You ever notice how Apple never says "iPhone will be released at the end of this year." Why? Because good products do not have a deadline. Deadlines are arbitrary and no one, except you and your team care about them. What users want is a good product, something worth more than having an "ok" product by a specific timeline.
The point? A good team is going to work as fast and efficiently as possible to get a good product. Let them work toward goals rather than arbitrary due dates.
P + S = R
The (P) problem when combined with a this (S) solution drives these (R) results.
Plain and simple.
Your passwords suck and expose you to risk. Dashlane's simple application makes bulletproof passwords and keeps your data secure.
Coding emails is draining and boring. Mailchimp's drag and drop email creator allows you to easily create email campaigns that customers love.
Handing your website designs to a developer ruins them. Webflow's no-code website builder allows you to create pixel-perfect websites that let your creativity shine.
Can you write a one-liner?
It's quite simple. Marketing is a push, branding is a pull.
Marketing puts new products out into the world and helps people solve new problems. It gets the word out. It tells how this product will change a user's life. Marketing is the act of putting new things out there.
Branding makes people care about what is being marketed. It is the heart and soul, the personality that makes a marketing effort more likable than the next. Branding makes things that are marketed attractive.
If you don't do a good job marketing, no one will know.
If you don't do a good job branding, no one will give a shit. You need both and they must feed off one another. They are two sides to the same coin.
Products are supposed to solve problems. Specific problems. Much like how a movie is supposed to guide you through the story of how a hero solves a problem, like Luke Skywalker defeating the Empire, Alan, Stu, and Phil finding Doug, or Princess Mia finding confidence in herself (hell yea I watched the Princess Diaries).
These are the main plots to these movies, anything that doesn't push the hero towards solving this problem is a distraction. Think about it, every subplot takes us closer to this goal.
Luke has to meet Han Solo to leave Tatooine, they get pulled into the Death Star, they rescue Leia to recover the Death Star's weakness, and they attack it to DEFEAT THE EMPIRE.
If there had been a subplot where they stopped on Hoth to grab snow cones and rally a group of Tauntauns you'd think the movie was stupid.
Keep the user pointed to solving a specific problem with your product and don't create other products that pull them away from that core problem.
"Our target persona is the mid-market."
What this really means is that the founder is looking to acquire the most marketshare possible. Understandably. Mid-market means you've leaped the chasm between early adopters and innovators into the realm of the masses. More buyers, more cash, more power to do amazing things with your product.
Here's the problem: no one gets there as a first step.
The innovation curve starts with innovators and early adopters for a reason, because the mid-market is scared of anything new and exciting.
Even Jesus had early adopters (a small focus group of 12 disciples). It wasn't for centuries that His mission finally reached the masses.
The point? Start with a small group of innovators in a niche market, understand what problems they have, who they admire, and build things for them. They will give you grounds to prove yourself so that the mid-market will eventually trust you.
Mid-market is not a user persona.
In his latest book, Business Made Simple, Donald Miller regales readers with the analogy of a business as an airplane.
The Plane Body is Overhead
It's filled with people and those people weigh down the plane with cost.
The Wings are Products and Services
These are the things that give a company lift and can allow the air to get under it.
The Engines are Sales and Marketing
These propel the company forward and allow for increased velocity. Allowing the plane to take on more overhead and go more places.
The Fuel is Cashflow
Run out of this stuff and you crash.
Here's how design and branding fits in to all of these:
The people who work for you will earn their keep if they are guided by a strong mission. Something that inspires them to get out of bed, go to work, and make shit happen. You enable that to happen when you have a strong emotional value they cling to. That's your brand. Good people are expensive, however their ROI is worth it. Give them a reason to push the company forward with a strong brand.
Products and Services
In software, a poorly designed product will kill a company. Do it right. Make it something your sales people want to sell, rather than being forced to sell it. More importantly, add pieces of delight throughout all of these so that the product becomes irreplaceable to your users. That is design.
Sales and Marketing
Following up on the previous point, a well designed product is one your sales team is encouraged to offer. Make your product appear trustworthy by branding your marketing efforts and getting the word out in an exciting, useful manner. Make it easy for customers to recognize and like you. That is design thinking 101.
If you're running low and need to rally investors to your cause, design a mission for them to get behind. Articulate it uniquely and in a way that is easily understood. Create a deck that is trusted at a glance and represents your company well.
Apply your brand and design the part of your business accordingly so that you can go anywhere.
Being better is a unsellable proposition. Better is subjective in nature, difficult to see from the outside, and even harder to define.
For example, Webflow is a web design tool. So are WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly. Which one is better? Well, it depends on who you are asking.
Webflow's proposition is that they are a web design tool for designers. Specifically, designers who work within a hybrid engineering-like role and can think in systems. Squarespace is also for designers who don't care about code quality and are instead focused on making things look pretty and working fast. WordPress is not for designers at all and is catered toward those who want as many features as possible regardless of code quality.
The point? The person that you anticipate to use your software is who will guide features, prioritize them, and dictate which ones are misnomers.
That is how you create an interesting proposition.
Bad design and bad experiences stem from misalignment. From not being guided by selfless service, but instead seeking to get things done cheaply, quickly, and with the most return possible.
Those are shitty goals. They have no longevity and are selfish. They drive companies to do lame things like sell user data or create new features/offerings that have little value and are haphazard at best.
What to do instead? Focus on changing someone's life for the better. Center all of your efforts on that change.
Have a fucking mission.
I recently deleted several apps from my phone, ones that I had previously used on a daily basis (Gmail, LinkedIn, Slack, etc). Apart from not being bothered by the constant slew of information or feeling the need to satiate a hunger for attention, something else happened after deleting these apps:
I could critique and analyze them more effectively.
Akin to seeing the forest through the trees, opening an app after not using for a bit gave me a new perspective. I could examine each step in their onboarding, I could observe their interactions with a keen eye, I could look at their layout and better empathize with someone who hadn't seen it before.
Using these apps or obsessively critiquing them daily wouldn't allow me to do that.
In the interest of getting good ideas and understanding what makes these products great, delete them... for a bit.
With companies like Uber, Medium, Squarespace, Dashlane, Zapier, Mailchimp, Postmates and the like bringing in millions of dollars a month, it's easy to get envious. They have it all, they have it now, why can't you?
We see these companies from their highlight reels. We don't see the hours put in to create their MVP, the number of times they were told "no" after a investor pitch, or how they too fell into the same boat of wanting it all right now. The truth is, you cannot let your brand fall victim to this. Comparing your software startup to ones that have been around for years is unfair. It's unfair to the work you're doing and it will set you up to be disappointed.
In building your brand, you'll want to do many things. You'll want multiple offerings, to touch multiple markets, and impact multiple user groups.
Help a specific group of people do something specific. Something that will help change their life, earn their trust, and get you past the first step in building a brand that can stand shoulder to shoulder with those you admire.
If you want to get there, take the steps one at a time. Otherwise you will fall. To put it into perspective, here are the founding years for all of the companies above:
Donald Miller's Building a Story Brand detailed the idea that all of life is like a story. There is a hero, there is a villain, there is a problem, and there is a guide who helps the hero defeat the villain and solve the problem. Can you guess which one your software product is?
That's right. The guide. You are a trusted advisor who has found a way to something better. Now you offer resources, knowledge, and tools to help your user (the hero) achieve the same.
Think Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Alfred Pennyworth. These folks have abilities and offer support emotionally and with resources. People love them because they give and share the best parts of themselves with the world so that others can be better.
Your software must do the same. Guide your heroes to be better.
This is part of a 5-piece case study on Dashlane. Be sure to check out the previous pieces for more insight.
In my last article about Dashlane, I foreshadowed what could be done better about the brand experience. Keep in mind, I love this product and I use it daily. It has greatly impacted my life and I hope other people will use it so they can live a simpler, safer life online. These suggestions serve as takeaways for other software companies working through building a brand and (if anyone from Dashlane ever reads this, it'll hopefully inspire them too).
There is only one critique that seems to be present in Dashlane's branding efforts: their advertising, specifically the integration of humor.
Humor is awesome and every brand can flex different emotions when trying to resonate with an audience. The key is to make sure it all points to the same emotion at the core. For Dashlane, those core emotions appear to be premium experience, sophistication, expensive, and bordering on elite.
Check out this ad they released for the Super Bowl in 2020:
The ad is evocative, however the humor conveyed seems a bit more childish and playful than Dashlane's other experiences. Dashlane's website is a straightforward, easy to understand information piece that demonstrates the reasons why this brand charges a premium price.
It's 100% possible to be humorous and expensive, but it's a bit more complex that zealous acting and funky plot scenarios.
What's the solution? I hate to bring them up as an example, because they're used so frequently, but Apple's Mac vs PC campaign is a flawless example of how to execute a humorous, yet premium ad. The refined structure of the ads gave them an elevated feel and the actors appear authentic. Not a whole lot of showmanship, but still entertaining.
If this is something your brand struggles with try this example: find a TV character, movie star, or otherwise well-known figure and mirror the emotion they bring to the table. Guaranteed they have specific phraseology, joke patterns, etc, that you can emulate.
Remember, as long as the marketing efforts point to the same place, you are on the right track to building a brand. Don't deviate from your compass.
Fishing in a small pond with no other boats around where the fish practically leap into your boat is better than fishing in the ocean.
Let's expand that analogy. Why would it be better? A couple reasons off the top of my head:
- Accurate bait/lure rigs
- Less competition from other fishermen
- Higher chance of contact
- No sharks or other things you don't want to catch
- Plenty of fish to keep you busy
In short, picking a small pond positions a fisherman to be successful.
The same is true of software brands and there is a marketing term for it known as positioning.
Positioning is a framework that was laid out by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book bearing the same title. Without getting too far into the weeds, the premise is that the top three companies in a market category are the big players and that everything else is fighting over scraps. You are either known for something or you are struggling to make ends meet.
Back to the fishing analogy, because it alludes to the foundational piece of building a strong position within a market: choosing a small pond.
The pond in this case becomes the market category, choose one that is too big and your chances of success diminish. For example, accounting software is too big, unless you plan on competing with multi-billion dollar companies like QuickBooks. However, a scaled-down, specified pond could help here. Something like Accounting software for designers, a messaging app for lawyers, or a security app for watching your dog (thank you Furbo). By choosing a smaller niche, you can gain an advantage over the big brands trying to serve everyone.
Accurate bait/lure rigs:
This would be the same as good marketing and offerings. If you know your fish, you don't have to guess what they might want, you know. Designers want the ability to brand things like invoices and change the typefaces. A lawyer doesn't care about that as much, but it means the world to a designer. Conversely a designer doesn't need a robust amount of security in communicating with their clients, but a lawyer does. And a typical homeowner doesn't have a dog that would love to be rewarded a treat for being a good pet, but a dog owner would be thrilled!
Point being, you can provide things that make you irreplaceable if you know what the customer wants.
Less competition from other fishermen:
If you create something that is adored by a specific group of people, its hard for them to choose anything else. It's like getting a shirt made specifically to your sizing compared to something off the shelf. The same principle would apply to software, there is no substitute for something that feels like it was made for you.
