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Brand is Inevitable
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A few months back, we had the privilege of meeting with Marissa Homère to discuss marketing, brand, and leadership, among many topics. I first noticed the Dare to Lead book by Brene Brown on her shelf, and from that moment on, I knew this conversation would be thought-provoking.
One of Marissa's most illuminating comments was that "brand happens whether you invest in it or not." As an anthropologist working in marketing, I found her assessment quite powerful. For a while, we had been thinking about brand as an inevitable business reality, but we needed clarity to take a stab at it and put it into words. Talking to Marissa helped us do just that.
This essay is the result of our kind and thoughtful conversation, and we hope to do justice to Marissa's wisdom as to why investing in ads that give you goosebumps (the one that have a brand and a soul) is more necessary than ever.
What is a brand anyway?
A brand is not a logo, it is not an ad, and it is not a typeface (to mention a few examples). A brand is an idea represented in a product, the meaning of such a product, the values it stands for, and the purpose behind it in relation to similar solutions. Whenever brands succeed, they exceed the product and can move from one category to the next because they are not products but cultural objects (like Nintendo or Listerine).
In marketing and many B2B communities, the brand appears to be an afterthought. We believe the right way to grow a business is to experiment and find product-market fit before investing in the brand. If it fails, we can move to the following product, the next experiment and the next app. But what if we had the chance to do things differently? To try to find significance, cultural insight, and resonance beyond product market fit?
Brand happens whether you invest in it or not.
As we mentioned, it is an easy mistake to think of a brand as the logo and image you put on top of a highly engaging product. We built an entire lean mythology around digital products prioritizing speed over quality, pushing us to move fast, compete for attention, and ship trash as long as we get it right in the next iteration.
Some B2B brand outliers are exceptional. They can be funny, colorful, and different, or well-produced and have an impact. What makes them stand out, however, is that thousands of daily ads competing for attention don't stop them from striving to be original and memorable. A quality that differentiates them from a crowded space, looking for playbooks and hacks into the consumer's mind while ignoring the importance of branding and great advertising.
It is not a coincidence that the global SaaS market is projected to grow from USD 251.17 billion in 2022 to USD 883.34 billion by 2029, exhibiting a CAGR of 19.7% during the forecast period. Building products is easier than ever (with the rise of no-code and AI), and the essence of work is shifting so quickly that grabbing a piece of the pie seems like a piece of cake. Except, it isn't a game of products but a game of meaning and identities.
We see products left and right, from B2C to corporate, that aren't fully functional, without a clear value proposition, and are exclusively transactional. Marketers build funnels, lead magnets, and ads with lazy creatives and brand insights as long as speed, filling the pipeline, and monetizing happens. But what happened to paying attention to the customer and building a product that doesn't just solve problems but connects with their worldview? We, marketers, myself included, decided to ignore it because the power of data and quick experimentation clouded our judgment. We forgot that branding is undeniable and permanent, and, as Marissa mentioned, it happens whether you invest in it or not.
For us to jump beyond product and rediscover the power of brands, we need to let go of some preconceived notions. Here, we discuss them, and we hope you are open to reconsidering what your product and brand mean in a more competitive space than ever before.
Essential beliefs we must reconsider when thinking about brands
A brand is a combination of images.
Let's not beat a dead horse. As mentioned above, brands transcend space, time, and product and become stories and values we share with others. They are fluid, can shape their physical representation (product), and become part of our daily lives and identity.
Slack is a strong brand that worked for the fast-moving startup ecosystem because it cracked two contradictory but important values for entrepreneurs: playing hard and working hard. It simplified communication, harmonized projects, and simultaneously allowed you to add gifs, funny emojis of the CEO smiling, and random pics of your cat. It became a product that added value to our daily lives, shaped the work culture in the startup era, and was not a total bore to use.
Not every SaaS can be Slack. But if you are thorough and perhaps a bit lucky, your brand can transcend the product and become part of something bigger than you can imagine. Striving to deeply shape culture is a much more powerful goal than finding product-market-fit.
Building brand equity requires a budget.
Another of the most common false beliefs marketers defend is that you can invest in brand development later. It is easier to wait for the right time in terms of attention and finances to do that rebrand, invest in that video, or host that event. The problem: you are always making an impression and building a brand.
Waiting for the right time to invest in the brand makes no sense because we constantly build symbolic relationships with people and products. We know what type of shoes we want, what kind of software we find helpful, and which is unusable but somehow essential.
From the very inception of your product to your first marketing campaigns, every email, every ad, every landing page, and touchpoint can make a difference. It may take more time, but doing so would allow you to improve everything you say about your product to your customers and internally. You might need to slow down and be more thoughtful instead of shipping fast into the void of attention-seeking products and users with very little attention to give. You may even have to go upwards and renegotiate with C-level execs what can be accomplished, how, and when.
