Once upon a time, B2B tech companies needed two things to scale their businesses: a killer product, and a great sales team.
Ok, I’m glossing over a few other minor details. Investors, talent, founder profile, yadda yadda yadda. But even factoring those in, one thing that certainly didn’t make much of an appearance for the majority was branding.
Why? Because the product was the brand. Researching and buying it all took place through a salesperson. That was essentially the brand experience. Until you got to somewhere approaching category leadership, and had to fend off plucky imitators trying to do what you’d done to the incumbents, there was little need to differentiate through brand design, other than a basic logo and some hastily chosen brand colours.
But the world has changed. According to TrustRadius’ B2B Buying Disconnect report, 77% of today’s buyers do their own research first, rather than speak to a sales rep.
Showing up where they are and making an impression is crucial. Brand design plays a huge role in this.
That’s one (pretty big) reason that tech founders and marketing leaders are prioritising it increasingly earlier in their company’s lifecycle. But it’s not the only one. Here are three more, all equally big…
Do you choose differentiation or distinctiveness?
“When the world zigs, zag”
A classic line in the ad world, and something we should all try and live by. Coined by copywriter Barbara Noakes of the legendary ad agency BBH for a 1982 Levi’s campaign, it resonated with the agency’s founders so much that they actually ended up using it as BBH’s own strapline.
Whatever stage your company is at, you’ll already be zagging in some capacity, or you wouldn’t have got this far. But the mistake that a lot of founders still make is to only ‘zag’ when it comes to their product.
Pretty understandable of course. But matching that with a brand identity that’s equally set apart from your competition is like putting your zags on steroids.
As Maria Rotilu from Octopus Ventures puts it bluntly: “If you’re in a crowded market, with lots of VC-funded competition and very little to make your business stand out, it is likely that VCs will pass straight off the bat. IP and brand are both key differentiators.”
Investors love founders who can demonstrate that they’ve thought about their competition when creating their visual identity. The more different, the better. But where does distinctiveness come in? Isn’t that just the same thing?
Not at all. In some markets, it’s difficult to truly differentiate through your brand identity. Cybersecurity, for example. As Sam Erdheim, VP Marketing for GuidePoint Security said in a recent Q&A with us, when it comes to the incredibly crowded cyber market: “To look different and sound different is really hard…you don’t want a brand that is trying to be so different that it doesn’t even resonate that you’re a cybersecurity company.”
Being ‘different’ really means being unique. Which is pretty tricky in some areas of the tech world, as Sam says.
On the other hand, being distinct is more about standing out and being memorable. Using a combination of clear “why us” messaging and non-verbal brand assets (colours, logos, characters and even audio) to stick in your audience’s mind, without the pressure to be 100% different and unique.
Whether you go for differentiation or distinctiveness depends on the size of the ocean you’re swimming in, and the amount of other fish in it.
But ultimately when it comes to brand identity, picking neither simply isn’t an option.
Consistent brand design is key
Startups and scaleups worship at the altar of growth, of course. And if you’re growing, then you’re changing. That’s good for your business – but not necessarily for your brand. This is because one of the keys to building a great brand is consistency; that magic ingredient which, once you’ve infiltrated the minds of your audience, allows that infiltration to compound over time.
Consistency can be hard to maintain if you’re constantly adding new products, advancing into new verticals or making acquisitions. And there’ll likely come a point along that growth trajectory when you’re really not the same company anymore. So you’ll need a brand identity that’s more reflective of where you are at that point, and where you’re going.
But until then, consistent brand design brings focus and stability. Which is crucial in signifying to your prospects, customers and employees that you may be changing, but your company and its values are still the same as those they bought into originally – and should continue to buy into.
Attracting and retaining top talent
Speaking of growth, it’s something that’s impossible without the right people to spearhead it. Which leads to another huge reason that tech companies are focusing on clear and compelling brand design earlier on: the drive to attract and retain top talent.
There are advantages to this at every stage of your journey. Early on, you might be asking prospective employees to take a leap of faith. Would they be more likely to do that for a startup that looks the part, or one that’s cobbled together a pretty basic and generic brand identity?
As you grow and begin to build more of a reputation, another positive effect of great brand design comes into play. As I’ve mentioned already, one of its biggest advantages is its ability to get into your audience’s heads and stay there. And that audience isn’t just confined to prospective customers. Your future employees really matter in this context as well.
Building your brand amongst them, and looking the part in front of them, is going to be key in inspiring more of them to align with your values and be inspired by your mission.
Shaped By works with scaling tech companies from seed-stage startups to publicly-listed giants to help them stand out through exceptional design.
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