Higher chance of contact:
If you stick in the pond long enough it's guaranteed something will happen eventually. Can't say the same about the ocean.
No sharks or other things you don't want to catch:
Bass fishermen don't want catfish. Tuna fishermen don't want reef sharks. Crab fishermen don't want anything other than crab. Why? Because they're aren't built for managing them. Knowing your pond allows you to have customers that will give you good reviews and use your product the way it was intended. It lays a good foundation for them to refer others to you and grow your user base.
Plenty of fish to keep you busy:
A common objection to positioning narrowly is that one might get bored or doesn't want to limit their user base. Mainly because they believe the market isn't big enough. The truth, if you can be highly profitable and grow a large group of folks who can't get enough of your product. Chances are, if there is 5,000 people on this planet filled with 8 billion, you can generate a solid amount of revenue for a $20 per month subscription (that's $100,000 MRR).
Furthermore, you will always find new needs this group wants, ways to help them out, and you can always scale up (far harder to go the opposite way).
Pick a small pond.
This is part of a 5-piece case study on Dashlane. Be sure to check out the previous pieces and stay tuned for what's next.
Let's set the record straight, UX is almost always confined to the digital space. I'd disagree with putting a box around it since experiences come in all mediums and formats. As such, it's important to take a look at the User Experience from a holistic stand point, especially with digital products and software. Why? Because the more methods you have in foster trust and loyalty, the better. A billboard, an email, a poster, a website, and the product must ALL cohere.
I'll touch more on what could be done better about Dashlane's overall user experience in my next piece and focus on their product for now.
In case you missed it, Dashlane is an internet security tool riding their flagship password manager application. Some things to keep in mind is that Dashlane has positioned themselves as a premium brand within this space, since most of their competition seeks to be known as more affordable.
In light of their position and the emotions they are seeking to evoke, Dashlane built a gorgeous product. It's as if they teamed up with an artisan seamstress who finely knit together a digital application out of codified silk. Everything feels smooth and fluid.
Both the desktop and mobile app feel seamlessly integrated and carry over the same design language effortlessly. Even when you input an incorrect password, the actions taken to inform you are starkly human. Literally shaking it's head "no."
In the spirit of making internet security simple and elegant, Dashlane's interface is highly intuitive. Presenting you first with a list of recent passwords and other precious info in your home screen and then providing the most useful screens int he thumb-enticing lower navigation (Vault, Contacts, Tools, and Settings). It's so simple it's stupid. Everything their user needs is a click away and the options provided are useful, especially in their tools screen.
Some overarching notes: there isn't a whole lot of typing done throughout the experience unless absolutely necessary (i.e. entering your master password or searching for a particular item in the Vault). Most of the actions are done with clicks or switching toggles, making it easy to sprint past password fields.
Even more impressive is their browser extension that auto-fills forms and helps generate strong passwords with a click.
The peace of mind given from not having to remember these passwords and going through the painstaking process of retrieving them is a game changer. Dashlane's product 100% lives up to the name, you enter the Dashlane of logins.
This is part of a 5-piece case study on Dashlane. Be sure to check out the previous pieces and stay tuned for what's next.
In full transparency, I'm a huge fan of this rebrand, there will be some bias. No shame.
Back to business. Dashlane's previous brand identity was centered on a shield emblem featuring an impala leaping across. Apart from this mark, there wasn't a cohesive structure to their design language that made them recognizable.
According to their CMO, the old branding didn't reflect where they wanted to go as a company or the attitude they wanted to convey to their users. Dashlane was seeking something elevated, elegant, and premium. Without appearing hoity-toity.
They hired a global design agency, Pentagram, to lead a rebrand. The results didn't disappoint. Here are a couple photos from Pentagram's case study.
The new branding focuses on a core concept of concealing and revealing. This is done by rooting it in a symbol (the slanted rectangle) that makes up the Dashlane "D."
When paired with an upgraded color palette, streamlined typography, classed-up icons, and a creative flex between all of them, their position as a premium internet security company is obvious. Yes, it looks clean and modern, but more importantly this brand helps distinguish Dashlane's position over competitors like LastPass.
This is speculation, but it seems like this new identity system helped streamline Dashlane's marketing as well. They use a limited color palette, two typefaces, and have a distinct grid system for their iconography. This allows for consistency between billboards, digital and print advertisements, ephemera, Dashlane's website, and even the product itself. Simplicity and safe-gaurds for their design team allow them to move faster and with grater peace of mind.
Coincidentally, that lines up with their mission of creating a safer and simpler life online for their users.
Design a visual identity that can scale across every touchpoint a user will come into contact with. Your product, your site, ads, all of it.
Focus on conveying an emotion through color, shape, and type.
Be different from your competition. No one is going to mistake Dashlane green for LastPass red.
In line with the position of being the premium brand for internet security, Dashlane crafted elegant messaging that vaults their product beyond being a password manager.
How? They made it about the emotional value derived from using their product. In short, they make it about the feeling of security and being cool rather than making their password creator the hero. This is evidenced in the way they discuss the benefit of their product from their home page:
Dashlane does more than create, save, and autofill your passwords. See how Dashlane can give you a safer, simpler life online.
Dashlane is a tool, that the real heroes (their users) can use to fight against security threats on line. More importantly, they can do so without have to get vicious. Adopting messaging like this is great for many reasons and there is one in particular that is fascinating:
Dashlane's messaging allows them to exceed password management.
In conjunction with a name like Dashlane, they have shown that their brand is capable of handling new product dedicated to the safety of others on the internet. There's an important part in there that I don't want to skip over because it matters: the name.
Imagine these examples from companies within this market with a new offering:
LastPass launches a new VPN service to guard your internet usage from unwanted eyes.
Dashlane launches new VPN service to guard your internet usage from unwanted eyes.
LastPass has made it difficult for themselves to be recognized as anything other than a password manager because every time you say their name you are yanked into remembering that they are a password manager.
Conversely, Dashlane is tied to an emotional value. So long as the offering doesn't conflict with that emotional value, Dashlane's customers will eat it up. Yet another stepping stone to a safer, simpler life online.
The point? The messages in the things you promise, the way you talk about your products and services, even the name you give users to identify you are rooted in an emotion, not the product. The product is a vehicle by which that emotion is experienced. Focus your messaging on reinforcing the emotion. Build the brand on something greater so that you can continue to innovate and be trusted with new products.
When entering a space like internet security, you'd think that the best bet would be to rely on a stoic and staid brand. That is, of course, unless everyone else in your market is boring, difficult to work with, and doesn't provide any emotional value to the customer.
Dashlane is a password manager (I use them personally so I don't spend hours trying to get all of my passwords in a row). I've gotta say, having used their top competitor, LastPass, it's evident what makes Dashlane's positioning so potent: they made password protection snazzy and cool.
LastPass, the only major competitor to Dashlane, goes for $3 per month for the same features as Dashlane's $4 per month premium personal plan. Something they seem to be totally ok with given that they are pushing for a higher-end experience.
Smart move, here's why:
They win on a more refined experience instead of driving down prices within their market. Think about it, both of these softwares do the same thing, yet Dashlane earns an extra dollar over LastPass users. Sure, they might have less customers, but they earn 33% more money per user. In turn, LastPass' 16M users at $3 per month earn $48M compared to Dashlane's 10M users that earn them $40M in monthly revenue.
If Dashlane had gone the route of charging a dollar less their revenue would be cut in half. But by positioning the brand to be a premium alternative and an experience worth paying extra money for, they can compete. Clearly, there is some serious validity to playing up in a "downgraded" market.
With the numbers established, let's take a look at some brass tacks: who is this brand for and why they care.
This is all speculation, but given that I'd seen ads for Dashlane on several design-related YouTube channels, I'm guessing Dashlane's ideal user is someone in the tech scene with money to spare and willing to pay for an elevated experience. Why this matters to this user is the fact that they don't have time to fiddle in run-of-the-mill tech like LastPass and instead yearn for something fresh and easy to use. They are neophiles with a taste for well-designed software. Paying the extra dollar is worth the boost in esteem and status. Dashlane built their brand around this.
Compared to the consumer LastPass attracts (the person looking for a conservative, affordable option), this tech-savvy user base allowed Dashlane level up the market.
When you name your company after an Englishman whose motto was "Steal from the rich and give to the poor," it's expected that your company exists to serve the masses.
When Robinhood decided to stop trading of GameStop's stock to support a hedge fund invested in their app, they ruined their brand.
The emotional value they'd built up is gone because of the choice to betray their values.
If you think the brand of your software is something trivial, think again. Betray it and the market will react accordingly.
In 2019 I started a small segment called the Brand Spotlight in my weekly newsletter. They were awesome and I really enjoyed writing them, but they were scattered. I was covering everything from lifestyle brands, digital products, video games, jeez I needed focus. That being said, the structure of them was useful, especially to those who need a tangible example to associate with the branding principles I speak on. I'll be resurrecting this every month with a focus on software and breaking it up into five pieces over a week.
It seemed fitting to write about the pillars themselves since they make up the foundation of building a software brand.
Positioning is a framework that was laid out by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book bearing the same title. Without getting too far into the weeds, the premise is that the top three companies in a market category are the big players and that everything else is fighting over scraps. Reason being is that people only have so much of a cognitive load that only the top three per category will stick (unless you study brands for a living). For example, name three ESPs. Easy, right? Can you name a fourth? Probably not.
Positioning is crucial to a brand's success because market categories are created based on a user's need and those needs vary from individual to individual. If you can get inside their head and claim a position, you have a shot at growing your user base to people who fall under the same market. It puts the focus of the brand on solving a specific problem for a specific group of people.
Ranging from tone of voice to the actual calls to action, messaging is the first step out of the emotional ether of branding. It's a concrete, tangible part of an organization that is used to speak truth and tell a user how you will impact their life. If done properly, messaging will spur creative ideas, generate effective campaigns, delightfully guide your user, and make it possible for them to understand who you are, what you stand for, and how you can be of service.
You thought design would've been first, didn't you? Not today! The best way to describe the impact of visuals is to compare it with a person's clothes. They say a lot about you. From the colors of your shirt, the material it's made of, how it's cut, the accessories and small details like the watch on your wrist, all of it gives insight into who you are and what we can expect from you. Good visuals, like messaging, help users identify who you are and make it easy for us to recognize something from you. Akin to a countries flag, they are a symbol igniting a user's trust.
The most impactful amalgam of the above pillars is, of course, the product your company creates. If anything should reflect your positioning, your messaging, and your visual identity the most, it's the software people are expecting will change their life (no matter how great or small). In this pillar it's important to be aware of the other pieces of your brand that are out there for others to interact with. Including your website, your email marketing, digital and physical ads, physical collateral like business cards, social campaigns. All of these experiences add up to a cohesive brand or divide it. A good user experience feels the same no matter the medium.
