The Brand-Centric Strategy Blueprint
As we approach this new decade, it is clear that chasing after customers is getting increasingly harder and harder. Social media advertising is now as saturated if not even more than its traditional counterpart.
It is hard to count how many times I've heard the phrase "Advertising is dead" in the past year, but I don't remember once where someone tried to explain how it could be revived. First of all, I don't even agree with that statement. To be precise, the correct description of what is happening is "Advertising a product or service to an audience of people who don't know you, is dead" and that's because the reason people went to the internet in the first place was to consume whatever content they wanted, whenever they wanted, at their own pace and without being INTERRUPTED. Some took this to mean that they just need to make content now, and sell using it. I hate to break it to you, but it's not as easy as it might seem. The following is a step by step explanation of a Brand-Centric Strategy, a blueprint that will show you how you can use Branding as a filter in order to make all your marketing channels better and more effective, and most importantly avoid what I call the B.E.C syndrome (I'll explain what that means later).
1. People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it:
I am sure that most of you reading this are already familiar with this concept, Kevin Hale from Y Combinator for example talks about it a lot. For a successful business, you must start with a problem to solve and not just a product or service that you can sell for a profit. Unfortunately, by browsing pages and pages of listings on Angel.co to do the research for this strategy, I came to realise that knowing this doesn't spare most startups of making the same old mistake. Your mission statement is essential, it is what can make your potential customers either relate to you or alienate them completely. What I think happens is that founders know and understand perfectly that they need to solve a problem that is as described by Kevin Hale: Popular, growing, urgent, expensive, mandatory and frequent. But they fail to effectively communicate that to their audience by focusing on what they are selling instead of why they are selling it, often times in a technical way by talking about features and numbers. Here's a short example that I like to give my clients to illustrate that:
Let's imagine a company that sells coffee thermoses
- What not to say: "We sell the best coffee thermoses in the world, they keep your coffee warmer for longer and for cheaper".
- What to say: “Changing the world into a place where lukewarm coffee doesn’t exist, one thermos at a time”.
All we did here is that we added a story to the problem, what that gives you is a vision, one that people who experience the pain points caused by the problem, can relate to. By connecting with them on a deeper level you enhance their relationship with your company. They are not just purchasing a product or service because of a need, they are joining your Brand. This is the first of your Branding Efforts and it will shape all the steps that follow, your vision is your filter.
2. Give before you take
Your audience needs to get to know you, this seems obvious but it's actually quite difficult to execute correctly, especially when you're trying to run a profitable business or at least one that sustains itself. As we all know, it is unlikely that you can make money by walking up to strangers on the street and asking them to buy from you. Even if you knew that they needed what you are selling, most people will not buy simply because you weren't the first to ask them. They are being asked constantly by billboards, TV, their phones and more. That's advertising, and as we've established in the beginning of this article "Advertising a product or service to an audience of people who don't know you, is dead”, we as a society became desensitised to it. So how do we make it work again? To do that we first need to forget about customer acquisition for a second and instead focus on Fan Acquisition, and trust me Fans can't be bought by advertising dollars.
Here is where content marketing comes into play, but only if it's done right. Because there are many instances where companies failed to use this channel to make money, sometimes it even results in backlash. For example Apple - yes you read it right I'm using Apple as an example of bad marketing - as stated by Neil Patel on a Forbes article "Apple thought it would be a good idea to beam free music to everyone's devices, regardless of taste or storage space: It was invasive, creepy, and ridiculous." We all remember that infamous U2 album. This didn't work because it came out of nowhere and Apple didn't use their Brand Filter, this move wasn't in line with their vision and it felt forced.
Now let’s look at a much smaller and relatively unknown startup that in my opinion did this perfectly, let me introduce Slidebean “The app that wants to take on Prezi and PowerPoint.” TechCrunch, 2017. In short they use artificial intelligence to make better presentations, but they branded themselves to be more than that. Having a lot of knowledge on how to start and grow a profitable startup, Jose Cayasso the Founder and CEO of Slidebean established himself as someone who wants to help others achieve the same goals he did. The company then started to build a following by making educational videos on how to do just that, start and grow a profitable startup. Their YouTube channel as stated in one of their latest videos now makes them $25 000 per month, all from Fans converted to customers. In conclusion your content has to provide real value and most importantly it must be shaped by your Brand for it to be successful.
