Brand is an interesting concept for many organizations, especially in the digital era. It's helpful to define what you do and to understand how clients and customers experience your product and service. In some cases, it can help a company reconnect with purpose, or define a new one.
Having a brand strategy helps move beyond existing as a product — many Software as a Service (SaaS) companies, but also professional service organizations start there — and building an actual business. The practice of positioning the value you offer helps define purpose for the team, your clients, and potential investors.
It's a critical exercise in discipline — defining what you stand for, who you serve, and what kind of value you deliver — that helps inform the story you tell. Everything else flows from there. A good story, well told is more sustainable over time.
Startups need a brand strategy to position in the minds of investors, the founding team, and clients. But it's not one and done exercise. When we start anything, we have a certain idea of how things should go. Then we meet reality and develop experience as we develop the product and service around it.
The most important process in building a company is that we grow, the team grows, and individuals within it. When we talk about growth, we conflate the two — product (and revenue) with personal and group growth. Part of the practice and experience of building a company goes to seeing the latter.
Product/market fit is important not just to startups, many mature brands and the organizations that support them often need to revisit the business they're in and re-align, if they hope to stay true to their story. Story impacts who you hire and serve, what you measure, and how you go to market.
Understand the business you're in
It can make a big difference to how you decide. Contrary to belief, it's not easier for startups than for organizations more set in their ways. What's at play is not so much loss aversion, but habits of thought, which depend on the story we tell.
A couple of years ago Skift was planning its growth to the next stage of development#. The company had a good story to tell — have your media, and your data insights with it — and knew the trigger words they needed to tell it. But the small wrinkle that it wasn't working so well with investors led to a realization — the organization was living a different story.
Co-founder Rafat Ali discovered that the product Skift had built was itself the product of an organization that had a different set of strengths at its core than what he was pitching to investors. Hence the decision to move forward as a media company with a mission to define the future of travel.
With that, the operating principle that governs Skift's story became three-part:
- Doing less with more is the new doing more with less.
- Going slow to go fast is the new scaling up.
- Less is better, less is deep, less is slow & deliberate, less is human, and humane.
Using these points as the guiding framework, it became easier to align every decision to create a different kind of brand — one that doesn't chase scale for scale's sake, focused on what people know best to provide value in exchange for revenue, intent on building discipline about saying no to the wrong things, including the temptation of following the herd in the market.
The trade-off then became efficiency of effort, and making space to think better to act better. Quality of life creates quality of product and service, the two go hand-in-hand. As Rafat says:
There are two ways to think about creating a company culture. It’s either a set of perks and platitudes designed to make employees feel good about themselves for working somewhere — or it’s a strategic function that helps keep your employees aligned with your values, and your values aligned with your users.
Unless you make a conscious strategic decision to live a brand-relevant culture, you’ll inevitably default to the same generic lip service as a hundred other companies–and you’ll pay the price in everything from recruiting to retention to market leadership to customer service.
I like to talk about users in terms of the people who derive value from what you do. Many businesses who cater to other businesses often don't think or focus too much on the ultimate users of a product or service that originates from their work. They should. Today experience drives everything — it's client or customer to business.
Doing things that don't scale is the closest we get to being human. People respond to that, it's not just a good story. When you're in the passion business, it becomes easier to stay true to yourself. Forget what everyone else is saying about who you should be. Can't be all things to all people anyway.
Tell that story
A story that has run out of juice is the reason why so many companies have loyalty programs that in effect are bribery schemes. The experience is meh, the organization is demotivated, and on things go in a self-fulfilling circle.
When you stand for nothing, you fall for everything, I forgot who said this first. It resonates because it's true. Hard to find your purpose if you believe what everyone says and spend zero time finding what you're about. The truth is that many older organizations that once knew forgot, or changed with the market and missed the critical step of re-aligning products and services with value.
It's much easier to keep optimizing existing processes and telling the same story. There's a feeling of control, and the false security of managing risk this way. But the cost might be irrelevance or worse if the gap between the story you tell and the experience is tenuous enough.
Context changes, the market changes, clients move into new directions… all this movement, more rapid than in the past thanks to technology, is why many organizations talk about agile. To me, agility creates the context for exploring different areas of the business:
- Mindset — how can colleagues and groups keep learning, and staying ahead of the tech / industry / practice curve? Who is ready? What evidence does the organization need to be ready?
- Tools — what kind of tools facilitate continuous learning through action and feedback loops and how can we integrate them in the every day organizational habits?
- Teams / People — what is the maturity level of groups based on evidence and how do we replicate the model? How can we create new teams that “ask for more,” who are inquisitive and curious, so that all strategies may grow? How can we create a new leadership that's open to unproven paths: seek out unknown ideas, and not to get tangled in overly-common case studies? What new insights can we bring to the table?
- Operational — What is the value of better questions and righter answers to the organization?
Answering those questions is a good starting point for telling a new story. The best story creates value in the telling. Some companies find it easier to streamline their story over time as they improve product and service performance, and/or discover how it delivers value.
The hardest part of story is belief, which is why mindset comes first. A good story well told builds community around a business, and inside it. Because it feels honest, and real world evidence supports it (can't be just digital or academic.)
I like what the Skift story illustrates. The company operates in a very competitive market, and it identified its niche, the unique intersection of passion, skill, and experience where it alone can sit.
I love helping founders tell their story, mature organizations re-energize their brand(s), and connect companies with their communities. It's good work, it's important work.