Wasn't sure if I should include this last pillar, but I like odd numbers and it seems like a useful place to end the analysis of a brand. More importantly, it's something that a software company should be doing regularly anyway. After defining a brand, you will always be working to move closer toward a pure, concentrated manifestation of it. Since brands are emotions and it's difficult to constantly hit the nail on the head every time. But if we can use that emotional value, after having defined it in great detail, as a yardstick of aspiration, we can move toward it objectively.
It's easy to get caught in the trap of "more is better." More features, more services, more users, more shareholders, more views. More is a hungry ghost. Endlessly craving and never satisfied.
On top of that, they haunt you. Chasing hungry ghosts inevitably ends with the roles reversed.
"More" doesn't end and it pushes companies to do costly things that they wouldn't do otherwise. If you want to chase after more you need more hands, you need more money, you need to fundraise, you need to step out of the garage and buy a fancy office, you need to pull all-nighters, you stretch your team. All because you are haunted by "more."
An alternative: offer the smallest, best promise you can make. Small, so you know you can keep them and accomplish what is asked of you. Over time, they will build on each other you will have something amazing.
It's a good way to keep hungry ghosts out of your life.
Much like Thor's hammer, your software is a tool used to control something more potent. No, it's not thunder, it's culture.
Good software changes culture.
Facebook changed culture and made people more connected. Google changed culture and gave access to information from around the world instantaneously. Netflix changed culture when they decided movies could be enjoyed from home without cluttering your cabinets. Spotify changed culture by making it easy for people to discover music.
The point: look beyond the deliverable. What are you trying to change about our culture?
Trust is built by showing up consistently. It's why we remember our friends who we see regularly, but forget the person we sat next to on the bus.
Software companies operate under the same parameters.
Every single interaction with your software company, from the ad the user sees on Facebook, to the website they land on, to the experience of signing up, to the onboarding experience, all the way to the follow-up afterward is part of building that trust.
If these experiences are misaligned or disjointed, you lose cohesion. You lose trust.
Getting these experiences to line up uniformly and in a way that delights your user is called branding.
I just wanna build a good product.
You should. And you should also build something of legacy.
Help your ideal users connect with you emotionally. Give them pieces of delight with every interaction of your app. Make it easy for them to remember you and recognize you. Encourage them to trust the new things you release into the world.
In short, build a brand.
In layman's terms, it means that certain things remind us of other things. Whether we like the certain thing is dependent upon whether we like the thing it reminds us of. More importantly, this varies from person to person and tribe to tribe.
After defining your software brand's personality, look, and feel, you can begin the hunt.
The hunt? Yes! The hunt.
The hunt for things that resemble those traits. They can be anywhere, you just have to find them. If possible, your ideal user will already have quite a few that you can reference. They're found in the things they eat, the clothes they wear, the gadgets they use, the movies they watch, the people they admire, and the beliefs they adhere to.
If you can find these things, apply their look, their language, and their attitude, then you are using semiotics to your advantage.
After assessing the values that are shared between your software and your ideal user, you can outline a personality for the brand to adorn. I've seen a bunch of variants for making this happen, but the one that has seemed to work the best was stolen from Jacob Cass at Just Creative. A bit of a twist at the end.
Plot your brand on each spectrum:
Next, and this step is important, define any attributes that are 3s. Clearly these are core attributes you want associated with your brand, but they mean something different to everyone. What does it mean to you?
"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one!'"
When diving into knowing your user base, you will hopefully find common interest. In the things you both do, the things you listen to, who you respect, etc.
I would urge you to dive deeper. What do you both feel? What do you both wish was right in the world? What do you both believe?
If you can find this and communicate it you don't have to win people over, you end up rallying teammates to help you accomplish a goal. You are aligned.
A brand built on mutual values is set to flourish.
How much marketshare do you want? All of it?
Wow. That's an ambitious goal.
You want it now? Dang. Sounds like you're a real go-getter.
You can't have it.
At least not now. You're not ready. But there is a clear starting point that every successful software out there has shown us: build for neophiles. The innovators and early-adopters. It simply doesn't make sense to build for anyone else. Here's why:
Whenever we create something truly novel, we engage in pattern interrupt (thanks Seth Godin). Pattern interrupt places a user in a state of decision making, since they have encountered something outside their normal pattern of behavior. Slack, before it was adopted by every single organization worth talking about, was a pattern interrupt. Most teams communicated via email, text, etc. Not very effective. Even so, the thought of switching from the normal, (albeit shitty) pattern requires energy that people don't want to spend... unless trying out new things is their normal.
The only folks who fit that pattern are neophiles. They are people who want to find something new, who want to be in-the-know, and who are joyous when they find something novel they can test. Furthermore, they are the first stepping stone in gaining mass marketshare. If you want the masses to engage with your product, you have to first rally the Neophiles.
Chances are, your brand is already out in the world.
What? Yes! It is. Your brand is the emotional value people attribute to your company, value they already find in many other things throughout their day.
For example, if you want your brand to be seen as happy, joyful, youthful, and teeming zest for life, I bet your ideal users experience this in other places. Perhaps it's from an ice cream shop, a children's author, or a TV Show. The point is that somewhere out there is a prime example of these attributes. The same would be said of any other adjective as well: elite, progressive, friendly, serious, stoic, sarcastic, brave, funny, classic, you get the point.
Your job in building a brand for your most valued customers is to understand what emotions are missing from the market category you want to enter, research places these emotions are found within your customer's life, and steal the things that make them memorable.
Seriously, steal them. Steal the colors, steal the phrases, steal the pictures, steal the shapes, steal the experience as much as you can.
Why is this effective? Because you are taking something familiar and placing it into a new context. This is the recipe for novelty.
When you start building a product, your first goal is to make sure it works. It doesn't need all the bells and whistles you anticipate it will house in the future, only the most important ones. The ones that will set you apart and lay the foundation for everything your product could become.
This is referred to as your MVP (minimum viable product).
In constructing a brand for your software, taking a similar approach is essential. Specifically, you build a brand around a specific user base. It doesn't cover everyone you anticipate this product could serve, only the ones who would find it most valuable. The ones who will see you as set apart from any other option they have.
This would be referred to as your MVC (most valued customer).
By focusing on them and them alone, you can tailor your messaging, your identity, your marketing, everything you do is focused around them. Which is helpful, given that it is impossible speak with impact to a generalized crowd.
Have the courage to focus on your most valued customer. They will thank you for it and you'll make something amazing as a result.
Softwares can help a lot of people in many different ways. Which is another way of saying, there is an infinite number of replacements for your product. Venmo does the same thing as Paypal, Mailchimp does the same thing as SendGrid, Freshbooks does the same thing as Quickbooks, and Notion does the same thing as Asana.
How do you stand out? You decide to help someone specific.
If your software can help anyone, then you have your pick of the litter and can make the decision to build something special for someone.
"But won't I get bored or lose the opportunity to expand?"
Doubtful. There is so much hidden need for specific user groups that the list of new features and ideas to make your ideal user's life easier are endless. Plus, you can always expand once you've exhausted your initial market or duplicate your tech for another market with slight modification.
Doing so makes you irreplaceable, makes it easy to market and sell, and makes it easy to build an awesome brand. Why? Because you are able to focus rather than constantly chasing shiny objects.
It takes courage, but if you can answer the question, "who do you want to help?" Building your brand will get immensely easier.
50 years ago, having a car that didn't breakdown as much as the next guy gave a manufacturer an edge.
Would you expect anything less today? No. Products need to work, they need to be easy to understand, and they need to be reliable. You need to be reliable. 24/7.
This doesn't change when entering the realm of software design. Meeting these requirements is not optional, it is expected. I'd say rise up to meet them, but it's almost like telling a runner they need to move their legs in order to participate. They are self-evident.
With me so far? Good. You've got your product working and you are prepared to help users 24/7, now what?
Focus on being irresistible. Craft a story for users to engage with, be fun, be authentic, courageous, and create as much opportunity as possible for your users to be head-over-heels for you. Specifically, head-over-heels for YOU and subsequently, your product.
If you want your software to exceed expectations, build an awesome brand.
My roommate made some shrimp last night and offered me some. After my first bite I could tell this wasn't gonna be something that made my stomach feel good, so I scrapped the rest. Waking up this morning, it was even clearer that something wasn't right. I didn't feel like eating anything else, as if my body was illuminating a "no vacancy" sign over my stomach.
So, I listened. My body was feeling sick and needed to (putting it euphorically) expel or fix everything that was making it feel bad. If I'd tried cramming more food in my belly to ease the gurgles, it wouldn't have ended well and I'd have a bigger mess to clean up.
It leads to the question, are you treating your product the same way?
Are you forcing more features to make up for those that are making your product sick?
Are you trying to gain more users when the ones you have aren't close to satisfied?
Are you trying to expand your brand without first solidifying it?
Take time and make your product healthy before you starting filling it with more.
It takes balls to do something unexpected and different. In the case of choosing brand colors for your software, this is most evident and it matters greatly. Color is one of the core ways your brand coheres its marketing efforts, expresses itself, and distinguishes your brand from competitors.
Uber demonstrated this well during their rebrand in 2018. The black and white base of their brand colors allowed them to expand their marketing efforts globally and uniformly while shifting the focus to rich photography of their users. Difficult to do if you're playing with a myriad of colors.
Compared to their largest competitor, Lyft, who bolsters a hot pink badge of courage, the Uber color palette connotes feelings of maturity, elitism, and professionalism. A smart move in trying to distance themselves from the hyper-friendly and childish Lyft.
What's cool is that the flip-side of this is also true and valid for Lyft's color choices. It takes just as much fortitude to come up with the hot pinks, poppin' purples, and other vibrant hues that construct their energetic and playful appearance. There is no way you'd mistake ads from either brand for each other, in large part due to color.
The point? Have the courage to use color boldly and to stake your claim emotionally. Use it often, with confidence, and throughout your product as well as the pieces that sell it.
In order to create an awesome brand, you have to build something for somebody. More specifically, you have to help this person solve a specific problem. Where software runs in to trouble is when they try to build everything into their first version.
For example, Mailchimp started out as email building software. That's it. They killed it and were then able to expand into new offerings that helped their users solve more problems like direct mail and marketing.
If they'd tried including all of those offerings from the onset, users would have been confused, it would have been extremely difficult to position the brand, and it would have been way harder to get up and running. It's like trying to jump to the top of the staircase when there are ten steps in between. It's a recipe for chipping your teeth and getting your ass kicked by an inanimate object.
The point? Avoid the everything trap.
Everyone -> someone.
Everything -> something.
You can always expand your services, but you never get to make another first impression.
"I don't give a rat's ass about software branding. I can go on Fiverr or Upwork, grab my logo and colors for $300 and build my freaking product."
Sound like you? Maybe. Since there is so much confidence and assurance behind your statement, there is really isn't anything that can be done to convince you otherwise. Branding is just the rat's ass, a lofty term used to charge a lot of money to those who've invested serious blood, sweat, and tears into developing something useful.
True... in some cases.
But the same could be said of your software. I don't give a shit about it. At least not right now. In fact, there are probably a lot of people who don't care about your software.
