One of the most important goals a startup has is building a brand. It's a key driver for going-to-market and even specialized channels like SEO or virality. Yet, most marketers (and founders) don’t know how to build a brand.
Think of the top 20 most valuable brands. You probably know almost each of them.
The reason they're popular is not that they are simply big. They each "built" their brand. The question is "how"?
A couple of decades ago it might have been enough to have a logo or run spots on the radio. Nowadays, it's not that easy. When you Google "how to build a brand", though, the results are... thin. I offer a bit more practical guidance on this important topic.
A brand is a promise
Most of all, a brand is a promise. It's a guarantees for knowing what you get when you buy a product from a company. Nike’s sneakers are made of quality material and durable; Hilton’s hotels are clean and well-equipped. Amazon’s promise has become its mission: to be obsessed about the customer. Thus fast delivery, low prices and vast selection. That's why having a great product is a requirement to build a brand.
The first step in defining a brand is not to think of a promise that sounds good but based off of a deep understanding of your customers. When you know what she/he (really) needs, then you can think of how to overshoot your target audience’s expectation. Customers have a hierarchy of needs, meaning some are more important than others. This hierarchy is different for each product. Thus, when you know what your customers really value when it comes to a solution of a problem, you know what to focus your promise on.
The second step covers the important aspect of story. Stories have helped humans to remember information and lessons for thousands of years. They’re a crucial component of communication and also help people to remember your company. For that to happen, the story must be compelling, simple, and relatable. It must contain an emotion people can relate to, as feelings are the strongest trigger of impulses.
The third step is being able to fulfill your promise with a business model. It has to fit into your unit economics, otherwise you don’t have a business. So, if your promise is to provide the most secure software out there, you need to consider the cost it takes to guarantee that security consistently. Or, say you promise your pizza to be delivered within 30 minutes or it's free, you need to be able to handle the cost of it.
The fourth step is to position your promise on the competitive landscape. It demands an analysis of the market that factors in what market segments your competitors target. That will allow you to pick the right segment to target, otherwise you have to compete on the same level and that's difficult. Instead, thinking of the Blue Ocean Strategy here, you want to create your own market or at least be the leader in a segment. Once you've picked one, 25% of your brand are clear.
Many believe that building a brand happens when you design a logo and think of a cool tagline. That's wrong. It's born at the intersection of story, customer needs, business model, and competitors. Hence, step five consists of defining your brand by stringing the previous four factors together. They form a manual for the right wording, messaging, logo, values, and design.
Building a brand takes time and consistency, "just like a cowboy hat doesn't make you a cowboy", as Seth Godin wrote. Building a brand takes time and, most important of all, consistency.
If I were to create a formula for a brand it would look like this:
Brand = Time X Consistency X Customer understanding X Great Product X Business Model X Market X Story
Design -> great product -> brand
A great product is the basis of a brand. With the vast selection of options nowadays, good is not good enough. You're not going to sell just another pair of sneakers well. A product has to be exceptional, except for commodities, which are usually sorted by price. In this case, it's enough to be cheap. For all other products, however, Product/Market Fit is a mere requirement and that means the product is exceptional.
The quality of a product is inherently connected with its design. It impacts the user experience, on- or offline, and, therefore, the perception of quality by the customer. It's crucial for a brand because if there is a disconnect between what a brand wants to stand for and the quality of its product, there is no trust. The promise can't be kept.
By following the five steps outlined earlier, you should have a good understand of what the design of your product should look like.
Design has a major impact on how easy it is to use the product and understand Core Product Value. The elements are the same for software or hardware products, even for services. Design is not just how something looks, but how well it fulfills its purpose and how simple it is to use. Apple engrained that philosophy into its DNA.
Our customers want to know, “Who is Apple and what is it that we stand for? Where do we fit in this world?” What we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their jobs done, though we do that well. We do that better than almost anybody in some cases. But Apple’s about something more than that: Apple, at the core, its core value, is we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.
Design also covers the aspect of friction, i.e. every little factor that stands in the way of getting value from a product. For a hotel room, that could be noise. For an iPhone, it could be how easy it is to install an app. For B2B software, it could be how hard it is to set it up #jira.
Friction is not just one problem, it's many. Hence, the job of reducing friction never really ends. It grows with the product but is an important part of product design.
Part of design is reliability, another major factor of building a brand. It's not possible to be consistent without reliability and reliability is a part of design.
If you listened closely, all of these aspects are important for your brand because if they're not "solved", your brand is not trustworthy.
How Google might measure your brand factor
In the intro, I mentioned that brand affects even channel performance, such as SEO or PPC. I want to narrow in on how precisely that happens to keep things a bit practical.
Having a strong brand is very important for SEO from several points of view:
- Ranking boost for brand searches
- Improved Click-Through Rate (CTR)
- More backlinks
Google gives your site a strong ranking boost for brand and brand combination keywords because it makes sense. When users looks for "Amazon", they want to go to amazon.com. When users look for "Apple smartphone", they probably want an iPhone, hence apple.com's landing page should rank highest.
However, Google first needs to understand that you’re a brand and for that it uses hard (quantifiable) factors. We don’t know them specifically but I want to share with you what I learned from my experience.
Brand searches are probably the strongest indicator of a brand. When a certain amount of people looks for a word - that’s in best case not generic - and those searches increase in volume over time, Google starts to consider it being a brand. That’s why generic brands, like “Apple”, are subpar for SEO: it takes Google much longer to understands that it’s a brand.
Brand combination keywords, like “Jira Product Management”, are also very powerful because they show Google that your company is relevant for a certain product. More brand combination searches often lead to a better rankings for generic keywords, in our example “product management”. Google seems to understands the connection. For me, that’s why SEO can benefit so much from well-designed AdWords campaigns: they boost brand combination searches.
Backlinks, mentions, and reviews are another strong driver of Google’s brand understanding. The more and better brand links you have, the stronger your brand factor. The better your reviews, the more likely that you appear on top of list searches, like "best project management app" or "barber near me" in local search. However, better reviews could have that impact because they lead to more clicks from users.
The goal: increase your brand value
Building a brand is not the job of the PR department. It's the job of the whole company. Don't forget that a brand has an impact on every part of a startup: recruiting, user acquisition and retention, referrals, price elasticity, lock-in effects, network effects, Venture Capital, ...
A way to quantify a brand is brand value. People are willing to pay more for your product and spread the word about your company the stronger your brand is. Look at the incredible price elasticity Apple has and the many picture on Instagram of people who stay in the Ritz Carlton.
Brand value can be measured in several ways: NPS, surveys, user groups, retention, repeat purchases. But, just as with Product/Market Fit, in many cases you can tell quickly whether a brand is strong or not.