodyne, who focused on people with this issue entirely.
Now let's apply the same thinking to some of these design titles:
Here's the thing: these titles do nothing for the person on the other side of the table, you know that person who pays money for design services.
What's the solution you ask? Try this:
I'm a designer, I craft things with intention. I've got a portfolio of work and case studies to show the problems I solve. Do any of these sound like you? Cool, let's make something happen.
In Genesis, the first sin recorded outside of the Garden of Eden is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Whether you believe the story to be historically accurate or not, there is a provocative truth to it. Cain had become extremely bitter and resentful of his brother, as Abel's offering to God was accepted and Cain's was rejected (due to his lack of reverence and thoughtfulness in the offering). These emotions boil to unrest as Cain wields a rock to bash in his brother's skull. He rids the world of his competition so that his own subpar efforts have nothing to aspire to.
What does this have to do with branding and being rebellious?
While competitive analysis and an understanding of the market is a good thing, comparing the shortcomings of your brand to others is a recipe for bitterness and resentment. If Cain had instead looked inward and been in competition with himself, he would have slain hi sown inadequacies instead of his brother.
Rebellious brands inherently take on a different mission from the rest of the world, and without a doubt there will be times when it seems like the competition will be doing it better.
Let them. Make friends with them and leave behind the scarcity mindset.
Focus on improving your brand, having a greater understanding of your faults, and figuring out how to be better than you were yesterday.
Logos are tricky and inherently subjective. Not only that, but with a slew of vendors like Fiverr, Upwork, 99Designs, and friends/family who do design work as a side hustle, it's hard to figure out navigating a new identity for your startup. So, here are the top five things all startups should consider when deciding whether or not it is time for a new logo.
Is your logo descriptive of what your startup does?
Descriptive logos detail what services/products a startup provides. For example, if you owned a computer hardware startup and your logo was a monitor screen, that is a descriptive logo. The issue with descriptive logos is that they focus on what you do rather than why you do it.
Logos should be somewhat representative of the fundamental purpose behind your startup and the emotional resonance of your brand (more on this later). Furthermore, descriptive logos are a terrible solution in the long-term, especially if they are focused on a particular technology. Reason being, we don't know how long any particular products or services will be around.
Does your logo look like all of your competitors?
Everyone loves to chalk up Apple as one of the greatest brands of all time. While the logo is the tip of their branding iceberg, it successfully demonstrates the need to stand out. Here is an example of what I mean:
You see, it would have been easy for Apple to create a blue logotype just like their successful competitors, but they would not have been identifiable at all. They would have been pegged as a copycat. The goal of a logo is to be an easily identified mark that helps people recognize your startup. If your logo looks just like all of your competitors, then your logo isn't doing its job.
Did you receive all of the proper formats of your logo when you first got it?
We're diving into the weeds here, but this is an important part of logo design. The downside to sites like Fiverr, Upwork, and 99Designs is that they do not guide users through the proper ways your logo should be distributed. For example, the logo on your website should be in an SVG (scalable vector graphic) format, not a PNG or JPEG. It's not your job as a startup to know this, but you should be informed by the designer which one to use. They also do not develop variants for specific applications like social media, favicons, or different lockups for different applications. In short, if you find yourself scrambling to make your logo work in different contexts, it is obvious that the logo was not built with those applications in mind.
Is it legible and memorable?
Effective logos are simple. The reason for this is so that they can be easily recognized in a crowded market and distinguished from other marks. Simplicity, in the context of logos, could be distilled into two key components:
Legibility (how easy it is to read)
Memorability (how well you, your team, and your customers remember it).
Your logo is not a place to get fancy with grandiose illustrations or granular details. It needs to be just as clear at .5 inches tall as it would be on a billboard.
A simple test to check for these qualifiers is to try and draw your logo from memory. Ask your team and some of your loyal customers to do the same. Are they completely off? If they are, it's time to change.
Has the brand of your startup changed?
