We’ve heard a lot about tech IPOs in recent weeks thanks to an instant picture-taking app from Venice Beach going public. Tech companies, some worth as much as small countries, leave many open questions for investors, users and brand managers alike.
As a brand strategist known for my work with tech startups, I was recently interviewed on CGTN on the topic of how these big evaluations and IPOs may negatively affect a brand and its loyal brand advocates:
In preparation for the show, I wrote down tips on how to deal with the associated brand risks for when your tech startup finally hits the jackpot. You never know: A merger, massive round of funding or even the mighty IPO might just happen to you next.
1. Show Your Users It’s Still About Them
Many consumers (or “users”) question high valuations, especially those of tech companies whose products they use on a daily basis. It is difficult to grasp the financial value in broader economic and strategic terms with tech companies that don’t show big profits, yet are worth billions of dollars. This often makes younger consumers belittle and ridicule apps they used to love. It changes perception.
On top of that, it happens that millennials, especially teenagers, are not known for being brand loyal. If they are your power users, communicate your shared values with them, because a billion-dollar valuation is likely not a value they will automatically cling on to. Now, they won’t delete your app unless the brand itself shows obvious signs of change, but once it does, then they’ll jump ship with the simple swipe of a fingertip.
Be ready to over communicate to your users during the time of IPO. Don’t solely focus on talking to the press. Instead, ensure your users hear from you in your proven and authentic tone. During these times of press storms, “surprise and delight” the ones who made you successful in the first place. They need to – and deserve to – hear from you.
When Google filed its IPO back in 2004, it integrated mathematical (aka “geek”) humor all the way into their filing papers. The value of the offering was equivalent to the mathematical constant e (2,718,281,828). It was a great way to be true to its brand aura even during this risky and otherwise very dry period, giving brand advocates buzz to share.
2. Reinstate And Reignite Your Company Culture
IPOs of young companies easily result in company culture breakdowns. With significant growth and financial backing often comes a hiring spree with leadership changes, added levels of management, and plenty of processes, not to mention the formation of a board of directors. This is the time of internal employee joy – and fear.
Now that the financial success is taken care of, go back in time and think about what type of company you wanted to create in the first place. Have you reached the goal of birthing your dream company, beyond in financial terms? What culture did you want to create? How did you want to inspire your staff? Write down those values at this very important moment in your brand’s history and have your marketing and communications team draft a plan to reinstate them into the company at this time of change. Understandably, during times of an IPO, they are all slammed and are already working overtime. That indeed makes this additional project even more important; they will thank you later.
Being a true brand that is met with admiration is all about trust and authenticity, both of which have to come from the top in order to trickle down from the brand to its users.
3. Don’t Instantaneously Disrupt The Experience You Meticulously Crafted Over Years
An app is both an extremely personal as well as an extremely emotional experience. Users focus on their own tasks and the app is mainly a facilitator in their lives, from booking a room, to taking a picture, to sharing their world with others in their circle. This personal experience is never about the company that created the app; it’s about the user and other users. An app is not a fashion brand that users wear like a badge of belonging; instead, most tech brands are functional extensions of daily lives and the user content a reflection of their own personalities.
The sudden press surrounding an IPO, a high evaluation, a huge financial investment boost or a merger will create a fear of change in their experience with the app and a fear of a change in the integrity of the brand. With money often comes corruption, or so your users have heard. Make sure they know where you are heading with the company and why all of this talk about a big financial boost will result in an even better personal experience for them.
Life is full of give and take, and so at times one finds himself partaking in experiences that one would usually not seek out on their own. My lovely wife convinced me to partake in one such experience last week. We visited the ‘guru of aura photography’ as she made a rare L.A. stop – in form of a popup inside a hip retail shop – and had our pictures taken. Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s apparently currently not just a thing, but the thing. Gwyneth Paltrow does it, need I say more? And now, so have I.
