“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.
This is the first in a small series of punches surrounding April Dunford's Obviously Awesome! and how good positioning relates to good branding. Enjoy!
Positioning is where your company falls in the mind of consumers. Specifically, why your company should matter to them. In here book, Obviously Awesome! April Dunford breaks down effective positioning into 5 steps with an occasional 6th. First things first, examine what's already out there and what people might do, or currently be doing instead of using your product/services.
Note, it's not about being "better" necessarily, but more about assessing why these alternatives to your solution are being used.
In branding, this step in crucial in assessing the emotional alternatives to your company.
What is it about brand x that makes it so special? What do I feel differently about them versus brand y?
Attacking this from the angle of "how are they different?" instead of "how are they better?" is crucial to understanding their positioning and where there is space for your brand to be positioning without being labeled a copycat.
More products, more money, more followers, these are hungry ghosts. Insatiable phantoms that have no value and never stop getting bigger.
More is an endless struggle. But, getting good at something, and improving your business, your brand, or even yourself is something measurable. You might have different goals, but the process is one that you can actually control and have a major influence on.
"More" will naturally result from being good.
When J.K. Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter book, it didn't have the same title as we've known. It was first called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and later adapted to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Why? These two things are synonymous.
Attitude. When you hear the term "philosopher," it sounds geeky and pompous. A sorcerer on the other hand, bolsters the idea of mystery, power, and elusiveness.
What's the point? Branding is full of nuance, while these two terms on paper mean the same thing, their emotional qualities are different. In branding, it's not just what you say, how you look, and what you do, but the attitude you bring to the table.
A buddy of mine and I have started looking for apartments to rent. Scammers have been rampant, so we're extra cautious.
One realtor had sent my friend an application, his license number, and lease agreements. My buddy sent them to me asking, "is this legit?"
I could see where he was suspicious. The design of the application was shotty and it made his ears perk up. It was a lot of small things like misaligned typography, no consistency in colors, no logo for the company, no footer. Not only from a design perspective, but things like not have a dedicated domain for this company and instead using a Gmail address made this entire experience feel scammy.
Despite the fact that he did indeed have a license number, his brand and legitimacy were being put to death by a thousand tiny cuts. Small wounds that bled his company of its worth and value.
Point being, the small interactions are where you get a chance to prove yourself as something legit and unique. Never underestimate them.
Alright, say you want a logo for your startup. For an experienced designer, this has a streamlined process as well as varying tiers of engagement. They also have a rate for which they will carry these services out. Unless added variables outside of these packages are added, the price shouldn't change that much.
Now say you want a custom e-commerce website, with a bunch of third party integrations, some help on copy, sourcing photos and icons, and then recurring maintenance. You don't know how many pages there are, who is responsible for a lot of the things that will go into the site, it's all custom.
Here's the thing, some design work can be structured within a detailed process. Projects like that should have fixed prices based on the value the designer is bringing to the table. Projects that are unique and require just as much planning as they do execution get custom prices.
In the instance of the latter, it makes sense to dedicate 10% of the estimated budget to getting three, tiered, custom options.
Design seems to have a drawn out and lengthy process. I don't know about you, but I really don't like it. Especially if you're working with startups that need to move fast. How do you fix it? You work together, show the ugly, and focus on getting a bunch of guesswork eliminated.
If you can move fast, you're good at what you do, and you can coach people through the process, this shouldn't be an issue.
This applies to everything. Logos, websites, apps, collateral. Hammer out as much of the details in low-fidelity form as possible.
Creative minds, though responsible for new ideas and solving big problems, have a huge shadow: the inability to give those new ideas time. This is especially true in branding. It's almost inevitable that after going through a new brand identity, strategy, etc, the desire to change will pop up. A new idea will strike and it must manifest or it will go away.
But int he context of branding, assuming you do a good job, you have to resist. Branding is something that should remain consistent and be given its due before making massive overhauls.
Commons areas where this desire arises:
Look, these things might need to change, but if you have to let them settle before you can make an informed decision as to whether or not they need to change. This doesn't mean you can't change small things, like experimenting with new ads, altering your layouts, running A/B tests, but it should all cohere to the strategy you are trying to implement.
Point being: resist your creative impulses to start something new before your previous task has been finished and given time to rest.
When we try to create something from scratch, it never really pans out the way we'd anticipated. This is especially true in finding the story for your startup's brand. Truth is, the story probably exists somewhere else and you haven't noticed it.
If this is something you struggle with, try these approaches:
What is your story?
Yes, you. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you? That story is unique and highly personable. You can use it in your brand too.
Retell a favorite
There are seven story arcs, period. You've seen them in movies, you read about them in books, and they can work for you. Your goal is to instead replace the characters, setting, and adventure to suit your brand's personality.
Don't create your story, find it.
My workout wasn't that great this morning. I'm having a hard time writing this. It was difficult to read this morning. I kinda feel lethargic.
I could examine each of these issues and think of a solution to each one, but it would just be addressing the symptoms.
You see, the issue was that I got sub par sleep last night. While I could have some caffeine, get shot of taurine, or do anything that would give me more energy, it wouldn't be a long-term strategy. Fixing the root of the problem, my lack of sleep, is what will makes these symptoms less prevalent.
Branding works the same way. If your marketing efforts, design systems, naming conventions, and other efforts seem off, you might have to backtrack a bit. Most likely, whatever is wrong is a symptom of something deeper.
You can spend all the time you want cleaning up the garbage downstream, but you'd save a bunch of time if you cleaned up the filth at the headwaters.
If you show up to a gun range with no target, you have zero chance of hitting something worthwhile.
Conversely, even if you can't hit the bullseye every time, a target makes the process exceedingly more enjoyable. You can track progress, you can try new methods, and you will hit a bullseye at some point.
If you try to build a brand without first defining it, you have zero chance of making something worthwhile.
Conversely, even if you can't be on brand every time, defining it makes the process exceedingly more enjoyable. You can track progress, you can try new methods, and you will be on brand at some point.
Point being, have an aim.
When doing design work, it's important to get feedback. However, the kind of feedback you get will make all the difference. Without beating around the bush, getting feedback that is entirely subjective is gonna end poorly, especially if you're trying to be different. The key is to be objective.
For example, when designing logos for clients, a client will often ask someone close to them: "which one do you like?"
Chances are, the respondent won't like any of them (for irrelevant reasons) or they mask the truth out of fear for hurting someone else's feelings. Either way, the feedback to this question is shit. Always.
Instead you have to think about the goals you are looking to achieve, such as aligning something like a logo to your brand. The best way to do this is what I like to call the binary method. If you know what you want someone to feel when they look at your company, then you can also define the opposite. If you want someone to feel edgy, modern, and sleek (you should define these in your own words, mind you) then the opposite of your goal would be to have them feel safe, nostalgic, and rough.
At this point you can ask, "does this feel more modern or nostalgic?"
Following up with "what makes you feel that way?" since the reasons might be extremely personal. Granted, a logo needs to be contextualized with other branded elements to get feedback on something like its alignment to the brand.
This goes far with getting valuable feedback that you can actual improve from and makes subjectivity less prevalent. Regardless of what design project you're working on, knowing what your goal is and the ability to articulate the opposite gives you framework for getting concrete answers.
FYI, I stole this concept and story from Sprint by Jake Knapp, enjoy!
I don't drink coffee, but I'd imagine the most people wouldn't if they had to drink coffee without using coffee filters. You see, before the filter coffee was brewed the same way you'd steep a bag of tea. The result was a lot of over-brewed, grit filled, coffee. Gross.
Filters had been attempted before, but to no avail. They were made of cloth.
It wasn't until a woman named Melitta Bentz saw blotting paper on her son's desk that the idea for our modern filters came to her. Blotting paper was used to clean up excess ink , it was porous enough to let liquid pass, but not enough to let the gritty grounds come through. Sure enough, after using it in place of cloth, she was astounded. The flavor was great and clean up was a snap.
What does this have to do with branding?
Sometimes the obvious solution to your brand isn't where you'd expect. You won't find it looking at competitors or digging within the muck of your day-to-day, it's somewhere else. Perhaps it's a different industry, or in a game you used to play, your favorite movie, a song. Instead of trying to create the perfect brand, find it and repurpose it.