Your logo is not your brand, the brand is the gut feeling someone has toward your startup. This feeling is hard to pinpoint without walking through a formalized brand strategy process, but it is found and felt over time.
While logos are not meant for communicating everything about the company, a good logo will be appropriate for the brand. For example, Metallica's logo would not suite a company like Gerber Baby Food because the emotional qualities are at ends with each other. Gerber wants people to feel happy and cared for, while Metallica wants you to feel the wrath of heavy metal.
The first step is understanding what the feeling you want someone to have toward your startup is. Once you can define that, you can see how your logo matches up. If they are in contention with each other, it's time to change.
How does your startup's logo stack up against these questions?
A week ago, I had spoken with a digital marketer who expressed concerns in working with a designer on websites. Main reason being that he had seen projects go awry because most designers don't care about the canonical structure of link building or using a website as a sales/marketing engine, they just want it to look pretty. When I probed for specific examples of problems designers had caused for him, he put up a wall and said, "you just need an SEO partner."
That didn't help me at all. It would be like me telling someone their branding sucked, not telling them why, and saying they need to work with me.
Still, it sounded like I needed a second opinion on my site structures and how using SEO could make these designs better. I reached out to my network and was referred to a guy named Tyler from Socratik, by a larger branding agency.
Oh man, it was like night and day. In an hour Tyler gave me a rundown of best SEO practices, showed me tools to use, and clued me in to some of his personal tips for building out content on websites. He lifted the curtain and showed me what went on behind the scenes. Needless to say, he earned a substantial amount of my trust and I will send anybody I meet that needs SEO services his way.
Now, what about rebellion? Tyler is a rebel. Here's why: I have not met an SEO strategist who was willing to sit down and talk shop like this, ever. Since rebellion is contextual, Tyler sticks out because he did something genuinely different than the rest of his peers. That is what makes him rebellious.
In my newsletters, I do a segment every month called the Brand Spotlight. Within these emails, I go over a brands positioning, messaging, visuals, crafted experiences, and what could be improved. Today, I was able to speak with my good friend, Melinda Livsey, about a recommended brand for the spotlight: Thuma.
Thuma sells bed frames. Really nice, easy to assemble bed frames.
When Melinda and I were discussing the things that made the brand impactful to her, we centered their success on one thing: the intention and thought that was put into every aspect of their experience makes them worth a premium and telling others about. Thuma showed they cared through their website, their product design, their packaging, instructions, and delivering on their promise as an easy to assemble product.
Think about it, if you encounter an amazing experience, even if it's more costly, you will tell others about it. In turn, putting more resources into the experience your customers have makes it so you don't have to spend so much on advertising. You've already paid for it by creating something worth telling others about.
The headline (H1) on your site could be the most SEO friendly on the planet, but it will not outdo a pleasant, worthwhile experience.
I love backpacking. Nothing makes me feel more alive or at peace than sitting on top of a mountain with no one around me for miles. Backpacking requires a substantial amount of gear for surviving out where there are no grocery stores or hospitals nearby. It's safe to say that the needs of a backpacker are vast. Backpackers need food, they need water, and they need shelter. Those are basics. If you don't have those, you're screwed.
So why did I bring a tactical axe with me on my last trip and why did my friend Joey bring a huge buck knife? Sure, we could use them to cut fishing line, chop up firewood, and my axe even doubled as a hammer, but the truth is, we really didn't need either of those things. We wanted them to feel manly and adventurous. Our wants justified the need of bringing along these items for the tasks they could accomplish.
We conjured logical needs to suit an emotional desire.
You could argue that this doesn't apply to everything, but I'd beg to differ. Even the essential needs we had like food, water, and shelter were all emotional decisions. If we were logical, we probably wouldn't have even gone backpacking because we would have saved money and subjected ourselves to less risk. But we decided to forego those essentials in the search of greater adventure. That's why we bought a $110 water filter and why I bought a bunch of compact, lightweight food for a premium price. Essential needs, but definitely an emotional decision.
