Branding is much more than just a nice logo and an intuitive product design. It’s how your company fits into your customer’s story.
Whether you’re an early-stage startup or an enterprise company, your brand shapes how people think about your business. Those perceptions shape whether your customers and investors will transform into your biggest advocates -- or completely forget about you.
Few people have more experience with this than brand strategist Garrett Curry. Curry is the founder of Raygun Workshop and creator of the newly-launched Brand Distillery, a hands-on workshop that coaches early stage and enterprise companies to clarify their brand message and market position.
We caught up with Curry about what makes a great brand stand out, and he shared valuable insights on how startup founders and enterprise marketers alike can avoid the most common branding mistakes and appeal to the human story of the customer.
Q: What factors separate an average brand from a truly great one?
Let’s put logo design, color palettes and tag lines aside for a moment. That’s the easy part of branding. Truly great brands have transcended design and have focused upon “the gut reaction” of the experience and value they genuinely bring. Today, people are less interested in brands talking about themselves, and more interested in brands talking about them. Messaging has to shift from “we’re awesome” to “you’re awesome."
You see this shift in larger brands like CarMax or Dove. They’re so hyper-focused on the needs and experience of their customer that they almost forget to mention themselves.
Whenever my wife asks if I want to watch a particular movie, I first ask if it takes place in New York. If she says “yes,” then I’m all in. Imagine your favorite film taking place in Manhattan. The main character goes about their day. They grab their coffee. They hop on the train. And just before they arrive at work they face some sort of crisis that requires resolution; an old fling, a kidnapping or a space portal opening up above Times Square.
The challenge for any brand is to be a natural part of the story that’s already taking place, without becoming a foreign object that’s mugging for the camera. They need to help drive the plot forward by helping the main character overcome their crisis.
That’s what a great brand looks like.
Q: Are there any differences in creating a brand position for a startup vs. an enterprise company?
There’s a world of difference! When helping an enterprise brand, it’s not easy to pry their current messaging and positioning from their cold, dead hands. They normally arrive with their mission statement, company values, and a decade’s worth of industry-speak.
This is, essentially, the “mash” at the start of the distilling process. We’ve found that the best solution for them to overcome their former mindset is to take their entire team through a day-long Brand Distillery. We help them literally “distill” their value down to only a few phrases that will inform their new messaging and positioning. It’s a conversation we absolutely love taking people through.
For startups, there are fewer sacred cows to kill. The real challenge is dealing with an untested market. We have to keep the founders in love with the problem they’re trying to solve, so we can properly map out the customer story and how they fit into it. Once we have that, we can compose a strong brand narrative that informs value propositions, web content and pitches.
Q: What is the biggest mistake you see most often in brand messaging?
Too many words and too much jargon. Businesses are essentially geeks; they have an acute knowledge and enthusiasm for something that the rest of us don’t necessarily share. This means that when they talk about it they unintentionally leave us behind, while we just kind of smile and nod. A brand message is going to come out in your introduction, value propositions and how you describe your products/services. If those things are difficult to understand or fatiguing to absorb, people are going to check out. The gut reaction there is, "I don’t get it, so you’re irrelevant to me.” Or worse: “You don’t care enough about me to speak my language.”
If businesses would only read the script of their customer’s story and understand their context, they could better position their language to win their hearts.
Q: Can you share an example of a brand position you've seen that's working really well? What makes it stand out?
Ok, this may seem boring at first, but just play along. We just wrapped up the rebranding of a credit union in northern Indiana. It’s in a relatively small city that has faced decades of economic hardship. Ironically, it’s also saturated with financial institutions. Let me let you in on a little secret about banks and credit unions: they’re all the same. So, positioning is crucial. Most of the competing banks in town are state-wide and fighting over the same top economic class of the market. We helped take our client the other direction.
They’re now positioned as a credit union that was born and raised in the county, who was there for families during historic economic crises and who never left town, while thousands of manufacturing jobs went away. They are appealing to this immense market of families who are trying to overcome their financial challenges and build an ongoing legacy. That’s a completely different language. We’re just now rolling this out into their marketing, so we’ll be looking closely at the metrics.
Q: Imagine that you're talking to a young entrepreneur eager to start his/her first venture. What is the first piece of branding advice you would share?
Most investors would say that for early stage companies branding matters very little. However, I asked Victor Gutwein of M25 Ventures how important branding is to investors. He began staring off into space, then realized that nearly every startup they’ve invested in had a strong brand presence. His rationale was, “I think subconsciously I would ask myself, ‘if they don’t have a handle on their design and messaging, what else is under the hood?’.” A thoughtful effort in branding builds faith and enthusiasm in a startup.
In targeting customers, I’ll take a page from Harvard Innovation Labs and encourage startups to answer the following three questions: 1) what is the product? 2) who is the product for? 3) How does it help them? The startup should be able to weave those answers together into a single sentence and place it at the top of their landing page. This is precisely what we try and help attendees accomplish in our Brand Distillery workshop.