I've been playing a lot of Call of Duty amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It's been quite a while, but something that's been all too familiar is the vast difference between snipers and grenades. Essential premise is this: snipers are extremely accurate. You definitely can't hit more than one person, but if you focus on just one person, you're highly likely to hit them. At both long distances and shorter distances with superb effectiveness.
Grenades, on the other hand, are meant to hit lots of people at once. But, they you generally chuck these and hope you hit something. It's highly unlikely unless you land in at the exact right place at the exact right time. Despite being more powerful than a sniper rifle, they aren't as accurate and less effective as a result.
What's the point?
If you want to brand with impact, focus intently on one person, scope them out, and snipe them. You're much more likely to hit the target.
Don't chuck a grenade and hope you hit someone.
Selfish ambitions don't really get you anywhere. They cause you to think narrowly about what's good for you and gives you a good pay out (one person), as opposed to thinking about what could give a good payout to others (multiple people). Not only that, but it makes for lame brands, since it's hard to make other feel something if you have not rooted your company in empathy.
There are blatant examples of this when startup founders go into a venture with the purpose of making a bunch of money so they don't have to work anymore. No one is going to hand their money to you so that YOU don't have to work anymore. It seems silly to reiterate that, but sometimes we all need a reminder. It's rare to find a company with a purpose like this that does anything innovative or builds something others find irreplaceable. However, it's not always as easy to spot such self-centered ambition.
Where selfish ambition gets tricky is when it's veiled in altruism. Here are some example: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, I think I could do a better job."
At first glance, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. There are indeed hundreds of big companies that get caught in scams and aren't very generous with their money. But take a look at the example again but with this question in mind: who is the beneficiary?
There's only two subjects in it, large companies and the founder of this startup, so it must be one of them. Sparing you the trouble, if either of these subjects are the beneficiary, then this purpose sucks. Despite the acknowledged problem of large companies' ill-spending, the solution of trusting one person (albeit, a stranger) to do a better job with it is not much better. It's certainly not something that you could rally a team behind, convince investors to buy-in to, and certainly not customers.
Why? Because it's all about the founder. No one is going to buy into that.
It's not all lost though, with a small tweak this could be improved. Let's try this: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, so I'm going to create a company where every employee gets to dedicate a portion of our profit to a charity of their choice."
Now who's the beneficiary? The employees and the charities they choose to support. Shoot, even the founder becomes a beneficiary because they now have recognition for giving others an opportunity to do good. Despite a purpose dedicated to the service of others, the company still grows because other people have bought in and get something in return.
Point being, if you want to grow your startup, make your purpose about other people, not you.
Yesterday, I wrote about measuring a brand's effectiveness and actually assigning a value to it. It followed a scoresheet with specific levels of customer appreciation for the brand. This article is going to address some of the tangible assets that lead to getting those number higher.
Level 1: Satisfied
The company/product has met my expectations.
People don't want to buy shit products, at least not more than once. Even the least affluent customer isn't stupid enough to buy something that continually breaks simply because it's affordable. At the most core level of your brand, you must be able to live up to your promises and deliver. Be it a product, service, experience, whatever. If you don't have this in order, fix it first.
The company charges a fair price for the product.
Aligning with the fulfillment of your promise is the value it is worth. This in part has to do with who you are trying to make something for. If said target wants to pay a premium for a premium product, you better give it to them. If they want to spend middle tier, you need to let them. "Fair," is relative and is determined based on the person you are making something for.
$100k is a fair price for a brand new Tesla if experience, ease-of-use, and being on the forefront of innovation are what matter to someone. $100k for a Honda Civic is not.
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 2: Delighted
I've been pleasantly surprised by the company/product.
This is a build up of small things that were pleasant surprises. Things like a special email follow-up after purchase, nice packaging, good design, or something as simple as saying, "my pleasure" (thank you Chick-Fil-A). It's hard to pin-point exactly what these elements would be, but I'd offer this general statement: if a customer comes into contact with it, can you make it special and unique to your company?
I would happily recommend it to others.
I'd ask this: do you make it easy and worthwhile to get referrals? If not, how could you make it a win-win-win for you, the new customer, and the one who referred you?
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 3: Engaged
I identify well with the other customers of this company/product.
We do business with companies and people that have the same values as us. That being said, you have to offer something that isn't found in other players in your market. You have to ask yourself "who would choose you over your competitors and why would they do it?" It can be for subjective reasons too, not just pricing or features. Some people just want things to match up with their lifestyle. Someone who values sophistication, aesthetic, and craftsmanship is not going to shop at Walmart.
I would go out of my way for the company and its customers.
Something to keep in mind with this statement, in order to go out of your way, there have to be other options available. This is about differentiation and why someone would seek you out, even it if wasn't the most convenient.
Things that can help affect this level:
Level 4: Empowered
The company/product is essential to my life.
Here is where you assess the value and permanence of your product. You own a couple items, I'm sure, that fit this category. Your phone, favorite pair of jeans, necessary software, or a favorite restaurant. Not only is the product so good, but the entire experience is enough to make you a repeat buyer.
I would be very sorry if it went out of business.
Are you irreplaceable or not? Have you impacted a core area of your customer's life?
Things that can help affect this level:
What are you going to work on first?
There are big elements of design and there are small elements. Both are necessary if you want to use design as an asset within your startup.
Design is the process of crafting with intention. This sets the trajectory for allowing design to be an integral part of your startup. In fact, it speaks to the idea that it should be intrinsically woven into every decision the company makes. If you act with the purpose of achieve a specific goal, you are designing. The opposite would be aimlessness or choosing to craft without purpose.
While such endeavors can lead to interesting results, it's not the best mindset to adopt with investors breathing down your neck or crucial deadlines looming int he background. Choosing to adopt a design-driven mindset is what allows you to measure progress and iterate with precision. In short, design turns wandering ideas into obtainable goals.
That's way different than making things prettier.
Yes, this concept tends to be confined within the areas of improving the aesthetic of apps, websites, interiors, products, or brand identities (a bunch of small elements), but these outlets don't give it power. Look beyond aesthetic and focus on creating things with purpose. How you want them to make people feel, what you want them to do, the goals a project is supposed to achieve.
I guess the main point is this: if you see design as only making things look pretty, even the things you want to look pretty will fall short of expectation. But, if you decide to see design as crafting with intention, you will be able to get results... and maybe make something beautiful int he process.
Since branding is an emotional subject, it gets hard to manage. Specifically, it gets hard to measure. Cue Marty Neumeier (again). In his book The Brand Flip he lays out a structure for measuring the effectiveness of building a brand in what has been called the Brand Ladder. The goal of the Brand Ladder is to see how well you are elevating a customer's experience with your company. If you score low, it means you're a commodity, easily capable of being replaced. If you score high, customers are likely to become repeat buyers, evangelists, and feel like they can't live without you.
Here is an outline of the scorecard (from your customer's point of view):
Satisfied Grade 1-5
__ The company/product has met my expectations.
__ The company charges a fair price for the product.
__ TOTAL (highest score of 10)
Delighted Grade 1-5 and multiply by 2
__ I've been pleasantly surprised by the company/product.
__ I would happily recommend it to others.
__ TOTAL x 2 (highest score of 20)
Engaged Grade 1-5 and multiply by 3
__ I identify well with the other customers of this company/product.
__ I would go out of my way for the company and its customers.
__ TOTAL x 3 (highest score of 30)
Empowered Grade 1-5 and multiply by 4
__ The company/product is essential to my life.
__ I would be very sorry if it went out of business.
__ TOTAL x 4 (highest score of 40)
__ Grand Total (Highest Score of 100)
But it doesn't end there. Like any other assessment, you have to dive deeper and unearth the reasons behind them. What is it about your company that affects these scores? Is it design? Is it your messaging? Is it the product? You can measure the effects of branding all day, but if you are not willing to check on the factors contributing to its success, you might as well not even bother. Sounds like something I should write about tomorrow...
