A Meta Note About Brand
The unquantifiable asset qualitatively explained.
Few things are as elusive to define as the concept of branding. A good brand drives many fortunes, its difficult to build, and much harder to maintain. It’s why companies like Craigslist can subsist off of minimal website styling and fend off competitors with higher design budgets, and it’s why notable celebrities can propel formerly niche products into the mainstream.
I feel like conversations around brand are usually driven by people who have it in their best interests to promote their own work, of which I see nothing wrong with. But in the quest to sell a personal “branding” class. The result is a bunch of subpar content about the branding function and as such it’s rarely ever applied to startups. As a result, the tech industry doesn’t happen to take that effort to establish a brand seriously. You can see the results of this through a number of tone-deaf advertisements and quandaries that many companies are confronting lately.
This post is a summarization of a multi-year effort to understand marketing, design, and branding. It’s the illusive “dark matter” that explains some product success- and the more I learned about it, the more I became entranced with it’s storied history beyond the “1950’s brand men” phase that many reference. I delved into the greats of yesteryear and today. These are people like Seymour Chwast, Eric Hu, Vicki Maguire, and the recently departed David Kennedy. The marketing discipline is a well practiced one that only recently found it’s footing in the professionalization of the career after World War 2. It’s where Americans were tasked to switch it’s collective mindset from rationing to consumption. In that process, graphic design and art direction were just two tools at the copywriter’s disposal to make advertisements to the general populace. And if you are a Product Manager- you owe your discipline to this practice.
But enough romanticizing, lets talk brand.
What is a brand?
I want to first disambiguate the term. Many people use the words company and brand interchangeably, the people whom do this are faultless. We are led to believe that companies are their brands. We think this because if a company utilizes their brand correctly, we are led to believe that there is no difference. Rather- a company has a brand. And the best definition of what a brand is comes from Creative Director Phil Chang: a brand is a company’s point of view.
That’s all it is.
A company’s point of view should answer why should it exist versus not existing. For companies who have a weak proposition on the market, they are no longer here with us.
This reason for existing should be the primary driver for your company over others. Here are a few samples from well-known companies.
Nike: “Fearlessly empowering athletes.”
Home Depot: “One-stop shopping for the do-it-yourselfer.”
Notion: “Tools for thought to solve your problems, bounded only by your imagination.”
In Nike’s case compared to their competitors- at the time most sports equipment companies only focused on providing the right tool for the job but didn’t spend much time on refining that product over a regular cycle, nor did a great job on tying product improvement to the mythology of the athlete. For example: New Balance, although they make great shoes don’t really highlight the improvement or technology in their product, they appeal to legacy of design rather than a new innovation.
In the land of software, Notion achieves differentiation from other workplace tools by not being opinionated on the type of document created, rather focusing on the choice of it’s users and work styles. They successfully tie their product philosophy as a successor to the workplace tool designers of the past. (Such as Vannevar Bush’s Memex)
A company executes on it’s brand by incorporating it’s viewpoint on why the company exists directly into it’s products. In the field, Product Managers usually call this differentiation.
Companies more often than not desire to ship product, and for people to care about the product- the features need to make people care and work in cohesion with the company’s value prop. This is product strategy: to take a practical example around Notion, the company proposes it’s self as a free form work document.
It manifests it’s self with a feature in the wild with: custom blocks on pages. By making pages entirely composable, the upper bound of what a document becomes exponentially higher than a Google Doc. With the release of Notion 2.0, every documents company from March 2018 onward, incorporated similar features on document composability and interop. To where people expect composable documents and slowly their competitors remove the notion of a skeuomorphic page is gone. However, brand strategy can help the company stay top of mind when copycats inevitably knock at your door.
This is where Brand Strategy comes in. Strategy around a brand is all about making people care about a company’s point of view and tying that into your product.
