Branding: Are You a Dragon Slayer or Patron Saint?

Trends in marketing, like those in fashion and design, are circular. Ten years ago, marketing automation’s promise to turn the craft of business-to-business marketing into a hard science was precisely the message executives had longed to hear. Seemingly overnight, quant marketing was hot, brand marketing was not.

John Bigay, CMO of iZotope, an audio tech company for music professionals, described being perceived as a brand marketer during the rise of marketing automation as “walking into brain surgery with crystals and sage bundles.” The primacy of data forced organizations to question their (faulty) assumptions about marketing being largely immeasurable, but marketers overcorrected. Predictability and efficiency came at the expense of a more durable, albeit less measurable, differentiation: brand.

David Cancel, Founder and CEO of conversational marketing startup Drift, explained: “Competitors can copy your product, they can copy your content, they can even copy your pricing, but they can’t copy your brand.” But how does a marketer go about building a brand … purposefully?

Dragon Slayer

I’ve spent the better part of my career helping software companies sell to businesses, and I’ve observed that the strongest brands tend to fall into one of two categories: dragon slayers or patron saints.

Dragon slayers are companies that identify a broadly unpopular practice, and then build their brand on the promise of a better way. Sales and marketing tech provider HubSpot, for example, introduced the concept of “inbound marketing” as the antidote to email spam and interruptive advertisements. Before them, CRM giant Salesforce catalyzed the “cloud software” movement as a way to expose the shortcomings of on-premise enterprise software.

Patron Saint

The alternative approach to brand building is the patron saint model. Patron saint brands elevate the stature of their buyer’s role in the organization. Take Gainsight, arguably the best-known provider of customer success software. Certainly companies invested resources in helping their customers become better users of their products before Gainsight rose to prominence. Yet it was Gainsight, through its content and events, that helped earn the customer success leader a seat at the executive table.

The company’s CMO, Anthony Kennada, said the patron saint metaphor “resonates deeply” with him, explaining that Gainsight’s marketing investments – including a customer success job board – act as sort of a “career companion” for the professionals it serves. The company also tracks on LinkedIn the number of professionals with a customer success title, which serves as a proxy for how effectively they’re lobbying for the role.

Given that dragon slayers and patron saints think about brand very differently – the former being a disruptor, the latter an advocate – it may come as a surprise that they employ similar tactics. Both have enjoyed success with content, events and community-building, for example. Where they diverge is in how those techniques are employed, and how the output is measured.

Dragon slayer brands often draft off a counter-trend they set in motion – HubSpot didn’t say the company was the answer to interruptive outbound marketing, rather it said the inbound marketing movement was. Marketing’s success is thus pinned to the popularity of the movement it promotes. The more energy driving the movement, the more likely it is to propel their brand forward. This is why these brands tend to take a “go big” approach to their marketing.

Every year, Salesforce boasts attendance in the hundreds of thousands for its annual Dreamforce event. Meanwhile, HubSpot’s INBOUND conference enjoys well over 20,000 guests. While these organizations want their buyer to attend their events, they don’t cut the messaging so fine that those surrounding their buyer don’t also see a reason to attend. The movement trumps the product.

On the other hand, patron saint brands like InsightSquared, my previous employer, think about events more in terms of audience composition than absolute totals. InsightSquared’s annual Ramp event, for example, may be one of the larger conferences for revenue operations professionals, but the audience still totals just over 400 guests. However, well over half of the attendees are the exact persona that the company champions. Like other patron saint brands, the right attendee matters much more than the highest number of attendees. Even Gainsight’s annual Pulse conference, the world’s largest gathering of customer success professionals, attracts just over 5,000 attendees at its flagship North American event.

Some companies are working around this more-vs.-better binary by hosting “birds of a feather” events in which multiple companies, each of which sells a non-competitive solution to the same buyer, band together to host a meta patron saint event. Together LeanData and DataFox, two startups that serve the broader operations function, jumpstarted an event dubbed Ops-Stars that convenes multiple companies each of which targets a sales-, marketing- or business-operations buyer.

The opposing forces of size and relevance also play out in content. To maximize audience size, dragon slayer Drift, which is vitalizing the “conversational marketing” movement, doesn’t put a web form in front of any of its content. It also produces content on a wide variety of topics – much of it only marginally related to their core marketing buyer. They don’t aim to target their buyer so much as surround her.

Conversely, Pendo, a startup founded by product managers to champion product managers, takes a tweezer to content and community where Drift takes a backhoe. The hub of Pendo’s content strategy is, a separate brand that converges product managers to publish content, share best practices, engage in debates and host events. It’s not entirely a “walled garden” – anyone can view the articles contained in the community – but if you aren’t a product manager, really why would you? The subject matter itself (“Who should own product documentation?”) is purposefully limited in appeal, as are the community-supported debates, which have topped 50 in the site’s first year.

How do you choose?

If you are responsible for creating or enhancing your company’s brand, asking yourself the fundamental question: “Do we exist to disrupt a practice or champion a role?” is an effective first step. While the answer may not alter the mix of marketing tactics you deploy, it may change how you conceive them and what criteria you use to evaluate their success. It may also restore brand to its rightful place at the top of your organization’s priority list. And that alone is progress.

Joe Chernov
Joe Chernov
CMO, Robin Powered (a dragon slayer)

Joe Chernov is currently the CMO of Robin Powered.
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