The most common answer a startup will give to "what is a brand," is something along the lines of "logo," or a "visual representation of your company." While the visuals are a key part in making a brand, they do not describe its entirety. Marty Neumeier, author of the Brand Gap describes it this way:
The brand is a gut feeling. It's an emotion felt by someone after interacting with an entity, usually a business.
What is a brand? A gut-feeling, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Positioning is the spot your startup fills within the head of your customer. It matters because most people already have a go-to brand for most products and services they need. For example, Apple is positioned as the leader for personal technology, for most, non-technical people. Unless you are a developer in which case, you probably prefer PCs and Android phones. They claim different positions for different people and it gives them authority as a an option for people to buy.
Here is where startups go haywire with their positioning,: they play the wrong game. Specifically, this one: they try to look, feel, and act like a large company and go head-to-head with the ones already out there. This trickles into their branding efforts, making them appear sterile, stoic, and dehumanized. Why? Because they see large companies they are trying to compete with do the same thing. Here's the secret: large companies have to act that way so they don't get sued for upsetting people with their character.
As a result, customers long for something more personable (someone to claim a different position). This is something your startup could offer them if you weren't playing the "we're a big company too," game. You will lose every time. But if you gave a minimal amount of effort into giving your startup a personality and stopped trying to look, act, and feel exactly like the companies you are looking to dethrone, you'd win more often.
Play the right game.
Design is a gargantuan undertaking, namely because there is so much stuff to consider. From logos, icons, illustrations, layouts, man, the list is endless. But, there are two things that set the trajectory for good design and good branding within a startup: color and typography.
Things go haywire with color really fast. Why? Because most startups want to impress people and peacock their way to good branding. The more flash, the better right? Wrong. Honestly, when you are starting out, it is imperative to rely on one core color (unless you design out a full color palette). Why one color? Because it helps you focus and reign in all of your energy on keeping your branding consistent. One color, with neutrals (black, greys, and white). That will make your startup appear far more mature than a one boasting yellows, blues, and pinks like a clown at a sideshow.
Type is hard, even for designers who have been trained in choosing tyoefaces and using them properly. In the prospect of boosting your startup through design, please heed this suggestion: pick one, good, timeless typeface. Why? Because typography connotes so much emotion and is often chosen based on what looks "cool." "Cool," usually translates to distressed, obnoxious, or flippant. None of which you want to be associated with your startup.
I get it, you want to be extravagant and show that your company is creative (and it is, don't you forget it). But is selecting an overtly illustrative or stylized typeface going to be the best way you communicate that? It could be, after you get a grip on what you're doing from a design perspective. But that takes time and expertise. So, for the time being until you can fully invest in picking typefaces that have personality and are selected with on-brand intentions, pick something neutral and timeless. I'd recommend pulling one from this font bundle on Design Cuts.
Implementing these suggestions into your startup is not going to solve everything, but it will at least help you appear more trustworthy until you can really build out and refine your branding.
I normally work from home and, for the most part, it's pretty easy for me to get into a groove. But there are some days, especially during the COVID-19 quarantining, that make it difficult.
Specifically because the elements of my routine are barred. New floors are being installed in my house so there are quite a few construction workers here playing music, hammering in pieces of flooring, and moving around. My desk is in pieces and all of the furniture is scattered. Even the garage where I normally do workouts in the morning is unavailable.
In short, I'm in a massive deviation from my routine and it is taking a toll on my effectiveness. But, there is a silver lining in that it has never been more obvious the kind of routine I need to function at my peak.
What does this have to do with branding? Well, you can understand what you want for your brand by understanding what you don't want. By cross-examining your competitors, other brands, or even something as granular as aesthetic, sometimes the fastest way to understand what you want to become is to discover the opposite.
Full disclosure, I am a Webflow Affiliate and I get monies for sending people to Webflow. Full story, I didn't start out that way and after using the platform to make epic websites for three years, I was given affiliate status.
The website of a startup is like a 24/7 sales person and it's the most extensive component of your branding efforts. It's the only place where investors and customers can experience your company and get a feel for who you are. It stands to reason, then, that if you cannot keep it alive and make it a pleasant experience, it becomes a crutch.
Before you even get started on building a site, chances are you'll do some research figuring out what platform to use. You'll probably explore options like WordPress, but, in my not-so-humble opinion, WordPress sucks compared to Webflow. For these three reasons: time, functionality, and creativity.
Time is your most valuable resource and while WordPress was great in being a first mover into making the web more accessible for makers, they fell off the tracks. It's still time consuming and difficult to make a WordPress site look and function exactly the way you need it, even with the help of developers. Webflow's designer tool allows you to skip over the back-and-forth between design and development. This saves time and it also cuts down on costs, since you are no longer dependent on developers to make design changes.
Any time the development team is taken out of the picture, the question of compromising functionality arises. Blanket statement: whatever you are looking to do Webflow can handle it. If you're worried, just ask these giant tech startups how much Webflow helped their marketing teams.
Furthermore, if you do need to bring in your dev team after 99% of the site has been built, they can add custom code with ease.
Lastly, creativity. New ideas come on quick and you have to move quick as a startup. Can you afford to wait for a designer to put something in sketch, pass it to the dev team, go back-and-forth to make sure it's right, have your marketing team edit it, and then launch? NO! You've gotta move and at the speed of creativity.
As if that wasn't enough, WordPress templates are rigid as hell and can't be molded easily. Certainly not without developer help. Startups can't afford to wait that long or have their developers doing rudimentary coding like front-end website building.
Point being, if your startup is not on Webflow, you are missing an opportunity.
What is the opposite of having great customer service?
It's not a trick question, the answer is shitty customer service.
What is the opposite of having the best products and the best prices?
Having the worst products and the worst prices.
You see, the flaw in baseless superlatives like "best products," or "great customer service," is that they don't help a startup sell product because it's expected. Think about it, what company doesn't want to have the best product or the best service? None of them, the same way none of them want to have terrible customer service. If the opposite of the claim is not also a unique selling point, then it's not unique.
For example, tech startups jump to "easy to use" as another feature. Since "hard to use" is not a selling point, neither is "easy to use." It's expected. Now, what makes the product easy to use is a unique selling point. Webflow, the tool I use to build websites, has a drag and drop interface built for designers who usually work in Adobe Creative Suite, that is the feature that makes the product easy to use. They also have a customer support team filled with designers and developers who can answer technical questions, that is the feature that makes their customer service great.
If you are going to rattle off a list of features and selling points to investors or customers, ask yourself if the opposite of this is also true. If it's not, you have a baseless claim.
There's a two-fold mission to this statement: one part applies to your startup's value proposition/unique selling proposition and the other pertains to the brand (how your startup makes people feel).
In short, you must know what is out there so you can create something that stands out. Let's break it down using the categories listed above.
Most startups will resort to "lowest price" on this point, but we can do better than that. Instead, ask yourself what are the alternatives to your product and what do they lack that your customers need? Sometimes it's as simple as a better interface or a different distribution method (i.e. Dollar Shave Club going subscription for razor blades). This should indicate what the big selling point of your product is or at least inform you of what is lacking within your competitors. From there, you can adjust your messaging to hit on the specific pain point your customers are looking to ease.
No two companies are alike in nature. Not even if they are in the same industry. Guaranteed, there are cultural nuances and quirks within every company that make them unique and special. Frankly, most of them hide it behind a professional demeanor and an unwillingness to be human. So, your goal is to assess your competitors personalities and find a void to fill. If the majority of them come off as stoic and cold, you have an opportunity to be friendly and vulnerable. Granted, you have to know yourself, since you can't put on a false identity in the hopes of attracting people.
These two bits of research can inform almost every decision your company should make in marketing itself. They give you the reason people should buy your product and why they won't forget you.
Let's set a boundary here: the design elements of your startup can change and evolve as your company grows. As such, the earlier your startup, the simpler the solution. As you grow and scale, things can get more dynamic. This article is dedicated to new startups that are experimenting on their own and have found choosing fonts to be a hurdle.
I'd imagine the scenario that led you to this article is something along these lines: you're putting together pitch decks, business cards, websites, etc. and you feel like you have to pick a new font every time. It's draining and you're not even sure if you're picking a good one for your brand.