Please, go ahead, meet my aura:
As it goes more often than not when opening yourself up to new experiences, this actually was quite enriching. It was fun to partake in a mythical-visual experiment of sorts, and my aura seems to be in good shape too; can’t you tell? Well, perhaps you can, at least a little bit. As for me, without the detailed info (or shall I say ‘reading’) I received after the picture was taken, I only knew that blue/purple was about trust and loyalty, and comparing it to the many other aura portraits I looked at online, prior to receiving the professional insights, I realized that it had quite a personality of its own. Everything else that I learned about the meaning of these particular colors and their locations surrounding my image directly from the photographer, I would have never guessed by just looking at the colors without a full de-briefing.
That experience also quite nicely summed up my rule of thumb when it comes to the art and science of using colors in branding:
Many books have been written about how to use colors in logos, the meaning of colors and how colors make consumers feel. I even dedicated 3 pages of my book on branding to the significance of color. Color makes an impression and it matters, absolutely, but just how much should the deeper meaning of color, that us ‘branders’ know about, really influence you and your creative team when crafting your brand’s identity?
My advice to you: Don’t read too much into the meaning of colors. It’s less a science and an art than it is a strategy.
Just because blue stands for trust, your FinTech startup should not choose blue for its logo. Your restaurant franchise should not immediately pick yellow or orange as the key color ingredient because it evokes appetite. If you go by the book of colors, you will never stand out from your direct competitors as they read that very same book. As far as my book of branding is concerned, it’s all about you not blending in, and that includes the color choices you make.
To celebrate Virgin America in light of the recent sad news, here is how they used color to stand out, via a case study from “How to Launch a Brand:”
Yes, colors matter, especially when you use them to stand out.
As you start researching the meaning of colors, stop. Instead spend ample time researching your competitor’s colors, then go the complete opposite route and pick colors that truly stand out within your vertical.
But, as most things in life go, this too is a give and take, so ensure the colors you and your creative team pick, as different as they may be from your competitors, will still support your brand’s personality and positioning. That may have been obvious, then again, so was my aura.
Ride-hailing app Uber had a rough couple of months, to say the least.
I for one have been an über Uber brand advocate from day one and have had a lot of defensive conversations (with cab drivers, my parents, and other naysayers alike) on behalf of the brand I so loved.
Loved, because there is love no more.
The other week, as I was on a flight to Austin to hold one of my many Resonaid brand foundation workshops with a startup, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Times on my thoughts about Uber’s brand troubles. I conducted the interview from the plane, which made me feel uber-productive (and quite special, I must admit), and was greeted by the following ginormous quote in the LA Times later that very same day:
One thing leads to the next and I was interviewed by Canadian TV station CBC the day upon my arrival back in L.A. on the same topic (you can read that story here). Now that I am rather well-versed on the subject of Uber brand bashing (*sigh*), I want us all to understand the one fundamental key branding lesson from their mishap so your startup can avoid following Uber’s path:
Uber came in to disrupt a commodity and monopoly service, the cab industry. Today it may be taking their place and share the same fate with the very companies that used to be the enemy. By focusing solely on the next round of funding and speedy economic growth, the company seems to have left behind what matters the most, what literally drives their business: People.
First, the people who actually make Uber a functional business model, its drivers. Continuously lowering of wages and surpassing employee laws turned into a burden for the early Uber drivers, the ones that actually loved the brand the most, as they are now being forced to leave Uber or work hours that may seem unsafe for drivers and passengers alike.
The effect this has on passengers has been noticeable over the past 6 months: The brand experience of a cool, novel, inexpensive service in nice cars with fun and educated young drivers that cared about making your ride enjoyable changed completely. Today, the only brand attribute left is ‘cheap’ and the Uber brand took a massive hit because of greed and a one-track mind that left the life force of a functioning company behind.
New ride-hailing services that care about more than simply profit (ranging from a company offering female drivers for female riders – to a nonprofit that pays its drivers well) will gain momentum quickly as the Uber brand perception is changing with scandals continuing to hit the mainstream press.
Uber may be getting disrupted by empathy.
The key takeaway for your startup is to never sway away too far from the one key brand rule Uber broke by their single-minded product rather than brand focus:
People first and profit will follow.
Everyone is preaching not to be ‘salesy.‘ It became a holy rule of marketing: Brands, earn your trust, then quietly suggest your latest products. Funny how that works, or rather how it does not work, as brands have been so hit over their heads by that ‘don’t be salesy’ mantra that they forgot to actually sell products once brand trust has been earned.