I know, how dare I? Sorry to burst your bubble, but there are thousands of software products out there, many of whom could compete head on with yours and potentially win. Think about how easy it would be for them to mark their price down one dollar and undercut you or how one new feature could swiftly pull the rug out from under your feet. It happens.. a lot.
The truth is, unless you are emotionally gripping a specific user base, you have nothing. Nothing you can count on for long, anyway. And if you want to grab emotional value, you build a brand.
So, is branding still the rat's ass or is it a something you can leverage to charge a higher price to loyal users?
Things are going to change for this series.
For the longest time, I've been writing about branding, but it's hard to distill such a big concept into something tangible and practical. In light of this, I'm going to channel my thoughts on branding and design through a specific market: software and digital products.
Why? Because they fascinate me and there are so many amazing examples of software companies that have leveraged design with authentic precision (Dashlane, Uber, Mailchimp, Notion, etc.). It is also evident that we are entering a new era where creating software is becoming less exclusive, but good branding and design services aren't poised to service company's smaller than $1M MRR.
This is going to become a place where SaaS Founders and Digital Pioneers can come for inspiration and guidance on design. More importantly, where they can learn how to leverage it as a tool to delight their users and build a badass brand.
Here's to a fearless, focused, and forthright 2021. 🤘 😎
You probably know where this is going, I'm taking a break from my newsletter until 2021. I'd call it hibernation, but there's a better term that describes what will actually happen: brumation.
It's the reptilian substitute for the warm-blooded's winter slumber. But, unlike hibernation, brumation does not consist of sleep. Instead, the brumating creature sits patiently waiting for things to heat up. They slow-down, certainly, but sleeping? Certainly not.
Why the distinction? Well, I'm still around just not as active. So please, feel free to reach out if you need some design direction, are gearing up for something big in 2021, or are simply looking to connect with another human.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, and an awesome start to the New Year 🤘😎
Personified villains have hilariously made an impact on advertising. Think of character's like Mayhem, the chaos-curating nemesis of Allstate Insurance and their members. Or Mr. Mucus, the scumbag jabronie who gets his ass kicked by Mucinex on the regular.
What's the point here?
Your audience is your hero and heroes do their best when they fight a villain. This villain stands for everything your hero doesn't, they are at ends with each other. If you can identify this villain, you can give your hero tools to defeat them (products, services, training, etc.).
Who is your villain?
You know the problem that users are coming to in hopes of solving (I want to be healthier, I am sick of resetting my password, I have acne, etc), but that is the tip of the iceberg. Diving into the internal desires or concerns a user has surrounding solutions to their problem is core to developing your brand.
For example, in the instance of being healthier, a user might look for a fitness program online. What they are thinking while looking for it is "I want to be healthier, but I don't want to be known as a douchey gym rat. The intensity of most fitness programs makes me feel anxious."
Boom. Now you know that you can position this brand to be something more approachable and less "shredded" if you catch my drift.
What are some other things users might think of when considering a solution to a problem?
Password Management Software: It is daunting to put so much trusted information with one company, it needs to be legit. This let's you know that your brand has to err on the side of professional/trustworthy when marketing the product. You have to, at the very least, appear secure.
Skincare Programs: I'm concerned about the chemicals used on my body, the more natural this is, the more I'd be comfortable using it. This could be accomplished through visuals and language detailing the natural ingredients of a skincare product.
Investment Apps: I'm not even sure where to begin in creating a portfolio, it would be great to be educated from someone approachable. Through voice and tone and branded imagery, some awesome videos giving a walkthrough of how to use the product could be used in a campaign to get more users.
It's not just about the product, but about the user's feelings surrounding the decision to purchase it.
After defining the demographics of your ideal user, you can dive deeper into what exactly they are coming to your company for.
Where to start? Think of it like a story. Chances are, there is some catalyzing event that has made them seek a solution. For example, they need to be more productive, they are tired of resetting their password, they have acne, they want to be healthier, etc. In short, what is the fire under their ass?
Secondly, you pair that fire with an extinguisher. Namely, this would be in the form of your product, a specific feature you have, or a service you provide.
This is the first step to tangibly expressing your brand through what you offer. Furthermore, in a way that is relevant to your target user.
Demographics are the first piece discussed in understanding who your target audience is. Mainly because they don't require as much critical thinking and are evident without much additional thought/analysis. Here is a list of the attributes that one would include in the demographics of their target audience:
What purpose do these pieces of information help us solve in creating a brand? Well, the answer is quite simple: you are going to talk to people differently and through different mediums based on these answers. More importantly, knowing the demographics of this ideal superfan enables you to focus on who will be using your products/services.
Even with these descriptions alone, it is clear that the lifestyles and day-to-day happenings in these persons' lives are going to be different. They will have different preferences, lifestyles, beliefs, cares, aspirations, etc. We start with these demographics because it allows us to put up the blinders to other groups that are not as important to the brand being created.
Your brand needs to be cherished by someone. That person is your super fan, someone who will love your brand, buy anything you create, and share it with the world. They are a tribal advocate for your company. Here is how you can make sure you are creating something this person will appreciate:
This is the easiest part. List some key elements of this person to get a starting point for who they are. This will include:
2. External Desires
What are they coming to you for? This could include:
3. Internal Desires
WHY are these things important and what are they looking to accomplish.
Is there a grander battle that you are both fighting?
What is at stake if these desires are not met? Some examples:
6. Lifestyle elements
Make sure your brand aligns with this person's lifestyle. List out some key things we all use/partake in:
What and who inspires this person to get out of bed in the morning?
8. Define patterns
Look at everything you've written down. Do you notice a pattern in purchase behavior? Is this person looking for a deal or do they spend on value? Do they care about aesthetics? Are they conservative or edgy?
Are there patterns in the things that inspire them (boisterous attitudes vs strong silent leadership)? How about the topics being discussed, can you relate and speak on these as well?
The point here is to immerse yourself in this person's world and see how you can add to it. More importantly, to see how you can add to it and be easily accepted into their lifestyle, rather than forcing a lifestyle upon them. If that is what you find yourself doing, you need to either reposition your brand for a new audience or mold it to your current super fan.
Your brand needs to walk alongside them, hip-to-hip.
Cinema has done a phenomenal job of showing us drama. Think about it, if everything in a movie went according to plan and the characters acted rationally, there'd be no tension and therefore no movie. It'd just be a walk through of good decision making and civic discussion about what to do next. It'd follow a logical progression.
What sucks is that creatives often infuse that drama into their creative process in the form of a pitch or a big reveal.
This isn't good. Pitches put both parties in a bad position and create an ultimatum from the event. How do we fix that?
We scaffold. More importantly, we build an ugly scaffold.
A scaffold? Yes, like the one's you see on the sides of skyscrapers. These structures follow the building from the ground up and work alongside the deliverable until it is ready to show. They are hideous, but they allow everyone to safely navigate from the ground-level to the top.
What does scaffolding look like for building a brand identity?
A good designer can educate and guide folks along the process (and it better be a process) from nothing to something. Instead of a giant presentation where clients give a giant "yes" or a giant "no," scaffolding allows for small tweaks along the way and a unified effort.
Build an ugly scaffold.
We are approaching the end of 2020, so there will be an inevitable slew of posts and articles titled "Design Trends 2021." This punch is for the faces of these articles.
Why am I against design trends? Three reasons:
1. They aren't really trends (mostly)
A trend is an upward, macro progression. They shift societies as a whole and alter what we perceive to be the norm. For example, data transparency, responsive design, artificial intelligence, public health (thanks COVID), or E-commerce are trends. Trends are movements that you either get on board with or your company becomes irrelevant. Design trends, therefore, do not fit the criteria... mostly. So let's play a game, which of these three seems like a genuine trend: gradient color swatches, serif typography, accessibility.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Accessibility is the only true trend within that trio. Why? Because your company is not going to be put into jeopardy if you do not adopt gradient color swatches or use serif typography, but it will suffer if it doesn't take into account user accessibility. Remember, trends are macro movements, not subjective, fad design practices.
2. You will have to change it eventually
Expectedly, if you shift with the design trends, you will be shifting a lot. Stand firm on your voice once you find it. Which brings me to my last point:
3. Trends pull away from your story
I'm a firm believer in stealing your identity. Meaning, you have a story to tell, there are things that have influenced you and you can use language, visuals, and other assets from those muses to cohesively fuel your brand. More importantly, you can do so in a way that is impactful and different. Rather than focusing on trends, focus on what you want people to feel. Find things that help foster that feeling and use them in your branding.
Design "trends" are shiny objects. Screw 'em.
There is a lot of science and research to building a brand. Knowing the right things to say, the right colors to differentiate yourself from the competition, all that other stuff that is tactically important to the job. It is important, absolutely. However it is easy to approach branding with all head and no heart, which is where things go wrong. Most likely, it is because entrepreneurs and change-makers overlook a giant piece of the puzzle: themselves.
That's right, you. You have a story. You have been places others haven't, you have a personality, and you have envisioned a world different than the one you currently inhabit (that's why you're in business after all, to change the world). You are a rebel because you've decided that the current way things are is not satisfactory. You are driving change.
My ask is this: don't lose sight of how important your story is. It is your biggest asset in building a brand.
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
Go change the world you rebel.
Good creative is hard to come by. There are a lot of designers out there, but few of them can focus their talents toward other people's goals. More importantly, if they are given a set of to-do's, their talent dries up from micromanagement. The solution? A compass.
Yes, by golly, a compass. A special compass. One that you and your designer come up with together. A north star guiding the decisions made and inspiring your designer to keep moving.
What goes into a compass? Context, expected outcomes, boundaries, and aspiration. A good designer will take these and run. Wanna get good work? Make a design compass.
I want you to imagine a drum kit. Now imagine someone sits on a stool behind it and persistently pounds the snare, the toms, and cymbals violently, repeatedly, and without rest. The resulting bash of noise is nothing you would expect from a top performer or something you'd want to hear on a record. It sucks.
Now think about someone else who tactfully and precisely plays each piece of the kit with rhythm and technique. They create a series of harmonious tones that entice your ears. They don't hit every piece at the exact same time, they let them breathe and give each its due space in the spotlight. They rest between notes.
Same principle applies to design. If you try to play all the pieces of your kit (a call to action, a tagline, your logo, information, graphs, charts, etc) at once, you will create noise.
Rest between notes.
"We imagine this will take 20 hours of work."
Well, I can imagine quite a bit too. I can imagine the work would take 4 hours and that would be something, wouldn't it? I can also imagine it going over 20 hours, which would be a real bummer because we'd lose time.
What's the point? No one knows how long projects take. Billing by the hour puts the risk in my client's hands, since anything that takes longer than we'd initially planned becomes their problem instead of mine.That's not the kind of assurance I want to provide.
Sure, it could be easier to just keep the clock running and send a bill, but that is conformity. That is being unsure of how good you are as professional and being unable to create innovate solutions for clients. Billing hourly is not the rebel way.
People amaze me. I never get tired of the stories that comprise the life of another human being. They've been places I haven't, done things I haven't, and have skills I don't possess. It's these pieces of humanity that make people interesting.