The solution? Pick one, generic, easy-to-read typeface and use it everywhere.
Yep. Skip over mulling through MyFonts or TypeKit and use something that has been around for a while as a starting point.
"But Zach, I want something unique and pertinent to my brand."
Yes, you do, but you're not ready yet if you can't afford to hire an in-house designer or outside consultant to even define your brand. Your goal right now is to appear trustworthy and dependable to investors and customers. Trying to choose unique typefaces will end poorly and hinder you from getting you to a point where you can pay someone to take this off your plate.
Pick a typeface from any of the above, use a bold, regular, and light versions, and play with hierarchy and scale to create compositions.
I admire the confidence of startup founders. Everyday, they get up and get after it in the hopes of doing something to change the world. It's inspiring. However, it's sad that most of them fail to see the obviously awesome things about themselves and their companies that would make them unforgettable. Instead, they try to focus on what they think people want them to be. It's an inauthentic approach to building a brand and it usually results in being labeled something they are not proud of. In time, they become something they fail to recognize.
I call it, "pickle syndrome."
Since they spend their lives in a jar, pickles have no idea what they look like from the outside. They also don't recognize the unique qualities that make them special either. They float in the jar hoping someone will recognize them and see their worth.
It's in moments like this that is pays to have an external voice chime in and tell you all of the things that make you and your startup significant. To give you a new label based on the obvious truths you take for granted.
You are still a pickle and you're freaking awesome at it. Don't be afraid to tell everyone.
No, you're not going to remodel the kitchen in your startup. This is an analogy. You see, when you renovate your house to increase its value, there are two areas most recommended: the kitchen and the bathroom. Doing this adds the greatest increase to a home's value.
Is it out of the question to think that design could be the equivalent to increasing a startup? Not unlikely. I was at a pitch competition last month and all of the judges made comments on the design of the winning team's slides. How well they flowed, the ease of reading information, and the personality they added. There were other participants that had ideas just as good as theirs, but good design made them win.
Furthermore, in comparison to other things startups might do to increase their value, design isn't that expensive. A solo freelancer can make a run-down, scrappy startup look like it is worth millions for under $30,000. If it results in the recoup of millions in fundraising, that sounds like a drop in the bucket.
Here's the thing: if you're looking to tremendously increase the value of your startup, you might want to consider design as a starting point.
I was chatting with my friend Brian yesterday about his startup. He asked, "what did you think of our branding?"
I asked, "it depends, who are you trying to talk to and what do you want them to feel?"
He wasn't sure. It sounded like there were multiple target markets he was trying to reach with his product and he wasn't sure how he could build a brand that would reach all of them.
Here's the thing:
You cannot build a brand for everyone. In fact, it's smart to build a brand for one person. Since the brand is an emotion, an already vaporous concept, you make it far less tangible with the more people you try to affect. The best brands are constructed for one person. This allows you to focus entirely on making something that somebody will love. Fortunately, there is always spill-over and, because humans are so complex, chances are that we all have a piece of that one persona within us. You have to accept the fact that your brand cannot win over everyone. Even Nike and apple have their haters.
Marketing your brand, however, can be done to multiple people. I gave Brian the analogy of seasoned salt. Seasoned salt is like the brand, it's essence, flavor, and makes whatever meat it's combined with taste like seasoned salt. You can put it on fish, chicken, steak, pork, whatever, it's hasn't changed. Same thing with applying your brand to your marketing efforts. You might have a very specific message or offering for different target markets, but you make sure it's still contains the essence of the brand.
In short, you build the brand for one person, but you can market it to many.
Of all the things wrong in this world, telling a lie is my least favorite. Mainly for this reason: it prevents anything from improving.
If you tell a lie about a situation, you are intentionally shoving any prospect of fixing it out the door. In the startup world, this comes in many forms, "we're gonna have a billion dollar valuation," "our financials are steady," and my least favorite "we're the best."
Look, don't get me wrong, I think you should strive for a billion dollar valuation, you should strive for steady financials, and you should put your best efforts forward, but don't let these aspirations replace the truth. Like the fact that your startup is maybe worth $20,000 as it stands. Or that your financials are super shaky and your revenue streams are scattered. Lastly, don't confuse your best efforts with being the best solution available.
Why? Because if you let these lies replace the truth, you will certainly overlook what is stopping them from becoming true.
Without a doubt there are aspects of your startup that are amazing, and that you are brave enough to go out there and make something happen. But you will never get better if you cannot look your shortcomings in the face and accept that things could be better.
"Well, I'm my target market, so I should design a brand for myself."
I hear this a lot, especially from startup founders who think they have an amazing product that is going to solve world hunger and end war forever (I'm kidding, but you get the idea). However, despite the product being so amazing, they can't get sales, have a hard time pitching, and are constantly pivoting to the point of exhaustion. What's more, they all have shitty brands.
Why is that? Because going into business to build something for yourself is a surefire way to have an aimless brand, one that you cannot objectively validate. It's doomed from the start. Think about it, if you fully embody the exact persona of someone who could use your product, then they don't need you. They are able to solve this problem themselves. Good luck making them feel something other than contempt for you imposing yourself on their day-to-day.
I get it, you want to enjoy the work you do and have a brand that you can appreciate being a part of. You cannot find that focusing on yourself.
The key is to find overlap, a common thread between what your customers value and what you value. There is a reason they are listed in that order, as you, being an entrepreneur, can build a kickass business and brand whether you feel personally attached to it or not. You'll crush it because solving problems for other people is what you're best at, that is your job.
If you happen to have a passion for the brand and can align with it personally, all the better. But, you have to focus on a customer first or you have no business. Not only in the products you create, but the way you make them feel. That's where the branding magic is born.
I was sitting at Barrel Republic with my friends, Allyson, her husband, Brandon, and her sister, Jessica, and her husband, Joey (that's Allyson and Brandon, Jessica and Joey for you comma haters).
I don't drink, but beer branding has always fascinated me. Mostly because it's incredibly well done and shows the magnitude branding has on a product with thousands of companies to choose from. I was curious, though, if this group had any favorites.
Allyson is a fan of Coronado Brewing Company. Brandon chooses Ballast Point. For Jessica, Modern Times. And lastly, Joey went with Stone.
There are a couple things to keep in mind here. Some overarching themes in the brands they chose are as follows: local, independently rooted, craft beer from their hometown of San Diego. Seems to be the baseline.
A deeper dive: each person's personality is reflected in the brand of beer they chose.
Allyson loves to be at the beach and spending time with good people. When she's having a beer, her goal is to simply relax and enjoy herself.
Brandon also loves the beach, but he's also a craftsman and skilled woodworker. He loves to build things and has immense attention to detail. It's no wonder he opted to go with a beer brand "dedicated to the craft." When he has a beer, he wants to relax, but he's still looking for that craftsmanship.
Jessica is a neo-hippy with a passion for eccentricity and flair (funky, one-a-kind clothes and such). What better brewery for Jessica than one with a post-it mural of Michael Jackson in it's tasting room?
Joey is rugged and straightforward. Need I say more? He aligns with the gritty independent nature of Stone's ethos and can respect their rebellious attitude.
Here's the thing:
The beer itself is relatively similar. The flavors these companies provide could be swapped and no one would really know the difference. However, the personalities and attitudes of these breweries resonate with specific people.
Each of my friends made their choice for a reason: that beer brand was intentionally made for someone like them.
This will be simple.
If you want people to love your brand, don't give a half-assed effort into the design of it.
If you don't care, carry on as you have been.
A minor effort into a major problem is a recipe for disappointment.
You've heard it from me before that logos are not the most important part of your brand, however, they are a part of the experience nonetheless. With that in mind, it's important to get them right.
What are the core indicators of a successful logo? According so Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff, Geismar and Haviv (the identity agency responsible for the Chase Bank, MSNBC, Nat Geo, and Conservation International logos), it comes down to three things:
Simple, distinct, and appropriate.
Simple, meaning that it could be replicated at various sizes and applications without additional effort.
Distinct, meaning that it could be described after looking at it or perhaps doodled on a piece of paper and different from others in the same field.
