Building a Tech Brand for Business
When and Why Brand Building Matters
This is a blog series on B2B tech branding. Part 1 [Theme]
Part 2 [Elements]: Elements of a Tech Brand Story. Part 3 [Process]: Creating an Authentic Brand Story. Part 4 [Structure]: Brand Stories & the Hero’s Journey. Part 5 [Case Study]: Building a Brand with a Collective Soul [Google Cloud interview]
Recently in a conversation with a CEO of an artificial intelligence software startup, I asked him what the biggest deterrent to their company's growth was. I was not surprised to hear the answer: lack of branding. By this, he meant that when the sales team calls a customer, the customer doesn’t know the company or what they stand for. “We need a crisp story, and we need everyone to know it,” he said. Fair enough.
As we delved into what a wonderful brand story they could create and promote through every ad and social channel, I asked a few questions that triggered this exchange:
Do you have any customers who are referable? Many.
Do your users love your product? Of course!
Do your users know and believe in your product vision? Some.
Do your buyers know the business value that your product delivers? Kind of.
Do you have proof of value you delivered to them? Do they? Hmm...
So, can your customers tell you what makes your product or your company different? I’m not sure.
Do your sales and support teams agree and believe in it? ...Maybe?
Your employees: engineers, finance, etc? ...Not sure.
Your network of partners? *silence*
The answers became less and less certain. So what have these got to do with branding in the B2B tech world?
photo: Reena Kapoor @ 1stardusty on Instagram
The conventional B2B view holds that tech branding is about creating and telling a company story—around its cool technology, ideally endorsed by customers and hopefully a few celebrities, and delivered in a slick campaign across all marketing channels (e.g., airport ads, WSJ full-page tear outs). The dream is that when the CEO or a sales rep walks into a meeting (or recently, Zooms into a call), the customer will say, “I know your company! It’s great! I saw your ad at Heathrow.”
The reality of branding in business tech is different. It is complex because business customers are varied, products hard to explain, and the business value elusive. Worst of all, the brand stories are boring, hyperbolic, and untethered from the true impact of a technology—both positive and negative.
In this series of blog posts, I shall outline what brand building means for business tech companies, why brand matters to tech companies, what the elements of a good brand story are, how to create a good brand story, and the most common story structure for tech companies selling to business.
What is Brand Building?
My definition of some key B2B tech brand concepts are as follows:
Brand building is the practice of living an insightful story that the technology company has defined on how it promises business value for its customers, partners and key stakeholders (e.g., investors) through its offerings.
Brand building rests on a set of commitments made to customers, partners, and employees through iconic actions that deliver on the story over time.
Brand equity or the brand is the asset created as an outcome of this practice. Though intangible, this asset is a strong predictor of customer growth, product innovation, partner ecosystem growth, employee retention, and ultimately, investor appeal.
Right away, note that this definition is very different from the common misconceptions of brand building among tech company executives. Below are three common mistakes executives make in their branding process.
Telling Only Half the Story
Often business stories are half stories: either about the product functionality or the business benefits. Typically, for tech founders, the story is about the features of a novel tech that resonate only with the users of the product. Such stories are not tied to the benefit promised—or value delivered—to business buyers by the technology. The other mistake is the opposite—often promoted by sales-focused executives who make the story about business value (e.g., our product saved millions, grew revenue ten times) but do not tie it to the ways the tech actually “bends the curve.” What is often missing is a unique insight, rooted in the product innovation, that differentiates the story from other similar stories. Since it is hard to tie the use of a novel technology to customer value, a unique and insightful brand story is not easy to achieve or common to find.
Great Story, No Teeth
Businesses are bombarded daily with powerful stories of tech-envisioned futures. However, new technologies are notoriously complex to deploy inside firms, and it can take a long time, often quarters and years, for their value to be realised. Therefore, the only currency of a powerful business story is the set of commitments that a tech company makes and keeps with its customers and key stakeholders.
Many companies don’t have enough skin in the game for their stories to be credible. The story claims may be lofty, but the customer experience is shoddy and doesn’t support the story. Evidence of customer success is limited. Employees are not trained or engaged to deliver on the claims of the story. Partners do not have the right commitments needed to service or support the story.
Signaling vs. Living the Story
Merely signaling a story through marketing channels is not enough. Many companies run short-term brand campaigns to build awareness when entering a new market or launching specific products. However, if the story is not executed consistently over quarters or years, these do not result in long-term impact. Business customers have high lifetime value (LTV), and in most cases, these customer relationships last many years. Modern SaaS companies rely on low churn for growth quarter after quarter, tech infrastructure companies wish to make their tech the standard within a customer, and tech services firms rely on long-term projects for profitability. Therefore, living the commitments behind the story is critical to building trust and credibility of the company. Employee morale, talent acquisition, and retention are directly affected by how well a company makes and keeps major public commitments to their story, and hence to their brand.
In summary, most tech executives confuse the cause and effect of branding. Branding is not something the CMO or marketing department creates. It is how the customers experience a tech company’s commitments every day. And that is a company-wide responsibility.If the company’s product technology and go-to-market capabilities are tied to solving customer problems and its employees are engaged in building and delivering on customer value, the brand is the public expression of these commitments. On the other hand, if a company is pitching a ho-hum vision through an ad campaign with celebrity endorsements without commitments to customer value or tech roadmaps, these may stroke executive vanities but do not create a brand.
Branding, first and foremost, is an inside job.
What is a Brand Story?