What bums me out is when others don't see it that way. When they choose to hide who they are, where they've been, and any other sparks of individuality that make their story worth hearing. That story is woven into the brand of your company, whether you like it or not. The way I see it, you can either embrace it and tell it to its fullest or hide behind the mask of what you think others want to hear.
Take off your mask.
Identity design and website design are partnerships. It is someone coming to a designer asking them to solve a problem, create something awesome, and do so with as little bumps as possible.
Now here's the problem with that statement: you have no idea what problem to solve, what constitutes "awesome," and what could be a bump.
All of those are subjective elements. If the designer and client are not aligned on what these all mean, then the project is not gonna end well. Both sides will feel unhappy.
How do you mitigate against that?
Research. You develop styles capes.. together. You sitemap and plan out features... together. You define the goals and success of the project... together. Client and designer, you work together to sift through the nuance.
The Nike swoosh, the Apple apple, the Target bullseye. All of these logos are recognizable in an instant and yes, it took a while for them to get there, but there is a common thread between them oft-overlooked in the success of their brand identities:
They have good names.
Since the name of a brand is further up in the headwaters than the logo, it makes sense that a crappy name will hinder the success of the visual identity. Don't believe me? Well, let's try these with different monikers.
Nike -> Elegant Running Solutions.
A swoosh would not fare well under this.
Apple -> Creative Computers, Inc.
Why the hell is the logo an apple?
Target -> Minneapolis Market (Target started in this city)
The bullseye loses all gusto.
You get the picture. Brand identities, just like people's identities include a lot from the name. Why do you think authors and screenwriters obsess over the names of these characters they create? It matters and there is an emotional value to the name of a company.
If you don't nail your name and have it aligned with the emotional value you want to manifest within your audience, your identity as a whole will suffer. How do you do that?
Define your brand.
You will not always hit the mark. This happened today with my morning routine. Didn't feel too well, slept in. Phone starts blowing up with messages from family, friends, and clients. Not my ideal start to the morning.
Now, I can dwell on that mishap, which was my fault, or accept that I missed. Missing is part of the game. What I will not accept is missing tomorrow as well.
Be it a morning routine, a sport, or even building up your brand, promise yourself "never miss twice."
Design is subjective... if you don't have a defined brand. I've sat through meetings hashing over which icons, photos, and colors to use. It sucks. Most likely, these kinds of conversations fall onto the executive order of whoever is in charge, like a CEO or equivalent position. Apart from the issues of scalability and freeing someone like a CEO to do what they are best at, it's a shitty situation to be in. Spending all that time trying to figure this stuff out only to have the decision be made by someone else. Not because it's the right decision, but because it was their decision.
Get aligned. Spend time diving into strategy. You will save hours in the long run. More importantly, you will have an objective viewpoint for creating things in the future and give your team freedom to move.
If you don't know where you're going, nothing will help you get there. No map, no compass, hell, not even the stars can guide you if you have no aim.
No one is going to buy a product to make you rich, it's a shitty goal to reach for.
Build something that brings people joy. Something that inspires, something fun. Create an excalibur that allows someone to slay the dragons in their life.
Have some freaking empathy and don't waste people's time. It is the only way you can build an impactful brand.
Often subjective in approach, selecting a color palette is not something to be taken lightly. Color is one of the core ways users are able to identify a company from afar. Starbucks green is instantly recognizable, as is the sunset hues of Patagonia or the gold and red of McDonald's. It's unmistakable.
Here is how you approach color with objectivity:
Define your brand
If you don't know what you want people to feel, your selection will be off-base. Know what you inspire within your customer and the emotional qualities you want them to associate with your company.
Seek and Steal
The world is full of cohesive palettes already. Be it an amazing landscape photo, title sequences to a TV show (I used the colors from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a keto-Chinese restaurant once), anything really. If you see something that points you toward the feelings you are trying to evoke, steal it and modify it accordingly. Adobe Color makes this process simple. Plus, it beats the hell out of meandering through a Pantone book.
Compare with Alternatives
Color is a fast track to differentiation. If 80% of the alternative choices to your company use corporate blue as their primary color, don't do it. Be rebellious. Try and be something different. The only way to find out is by researching what is out there. 10 minutes of scouting gives more insight than you'd think.
The color palette for your brand is out there. With a little bit of direction from understanding your brand and guardrails established from what's already in your marketplace, you can make color a strategic advantage is differentiating your brand.
Typography is the use of letterforms in design. It's everywhere. In logos, in signage, in websites, everything. Figures that when designing a brand identity this is given a lot of attention. Truthfully, I think people underestimate the power of well selected typefaces. They are certainly just as important as crafting a memorable logo and can make or break a brand identity. So how do you figure out which one(s) to choose? There are three things to consider:
Simplicity, distinction, and appropriateness.
Typefaces selected for your brand need to be easily seen and legible. This means no comic sans, no papyrus, no curly q's. You can't write a paragraph in those typefaces without straining a reader's eyes. When selecting a typeface, consider asking yourself this question: can I read a blog in this typeface and not be annoyed by all of the characters I see before me? If you are, time to change.
There is a fine line between choosing typefaces that are plain and overtly stylized. The key is to understand that a typeface does not need a lot of swirls and flourishes to make it beautifully individual. It could be the way the O's are crafted, the subtle rounding of corners, or sharp, stylized serifs. Whatever it is, I guarantee it doesn't have to be much. A little spice goes a long way with typefaces.
In all things brand identity, you cannot deviate from the core emotional values of the brand. Meaning, if you call people to be gritty and tough don't use a typeface fit for a wedding invitation (and vice versa). Typefaces have an emotional quality to them. Take time to think about what it makes you feel. Do you feel nostalgic or futuristic? Where have you seen this typeface before and what does that make you feel? Whatever you do, make sure the typeface is aligned to the gut-feeling you want your brand to connote.
It's just three things, but they can carry your brand identity a long way. Go snag some typefaces!
There is one constant in business: change, Changes in economic models, changes in market needs, changes in internal structure, changes in the medium, all of it shifts. With this in mind, how do you prepare your brand identity to deal with the changes to come?
Marty Neumeier described branding as changing shirts to suit the mood. For example, my go-to uniform is a black t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. But, I wouldn't wear that to workout or to a wedding. While working out, I'll wear black and grey athletic shorts and a black dri-fit. Wedding? Black blazer, white shirt, black slacks. Swimming? Birdwell trunks with a California Flag patch.
Here's the thing, while the actual elements vary, they appear uniform. The same feeling of simplicity and timelessness is what I am going for and it seeps into each circumstance.
So long as the brand is defined and your personality is detailed, you can adapt the physical appearance of your brand to suit the medium. Will it be different per circumstance? Yes. A video campaign is gonna be handled differently than a poster. Same thing with a website compared to business cards. But as long as they are aligned toward your brand, you are doing things right.
Remember, the brand is a gut-feeling. As long as you use your brand identity to reinforce that feeling, you are on the right track. It's like using multiple modes of transportation to get somewhere. So long as the experience feels the same and they are headed for the same destination, you are winning.
You found an identity to steal. A theme that you can dive deep into and extract a visual story from. Now, your goal is to use these elements coherently. So much so, that even if your company's logo is absent from a piece of collateral, an ad, or website, it should still be recognized as something from you. Note, every design deliverable is different and the medium you are building within can have a major impact on how you will apply the visual identity. That being said, these are the top things to be aware of for cohesion:
I cannot overstate the value of a unified color palette, especially if you've selected on unique to your market. Keeping your colors intact and uniform makes your company appear more organized and it helps establish a subconscious connection between you and the selected color. When cigarette advertising became prohibited, Marlboro paid bars to paint entire walls of their spaces Marlboro red. Their sales increased as a result. That's just from establishing a brand color. Or think about Tiffany Blue and the associations of prestige that come along with it. Color has major impact.
Of all the visual elements startups get wrong, this is most common. Type is both science and art, hell, some people dedicate their entire lives to the study and creation of beautiful letterforms. Point being, it ain't easy. But there are some overarching principles one should consider. Firstly, limit yourself. Pick two typefaces max and stick to them. Secondly, choose typefaces that are legible and timeless. No curly q's or any of that Microsoft WordArt shit that sends you back to 2nd grade. If you follow those two steps, your visual prowess will be 50% ahead of anyone not doing so.
Layout is the arrangement of elements on a design deliverable. Here is what you need to decide: does your brand reflect order and cleanliness or chaos and creativity? Both are good, but you need to pick one side. By establishing a game plan for how you will layout design elements, you can create templates for websites, presentations, ads, etc and they will all bear the same amount of order. If you bounce back and forth between hyper-create and hyper-structured you lose cohesion.
Subsequent Design Elements
This is where your stolen identity comes into play the most. Brand identities need spice, transcendent elements that make them unique. Let's say you decided to steal your visual identity from a Brooklyn pizza parlor. You know, a real-deal shop with red and white table cloths, twine-wrapped wine bottles, boisterous families talking across the table, Italian flags everywhere, and old-time, sepia-toned photos of the city. That is a treasure trove. You've got patterns (tablecloth), illustrations (of cool stuff like twine-wrapped wine bottles), voice and tone (boisterous families), photo styling (sepia-tone photos) all from one unified source. The same would apply to motion graphics (maybe a pizza being tossed in the air), icons, or any other element.
If you refuse to use the clichè icons, illustrations, and photos present within your industry and replace them with something out of context, you can make something impactful. You can tell a better story. It's all in your stolen identity. Unlock that treasure trove and create something awesome!
One of my favorite stories about Apple (one that is actually applicable to building out a brand) is how Steve Jobs came up with the idea for Apple store layouts.
Think about a traditional computer store, or any store for that matter, what do you see? Boxes, boxes, and boxes. Boxes on shelves, boxes on the floor, boxes everywhere. In short, the place is packed with product and no matter how neatly arranged and organized, it treats products like cattle for slaughter.
True to his rebellious nature, this concept didn't sit well with Jobs so he sought out inspiration. But he didn't look at other stores, he looked at museums. Museums that house priceless works of art and marvels of nature like dinosaur fossils. These items are treated with so much respect and given ample space to let viewers bask in their presence. You feel awestruck staring at them.
Now think about an Apple store. There is one variant of every product they have placed on single metal stand for a shopper to interact with. There is minimal product storage happening in the consumer facing end of the store. Apple treats their products like the works of art seen in museums and it makes them special.
When applying this to brand identity, it opens up the door for magic. Where can you find a name that starts a story? Where can you find a symbol to represent your company? In whom can you find a personality to best characterize your brand? Where can you find patterns and imagery to reflect who you are? Lastly, how can you mix it all together to become something novel?
This applies to everything. From experience design, brand naming, visual identity, collateral, packaging, whatever. Seeking and stealing creates magic.
Let's set the record straight: brand = gut-feeling. Done. No if's, and's, or but's. The brand is the emotional resonance someone has with an entity. More importantly, the brand manifests itself differently in each person who forms an emotional connection. Your job as the founder of a company or the person responsible for brand management is to ensure that the feelings are not disparate.