3. Don’t ask them to buy, ask for help
The people who experience the pain points caused by the problem that you are trying to solve, after consuming your content are now your newly acquired Fans. They relate to and share the same vision you want to achieve and are thankful for the value that you add to their lives through the content that you produce, but they haven't bought anything from you yet. This is a delicate step because asking them to buy can make their previous interactions with your Brand seem disingenuous. People have learned to know a sales pitch when they hear one, and you don't want to risk having them think that they have been set up for this moment where you ask them to part ways with their hard earned money. I'm sure that you know what comes next, yes you need to use your Brand Filter once again. There are many ways of doing it and it all depends on the nature of your relationship with you fans. The following are three examples that cover the wide spectrum of possibilities when it comes to "Asking for help".
Artists and entertainers: While a lot of them are running multi-million dollar businesses, it still seems to me that so many founders are failing to learn from their success. Let's take YouTuber David Dobrik as an example, in his case the relationship he has built with his followers allows him to ask in a transparent and direct way. Here comes the famous "Plug". We've all heard it "Hey guys, please buy our merch and help us keep making these free videos for you". This takes the attention from the product that costs money, and puts it on the videos they love which are FREE.
Tesla: “It’s important that we accelerate the transition to sustainable energy, that’s why it matters whether electric cars happen sooner or later. We’re really playing a crazy game here with the atmosphere and the oceans, we’re taking vast amounts of carbon from deep underground and putting this in the atmosphere. This is crazy, we should not do this" said teary-eyed Elon Musk on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. I don't know about you but to me this definitely sounds like he's asking for help. I'm not saying that Tesla is only selling cars to people who want to save the planet, they genuinely make cars that drive well, look nice and are technologically advanced. But see the thing is, any other company can compete with them on those levels, the one thing that no car manufacturer has other than Tesla is Elon's real love for the Earth. He's not only the CEO but also the face of his company and that is as he would say... very cool. He has figured out a way of having more than customers, Tesla has lots and lots of fans out there that don't even own one of their cars, could you say the same about your company?
Apple: Of course I can't talk bad about Apple without making up for it, after all they were able to make iPhone users stick with a low resolution LCD screen for so long just by calling it a "Retina Display", Apple's branding is clever and it works so I figured there's probably more that we can learn from them. So how did all of this start, how did Apple become one of the top most valued brands in the entire world? If you didn't already know, Steve Jobs wanted to "Put a dent in the universe" so he told the world to "Think different" and the rest is history. Of course there was a lot more to Apple's success than that but had they just advertised their completely closed system named “Macintosh” in 1984, no one would have bought it, so they asked the people watching their ad to change the world.
So from these three examples we can clearly see how you can make your fans buy what you're selling if you just ask them to help you achieve a bigger vision. You can do it directly like YouTubers, you can use a big world issues like Elon Musk or you can make people dream like Apple.
4. Reward your customers by exceeding expectations
Congratulations you are converting Fans into customers, but wait it doesn’t end there. Everyone has expectations when buying something and depending on whether or not those expectations are met, your reputation will change. Marty Neumeier, a master of branding coined the term “Brand Ladder” in reference to this. If you fail to meet your client’s expectations then you’re not even on the ladder, in most cases if that happens your branding efforts will go to waste because it’s human nature to remember negative events more than positive ones, and by disappointing a customer you lose their trust. Delivering on your promise isn’t enough either, that puts you on the first rung of the “Brand Ladder” which Neumeier calls “Satisfaction” and by today’s high standards you just don’t have enough of a competitive advantage to win this race.
To climb higher you need to create an element of surprise by exceeding expectations and here differentiation is key, what is your Brand’s signature? That one thing that makes the experience so much better than your competition? The good news is that it doesn’t have to be a lot, what it has to do is reflect your vision in the same way we did with all the previous steps. I don’t want to give any examples for this because there are no good and bad ideas, just be honest and care about your customers because if you do they too will care about you.
The take-away here is that there’s no magical solution to make your startup the next unicorn, it’s not advertising, content marketing or UX but it’s what you make out of all those things. In the introduction I said that following a Brand-Centric Strategy will help you avoid what I call the B.E.C syndrome, that stands for Big Evil Corporation and it’s what the public will call you if you don’t put in enough effort into Branding. Back in 2013 The Guardian published a poll showing that 78% of the people they asked if Google was evil said Yes, I imagine that it’s probably higher now that they’ve publicly stopped using their old motto “Don’t be evil”. I believe that Google is seen as a B.E.C because they grew so fast but failed to scale their Branding Efforts accordingly, what that says to me is that you need to pay attention to the way people see you even at an early stage because at the end of the day your Brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.