You Already Have A Brand. What Is It?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: great brands all start with great products.
A great product solves a real problem for your customers, who must love your solution enough to pay you for it. B2B startups, in particular, are laser-focused-as they should be- on creating products that solve problems.
Now, let’s talk about why your B2B startup should work on its brand strategy, too. While you have been busy building your product, pitching investors, hiring people, and selling to customers, your company’s essence has coalesced into a brand.
But is it the brand that will serve you best down the road? Is your brand in conflict with your product, costing you leads? There’s no way to answer those questions if you don’t know what your brand is, today.
Why Should A B2B Startup Care About Brand?
Successful brands have consistent messaging. But as more and more people get involved with your company, more and more ideas and interpretations will be infused into your brand.
As your company grows, you will need to delegate work to people that you cannot supervise, and you need to know that the message will reflect what you and your team have worked so hard to build.
For example, one day you will ask a marketer to improve your messaging, sales materials, advertising, or PR. How can they write new messaging for you if they don’t know what your brand is, or what you stand for? You will need to do the work, either now or later.
But doing it now, when there are fewer stakeholders, will make it easier down the road and improve the likelihood that your company’s communications are consistent enough to start building a brand that will serve your company well in the marketplace.
Prototyping Your B2B Startup Brand
You don’t need an expensive agency or weeks in a conference room with PowerPoint to do this. All you need is a few hours, whether over a weekend or slowly over a few weeks, of focus and commitment to putting a stake in the ground with your brand, the way you did with v1 of your product. And just like your product, you can prototype and rapidly evolve your brand.
Step One: Look into a Mirror and Define Your Current Brand.
Take a day or two and write down what you think your brand is.
That is not the same as describing your product since the latter is only a part of the former. There are numerous free frameworks and documents out there to help you do this, but start by asking yourself questions like these:
- A brand is a promise. What are we promising? What do we stand for?
- Are we delivering on that promise in the eyes of our customers now? If not, are we delivering on a different promise? How are we measuring that, if at all?
- Who are our customers now, and in the next 12-18 months? Are they the same? If not, how are they different?
- Because of what our product does, what do our customers receive? (tangible and intangible benefits). These may differ by customer segment.
- How are we truly different from anyone else in this space?
- Why should customers/employees/investors believe us? (proof points)
For now, this is just for you. It’s a writing prompt, to try and put what you already think and feel into words. Now it’s time for a 360-degree review.
Ask your co-founders to do the same, independently and in writing, if you can. Then ask your customers, your prospects, your employees, your investors, and your board. Ask investors who turned you down. Try to collect as many points of view as possible.
Consultants can be helpful facilitators because even great marketers can lose objectivity once they are in the founder/CEO role. Be sure that any consultant you hire does not push their vision, but works to uncover what you believe to be true.
Step Two: What Brand Do You Want? Building the Brand’s Requirements.
Depending on how early-stage your company is, you may be surprised by what you find. This process will uncover hidden assumptions and different perceptions that may challenge you.
That’s a good thing.
Take some time to process it all, and determine where you want to go. Then you can combine the answers into a cohesive whole in one document. Again, if you are unable to be objective, a consultant can help you through several revisions.
Your co-founders and company leadership need to come to a consensus on this before you go further. Take the time to do this, and it will ensure that when you go to implement it, the message will be communicated clearly and consistently.
This is no different than building a “product requirements” document.
Step Three: Implement. Possibly Pivot.
Once you have a full picture of what you stand for, you can start evaluating your company against this brand standard.
Does your product need to shift direction? What about your pricing? Most certainly your advertising messaging will need to change.
Maybe you’ll find (as one B2B company we know did) that your billing team needs to be more responsive, or that your sales folks need coaching. The messaging on your website may need to evolve, or maybe you sell a tool for risk management to conservative gatekeepers, but your visual design is all about fluidity and change, creating a mismatch of promise and need.
The best news is that you can A/B test any and all of your hypotheses on your website or in your advertising.
One way to make your brand concrete and scalable is to write a messaging document, which is simply your brand essence made tangible into exact words you want people to use when talking about your company and your products.
If a brand is about feelings, messaging is the concrete expression of those feelings. If you’re not a natural writer, a consultant can help.
You’ll want to think through short, medium, and long messaging, your proof points, the tone of voice, and style, which may vary depending on the audience.
That way you have a standard for everyone to measure communications against.
Make a list of what needs to change, then get to it. This is a great use of a hackathon in a slower period. Do all the planning and prep work in advance, then gather everyone for a concentrated period to pay down your “brand debt” the way you pay down technical debt.
Step Four: Iterate.
You are a startup. Everything is changing, and so should your brand.
If you treat this exercise as a prototype, you’ll get it done faster. Work with it for a few months, and have it evolve as your company grows. Don’t get anchored on it just because you spend this time and energy. Just like v1 of your product, your brand will change to meet the needs of your company and customers.
Pro tip: Schedule a “brand review” for a year from now. It will be so much easier since you’ll be iterating and not generating from scratch.
You Have A Brand. Make It Work For You.
As a startup founder, you are responsible for your brand. Right now, it exists, even without your attention. Put just a few hours of time into this exercise, and you can leverage your brand for the next phase of your growth.
On top of everything else you face as a founder, understanding and managing your brand might feel overwhelming. Take a minute to remember that you have done the hardest part already – creating a product someone wants. You probably have a huge backlog of product changes too.
Just like with your product, you can always allocate some story points in every sprint to touch a piece of your brand.
The point is not to think of your brand as an accident, but to manage it the way you manage your product and cash flow – with clear intent and vision.
I’ll be speaking about B2B Content Marketing at the Growth Marketing Conference on December 8, 2016, San Jose. I look forward to seeing you there!