Why? Because if an emotional connection is established, a business will recoup more customers, at a greater value, for a longer amount of time. Cult-like brand followers are hard-pressed to leave their brand of choice. Where this becomes an issue is when the mood shifts frequently (i.e. voice and tone misalignment, a rash, "salesy" email, negative customer experiences).
So how do you know if something is off-base for the brand? You define it. Usually in the form of a purpose and brand personality. You see this all the time. McDonald's focuses on happiness, while Jack in the Box focuses on comedy and poking fun at the establishment. It's why McDonald's creates Happy Meals for smiling children while Jack in the Box creates Munchie Meals for stoned college students.
Point is, both of these brands are defined and manifest in visual identity and even in the marketing initiatives they take.
Here are the questions I ask founders to extract a brand:
1. Your company dies twenty years from now, what is on the tombstone?
This practice sets your gaze on the future and how people will remember you and your impact. Pretend you are giving a eulogy for your beloved company.
2. KYC. Know your customer intimately.
Beyond demographics. Walk a day in their shoes. What goals do they have? What keeps them up at night? What is making them seek your help? What's at stake? What do they love? What patterns can you derive from their lifestyle?
What macro movements are having an impact on your industry? Is there one that you can use to propel your positioning?
4. What is missing in your industry?
Take a look at the alternatives your customer has to your company, what is missing? What irritates your customer with these alternatives? How can you be different emotionally? How can you be different tactically and in your offerings?
5. Who are you?
Yes, you, the founder with an amazing story. Whether you believe it or not, your story has an impact on your brand and you need to put it on paper. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you?
6. What qualifies you?
What puts your company in a position of authority to lead your customer to their goals? What helps you empathize with their current predicament?
7. Brand Attributes
Describe the culture, customers, voice and tone, feeling (post-interaction), and impact of the brand. Simple, one-word answers work best.
8. Establish a brand archetype
I like to use this cheat sheet.
What do you offer?
How has your customer changed after working with you?
Why you do what you do.
These questions go deep. Don't be satisfied with surface-level answers. Dive into them. Think them over. It's ok to take time. Most importantly, be honest and don't be afraid to tell your story, it has more impact than you know. Remember, if you do not establish this foundation, no messaging or visuals will ever feel right.
Crafting a brand identity is fun and it can skyrocket a startup's legitimacy. But it's hard. Especially if you're jumping into it for the first time without a whole lot of experience or direction. So here are some steps that I'll be expanding on later this week. This initial run is an effort to get these thoughts out of my head and on to something tangible.
1. Establish and define the brand
The brand is the gut feeling someone has about an entity. Without defining what this feeling is, it's impossible to craft visuals that are aligned with it. The route to this definition comes from asking a lot of questions, empathizing with who would love this company the most, and precisely detailing the personality of the company. Think of it as creating a movie character. You want to know them intimately.
2. Seek, steal, and repurpose
Visual identities are often relegated to what I call the "design aesthetic." The design aesthetic doesn't have a unique personality to it but has good command over whitespace and simple layouts. While there isn't anything wrong with utilizing those design principles, establishing an emotional connection is contingent upon a humanistic element. Something unique, tasteful, and appropriate. The design aesthetic is a fail-safe for those who do not have a deeper story or who are afraid to be something different. As such, they try to create something on their own and fall into the design aesthetic trap.
What's the antidote? Find inspiration (from a book, a movie, a place, another brand), steal as much as you can, and repurpose the elements for your brand. Something inspiring and impactful already out there, magic happens when you place it in a new context.
3. Establish visual elements
There are foundational elements in every identity build. Namely, color, typography, layout, logo, and subsequent elements like illustration, pattern, photography, iconography, and motion. Once a visual theme has been set, the task is now to apply that theme to these elements so there is a cohesive look to everything. It's been phrased before that any piece of collateral should be recognizable without the brand's logo on it. This is done by aligning and consistently using branded visuals.
4. Flex and be ready to adapt
Change is inevitable. Prepare yourself to move and adapt your visual identity as time progresses. New mediums will arise, styles will change, your company will change, and eventually, your visuals will need to as well. Be prepared to flex, experiment, and change.
I'm a huge fan of Buck Mason shirts. Pima cotton, well-cut, breathable, and classic. Que bella.
Something that dawned on me though was this question: why do I admire this brand so much and why do I go out of my way to buy almost exclusively from them.
Back up to my college years. The hipster movement of adorning button-up shirts, chukka boots, and thrifting your way to style was in full swing. I recall spending hours searching through thrift stores to find trendy looking shirts that would match my barrage of beaded bracelets and my patina ring made out of a quarter. But, I didn't believe all that stuff was really cool. In truth, I found myself hating how much time I spent shopping for all that trendy shit and how complicated the process was. Turns out, I believed more in simplicity.
Flash forward to today. I keep a Buck Mason tag in my bible as a bookmark. What's the first line on it? "We make fashion less complicated."
Boom. Instant brand alignment.
Here's the thing: the reason I buy exclusively from Buck Mason is because of this shared value. If you want to build a rebellious brand, you must find that overlapping belief residing within both of you.
Without a genuine and honest view of ourselves and our visions, we cannot expect to move forward.
Our culture abhors imperfection. We alter beautiful people in photoshop to achieve god-like standards. We post pictures of our significant other during our vacation to Fiji on Instagram, but neglect the brokenness of the relationship. We lie to preserve a false sense of perfection.
Fuck that and damn it to hell.
That is not the path of rebellion. That is conformity. That is a fearful shell of what could be and shifts one's focus to what others might think instead of what one can do.
/ˈfôrTHˌrīt/ direct and outspoken; straightforward and honest.
Being forthright doesn't beat around the bush. It means stating simply whether something is good or bad. Yes and no, not maybe. Being forthright demands that you speak up and stake a claim.
This is most important when looking inward. A rebel must be honest with herself if any improvement is to be made. It is honesty that allows her to notice what could be better and act upon it earnestly. Even on a grander scale, it allows her to examine the impact of her vision and whether or not it is truly valuable to the world.
A rebel must be forthright.
Creative, entrepreneurial people have an innate desire to explore. After adopting a fearless attitude, it becomes easy for them to seek out newness and experiment with confidence. But, there is a shadow side to these seemingly harmless cravings of novelty: absent-minded innovation.
In part, it seems like this need to find something new or start several projects without finishing them stems from a need to grow. Be it more market share, more customers, more offerings, whatever. The point is that rebellious brands cannot afford to be all things to all people. Instead, they seek to focus.
I want you to think about taking a picture of somebody. You point your camera at them and they are blurry. The image sucks and your intention of capturing the moment is lost. Now focus on the subject. Clarity, definition, context, all of these things become evident in light of focus. You get the full picture.
Now try focusing on two people at different depths and distances. It gets much harder.
What's the point? In a world that cannot seem to satisfy its desire to be all things to all people, rebellious brands fearlessly focus. They are ok with gaining the full picture of one subject instead of trying to capture many.
During my month off from writing, I wrestled with the concept of rebellion. There is a vision in my head of what a rebellious brand looks like, but it's hard to detail. Naturally, it seemed smart to try and breakdown the term into sizable chunks that could be combined into something more concrete. I landed on three "F-Words," starting with Fearless.
Understanding what it means to be fearless starts with defining fear. Cue Webster:
/ˈfir/ an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
In other words, fear is the looming awareness that things could go wrong. Unfortunately, our bodies can't help but be on the lookout for such threats because it is in our best interest to avoid pain. It's a primal function that enabled us to avoid meeting our doom at the jaws of sabretooth tigers and other adversaries hellbent on ending our existence. If that's the case, why is it so important for a rebellious brand to be fearless?
Cue Webster (again):
\ˈfir-ləs\ free from fear
In this instance, fear becomes a captor. A crushing slave merchant. Fear puts one in a cage and limits their potential.
Rebellion is anything but conventional or expected. It is a venture into the unknown and experimenting with what could be. A trip into chaos. To be fearless is to break free from the part of your lizard brain that tells you "this may be a bad idea, you might fail, you might get made fun of, people might reject you."
It is to liberate oneself from the chains of uncertainty. To understand that novelty, creativity, and change are found through a trial in the unknown. Most importantly, it is accepting that failure is necessary and to be expected in the search for greatness.
Rebels are not slaves to fear, they are free.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” — Anne Lamott
I'm taking August to pull back from my newsletters, MF Punches, and take some time to recharge.
But don't you worry, I'll be back 😎
If you're having rouble figuring out what your brand means to someone, try answering this question from a customers perspective:
"Three years from now, they are sitting down enjoying coffee, really happy with the progress they've got from doing business with you. What has made them so happy?"
If you can answer this, or get answers to this question, you will have a leg up on any alternative in your path.
It's easy to notice when you've cut yourself in the kitchen or by scratching against something you didn't intend to. You know it happened because blood starting to pour out from the place of the interaction. It's easy.
What happens when you start bleeding and you don't know why? Or when there is another form of pain in your body that isn't normal and unprecedented? You have a couple options: you could self-diagnose and hope your assumptions turn out ok, or you could go to the doctor and get a professional consultation. Surface-level problems are easy, deep problems are harder to spot and infinitely more costly.
Branding problems are rarely surface level, like a scratch or cut from a chef's knife. Branding problems are ethereal and hard to decipher, even harder to connect to the surface-level symptoms they produce. In the same way a doctor, who has run into medical problems for years and is trained to ask targeted questions, branding experts use experience and training to unearth the real problem.
Now I can hear you saying, "I know a good logo when I see one," congratulations. You still aren't sure why yours sucks and how to fix it. Shit, if asked, it's unlikely that you can even define branding in a succinct, easy-to-understand way. It takes courage to admit that. The same courage that admits you aren't a sushi chef, auto mechanic, or plumber, it's just not something you've taken the time to gain expertise in.
Back to our initial analogy, "I'm bleeding." Don't be surprised if the branding issue is deeper than what's on the surface. Cuts go deep, sometimes you can't even see them, thoughnthey are tearing your insides apart. Be it in the form of harsh rejections from investors, feeling like your company is without purpose, or doubting the integrity of this company that you have spent days, even years trying to grow. Bravely look inward and tend to your wounds, and if you're having trouble finding the cause, ask for help.
You stare at a wrinkly grey wall from one inch away. You can see every porous cavity, every abrasion, every molecule, but you cannot see the whole thing.
Is it cement? Is it brick? You don't know. Why? Because you cannot see the whole thing in context, you can only see tiny details.
You move back five feet and realize you were staring at an elephant. What's the point?
Details are important in branding, but failing to provide context is a recipe for confusing customers. You need to give them a bigger picture first instead of bombarding them with details like price, features, etc.
People buy from brands that will help them transform. Be it getting more fit, healthier, smarter, courageous, you name it. In some way shape or form, they are looking to become a better version of themselves.
While features and improvements to your products/services are needed for validation, they pale in comparison to the adventure set before your customers.
Focus on the adventure and be a brand that can take customers to new heights.
Be seen as a replaceable commodity.
Look and feel incoherent and unworthy of success.