It is more than a company mission.
It is more than a business pitch.
It is more than a product or tech vision.
A brand story is how the tech company promises to help a customer create business value based on a unique insight (product magic) delivered through its offering.
The brand story has three pillars:
The promise of the value generated by the product for the customers. This is based on the benefit generated by the product in use, and not its functionality. This promise must be credible to the customer.
The insight that defines the most universal or canonical use case and explains how that is served by the product “magic” or the unique technological phenomenon. It is the insight that generates an “aha” moment in explaining the product for the user. This insight should be unique to the tech company whenever possible.
The offering is the “whole” product; the solution built around the core tech and the supporting commercial capabilities [price, terms, services etc.] that create value.
A brand story rests on a foundation of commitments (e.g., behaviors and milestones) made by the tech company. These commitments are measurable and in some cases publicly expressed as iconic actions that represent the brand.
Let’s look at three examples of brand stories from three different types of tech companies.
Story: HubSpot helps businesses increase revenue by helping marketing teams increase leads, sales teams close leads, and support teams turn customers into promoters [Promise]. They do so through a unique approach [Insight] called inbound marketing to attract rather interrupt consumers with personalized offers and content. Their software products—Marketing Hub, Sales Hub, and Service Hub—help generate the content and campaigns through easy to use, configurable tools and templates, all supported by a customer database and content repository across the entire consumer journey [Offerings].
HubSpot is committed to this brand story through a large network of training and consulting services partners, a set of developer tools that let customers extend their products, in-person HubSpot User Groups (HUGs) for customer feedback, and a rich resources library for all users.
Story: Slack makes work life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive for team members [Promise] by freeing them from the chaos of inbox. They do so with a unique approach of Channels [Insight]—dedicated spaces that contain and combine all business-related conversations, including chats, videos, and files. Slack has many pre-built channels for different purposes (e.g., remote work, classrooms) and functional teams (e.g., finance, HR) [Offering]. Slack is supported by 2000 apps, robust API, and a rich resource library [Commitment].
Story: Stripe helps ecommerce companies grow faster by adding payment options that are built to reach a global audience, optimize checkout conversion, and increase optimization rates with no additional work needed [Promise]. They do so by enabling developers to easily add payment capabilities into their apps, sites, and processes with elegant APIs, documentation, and tools that abstract away the underlying infrastructure complexity [Insight]. On top of Stripe’s powerful payments engine are applications to manage revenue, prevent fraud, and expand internationally [Offerings].
Stripe shows a strong commitment to the story with dedicated developer resources, contributions to open-source software, technical account management and investments to work with financial institutions, regulators, payment networks, and banks to reduce payment barriers and fraud.
An ideal brand story has the following characteristics
Articulates a business promise
That separates the tech brand from its competitors
By anchoring on an product insight [“magic”]
Clarifies how the offering creates value
Engages customers and other key stakeholders
Through a set of iconic actions and commitments
Motivates employee culture
Why Brand Building Matters for Tech Companies
An insightful brand story lived and delivered through commitments over time creates brand equity. Brand equity results in other direct advantages:
It enhances relationship equity, or higher trust and commitment by customers for the company actors, especially executives and customer-facing employees. This is reflected in customer growth through retention and repeat business.
It enhances offering equity, or stronger customer preference for the company’s technologies over time. This allows product expansion into adjacent use areas.
It enhances reputational equity through better employee engagement and commitment to the company, which increases talent acquisition and retention.
When to Build a Brand vs. Awareness
As a tech company grows, they naturally perform many of the branding tasks, such as confirming customer narrative and value proposition, refining product differentiation. They may need to also decide whether to join or establish a product category with buyers and influencers. During this stage of testing product market fit, they usually do not need to develop and launch a brand campaign, or commit to any iconic actions around customer experience or product roadmap. All that may be too early. At this stage, the company may simply need an awareness program to test brand messaging. Such a program may be supported by positive news about a company's momentum, such as key funding milestones, partnerships, and early customer wins.
Early stage awareness building programs should not be confused with brand building. The latter require public commitments behind the brand story in critical areas of the customer journey, product roadmap, and partner ecosystems. It is worth bearing in mind that, for most tech companies, the risk of non-branding is often less than the risk of branding poorly. Declaring a brand story and set of public commitments that can not be kept is worse than keeping a low profile and maintaining market credibility. Media is littered with tech companies that spent on branding and flamed out. Very rarely do you hear of a hidden gem that is a solid company late to the game of branding. Therefore, most tech companies should not pursue public branding until after achieving product market fit when they are ready to scale or for strategic reasons, such as fundraising or initial public offering (IPO).
In summary, a brand story is a scenery painted every day with thousands of brush strokes by your customers, partners, and employees. A few grand gestures by the CEO or executives don’t change the scenery, but may ruin the painting.
Branding is the practice of living an insightful company story (brand story)—more than just the telling of a story and more than just a brand campaign.
Branding can build powerful company equity that helps it grow faster through better customer relationships, stronger partner ecosystems, and higher employee engagement through positive culture.
A brand story requires a synthesis of business promise, tech-enabled insight or ”magic” and offerings that complete the story.
However, to live the brand story requires a set of ongoing commitments, especially with customers, partners, and employees. Some of these have to be iconic and public for the branding to be credible. This makes branding risky and not a good short-term bet.
Tech companies may choose to not engage in brand building while still generating awareness for their products in the market.
This is a blog series on B2B tech branding. Part 1 [Theme]