Lastly, appropriate, meaning that you wouldn't have the same logo for a heavy metal band that you would for a cooking line designed to make people feel calm and tranquil. This doesn't mean tell the whole story, it means don't contradict yourself emotionally.
Simple, distinct, and appropriate. Logos that fail to meet this end up becoming blemishes wherever they are placed. The most elegant package, flyer, or product becomes tarnished with your hideous zit of a logo.
Take a look at your marketing collateral, your website, billboards, ads, business cards, etc.
Now ask yourself, do you have a logo or do you have a blemish?
Let's get on the same page. By "boring," I mean logos that are less detailed. They don't have 10,000 colors, multiple elements, nor do they convey every detail of the company they represent. Truth be told, without being placed in a specific context, they are useless (unless you're a logo designer interested in analyzing them). It would seem that it is the elements that surround the logo that give the logo power, its longevity, and then structure would be last on the list.
Logos live on things. Lots of things. From app icons, billboards, collateral, even products. These logos are almost always accompanied by some form of messaging or other interactive piece. What's the point? The point is that the logo has little influence in making someone respect a company. Not nearly as much as the surrounding colors schemes, messaging, calls to action, or personality of the brand that it is encased within. If anything, the logo's job is to be there without becoming a blemish.
Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have spent decades (over a century for Coca-Cola) using the same shape as their logo. There might have been slight adjustments in color or structure over time, but nothing that would make you think the mark was completely new. There's a reason for this and it's to drill the mark into people's minds. Thankfully, they have logos that have been able to serve them regardless of the surrounding political climate, era, or trends that make other companies feel the need to change their logos. It's the same reason cartoon characters don't change their clothes, the artists are making it easy for you, the viewer, to be visually primed for their character. By keeping the logo the same for decades, you are more likely to let your guard down when you see that logo, assuming the company is one you cherish.
This is the last point because a logo it's the cherry on top of the branding sundae. If the rest of a company's marketing, positioning, service record, products, and messages are on point, they can get away with having a less-than-great logo. Having a good one just seems to add the little extra delight or, at the very least, give a potential customer one less thing to have an issue with. This is accomplished be keeping the mark consistently recognizable regardless of where it is placed.
That's what all great logos have in common, they are boring and do their job really well.
My favorite color to wear is black. Typically, I'm wearing a Buck Mason black T-shirt, Levi's blue jeans, and white sneakers. However, I would not wear that to the gym. In the gym I wear a black dri-fit, black shorts, and black training shoes. And while that's great attire for the gym, I would not wear that to a wedding. Instead you'd find me in an all black suit. Regardless of what I'm wearing though, I'm still the same person. I have patterns, yes, like wearing black, but it's important to fit the occasion.
You can run with the design of your branding the same way. What is the occasion we are designing for and how do we flex our visual identity to match? What matters most is whether or not the personality underneath stays the same and can be felt.
Dress for the occasion and be yourself.
Alright, let's make sure we're on the same page, as one of the biggest issues with being professional is lack of concrete definition. You probably think of professional as suit and tie, clean cut, and stoic. But that's bogus. And it is off-base for what the actual definition of professional would entail.
relating to or connected with a profession.
"young professional people"
engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
"a professional boxer"
a person engaged or qualified in a profession.
"professionals such as lawyers and surveyors"
Nothing in those definitions implies that one has to give up their personality, character, or style to be a professional. It seems that the only defining characteristic would be the practice of a specific activity that one gets paid for. You could pop pimples for a living and you'd still be considered a professional, so long as you get paid for it. Do you hear that? So long as you do a job and get paid for it, you are a professional. You don't have to wear a suit, you don't have to refrain from saying what you think or using slang, you have to provide something deemed valuable to be a professional.
Why do I want you to stop being "professional?" Because you box yourself in with your definition (the clean cut, suit and tie version). It makes you boring and totally diminishes the elements of your personality that make you special. Granted, this doesn't mean you should stop taking care of yourself or give the impression that you aren't put together, but that's not a hard standard to meet. If you wear a nice, unwrinkled t-shirt with a good pair of jeans, and sneakers, no one is going to think you're a slob. If they do, screw 'em. They are clearly not supposed to do business with you, but instead with someone who takes pride in posturing themselves to look wealthy rather than doing good work.
Stop trying to be professional and instead double down on being yourself, whatever that means. If you like getting dressed up, go for it! But don't let those fancy clothes become a shock collar that stops you from being yourself, telling your jokes, and saying what you feel is right.
Nothing could be more discouraging than pitching your heart and soul to investors or having a potential customer visit your site only to hear them say it looked unprofessional. Ouch. It sucks because you put time and effort into your products and services, but because you had a poorly constructed deck, a shitty website, janky business cards, you were perceived as incompetent and unworthy of their time. Despite your capabilities, you got kicked in the teeth based on presentation.
Two harsh truths are coming:
We live in a shallow world, flooded with messages and things asking for our attention. It is not the fault of other people that they make shallow judgements in an effort to stave off wasting their time and energy.
You can bitch and complain about how people shouldn't judge your startup by its looks, but you won't change anything. So suck it up and roll with it.
What do you need? You need a haircut. Something to turn that hairy mess of ideas and thoughts you have into something presentable and trustworthy. Just like the guy in this video:
Even from the thumbnail. Simply cleaning him up makes him appear more trustworthy and dependable. However, unlike this guy, your startup is not an alcoholic and is ready to get out there and make something for other people. Tired of investors and customers not trusting you with their time and money? Make yourself appear more trustworthy.
Also, good luck not crying and laughing during this video.
I've been racking my head around this since the initial quarantine mandates were put into place. It sucks that we are in a situation like this, but there is one key things that has seemed prevalent throughout all the chaos:
Remote Work is now commonplace and it actually helps in a lot of ways.
Obviously, I'm biased, since I work from home normally, but it seems that COVID-19 was the push we needed to expand our abilities in working from home or outside the office.
What makes this important is showing the flexibility of the workforce when forced to adapt. Maybe there is something more there, a microcosm of a greater potential to overcome adversity, but I digress. Anyway, back to remote work. It's a good thing and for many reasons. These would be the top three:
More time doing things instead of commuting
Double-edged sword on this one, as more people working from home means the people that have to go in will endure less traffic. On average, this would save people two hours per day, 10 hours per week, and 520 hours per year (give or take). Wow! Can you imagine putting that time toward personal health, cooking, or spending time with family? You'd be a different person if you really took advantage of all that time.
Less chit-chat, more deep work
Being an extrovert, like me, has its advantages, but the downside is that I will always prefer to talk with people rather than being left alone to do important work. When I worked for a startup after college, I would lock myself in a private room to focus for a couple hours because I knew I would take any opportunity to talk with coworkers. And while interaction is not a bad thing and should be used when doing brainstorming or collaborating on projects, a majority of our work can be (and should be) done independently. Why? So you can focus, dive deep into the problem, and get the thing done. Which segues into the next point.
Intentional social interaction
Though working from home has its benefits, we all need genuine social interaction. This is a shot in the dark, but if everyone is able to focus on the actual work they need to get done while working at home, then they can dive deeper during social interaction, especially with coworkers. Follow me for a sec, would you rather have 10, five minute conversations spread out over eight hours, or one, hour-long conversation without interruption? If you're like me, I prefer the latter. Deep conversations, like deep work, cannot be interrupted. My guess is that working remotely will create an environment where longer conversations take the place of spaced-out small ones as meeting up in person will be more intentional and focused.
What does this have to do with design and branding? I'm not entirely sure at the moment, but there is definitely a connection to the depth attained when working by yourself on a project without interruption. Maybe this shows that work, like design, is all about intention. If you intentionally make time to work, have conversations, or have fun instead of juggling them all at once, we'll be better off.
Before you touch a new name, logo, or messaging, it is imperative to list out the values of your startup. I know what you're thinking, "values? We have those. Honesty, Courage, and Innovation."
Cool, but do you know what they mean? What they really mean? I think I know what they mean, but there are nuances about these virtues that unlock their importance.
Values are nothing without their definitions. Specifically, they are nothing without your definition of them.