Aimlessness. Without defining your purpose, vision, and mission, your actions will fall by the wayside.
Can you afford to be brandless?
Creating brand personalities is hard. In fact, I rarely create one from scratch because of it.
Why? Because it's easier and more effective to look at authentic personalities that already exist, win people over, and copy them.
You can do this by thinking of movie characters, authors, influential thinkers, musicians, etc. Point is, your brand's soul is out there, you just have to find it and steal it.
I was shopping at Smart and Final yesterday. While standing in line, I looked down at the placements stickers for social distancing. They said two things: "please stay six feet apart," and "we know you have many options, thank you for choosing us."
Next, when I was in line, the cashiers had done their job so well that they had eliminated a lengthy line entirely. Their manager came out and congratulated his team.
What's the big deal?
For one, this store took things that seem small and superfluous and made them something special. This could also be done with the welcome letter for a newsletter subscription, or cards sent to say thank you to clients, or phraseology around being open or closed. The point is that they put an authentic spin on it to make it memorable and relevant to this brand, when they could have just passed over it without much care.
The devil and the angels are in the details.
You choose who it is.
If you plan on having an element of your brand identity for a long time, say your name or your logo, it's imperative to research and make sure it will stand the test of time. Reason being that you want names and logos to be around for a while. You shouldn't push out these elements unless you're prepared to have them stick around for years.
However, when it comes to items that can (and should) adapt, your goal is to move fast, do good work, and change as needed. Pretty much everything your customer comes into contact with like your website, collateral, software, etc is going to adapt with technology and alongside user testing. In this case, make good stuff, test, and iterate.
Your customers are the hero and they aren't looking for you to join them in the winner's circle, they are looking for someone to help them find the path there. Someone who has been in the winner's circle before, but is not seeking to stand within it this time around. A guide who can confidently help them get on track and succeed.
What qualities would make for someone to fit this role?
Two things: competence and empathy.
Competence, meaning the ability to go forth and complete a goal thoroughly, honestly, and ethically. Why? Because no one is going to want a guide with zero experience or one who cheats. They want someone who has been there already and succeeded honorably.
Empathy, because having been there already, the guide will know how difficult the challenges ahead are and knows what it feels like to be in their shoes.
Want to build an irreplaceable brand? Become a guide for your hero – err customer.
What makes for a good superhero movie? A dastardly villain, yes, but there's something more there.
The most impactful villains are those who break the foundation of what we deem to be right in the world. Those who go beyond annoyances and challenge the makeup of our existence. Thanos, the villain in Marvel's Avengers, is a ferocious opponent and he can dish out a punch, but he becomes menacing only when he says that life is not valuable and that it doesn't deserve a chance.
By attaching the villain to a bigger, philosophical problem, he becomes someone we as viewers are invested in defeating.
If you want to rally people around your brand, find a common enemy. Not just the schoolyard bully either, find a big one and go after them.
When venture capitalists search for companies to invest in, they are counting on the competence of the founders and the entire team to win. Meaning, if there are more hints that this company will result in failure than it will success, it's unlikely they will invest in it. They look for indicators to assess worthy startups.
A similar and time-tested method is seen in the duck test coined by James Whitcomb Riley. You've heard it before, "when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck."
Now let's apply this to a startup, specifically two kinds of startups. One that is a good investment and one that is a risky investment.
A startup that walks like a good investment
The manner by which a startup carries itself says a lot. This includes outward appearance and poise. If you look like trash or are missing key pieces of attire, expect the reception of your appearance to follow suit. For example, not having a website in the 21st century is the equivalent of showing up to a party without pants. You're missing something and it reveals a hole in your competence. Same could be said of the design of your product or your branding. Negligence of these is reason to believe that you are not a worthwhile investment.
A startup that swims like a good investment
A duck's primary function is to swim. They are very good at it. Similarly, a startup's job is to make money through having a worthy offering. There needs to be proof of this. If you don't have a solution to a prevalent problem that will make a difference, customers will not use you. If customers don't use you then investors can't either. If you want revenue, of any kind, you need something worth giving up money to have.
A startup that quacks like a good investment
Trickier than the last two, but important nonetheless. A duck's quack is the outward expression to signify "I AM A DUCK." What's a startups outward expression? "I am valuable to others." Meaning, people will pay for what I have to offer because it is more valuable than their money. The brevity of a quack is just as important. The more succinct, the easier it is to identify. This comes in the form of positioning and high-level brand messaging. Failure to define your quack will make it difficult for investors to identify you as a good investment.
If it walks like a worthy startup, swims like a worthy startup, and quacks like a worthy startup... it must be a worthy startup. Worthy of customer buy-in and investor money.
Can you pass the duck test?
A common worry of most startups is that they've let too much time go without focusing on their brand that it would be too late to make positive change.
This is the same feeling I had this morning. My back was super stiff so I slept in. Waking up to think, "damn, my daily routine might as well be ruined. I shouldn't exercise, I shouldn't write the MF Punch, I shouldn't pray, I shouldn't journal."
And then I thought, "so because I didn't get to these important habits of mine at the start of my day, that means they shouldn't manifest at all?"
What's the point?
Don't let your brand be clock blocked. If you expect your startup to be around at the end of the day, end of the week, end of year, whatever, you can make a change for the better right now.
The brand is not what you say it is, it's what they say it is. Thank you Marty Neumeier.
Brands exists in the hearts and minds of customers. If you want your startup to be impactful and leave a legacy, you must accept the fact that you are not the focus.
Can you imagine in Star Wars was all about Yoda? We'd be bored stiff. Yoda already has the answers, there's no story there. No change to watch unfold. Luke Skywalker? That guy has a lot of stuff to work out. That's your customer. Focus on them.
The human brain has one core function: keeping us alive and thriving. At its core, this comes down to distributing our energy in the form of calories to things that will help us stay alive.
Naturally, there's a lot of things vying for our attention and subsequently our energy. So when we don't see something that clearly outlines how it can help us find food, shelter, enhance our relationships, or help us become a better version of ourselves, we tune it out. Why? Because our brain is protecting us from giving away energy to unworthy recipients.
Without clearly defining your message and how you emotionally impact a customer, you become a calorie thief.
Short term strategies: undercut competitors, have fire sales, adopt fads.
Long term strategy: build things that are useful and meaningful.
In branding, in sales, in everything planning for the long game ensures that you're given more time to play at all.
In Marvel's Captain America: the First Avenger, Steve Rogers is transformed from a scrawny pipsqueak into the formidable super-soldier, Captain America.
After completing a successful rescue mission using nothing but a stage-prop shield, famous inventor and colleague, Howard Stark offers to improve upon the shield design.
He presents Rogers with a dozen different designs, some outfitted with electronics to zap his adversaries, some with spikes and other baggage. He glances on the ground and picks up a round disc.
"What's it made of?" he asks.
"That's vibranium, it's completely vibration absorbent." say's Stark.
After being put through a spur of the moment bullet deflection test, courtesy of an angry love-interest, Rogers chooses the shield and gives it a fresh paint job to match his uniform.
That was in 1944.
Fast forward into 2020 and the same shield is used in later battles without losing its gusto or its alignment with Cap's identity.
Why? Because it was a simple, elegant, and timeless choice. Unhindered by fads, excess, or things that would weigh it down.
The point? treat branding design the same way. Don't be bogged down by choices simply because they are popular today, aim for something genuinely useful and timeless.
The clip from the movie, for you poor souls who haven't seen it.
If you don't know where you want to go, then any map, trail, tactic, or maneuver is useless.
The same holds true in design and branding. If you don't know what emotions/values you want your logo, colors, language, website, or collateral to align with, it's unlikely you'll be satisfied. At the very least, you'll have no objective way of dictating right decisions from wrong decisions.
That's the point of strategy. Strategy gets you aligned. It points you in a direction. How you get there can take many forms, so long as it gets you to the destination.
Where do you want your brand to go?
I hate social media. Specifically, I hate Instagram and Facebook. Granted, they are well-designed apps and I steal from their UX principles all the time, but the impact they've had as far as startups are concerned is mind boggling. Why? Because the metrics they provide for most are rooted in vanity and nothing else.
For example, I know plenty of people with over 30k followers, yet none of them make a good amount of money from those numbers.
On the other hand, I know several people who aren't on social media that are millionaires.
The point? Unless there is a clear, actionable metric that you can use to influence business results, don't focus on it. Otherwise it is vanity by numbers, nothing more.
Giving startups confidence is my mission. While this is related to design because that's the medium I've experienced these phrases through, it's applicable in other areas like pitching and sales.With that in mind, here are two phrases that make your startup sound desperate.
I just need...
This is a red flag as it implies that you are unaware of the gravitas needed for whatever you're asking for, or that you are aware and are trying to belittle the investment needed from whoever you're asking.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can make it happen?
Damn, look at you and your confidence. This phrase is what would come from someone who is ready to partner up. They know what their goal is and they aren't trying to make it seem insignificant. Because if it was insignificant, they wouldn't care.
It's a simple site/logo/brochure/investment/whatever...
If it was simple you'd do it yourself. Don't bullshit. The truth is that simplicity is the greatest form of sophistication. Making something simple is hard and the fact that you're asking for help shows it.
What to say instead:
I need to (task goes here), how can we make it happen?
Notice a pattern forming here?
Look, the point is that asking for stuff is hard and it takes courage. But trying to belittle what you're asking for makes the results you want to achieve seem far fetched and not worth the effort.
Ask for things with confidence and be ready to accept answers you don't like. It will get you to the good ones.
When you are first starting a new habit, the key is to first get the motions right. For example, when I started writing these posts Monday-Friday, the goal wasn't to write perfectly, it was just to write every Monday-Friday.
Similarly, when you first get a new brand identity, you should follow your style guide to a "T." Why? Because you are learning to walk within your brand and if you start running you will fall, chip your teeth and look stupid.
Think about it, the kid who can consistently walk at a steady pace will get further than the one who pushes himself too far.
What's more? The kid who walks will get faster with time and practice, naturally.
Treat the design of your brand the same way, walk before you run.
Imagine an apartment. You see a living room with white walls, a tan couch, matching coffee table, and coherent artwork on the wall.
Now imagine another apartment. You see blue walls, a dark green couch, white coffee table, a poster of Sammy Davis, Jr. in black and white as well as a printed canvas of a beach scene.
Which of those mental pictures feels the most mature? How about most competent? Trustworthy?
Why? Because one of them looks intentional and provides a consistent feeling while the other is haphazard and mixed.
Treat your brand like the former.
In 1999, Kellogg's was seeing a shift toward healthy breakfast options. This meant that their top sellers like Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pops, and Froot Loops (all of which are loaded with mass amounts of sugar) were becoming less and less desirable from consumers.
Now, Kellogg's could try and reposition their brand, which is known for these fun cereals. But it would take a long time, a lot of change, and hope that their fan base would still appreciate them. Or they could go a different route... like acquiring a La Jolla based company called Kashi that is already known for healthy breakfast cereals. They maintain their position and get to pump Kashi full of Kellogg's resources to gain more market share.