The needs were simple, food, water, shelter, but the want was freedom, adventure, and camaraderie.
Ask yourself, what is the want behind the need people are looking to our startup to fulfill? Build your brand around it.
My mom is a sales rep who works with pet store retailers. Some small and some large. She told me recently that a store she visits has over 6400 items on sale. 6400!
But that means they sell a lot of stuff, right? They probably need all of those items. Still, my curiosity wasn't satisfied. I asked, "why sell so many?"
Apparently people are more picky about their dog's food being gluten-free, paleo, with/without certain ingredients than most people are with their own nutrition. In short, they are trying to please everyone by having all of those needs met. No matter what pet you have, no matter what its needs are, they are trying to sell it.
I can't know for certain, but I'd imagine 80% of their sales comes from 20% (or less) of those 6400 products.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the first thing he did was strip away 70% of Apple's products and got them focusing on what really mattered. Surprisingly, despite getting rid of a bunch of products, Apple turned its first quarterly profit the following January (see timeline for comparison). Apple didn't even have 50 products and they still struggled to keep their head above water. Can you imagine the crippling weight of 6400 products?
In-N-Out, the most successful burger chain on the west coast, sells cheeseburgers (with varying amounts of meat/cheese), french fries, shakes, and soft drinks. Each store does about $4.5M in annual sales and they have over 300 across the country. When people come to In-N-Out asking for a change to a menu item, they say "sorry, this isn't for you."
By turning away some people, they have a streamlined business offering and they become known for it. It exudes confidence and even people who can't or won't eat a cheeseburger respect that. The same could be said of Apple and people who want to change their offerings.
In the words of Seth Godin, have the courage to say, "this is not for you, but it is for someone who believes this."
When the Superman comics were first introduced in 1938, the hero was a success. Mainly because no such concept had been created or seen before. Superman represented humans in an ideal form, without fault and with extraordinary abilities. However, after a couple issues, you get kinda bored seeing him win all the time, it's as if there isn't anything worth challenging him on.
10 years later, the writers of Superman introduced kryptonite, the only material substance known to weaken Superman. This single foil within the character kept the series alive and gave him something to wrestle with. It made him more human and therefore more relatable.
The point is this, as a startup, you will have an urge to puff up your chest and broadcast yourself as impervious. Apart this being false, it makes it impossible for other humans to connect with you. Do a good job, strive for greatness, but never shy away from your imperfections. Your kryptonite is what makes people love you.
I take criticism very seriously. It's not that I get offended or that I curl up into a ball and cry, but I always think about it deeply. Mostly, because improving on myself and expanding my capabilities is of the utmost importance to me.
Yesterday, my punch talked about a digital marketer who had expressed concerns regarding my website building capabilities around an SEO focused, digital strategy. From my standpoint, it sounded like he inferring I had no idea what SEO was and that it was impossible for me to learn more about it. This is the kinda shit I think deeply about. SEO is important to the web design process, so when someone tells me I'm not good at it, I think about it. Probably more than I should.
I was thinking about it all day. Am I really that lost on SEO? I thought I had a decent understanding of how it worked and how sites should be structured accordingly.
Last night, when I was at a UX event, I told some trusted colleagues what was concerning me (many of whom are in the digital marketing space). By putting these thoughts out there for other people to address, their gravitas was minimized. They didn't seem that bad anymore. Certainly not something to dwell on any longer.
Point being: find a tribe of good people who've got your back. Rebels are nothing without an alliance.
I spoke with a digital marketer yesterday and he had expressed concerns working with designer on websites. He'd seen the results go haywire in the past from an SEO perspective because most designers use tools like Squarespace and Wix without considering how their pretty site will play into the overall digital strategy.
When I pushed for specific problems, the only answer I got was, "you need an SEO partner," which is pretty convenient considering that's what he does.