Here's what I mean: I define honesty as telling the truth regardless of how it will make others feel or what it does to your image. Is that how you define honesty? Maybe, but you can't instill that into your startup and turn it into an actionable element unless you define it for yourself. Your definition will vary slightly and that's where the magic of your brand comes into play.
Give it a go, whatever your values are, define them in your own words.
Before we jump into details, we gotta get one thing straight:
A brand is the gut-feeling has toward a business. By definition, being "on brand" would mean that the feeling you want people to have is being felt by your target consumer. Being off brand would mean they feel the opposite or something unrelated. For example, if I want people to feel "rebellious," then similar feelings like edgy, badass, and cool are right up my alley. What I'm looking to avoid is the opposite; safe, quaint, pretty, timid, etc. With me so far? Cool, here are the three steps:
Define your brand
This is done through a brand discovery workshop, it's borderline therapy for business owners. Founders sit in a room with an objective third-party and tell everything they can about their business. Their customers, their dreams and goals, the culture they desire, all of it is put on the table. In doing so, nuggets of information can be pulled that show what someone should feel about the business. The goal is to create a definition of the brand that can be used as a yardstick.
Review all marketing collateral
Social posts, brochures, swag, websites, the name, logo, identity systems, business cards, email templates, everything that comes into contact with a customer is put up for review. It goes without saying that if you're jumping into a rebrand, you are probably not happy with all of these assets anyway, but you need to clarify why that's the case. If you don't you open the door to repeat the same mistakes in recreating them.
Make a game plan
Using the items in the review, make a plan of action prioritizing the elements that would have the greatest impact on the brand. Then, get to work updating them and getting them on brand.
With every challenge comes new opportunity, especially in times of crisis.
With that said, you can curl up into a ball and let the world trample over your dreams or you can do something about it. Whether you have founded a company or are involved in making a company awesome as an employee, here are three things that every brand could do right now to beef up their brand.
Set up Virtual Meetings with Customers
Think you're alone in feeling alone? Not remotely. If you have a long-standing relationship with good customers, see if they're willing to talk with you over the phone or using a screen-share. Ask them specific questions like why they chose you over your competitors, what they think could be improved about your business, and if there are other things (besides COVID-19) they wish were better in their life. You might find they show new opportunities and that recurring patterns are going on within all their lives.
Do a Brand Audit
You've got a lot of time to yourself right now. Take this as a chance to look inward and see where the gaps are. Take a look at your marketing collateral, your social media feeds, your website, anything a customer might come into contact with. Are you doing the best you can to make them feel a cohesive, emotional connection with your company? Do you look like a company that is worth talking to and doing business with? Is it out of the question to think it could be improved?
Try New Digital Marketing Tactics
You will probably suck at this when you start, but what do you have to lose? You can't meet with anyone face-to-face, so you need to have a strong presence online. Create a newsletter using Mailchimp (it's free to start), create a YouTube Channel (also free), host a webinar using Google Hangout (also free). It's estimated that we are going to be distanced for the next three months, but you can close the gap by getting online in someway. Just pick one and go for it.
I'll keep this short.
Things are weird right now, but you have two options:
Keep playing or quit.
You might fail if you keep playing, but I guarantee you will fail if you quit.
Get in the game.
When it comes to design and startups, a common misconception is if everyone in your industry looks terrible and has unpleasant experiences, it's ok for follow suit.
This has been disproven time and time again by the companies we all love. Design-driven companies yield a greater emotional connection with their customers and are an all around better company to work with. Even something as simple as having an easier website to navigate makes a big difference.
The difference? A customer being stuck with you instead of sticking with you. If given the chance, they will leave and pay a premium to someone who can treat them better. You have to design an experience that makes you irreplaceable.
Don't use the excuse, "everyone does it that way," when surrounded by mediocrity. Take it as an opportunity to be a diamond in the rough.
It's common practice for business owners to take great pride in their craft and their industry. I know this all too well, as I love being a designer and creating things. But, it's not the most important part of my business. Far from it actually. If it was, I'd be out of a job as websites like Fiverr and Upwork can beat me on price, they will give more options, and they are accessible 24/7.
Thankfully, people buy on emotion. Buying is a method of joining a tribe, what you buy says something about who you are. Think about it. If I buy a Tesla, it says something different about me than if I bought a Ford Mustang. It's a car, they have the same function, but there is a different sense of meaning established by joining either of those tribes.
All this to say, when people buy from your company, what are they saying about themselves? A couple things:
They believe what you believe and they are cool being associated with you. More succinctly, they are buying YOU. Not what you do, not because you're cheap, not because you're stronger, faster, better, they are buying from you because they connect with YOU emotionally.
That is what matters the most. You. Everything about you. All of your quirks, your experiences, your dreams, your vision, all of those things that construct you are what they buy.
Who you are matters most. You do the world a disservice in trying to be something you're not.
You cannot expect things to change without making a change yourself. Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
Why the title "Cambio Falso?" I've been watching Narcos, so Spanish is on my mind. It translates to "false change." Meaning, a benign attempt that yields little progression, a band-aid to cure cancer.
The point? Dive deep. Look the ugly of your company in the face and decide to make a freaking change, a real change. One that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you fail, you're no better off than where you are now.
Luke Skywalker is the greatest example of the "hero" archetype. He has humble beginnings and does not understand his full potential. At least, not until he is called to adventure after the murder of his Aunt, Uncle, and the desperate call of Princess Leia. Facing down this behemoth of a journey, you gotta wonder what was going on in his head at the time.
"I have no skills beyond moisture farming and I'm a decent pilot, but taking on the Empire? I need help."
That's where Obi-Wan Kenobi comes into play. The old wizard who sees the greatness within Luke and helps him to overcome his own, self-imposed limits. Despite the fact that Luke is lost without him, Obi-Wan never lets it be known. He's not focused on his own success, he's focused on the success of Luke. If Luke succeeds, that is his victory. Granted, he does all he can offering mentorship (guidance and knowledge of the Force), tools (lightsaber), instruction and feedback, and, most importantly, honest encouragement.
Here's the thing:
Most companies see themselves as Luke.They think they are the hero, that saving the world depends on them. They are wrong and their self-interest will not inspire others to be better. To quote Marty Neumeier "the best brand builders see greatness in their customers, and figure out ways to enable it."
Unleash your inner Obi-Wan, you rebel.
It's astonishing the amount of business owners and sales people who want to be better. They want more customers, they want higher value customers, more of anything that will help them get to the next level. Where this gets interesting is how few of them are willing to do something different to make an impact.
They repeat the same message they have for years, fear to break the mold, but expect that things will change. They pour countless amounts of dollars into marketing, expecting that somehow the same old message will get through.
It's like running on a treadmill. No matter how fast you go, you stay in the same place. If you want to go somewhere you have to run in unconfined territory. You have to break free of what's already there.
Applying this to your brand: say something different, look different, act different, be different. Change.
Nothing is ever perfect. Every brochure, marketing collateral piece, logo, company name, website, all of them have things that could be better. Now, you have two choices: try and attain perfection, or make something good and prepare to iterate based on feedback.
You cannot keep throwing spaghetti at the wall and expect to go anywhere. You need to launch, get actual feedback, and then pivot.
Whatever you are working on, launch it. If it sucks, at least now you know and can change.
Most startup founders associate branding with identity design (logos, color, patterns, etc.). While visuals are an important part of the branding process, it isn't everything. In fact, they are the last step taken.
It stands to reason that your logo is not your brand, and your brand is not your logo. Period.
Logos are symbols, a brand is a feeling. Specifically, the feeling one would associate with your company.
Think of it this way, if a blind individual could not see your logo, but they could hear the things you say and how you want to make an impact on the world, would they understand who you are? Or would they be presented a shallow articulation of who you are and how you're different.
Branding is not a logo. If you do not know how to communicate who you are to someone who cannot see, you're in trouble. You should sound different, act different, and feel different. Only then can you make a case for looking different.
Saving the world, one (blank) at a time.
Are you really? What is your metric for doing so? How are you different from companies x, y, and z that are also saving the world, one (blank) at a time? Lastly, what good does it do for me, your intended customer?