The point? Customers might need it, but you have to wonder whether or not they will buy it from you. Are you in a position to offer them a new solution? Will this new offering dilute your brand?
If you can't do it effectively, make a new brand.
Brands are best served when made for specific people. For years, I've been encouraging founders to focus on building a brand for one person.
In reading the Lean Startup, there was a moment of clarity: the person you build a brand for is the early adopter. Prior to reading this, I'd be referring to this persona as the ideal customer, but that isn't as objective as early adopter. Here's why:
Early adopters seek out uniqueness and difference, they are very particular with good taste, they have strong tribal associations, and they are willing to go out on a limb to try something new. Furthermore, they are the first dominoes to buy into a product that will eventually spill over into the early majority and late majority. You cannot impress the majorities if you have not impressed early adopters.
Build a product for your ideal early adopter. Not the average or ideal customer.
You would not prescribe a cancer patient to use a band-aid as appropriate treatment.
Likewise, it'd be stupid to prescribe a logo to fix a broken brand.
You have to be willing to undergo massive overhaul to make massive change. Dive deep into the fundamental flaws of your startup. Things like being aimless, having no defined culture, no spirit, a lack of confidence or purpose. Once those are fixed, everything else becomes easier.
Don't think a band-aid will cure cancer.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” -Einstein
What does this mean?
It means that to create an effective solution, you have to have a deep understanding of the problem. Otherwise you fall back on to predictable solutions that don't always work. It's similar to the hammer and nail concept. If you're a hammer, you look around for nails. But if there are no nails in sight, you're SOL.
In design and branding, an hour of solid planning saves countless hours of revision and allows for projects to run smooth.
Point being, take the time to think. Plan. Be strategic. Good solutions come easy to those with skill, but if the wrong skill is put into play then you're in trouble.
After 23 trials and test results, the Sloth Sanctuary concluded that sloths take an average of 16 days to fully digest food and rid itself of food waste. 16 full days is the same as 384 hours, 9.6 work weeks, or two working months to produce shit.
I'm currently reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. He talks about one of his first ventures and that they had spent six months working on a product that no one liked. No one knew how to use it, what good it did, or why they should buy it. Without mincing words: it was shit. It earned no money and it didn't help anyone.
What's the point?
It doesn't matter how long something took to make and how much effort you've put into it, if it's not useful to anyone, it's shit.
The remedy? Make something useful for someone and find out early whether or not it has value.
I had a call with a prospective client yesterday looking to get some collateral made for their company. During our call it became clear that there were going to be multiple people making the decisions and signing off on creative.
It's not like it was just two people either, hell it wasn't even four. On this project, there would be eight people that would have to look at this an approve it. Eight!
That's a lot of cooks. Respectfully, I said that it doesn't work out well to design by committee and that it didn't sound like it would be a good fit. They agreed and we got off the call.
Here is why design by committee is a bad idea: vanilla ice cream.
Allow me to explain, there are hundreds of unique ice cream flavors. From cookies and cream, mint and chip, rainbow sherbet, Ben and Jerry's Dairy-Free Peanut Butter Cookie Dough (my personal favorite), or even ice cream with candied grasshoppers. These flavors are memorable, whether you like them or not, because they have elements of distinction.
Now imagine you have eight different people in a room and you try and get them to agree on one flavor. Fat chance.
You will end up with choosing vanilla because it's good enough to do the job and it won't upset anyone. But it's not going to turn heads like the others. What's more is that if one person decided on getting a unique ice cream flavor, like cookies and cream, I doubt anyone would be morbidly detested by the choice. It's ice cream for Pete's sake.
Same thing with design. As long as you follow the basic principles, it's difficult to arrive at a detestable solution. It's well designed, that's what matters.
The alternative is this: understand that you aren't building something for yourself, you are building something for someone else. Be it investors, customers, whomever it is, build for them.
Next, establish one decision maker. Someone who can be trusted to make a good decision and let them do their job.
Do not design by committee.
It's been a couple days since the riots in Minnesota erupted over the wrongful death of George Floyd at the hands of police. It's all that's been talked about on the one social platform I use, LinkedIn.
Something that has been said repeatedly is this: if you don't say anything, you're siding with the racist status quo. But it seems to mean "if you don't say anything on social media then you are siding with the racist status quo."
I have said things. I have spoken to people. I do have strong feelings about the wrongful death of George Floyd. I do have strong feelings about protesting. I do have strong feelings about seeing other people get hurt from rioting/looting. I do have ideas on how to move forward.
But sharing them on social media is not going to help me make a change. Limiting the extent of my involvement to posting a picture of a black square, sharing a hashtag, or espousing my non-expert opinions about sociology, law enforcement, and politics as an irrefutable truth would be haphazard, noisy, and unhelpful. In fact, I can't think of a more blatant abuse of privilege.
What am I going to do? Be someone who listens. Have meaningful, real discussions with real people. And, of course, do my job educating people, ALL PEOPLE, on how to better brand their business. That's what I'm good at. That's the truth I can tell.
If you want to join me in having a real discussion use this link. It'd be great to talk with you.
This is the sixth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, third article, fourth article, and fifth article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that make your startup unique, you've established what makes that valuable, you know who finds it the most valuable, and you can frame your impact in a market that makes it easy for users to understand your company. This next step is only optional, it isn't crucial to positioning, but it can help if implemented well.
Step six is riding a trend to give your positioning an extra boost. Trends are macro movements that continually grow and shift culture. For example, plant based foods, sustainability, data privacy etc. It's like adding a rocket to your positioning, propelling you along with the strength of the trend.
Now, the reason this is optional is because it's tricky and can easily fall by the wayside.
Imagine you were selling drinking water during the start of the gluten free trend. You could slap a sticker on your bottles that says "gluten-free" to hopefully ride the trend. But you'd be stupid. Why? Because anyone who is truly gluten-free knows that water doesn't have gluten... at all.
On the other hand, if you were a health-conscious brewery and could come up with a gluten-free formula, it'd be smart to jump on the gluten-free wave. Why? Because it's relative to the product, since almost all beer is made with gluten, and aligned with the mission of the company.
Which brings up the last point on this: trends say a lot about your brand. They are often political and carry strong emotional qualities. Before you jump onto a trend, you better know yourself and the beliefs shared between you and your audience. If you betray either of those, every step in positioning your company is forfeited.
This is the fifth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, third article, and fourth article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that make your startup unique, you've established what makes that valuable, and you know who finds it the most valuable. Now, what frame of reference can you give to customers that will help them understand who you are?
This is accomplished through establishing a market category. For example, an automobile is a specific market, motorcycles are another. If you say your startup is going to be an automobile, it is assumed that it will be some kind of four-wheeled transportation. If a motorcycle, it is assumed it will be two-wheeled.
Same thing applies to software. If you are building out a creative software, it's assumed it will be capable of creating artwork digitally. Or if you were creating a video conferencing platform, it'd be assumed you could do something like connect with others via teleconference.
Why does this matter? Because it's important to make sure you don't allow for false assumptions. A famous mash of market category explanation is "it's like Uber, but for (blank)." What does that mean? It means that whatever you're building is going to have something to do with transportation, the shared economic model, and probably be app based, right?
When you repeat those assumptions to startup founders, you frequently get a response similar to, "well, kinda."
Ouch. Bad move. Now you've got a bigger problem. Now you have to combat assumptions and pay close attention to fix them.
At its core, market categories and choosing to associate your company with one is done to make your marketing easier. This happens because, when done right, those assumptions allow you to cut straight to the differentiating pieces of your startup rather than trying to explain what it is.
What does this have to do with branding?
I'd guess the biggest impact this has on branding is the ability to see what assumptions are already in place about the emotional value of the category. The companies in each market category have stigmas, jargon, and they tend to adopt similar brand personalities. You have the opportunity to break those assumptions and create a unique personality.
One company that comes to mind is Liquid Death, who blew past expectation when they took a death-metal inspired, brewery-like approach to selling water. They entered a crowded market with few companies straying from a fresh, clean, and renewing vibe. We know what it is, water, and because of the market category we are able to ascertain what separates it from the rest of the herd.
This is the fourth article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article, second article, and third article, before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that your startup unique, and you've established what makes that valuable. All of these are great, but fall to pieces if no one buys.
The first approach most startups will take in finding customers is shotgunning any and every kind of market. Decent plan of action if you have time to experiment. Truth is, hardly anyone is capable of making this happen effectively, especially when concerned with time. It makes sense to be hyper-focused and test with less variables that you can either pursue further or pivot away from.
Because you need to communicate and trigger a response from someone who cares. Someone who feels that the solution you bring to the table is worth more than the dollars they will pay for it.
How do you do that? You think about them and craft messages around them that fit within their lifestyle.
What kind of person are they? Where do they work? What do they do for fun? What about their life sucks that they want to fix? Your goal is to get to know someone and find out if the solution you provide is of use to them. If not, it might be time to switch.
Tactically, you can do this with interviews within a particular segment or you can think of aspirational personas. The point is to have someone to make stuff for and be targeted. You're chances of hitting something become a lot higher if you know what you're aiming for.
This is the third article in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article and second article before jumping into this one.
You know what the alternatives are, you know the special things that your startup unique, now you need to establish what makes that valuable.
It's tricky to get lost in the weeds here and even harder to stay objective.Typically, startups say things like "great user experience," or "great customer service," but that's trite and, quite frankly, to be expected. If you don't have those components, your business is gonna fail anyway.
Value goes deeper and it's objective. For example, building a repository of customer feedback and concrete examples of your secret sauce in action. Personally, this is seen in my business through my reviews and the consistent compliments I get on organization. Organization is the secret sauce (or one of them, I hope) and the value is that it saves time and keeps projects moving smoothly.
As this pertains to branding, it's a difficult to see what the emotional component is to quantitative value. However, it is clear that in gathering the quantitive data on your startup, you will see how you make people feel. If you're doing your job right, what you want people to feel and what they actually feel is aligned. That's a mark of good branding.
This is the second in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Please read the first article before jumping into this one.
Having gone through the process of seeking out the alternatives to your product, you should have a robust understanding of what is already out there within your market category. This is like being at a poker table and seeing each players' cards. You know what you're up against, now it's time to find a way to play.
The second piece in positioning a company is understanding what makes you special. From a product standpoint, this comes in the form of technical features, but it could expand into areas like delivery method (think Dollar Shave Club vs. Gillette), the business model (subscription vs. single purchase), or unique expertise (a developer with marketing skills or focus within a particular vertical).
After choosing the attributes and unique elements about your business, you could also examine the emotional qualities unique to your company. For example, Duluth Trading Co. and Patagonia make almost identical winter gear, but they are completely different emotionally. Duluth downplays any kind of sophistication despite the fact they charge $25 for a pair of Buck Naked Underwear. While Patagonia shifts its emotional value to serving the planet and altruism. Same products, different stories.
What do you care about? What story do you have? What personality can you bring to the table? It might be something you take for granted, but to everyone else, it is special. It's your secret sauce that shouldn't be kept a secret.