What even is a brand?
Ultimately, your brand is your customers’ perception of you. It could take different forms to have emotional appeal, visual appeal, experiencial appeal, etc. but the concept remains the same.
Think of a brand like a chemical compound: Although it may take different forms, it’s fundamental ingredients (atoms) stay the same. Take water for example, aka H2O. Water takes the forms of a liquid, gas, and solid, but it’s all still water.
In the same way, two people could be talking about a brand and be on totally separate pages because they each are talking about completely different parts of the brand.
But building a brand is no easy task.
“Brand is what people say about you after you leave the room” — Jeff Bezos
Your brand is not just your logo, your website, or your “brand identity deck.” Your brand is how your customers feel about you.
Your brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that accounts for a consumer’s decision to choose your product over another.
Software companies, and SaaS more specifically, can easily get sucked into getting tunnel-vision with highly data-driven views of marketing. Components of marketing like brand can be hard to measure. In turn, it’s often seen as an expense rather than investment, causing it to be overlooked.
So it’s easy for companies to overlook brand in favor of “High ROI (Return on Investment)” activities. But companies may be neglecting a critical part of running their business: Creating emotional connections with customers.
And that emotional connection is critical because SaaS has become a commodity. Any company can go on a competitor’s website and copy the way the way they talk about their features and even copy their features, maybe even improve on them.
What’s happened is that SaaS companies are competing with micro-differences — differences that may not even be important to the customer.
David Cancel says, “To win, you need to win on brand.”
The way to win in SaaS is to win on brand, because brand is what people emotionally connect with.
I love the blog post Sonja from Drift wrote on why Steli Efti, entrepreneur and founder of Close.io, thought branding was bullsh*t. Close.io experienced explosive growth, and it wasn’t because of the trade shows, sponsorships, or PR.
“In reality,” Steli says, “building a strong brand meant creating energy and a story around a company beyond the product and its features.”
People don’t just buy your products, they buy the STORY, and in turn, buy into your brand.
Your customers are influenced by a number of factors, including, but definitely not limited to:
More and more SaaS businesses today, both B2B and B2C, are realizing that without a brand, they don’t matter.
In the last two decades or so, we’ve seen huge shifts in the way that customers buy products. Consequently, we’re seeing major shifts in how companies market their products.
Ed Shelley, Director of Content at Chartmogul, recently wrote:
“Phase one saw the enterprise businesses of yesteryear entirely focused on product utility and feature lists. In phase two, businesses awoke to the possibility of great user experience and branding in B2B software. Some companies in the space realized they could innovate with a thoughtfully designed, delightful UX. These companies were largely borrowing from ideas and concepts in the consumer space. Phase three is where we’re at today. Successful B2B brands are no longer chasing the shadows of their more innovative B2C counterparts — these companies now stand on their own and are paving the way for the rest of the industry to follow suit in creating a stand-out brand experience and truly differentiate themselves from competitors.”
It’s a larger trend of the consumerization of SaaS. Brand is now a key strategy to stand out from the rest and rise above the noise.
Now that you have defined a working USP (Unique Selling Proposition) and a market to serve, it’s time to level your USP up into something larger than even the customer and the product.
Simon Sinek once said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
The truth is, there’s a bit more to selling than just a USP. People buy a vision, and they want to join you in your mission.
Simon Sinek famously coined the “start with why” phrase in his Ted Talk about how people and companies can inspire great action by communicating their purpose.
Your USP should be a tactical and tangible representation of why your business exists.
You’ll need something internally to stake into the ground and build a truly unique marketing message on.
You’ll need a mission. A why.
It’s about understanding why a customer would care about that mission, and translating that understanding into a story that will compel someone to start a trial and ultimately make a purchase.
The same goes for you and your business.
Your mission should be a grand, noble rendition of how you empower your customers.
Use this template as a starting point:
“<your company> exists to <action verb> <your customers> <with a superpower>, so that <accomplish something unique>”
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to rearrange our USP to form into a mission statement. Use your USP to inform your mission statement. Do some critical thinking about your ability, outcome, and pain level up to a broader mission your company exists to solve.
Let’s take my example from earlier again:
My hypothesis was:
“I believe that people want to AGGREGATE ALL THEIR MARKETING DATA IN ONE PLACE so that they can AUTOMATICALLY GENERATE REAL-TIME REPORTS ON ALL THE METRICS THEY TRACK EVERY DAY, and they would pay good money for that because MANUALLY EXPORTING DATA FROM MULTIPLE TOOLS EVERY DAY INTO A SPREADSHEET IS TEDIOUS AND TAKES TOO MUCH WORK.”
But I would frame my mission as such:
“<your company> exists to <empower> <marketers> <to find a gem of insight every day>, so that <they can discover their inner genius>”
Take a definitive stance. Be opinionated. Sound different. Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what you’re saying, it just matters that it’s different. The Mission is the call to rally, the battle cry, and thing you stand for.