Here's the thing: if there is truly a better way to do something, it is your job to articulate those details to someone in need of your help, especially if they are willing to learn.
If you're a chiropractor and you don't share your method for making others feel better or coach them, how will they trust you?
What about a SaaS startup that doesn't educate users on how to use their platform?
A designer that doesn't articulate why a design is flawed and coach better design practices?
There is no trust built up keeping your knowledge behind closed doors. If you are an expert, prove it. Better yet, teach it.
Most of the startup world is focused on getting bigger, expanding, scaling, and a long list of adjectives all pointing to gaining more.
Unfortunately, this mentality leaks into startup branding efforts as well.
Have more colors, have a bigger logo, more subbrands, more typefaces, more messages. More, more, more, more, more.
The issue with this mindset is that it is the complete opposite of scalable because you are reinventing the wheel every time you embark on a new branding effort.
Ask yourself, what is in the way of us getting our point across and connecting with our tribe? Then get rid of it and cut straight to their hearts.
Everyone loves ice cream, but getting people to agree on a flavor is difficult. You gauge a room of people to see what they want and no one will seem to agree. Especially if someone suggests mint and chip.
My guess is that most people are indifferent, but there are those who vehemently oppose the flavor with everything they've got. Hell, someone even wrote an article on how terrible is it.
Here's the thing though:
One of my closest friends absolutely LOVES mint and chip ice cream. It's her favorite, she will go out of her way to get it and she'd happily argue with the author of that article about why it's a good choice.
Branding a startup works the same way. Some people will love it, some will not. You have to be ok without pleasing everyone.
You could have the coolest product in the world, but if you don't show up to help out the community of people you want to serve, you're going to lose them.
I'll give you an example using Webflow, my favorite web design tool.
They continuously post new videos on how to use their software, they host local meetups to help others improve their designs, and they even went as far as hosting a "No Code Conference," to empower designers on the web.
That is showing up everyday to serve. How can you do the same thing to help your group of rebels?
The downside to being an advocate of change is that it is hard to see past the muck blocking you from the finish line. What's more, is that the muck might not even be your doing, it's just there.
Most would see the obstacles that lie before them as excuses to turn back and give up. But that is not the rebel way.
Rebels cannot let go of their vision, it is as much a part of them as their skin, hands, and feet.
No one said doing things differently would be easy, or that everything and everyone would be in your favor. Quite the opposite actually.
It may not be your fault where you are at and no one blames you for the external things that have blocked your path. But it is your responsibility to make the next steps. Will they be forward or backward?
Though you may believe the world can be a better place, though you believe there is much that could be done differently, though you seek to be an advocate of change, never forget that there is plenty of good all around you.
Take today to reflect on what you have been given. A true rebel remembers their blessings.
When you run your own company, the outside world ends up demanding a lot from you. Certainly in time and more importantly in creative energy. Because most startup founders are constantly seeking ways to grow their company, spending time on to focus and unleash their own creativity seems selfish.
"There are so many things I have to get done today, how can I possibly afford to indulge my own creativity?"
Because if you don't, you will lose the spark that had you create something in the first place. That energy from within that granted you the courage to go out and make something new. The minute that inbox is opened or your messages are checked, creativity goes out the window and it will not come back.
When you get up in the morning do something creative for yourself. Write, draw, play music, anything to use that creative resource before it is thrown to the wolves that would seek its end.
That wave of creativity is for you and you alone. No one else can use it the way you can, nor should they be granted access to abuse it. How can we even think to let such divine potential slip away?
Guard your creativity with your life and do not let the world take it from you, they can have what is left.
The startup world is cut throat. It seems like there is always some kind of monstrous competitor lurking around the corner ready to devour your company. At least, this is what a scarcity mindset would reinforce.
The sad thing is that even if that monster is beaten there is another one ready to take its place. Concerns about competitors are like a hydra. Cut off one head and two more take its place.
What are we to do?