It will be terrifying, but ultimately, and if you are lucky, your user might notice you are doing things differently. There will be an impact. Even if it cannot be accurately attributed, it will position your brand and that symbolic relationship as one that deserves attention rather than another product that ships trash and wants to jailbreak its way into your pocket.
We don't need a budget to care. We need to take a couple of extra minutes to ensure what we do adds value to that person on the other side of the screen.
Can you get away with paying little attention to brand development and equity? Of course, until a certain point. Just because you can, however, doesn't mean you should. Your brand is your reputation, perception, memory, and stories people share about your product's contribution to their lives. In a world where we hear horror stories about the summoning of the apocalypse, the intangible and the unmeasurable matter more than ever.
You don't need a budget to build a brand. You have to care enough to embed value into every touchpoint.
A brand is external, not internal.
Marketers and sales reps are like cats and dogs (and not the good kind that gets along) more often than we think. We often hear the typical "your leads are worthless" discourse or the "they just don't know how to close" counter-argument. In reality, none of these declarations matter much because a product's objective is to solve problems in a valuable way for the end user (no matter the department).
Much of our internal work with our clients boils down to ensuring their house is in order before they are ready to grow. Sometimes it means going deep into marketing and sales operations and connecting the systems, teams, and shared language between multiple internal departments. Surprisingly (or not so much if you do marketing operations work), organizations can grow significantly without establishing clear synergies between their internal departments. It’s helpful to remember that tools don't build a house; people do, and the more clarity on the brand, the vision and the values behind it, the easier it is to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Brands are not just about external transactions. They are also the story your employees tell their colleagues, their families and friends. If you have no idea what you stand for but just the category or the audience of your product you will limit your organization’s growth by default.
Before you can figure out the fuel you are using for your engine and how to optimize it, you must ensure people aren't working in silos and know the product and the brand they work for. The customer wants a single unified brand experience that is valuable (brand), meaning your internal team needs alignment regarding KPIs and vision.
Data is not a reflection of your organization, but of your past.
We learn to believe in data above all things. We follow a religious-like mindset where we measure everything to justify its value. We are marketers, but that also means we are researchers and scientists, and we care about controlling the outcome of our efforts and the revenue we create (as we should). But sometimes, the unmeasurable somehow takes over and proves that there is something wishy-washy, relative, and scary beyond the numbers called culture.
Cultural resonance is a thing. Whether we like it or not, as rational marketers that believe in numbers and results, some campaigns and brands have a much more noticeable impact. It is not a coincidence that Adidas is stuck with tons of shoes from Ye since their partnership ended. We are not saying Ye's behavior was in any way positive. Nonetheless, cultural symbols such as Ye show us that brands are more than objects. They are ideas.
We don't just buy products that solve our problems, pain points, or JTBD. We buy because purchasing something is one of the very few individual decisions we can still fully control regarding our identity and what we believe in. Unfortunately, many of these marketing equation elements can't be quantified. But fortunately for those marketers that are curious and open, having access to these stories about your product can help you plan how to use your data to take your company to the moon.
Data tells you what already happened, and data models give you potential scenarios about what could happen (sometimes, people even build data models to prove a point to investors rather than to predict what could happen accurately). Stories, however, are something else entirely. No one can tell you your story isn't yours, and even if everyone loved this or that product, if you had a bad experience, you will believe it's awful and tell your friends and colleagues. But your experience and the brand's story will also shine if it's good.
Stories allow you to move beyond revenue to empathy and compassion. Although uncomfortable to talk about, write about, and admit, this shift from transactional to caring and compassionate relationships can take your marketing to the next level. Instead of considering products such as Descript as apps that can help us edit videos faster, we can go from usage to meaning. What if we talked about the mid-level manager that started her podcast, edited on Descript, published it on LinkedIn, and landed her dream job? Would that be more meaningful, relatable, and ultimately a better brand play for the app? Probably. Plus, the more stories you have, the better you can map your audience and build funnels that are helpful and valuable.
We are data lovers. With all the available information and how accessible it is to build marketing campaigns, it's almost impossible to find someone who isn't. Growth, nevertheless, is about more than numbers.
Does your brand advertising make you feel goosebumps? It could if you wanted. It could if you used each touchpoint as a privilege and every ad as an opportunity to provide value or spark curiosity. You may not build an identity around your brand, or hack culture like iconic brands do. But, surely, you will stand out from a noisy world where everyone wants to grab attention, but very few do the work to deserve it.
You’re in good company.
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