You weren't thinking of that when you first wrote that tagline, were you? Probably because it's bullshit and it's not really why you're in business. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you don't care about whatever cause you want to help, but if this phrase has crossed your lips in trying to build your brand, it means you are not diving deep enough.
You are choosing to piggyback off a phrase that has no intrinsic meaning other than being a cliché that won't offend anyone.
You can do better. You and your brand are worth more than a worn out phrase void of passion.
How would you fix it? Take a look at some of the best taglines ever written:
Just Do It.
What do they have in common? They're simple, they break from convention, and they encourage the user to be something more. To be more creative, to be a champion, to feel secure, to be happier. These taglines don't impose the idea that a user needs your company, they inform the user that this company has a shared aspiration whether they use their product or not.
They're not salesy, they're not imposing, and they are not trying to make it about themselves. These taglines are calls that signal the user to a new adventure.
You want people to be inspired by your tagline? Don't settle for cliché bullshit. Dig deep and think about how you can encourage a user to be something they never thought they could have been. Most importantly, do it in a way that brings your unique flavor to it.
A brand is not a logo, it's not a product, it's not your reputation, it's not your name, so what is it?
A brand is the gut-feeling someone has toward your business. You make them feel a certain way through your company's behavior, it's appearance, and the experiences you provide.
All of this to say that making someone feel a certain way requires you, the business owner, to stop thinking about yourself and think about how you will impact someone else.
It doesn't matter what you like, what matters is what the person you are making this company for likes.
It doesn't matter if you don't like the name of your company, what matters is how it impacts your user.
It doesn't matter that you don't like your logo, what matters is how easy it is for your ideal customer to recognize it.
You get the picture.
The beauty of this, is that the pressure is taken off of you and your subjective standards, and instead focused on how much you can affect someone else.
It's not about you.
In my last article, I touched on the fact that I don't bill by the hour. In summary, hourly billing is a loose-cannon way of determining the value services bring to the table and one that favors things taking longer rather than being done efficiently and strategically.
It begs the question though, how do you structure payment for such services? The way I see it, there are three options:
Pay for design services up front
This is the most common method of paying for design services. It's pretty straightforward, client and designer decide on a price based on the value created through the services, client pays for the work, and the designer does the work. Usually the payment is made upfront or on a specific cadence like 50% to start and 50% after 30 days or before deliverables are transferred.
Lease the design work
It's no secret that good designers charge a pretty penny for their work. At least, they will charge a pretty penny to part ways with ownership of it. This is where leasing becomes a viable option to get quality work, but without the initial upfront cost of buying the rights to the work out-right. For example, let's say an identity package of a new logo and style guide will cost $6,725. Rather than paying for the entire thing upfront, the client could pay 8% of the total cost per month to get up and running. If the client decides they want full ownership of the work, there is a clause within the contract stating how much the buy-out fee will be in addition to the lease payment.
If the client is willing to share profits based on the impact the design work has had on the business, then a third option becomes available. Similar to trading equity, profit sharing or performance-based compensation puts everyone's time and resources on the line. The designer and client establish the key metrics they are looking to improve and then share profits based on the value generated from the change.
When it comes to pricing design services, the key is to be as creative and nimble with pricing as would be expected in the actual work. The next time you speak with a designer and you want to work with them, but can't afford to pay their fees, see if they are open to these alternative pricing structures.
An email from Jonathan Stark came through my inbox today and brought up a good analogy. One worth sharing with all of you on this lovely Friday.
The gist of it is as follows:
When you buy a sandwich, the person making the sandwich doesn't say, "this might cost $5, we won't know until we're done making it."
What's the difference between that and saying a logo and a website might cost $20,000, but we won't know until we're done?
Geez, that sounds like a pain in the ass and disconcerting for the client on the other side of the transaction. This is the trap that hourly billing gets people in, both clients and service providers, a journey through the fog of unknowns that is costly and annoying.
The alternative? Diagnose for a set price (roughly 10% of the anticipated budget) and come up with three, tiered options at set prices. This might not be the best solution, but it's better than keeping a running clock and an hourly rate that never seems to stay under budget. At least a set price is predictable for both the client and the designer.
Why don't I bill hourly? Because I don't like leaving clients in a state of uncertainty.
As the glue-sticks, scissors, and magazine cut-outs were thrown about, my friend Hayley called my name.
"Zach, I found your word."
She held up a magazine page to show me the word REBEL in all caps and in black and white nonetheless.
Now, here is what's flattering: that is my word, and I've been using it since I started working for myself in late 2017. It's a small thing, but that fact that I did not have to claim that as my word and instead had someone else claim it for me means that I've become synonymous with it.
Why does this matter?
Building a brand is about making people feel a certain way about your business. If you're lucky, you can get the same emotional response from different people that interact with your company. So when someone says the exact word I want them to feel about me, it shows that I'm on the right track.
If I had tried owning all the words, there's no way Hayley would've made that comment yesterday. But because I've invested and gone all in on the word REBEL, she made the connection instantly.
Find your word.
Startups dilute their branding potential when they set their eyes on big brands like Apple or Nike. Not saying those brands aren't respectable, they are for many reasons, but they are not startups. They can't afford to be something unique because the reputation at stake is too high. In short, they cannot afford to turn people off.
But you, the scrappy startup, can.
You can nurture your brand to be bold, daring, and different from what is expected and it will give you the edge you are looking for. In fact, it would be a good bet to double-down on the elements of your startup's personality to make sure you are recognized as something different.
Now, I want to be clear, I'm not asking you to go Miley Cyrus and do weird shit for shock value (please don't twerk on Robert Thicke). But you can absolutely veer away from the staid and trite phraseology, colors, and rigid nature you see from your competitors. You can turn on a dime and move fast without getting approval from 30 people. You can do something truly impactful for you and your audience. All the while saying, "you don't have to like what we're doing, because it's probably not for you."
The win of being small is that you can do the things big brands cannot. Small wins.
I was the best man in my cousin's wedding yesterday. I'd spent weeks trying to write a speech for this occasion, but found myself tearing up when I would start writing introductions. The memories I share with my cousin are that powerful.
Needless to say, the attendees of the wedding felt something when I was speaking with plenty of "awws," laughs, and, of course, tears responding to the speech.
Whatever the audience was feeling, the strange thing was that I felt it too. I was reminded of this quote from Robert Frost, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
Here's the thing:
When coming up with the personality of your brand, its values, mission, and purpose, YOU need to feel something. If you don't, how do you expect anyone else to?
No heart in the founder, no heart in the buyer.
In a cluttered market where people buy on emotion, it's the safest bet you have against becoming a commodity.
A friend of mine and I met up yesterday. She's a talented artist and creative thinker, but she's struggling with getting her work out there and attracting commissions/clients. It's a common issue for creative types to stall the display of any kind of work to the public unless they deem it perfect. The truth... it's never going to be perfect. You have a better chance at winning the lottery than you do creating the perfect piece to show, especially if you have particular expectations.
She had asked, "what do I need to do to get out there?"
"You need to make something everyday, for fun, for yourself, and show it to the world."
Lo and behold, within the span of 45 minutes today, she had an awesome collage piece completed and ready to go. I'd call that a win.
Here's the thing:
You will always be nervous taking the first steps into a new venture. Be it founding a startup, putting yourself out there as an artist, starting a band, you name it. If you want to get to the top of the mountain, you have to take the first step. It's gonna suck at first, you're going to suck at first. But you will get better and it will get easier if you dedicate yourself to small habits that will make up your success.
Go for it, I believe in you.
Be sure to read pillars one and two before diving into this article:
The problem with most companies, especially startups and small businesses is that they cast wide nets. They can't say certain things because it will offend people, and they have to appeal to everyone that walks through their doors regardless of how anomalous. It's in this fallacy of trying to please everyone that rebels gain the upper hand. Rebels are honest, so they know that even if they wanted to, they cannot help out everyone. It's physically impossible. Diving deeper, rebels have the confidence to stand firm and say, "I know that I cannot help everyone, but that's ok because I can help someone."
