Brand as a Differentiator: How to Build a Software Brand from Scratch
Building and distributing new software products has never been easier. New developer tools make it possible to build software by combining blocks of logic, rather than coding from scratch. Hosting is easier and cheaper than ever. Thousands of products are released every day on app stores and marketplaces. Digital advertising channels allow marketers to reach millions of potential users with inexpensive and hyper-targeted ads.
None of this is news to you if you are trying to build and scale a software startup today. It’s getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. If you’re responsible for marketing a product in today’s environment, what can you do to differentiate yourself? One way to break away from the pack is by building a strong and differentiated brand.
The Essence of a Great Brand
By definition, your brand is your name, your logos, your colors and even your product. But it’s so much more than just that. It is also the emotion that’s generated with every interaction with your product and brand. Brands are intangible, nebulous and hard to quantify. You know a good brand when you see one.
Good brands make people feel something, even for a second. Even when making software purchasing decisions, people buy based on emotion. After all, we’re all humans, even when we’re at work. As buying power continues to shift from the executive to the end user, it’s more important than ever to appeal to actual human emotion. Those extra few seconds of emotional connection could mean the difference between a bounce and a conversion.
It’s easy to be skeptical about the value of building a brand, particularly when trying to scale a B2B software company. In a world where all marketing activities can be clearly measured and optimized, it can be hard to justify investing in something as squishy as brand. You still need to also have a killer, data-centric growth marketing practice in place to grow your user base. Good brands alone don’t grow software companies. But the best software companies usually have a strong and consistent brand. You need to activate both the right brain and the left brain of your marketing to win.
Getting to the Core of Your Brand
Where do you start if you’re trying to hone in on your brand? You could hire an outside agency to go through the process of auditing or defining your brand where they would all give you their own personal spin on a framework to get to the essence of your brand. Or you could save some time, money and energy, by just watching Simon Sinek’s groundbreaking viral 2009 TED Talk because virtually every “proprietary brand framework” is basically just a riff on it.
If you haven’t seen Sinek’s video or read his book, the general idea is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. To explain how this concept works, he developed a chart that is comprised of three concentric circles:
- Why: The core belief of your company, why you exist
- How: How your company fulfills this core belief
- What: What your company does to fulfill this core belief
Most companies have this flipped. They believe that the what and the how are the essence of their brand. Especially today, in a world where software is so easily consumable and buyers have endless choice, you have to be able to quickly communicate the truth behind what problem you’re solving and why you exist.
If you don’t know what your brand’s why is, go through the three circle exercise with your leadership team. This is an exercise that needs to take place with a group of cross-functional leaders. The outcome should lead to consensus across the entire leadership team, not just the marketing stakeholders. In a product-led organization, there shouldn’t be a disconnect on what your why is. You should know what user pain you’re solving and why you’re solving it.
Determining your why is going to bring you to the core or essence of your brand. Describing your why should elicit an emotion of some sort. This description of your why should be your North Star – all of your brand choices must ladder back to it.
Commit to Strong Choices
Once you’ve landed on the core of your brand, it’s time to make strong design and copy choices that reinforce your brand to define who you are and who you’re not. The strength of a brand lies in a consistent and unwavering commitment to honing in on who you are and turning away from who you’re not.
Develop a strong brand identity, written style guide and design system that outwardly expresses your brand and is flexible enough to be deployed across every brand touchpoint. You should be ruthlessly consistent with this system and be willing to invest in these choices for a long time in order to build brand equity. Building a great software brand means that you need to invest in a strong creative team that has the capacity and freedom to hone in and make your brand look and feel exceptional.
Keep in mind that a strong brand does not necessarily mean setting or chasing the hottest design trends. Depending on your why and who your target customer is, it might not make sense for your brand to be hyper design-centric. Look at GitHub as an example. They exist to help people build software. Every touchpoint of their product experience leans right into this mission and gets developers using their platform and joining their community immediately. Their product is not for everyone, but their brand is rock solid. They have made a clear choice as to who they are, and who they’re not.
Every Touchpoint is a Brand Touch
Brand goes beyond the traditional customer acquisition touches when you are a product-led business. Every single touch across the entire customer lifecycle should feel consistent and on-brand. This is easier said than done and should be considered an iterative process—a strong relationship between product and brand is absolutely necessary. When done well, the results can be incredible. The strength of the brand and the product are in lockstep.
Your “brand whitespace” is important to consider as well. Whitespace is the experience around your brand outside of your product and marketing assets that may or may not be in your control.
It’s less of a concern with a software business, but it’s still worth thinking about how timing of communication affects brand perception. What is the timing of email triggers or notifications? Do your users get marketing emails immediately after they have logged a support issue? Are you asking for ratings and reviews before the user has had enough time to get value out of your product? Seemingly innocuous timing decisions can have a major impact on brand perception.
You can take the notion of whitespace even further and think outside of your product entirely and focus on your employer brand. What does your office look and feel like? How are your job descriptions and job titles worded? What do your employee headshots look like? In a competitive job market, a fully aligned brand builds trust with potential new hires and improves culture.
When trying to grow a software product, it can be easy to get caught up in optimizing customer acquisition and activation without fully investing in your brand. A concentrated effort on brand can feel like a nice to have, rather than a must-have. In today’s incredibly crowded software market, where end users are now making the software buying decisions, appealing to human emotion in a consistent and meaningful way is necessary if you want to set your product apart.
We talked to Camille Ricketts to learn how Notion uses the power of being human to win (and keep!) loyal customers, how and why they founded a thriving user community, and lots more.