Phil Chang provided an excellent example with Nike on applying Brand Strategy. Nike's brand is, "fearlessly empowering athletes"- how would one apply that? You develop an improvement and apply it everywhere tying the the improvement to the point of view. (Like Flyknit, or Dri-Fit) When you do it successfully, the improvement demonstrably changes the market where it becomes table stakes rather than a differentiator. (Like everyone's generically branded moisture wicking feature, I dare you to name Adidas’s version of Dri-Fit) By being able to lead in the market, customers seek you out rather than the other way around.
The reason why product feature terms stay top of mind is because effort needs to be placed in the product development process to fit features within a portfolio and giving it a requisite budget to become top of mind. (Something that is admittedly easier in physical products rather than services.)
Manifesting a Brand
The good news is that developing a company’s brand does not require that you need to hire a brand consultant and start running New York subway advertisements.
If you relentlessly plead the case to the market as to why your product/service is better and demonstrably show it- a brand is built. Simple actions such as doing what your company says it will do is an easy baseline that many fail to meet.
The reason why some tech companies are beloved versus others is a matter of the attention to care on the experiences that matter to customers rather than picking the latest font trend to use in your logotype. For companies in the tech space who do brand well is usually a synthesis of doing a great job of telling their point of view, being consistent with the values that they set for themselves and customers, and then manifesting that within the product. Companies like Twilio, Stripe, and GitHub have strong brands because of what they offer resonates with users and remain consistent with that proposition to customers. The features they build within their products make sense within the range of problems they seek to solve.
As a former Product Manager, one dead horse I will continue to beat is how everything eventually ties into the marketing function. Feature adoption is tied to where in the product it lies- which then leads you to think on how to you promote it, and if you did a good job of tying it to the correct persona.
However, as you move up the discipline where the responsibility of your product portfolio grows- you start to run into macro shifts, sooner or later you'll run into how people feel about your company. Those emotions then manifest into churn rates and adoption rates. One of the levers you face in this case is then the brand and product strategy that the company has.
The way a company builds a marketing function and how it handles its brand is usually imprinted at a very early stage and like most things in formation, are hard to change once things are in motion. In the never ending race to make people care about one’s creation, I urge you to avoid quick salesmanship and hacks to get people to use those products that we make. Although effective in the short term- nary a business worth it’s salt can keep relying on clever tricks. Hence, founders must become good storytellers to make sure their narrative matches the reality they wish to create.
The Meta Case
I wrote this before The Facebook Company made the choice to change the holding company’s name to Meta. But felt that many of the issues that the company formerly known as Facebook faced were issues with it’s brand. However you feel about Facebook as a product, I think that the blame does lie within company leadership for as to why it is perceived the way it is.
Trust is a bank that makes no loans and once that trust is broken, it is difficult to rebuild that trust. The fact of the matter is, despite how generous FB’s deflationary effect it had on the communications market (You don’t pay anymore for long distance calls do you?) consumers tend to punish companies for any slight, real or perceived. I hold a belief that consumers have such a poor view on Facebook because of how the product makes them feel and that there is little to no recourse when things go awry with your account. I don’t think people mind about the data collection even though most American journalists seem to start with that lede.
At the time of writing- the Blue App has a 2.2 star rating on the app store. Even seeing a few reviews don’t talk about issues with Privacy, they just want the app to work and more so- explain their app’s policies clearly.
When you consistently provide great service, considerate to the desires of your customers, and importantly- delivering on the premise of the product, the market will notice it over time. If you balance this ability to stay consistent with the ability to figure out what makes people care about what you make- you’ll create a lasting moat for your company. You can retrench investment in that moat by burning relationships with corporate partners and your users.
The reason why you are going through the arduous process of building a company is that’s the thing you are building must exist and it can’t not not exist. Might as well put the effort make what you are building matter to people.
Hey, Angelo here from Angelo’s Parallel Lines 👋 thank you for reading/scrolling this far!
Every month or so I endlessly binge on niche esoteric content and write about my experiences to tell interesting internet stories, share product learnings, and talk to readers like you.
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