This gives rebels the opportunity to narrow their focus on a specific group of people with a specific problem. Everything else is a distraction to the mission at hand. You see, to rebels, it is better to have 100 true fans who cannot live without their services, than to have 10,000 fair weather fans that will leave them at the drop of a hat. Focusing on a specific group of people creates a virtuous cycle of respect and care for both the business and the people it seeks to serve. One that can only be achieved by having the courage to say, "this is not for everyone, but it is for someone who believes and needs this."
Rebels are honest.
Rebels are confident.
Rebels are focused.
Be sure to read pillar one before diving into this article:
Being honest opens the door to a hidden superpower: confidence. Because of their honest nature, rebels exude confidence. Why is that? When you consistently tell the truth, you get really good at it. Unlike their deceptive counterparts who constantly have to watch their words to make sure the lies add up, an honest person can speak the truth with the same effortlessness as drawing a breath.
Furthermore, because of their willingness to accept the truth that things are imperfect, rebels can be themselves without feeling the need to impress other people. It's confidence that allows a rebel to say, "I don't have a Ferrari, I don't have 50k followers on Instagram, and I'm not a millionaire, but it doesn't matter to me. I'm still going to get out there and make a difference."
As the old adage goes: confidence is not having everyone like you, it's the ability to be yourself whether people like you or not.
Rebels are honest.
Rebels are confident.
The influx of social media has created a vortex of lies. Lies about how many followers you have, lies about how well your life is going, lies about the good a company does for the world, lies about how cool you are. But rebels are not like that. Rebels are honest.
What does that mean? Honesty is telling the truth regardless of how it makes you look.
This means putting aside vanity metrics in exchange for something deeper and more meaningful. It means being real when you mess up. It means giving accurate descriptions of what you could do for someone, instead of boosting your capabilities. It's having the courage to stand before the facts available and admit that things could improve. The beauty of that is that you can genuinely move forward rather than living a lie that everything is perfect.
Rebels are honest.
The beauty of being literate is that it opens up the door to improve... always. That being said, a lot of startup founders and creatives overlook the fact that marketing masters and branding savants have put their thoughts on paper for the whole world to access. When it comes to differentiation and being rebellious, these are my top three choices:
Zag by Marty Neumeier
Neumeier is the granddaddy of all branding brooks. His cornerstone guide, The Brand Gap, set the record straight on what branding actually is and why it matters in business. He followed up with Zag to hyper-focus on differentiation. The significance of Zag lies in the step-by-step structure that walks readers through how to be different. Granted, he does not dive extremely deep into every step (i.e. crafting a logo or a name), but you'd be foolish not to follow the principles listed in these pages.
Positioning by Ries and Trout
An oldie, but a goodie. Nearly every 21st century marketing book I've read has referenced Ries and Trout's strategies within Positioning. A word of caution, this book is super heady and can seem boring at times, but the examples provided from actual companies within this book are eternally applicable. Expect to learn a lot of great terminology and systemized thinking that will explain all of the marketing efforts you see everyday.
This is Marketing by Seth Godin
This was the first Seth Godin book I had ever read, needless to say it did not disappoint and I rated it as one of my top five books read in 2019. Marketing has almost become synonymous with spammed advertising, clickbait laden emails, and down right annoying. Seth's definitions of service-oriented marketing and the frameworks for niching down are the most clear and articulated I've ever seen. Furthermore, he uses real-world examples to demonstrate how it is the most generous brands that win, not the ones with the sexiest ads or the most keywords.
Startups frequently align with the idea that you need to be absolutely perfect before you launch your product/service. That's a surefire way to never make progress.
Part of me thinks it's because they want to be seen as the best and idealized, rather than being something good.
I'll be honest, I know my website could improve. I know I launch articles and newsletters with spelling errors. I know that I sometimes forget pieces of information that would have made a difference in a sales call. But we cannot go on expecting that everything has to be, or will be for that matter, perfect.
It's as if startups conflate being vulnerable and human with being undesirable. That fear of being undesirable is a dragon, snarling and biting, waiting to inevitably breakdown your door and consume you rotisserie style.
Screw that, take the offensive. Launch with imperfections, bumps, and blemishes to say, "we are not perfect, but we will continue to get better."
Slay the dragon.
The Startup San Diego team and I launched the new San Diego Startup Week website yesterday. We thought we'd covered everything. We had tested user flows, we'd checked all of our links, but we could not have anticipated one thing: how much engagement we got.
For an hour we had unresponsive voting features because our automation service was at max capacity (and we'd already beefed it up).
However, this paled in comparison to the fact that we had record breaking numbers of users, ticket sales, etc. Small bump int he grander narrative.
The point is this:
you can plan for everything in the world for your brand, a new website, etc. but you will not burst into flames from having small bumps in the road.
One of my closest friends lives in London, but he's in San Diego now for his sister's wedding. It was a pleasant surprise. I hit him up and he told me he'd only be in town until tomorrow evening.
Tomorrow evening!? Dang, that's not a lot of time to get together.
I checked my calendar and saw a bunch of scheduled items. All of them are black, so there's no distinction between them. How could I have scheduled so much stuff on one day?
Cue color coding. I created some alternative colors to use to showcase different meeting types I have. Red for in-person and green for digital meetings.
Sure enough, I have three red items today. That's a lot of meetings in a very short amount a time. Don't get me wrong, I love people (a lot more than most designers, I'd think), but this showed me that I'm spreading myself thin for time. This burns the most when I don't have flexibility to see friends from out of town because of it. Something had to change.
So I set a rule: if I see two red/green slots in one day, that's it. No more. A red flag, if you will.
Color-code your calendar.
I got pretty sick this week.
Worst I've felt in over a year.
Today is the first day that I don't feel like complete shit, though still not 100%. It really sucks because the first week of this month was packed with 6 appointments and meetings with others. Even if you're sick, you still feel the need to at least try and get out there because meeting other people is important, especially in business. I'd wake up each day hoping I'd feel better, but I was still hacking up lungs and blowing outrageous amounts of gunk from my nose until this afternoon.
What I thought about was this: I could get out there and meet people regardless of how I was feeling, but it wouldn't have been a pleasant experience for the other people involved.
Could you imagine being on the other side of the table as I coughed to the point of puking (that actually happened)? Or seeing globs of snot drip onto my mustache? It'd be freaking disgusting.
Here's the thing:
While it might seem heroic and dignified to go at the day regardless of how I'm feeling, the fact that it would've been awful for someone else to endure my company is what matters more. It's about them, not me.
Stuck on whether or not you should pursue a new product, feature, or campaign for your brand? Think about the person on the other end, it'll give you a better sense of direction.
There are two camps for prioritizing brand elements and how much investment should be given to them:
Doing it Right and Doing it Now.
"Doing it Right" elements can be distinguished by one key characteristic: longevity.
Meaning, they should not change drastically over time because it would diminish their value. Items that come to mind are pieces of the core identity like a name and logo. Without the necessary attention given to them, they easily become lost among competitors or run into issues later. For example, a neglected logo will have difficult placement on varying applications, improper formatting, or general discontent from the owners of a company. Neglected names follow a similar trajectory, as they lose their appeal fast and are difficult to expand. "Do it Right" elements left unattended fall victim to sunk-loss fallacy, working their way deeper and deeper under the skin. Until you finally pull them out and they take pieces with them. Ouch.
"Do it Now" elements can be distinguished by one key characteristic: change.
Meaning, it is expected that at some point these will change because it will increase their value. In the digital age, we have a lot of flexibility to adjust things like a website, social campaigns, email templates, printed marketing collateral, etc. In fact, as technology progresses, it's not even certain whether those mediums will still be relevant. However, it is certain that those elements will change to be better optimized and catered to reflect the brand, or that they will eventually run out of stock and need to be revisited anyway. "Do it Now" elements can start rocky and gradually get better. For example, a website might start out as a single page and move toward a robust, e-commerce site with membership logins, custom CMS platforms, gated content, etc. Change made for the better that adds value rather than detracting from it.
Debating whether or not a brand element needs to be done right or done now?
Ask yourself, "how long do I expect this to stay the same?"
If the answer is, "a long time, hopefully forever," give it the attention it deserves.
If the answer is, "it will have to change eventually," get rolling fast and iterate.