Your mission statement, or your “why my business exists” statement should be:
Find your why and write it down. What you sell is the story of yourself, your products, and the reason your business exists.
Every great brand is tied to a great mission statement. Your brand will be a result of your mission statement.
Develop your brand “voice” with a set of standards everyone can follow. Your brand voice will be the expression of your brand through words, written and heard. But this will also show through all of your marketing copy on your website, landing pages, emails, social posts, etc.
A great way to develop some brand voice guidelines are to write several “this but not that” statements.
“Clever but not silly”
“Opinionated but not condescending”
“Concise but not too short”
“Sophisticated but not complicated”
This will help you write copy later on.
There is also the visual part of your brand. Your brand’s visual identity should be a reflection of your mission statement and your brand voice, so use your mission statement and brand voice statements to create some rough guidelines for how you want your brand to look.
You don’t have to write specific fonts and color hex codes, but you do need to be able to articulate your brand to someone when you have them design assets for you.
Writing a marketing manifesto is critical to your marketing going forward because you will need something that you can reference for every project. If you have people working with you on projects, you’ll need them to follow the marketing manifesto to make sure you’re all writing, designing, and talking the same way.
So what is a marketing manifesto?
Well, a manifesto is just a public declaration of policy. It’s a rulebook. Just a list of things to adhere to.
Therefore, a marketing manifesto is a set of policies, rules, and standards for all marketing activities.
There is no rule about how long your marketing manifesto is, the order it’s in, or even what it says. The important part is that its actionable, it’s clearly understood, and it’s something you can follow for everything going forward.
Dave Gerhardt at Drift posted their marketing manifesto on the Drift blog back in 2016, which was an admirable move, and gives great insight into how they think about marketing.
Here’s what their marketing manifesto looks like:
“The Drift Marketing Manifesto
1) Be remarkable. There’s so much noise out there today. The only way we can compete is by always asking “how can I make this 10x better than anything thing else out there?”
2) Words are everything. Every sentence we write should feel handcrafted.
3) Design is secondary. We love design, but until all the words are awesome, we don’t even think about design.
4) Write like you talk. We are writing for people, so if you wouldn’t say it out loud to a friend, don’t say it in your copy. Write to be understood, not to be an amazing writer.
5) No jargon. Again, we’re writing for people. So write with simple words. Unless 99% of our customers would know the word, don’t use it.
6) Be human. People have learned to tune out marketing that feels like marketing. So all of our marketing should feel like it’s coming from a friend.
7) Be specific. We love people, but people need instructions. So in your marketing, tell people exactly what you want them to do, and make it easy for them to do it.
8) Customer-driven, not company driven. We do things for our customers above all else. Not for us.
9) Trust is everything. We can never break the trust of our audience. So that means we don’t ever do things like buy lists and spam people.
10) Validated learning over opinions. That means we let our customers decide, not our own opinions.
11) Lean development. Not agile. Not waterfall. Just like our product team, that means we ship things in real time — and ship based on customer feedback. Not just because our roadmap or content calendar said so.
12) Good marketing vs bad marketing. Good marketing is showing, not telling. This is one of those things where you know it when you see it.
13) Everything is marketing. Marketing isn’t just our website, our blog, or the emails we send — it’s everything we do.”
Dave Gerhardt says in the slideshare, “but since we believe that everything is marketing, we thought we’d share it publicly, too.”
Remember? Everything is marketing, and marketing is everything.
There’s no tricks to creating a great marketing manifesto. You don’t have to share it (although I would encourage you to), but you do have to believe in it.
But don’t steal someone else’s—get your own.
Every brand needs a bold visual identity. A flag to plant in the ground.
If you look at successful SaaS companies in the space today—Slack, Dropbox, Intercom, Drift, Basecamp, Trello, Buffer, Atlassian, Baremetrics, Mailchimp, Typeform, Chartmogul—they all have an incredibly distinct style and voice.
The trends you’ll see across all of them are:
Unless you are a designer, this part of branding is going to be very tough for you to do well.
If you’re already getting considerable traction with your products and growing as a company, I highly recommend investing in a designer to shape your visual brand identity.
To get to a design-friendly branding “MVP,” i.e. something that’ll do for now, services like 99designs or subscription services like Manypixels.co or Designpickle.com are awesome resources to invest in.
Brand can seem like a real hassle—something to get to later or leave to the “creatives.” In all reality, brand is one of the key components to great marketing and will amplify everything you do to market your products. Great branding reinforces the value of your products and helps create sticky emotional ties back to your company.
In the next chapter, we’ll move on to more tactical concepts like pricing and packaging to strategically offer products in a way that’s a win-win for both you and the customer.