Walk past them. Don't engage. Your brand has one enemy and that is who it was yesterday. The bliss embedded within such a mindset is that whether you win or lose, it's all up to you.
A common occurrence I hear from clients when discussing the attributes of their brand follows something along these lines: "We want it to look professional, but still playful."
Reading between the lines, what they are saying is this "we don't want to turn anyone off, so we are cool without adorning a personality that would offend anyone."
You cannot build a brand off that. Professional and playful are polar opposites on the spectrum. Your brand becomes a tied to two horses pulling in opposite directions and you go nowhere.
This comes in common forms, like companies that tout innovation and creativity, yet stick to a corporate blue because it won't offend anybody. Or the companies who claim to be different but choose to speak and act like their already successful competitors.
What would have been an otherwise inventive and distinct brand is torn in half by a lack of commitment.
Rather than trying to be everything, be something.
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.
Almost every startup has a difficult time honing in on a specific target audience. True to their nature, founders of companies believe so much in the success and impact of their product that they believe everyone could benefit from it. They probably could, but it is impossible to build a brand and targeted a message to someone that doesn't exist.
"But won't I be limiting the amount of people I could help by picking someone so specific?"
YES! That is the point. And I'll give you an example using a YouTube channel I came across recently.
This channel has over 90,000 subscribers and each video now boasts 500,000 or more videos. What is it a channel about?
A Scottish dude who trims the hooves of cows. Yep. He crushes it. All because he makes videos specifically for dairy cow farmers.
Here's the thing, I guarantee that not everyone who watches his channel is in need of his services, but if even 1% of his 90,000 subscribers need his services, he is set for life with a solid base of customers.
If this guy, who targets dairy cow farmers can get this many people to buy into what he's doing, so can your amazing startup. You just have to pick someone who needs your services and cater your message to them.
A few weeks ago, I saw the new, "live action" Lion King in theaters with a friend of mine. While I wasn't necessarily disappointed, it felt like something was missing that was inherent within the original. I couldn't put my finger on it, even though the new movie had far better animation, a higher budget, and an opportunity to improve on something that was already there. It just wasn't the same.
Disney + launched recently and after watching the original, I got it. The new version's characters were so realistic that they couldn't convey emotion (hard to make a lion cry or show happiness), but cartoons make it possible.
Watch any scene from the original, be it Mufasa rescuing Simba in the gorge, Scar and the Hyenas' ghoulish anthem Be Prepared, and the return of Simba as king, and it's impossible not to become emotionally invested. That is what was missing from the new rendition.
The point that I'm getting at is this: you can have the fanciest tools, the best animation, or a better mousetrap so to speak, but if you miss out on getting emotional buy-in, it falls short.
Story beats features.
When we think of the most confident people we know, be it a politician, an entrepreneur, a mentor, thought leader, or a friend we admire, I'm willing to bet they never claim to be the best at what they do. If they did, it would be hard to respect them as much because it feels like they have to puff up their chest to make an impression. What's strange is that most business owners take this approach in branding their company. They plaster words like "best," "quality," "choice," "preferred," and a gaggle of other superlatives that hold no ground. Why?
I believe that asserting claims like this is done to veil the flaws of these organizations. They can claim to be the best all they want, but it doesn't take away from the fact that they cannot be everything to everyone. Or that new companies with new ideas come up everyday that can beat them in price, speed, and accuracy. Their claim of being the best loses its validity the minute they stop thinking of themselves. As for consumers, the claim loses its potency once they see 30 other competitors that claim the same thing on Google.
Claiming you are the best is a feeble means at persuading someone to do business with you. Is that really the extent of your personality? Do you lack so much confidence in your brand that you have to cover it in a lie? Nothing connotes a greater lack of maturity and competence than such action.
Confidence is not saying "we are the best." Confidence is saying "we know we can't do everything and we can't help everyone, but this is who we are. Whether you like it or not is cool with us."
So, are you going to be the best or be yourself?