We write February 2nd, the day I paid a good amount of money to partake in the Porsche Experience Center. It was there I learned that it takes 2.2 seconds for the 2014 Porsche Spyder to go from 0-60 mph (in case you were wondering where my ‘clickbaitish’ blog post title was derived from). Not that I am into race cars nor that the Porsche brand gets my heart pounding. No, Porsche opened this race track close to where I live and being fascinated by brand experiences (and being known for enjoying higher speeds) I figured I should get my adrenaline going by racing a Porsche 911 Targa 4S (to be brand-correct) around a track, spinning it in a circle on a wet surface at full throttle and sliding uncontrollably through black ice; all while a professional (a ‘Porsche Drive Coach’) was sitting next to me praying for his dear life, as he should. That, after all, is what I paid him for.
As was to be expected, I got fully engulfed in the Porsche brand from the moment I stepped into the facilities: While usually exiting through the gift shop, here you spend most of your time in it as it serves as the bridge to the ‘Speedster Café’ with its popular outside terrace where one can watch the cars zip on by and start one’s own experience. From Porsche exhaust speaker systems, Porsche office chairs, Porsche cookie stamps ($39, in case you fancy some) to GT3 rear spoiler book shelves, the imagination for branded products seemed endless. In the main entrance hall one can check out vintage Porsches and the actual race cars driven to victories during important historic contests. All Porsche, all the way.
After hitting the pedal for 90 minutes, exhilarated by the driving and brand experience, we took a seat at the fine dining restaurant, named ‘917,’ where we quickly got served some bread and 911 butter. Wait, what? Yes indeed, here is the 911 butter, and it was rather tasty:
As I sat there breaking bread with the Porsche brand I told my wife something that would have made the Brand Manager cringe: “You know, despite how awesome this was, and how I am getting brainwashed by the brand and loving every second of it, I still do not feel an urge to ever own a Porsche. Why is that?”
Here is why, and it is a global marketing and branding disease I see all across the brand landscape: We show off our overall brand aura while potential customers are leaving trade shows and flagship stores empty-handed because we miss out on making it personal and relatable. If you are a high-end brand like Porsche that charges for a brand experience, one comes to understand that you do not want to come across as being ‘salesy,’ yet from the minute I stepped into the experience I was offered brand tchotchkes and branded butter. Why not go all the way and capture my emotions by transforming a well-crafted dream of a powerful brand into something that can become my reality: Show me the car options, show me the e-hybrid, the technology and the things that I care about now that I got re-assured by your great brand image and legacy, and I felt how much fun it was to drive your cars.
Brands, if we have an actively engaged and fully ‘brandwashed’ potential customer, please, for crying out loud, let’s craft a dream of ownership, not a bubble of a brand ethos that will burst the minute (s)he is not fully engaged anymore. Let’s see how our product could fit into their world – outside of our world.
Any brand, may it be a Porsche or a startup, needs to be sensitive to crafting experiences that tell a story; a story that fits into a unique individual’s life. Like therapy, let the consumer do the talking, but ensure you deliver the platform and take the steps to listen. Follow the ‘here is our most amazing product’ with ‘…and here are products that would work for your individual needs.’ Don’t sell a brand mythos alone, make them experience their own personal benefits first hand.
When I came home after my day at the race tracks, I immediately went to the Audi website to ensure they still sell the model I am currently driving, just to feel a bit of reassurance as my lease will be coming to a close soon. And I will drive that Audi as if it was a Porsche, now that I learned how to hit the pedal the right way. Thanks for that, Porsche.
As to you startups, find your engaged target and be salesy; it won’t hurt your brand, but it might just make a new customer happy.
It may seem as though I have been suffering writer’s block so far this year, but fear not as I am knee-deep into writing my second book, which I am excited to share more about in the months to come. This is my excuse: writing has kept me from writing, but – better late than never – here I am wishing you a Happy New Year!
Besides writing during the holidays I did what most do as they start winding down: I was glued one too many hours to my Facebook timeline. Filtering through the current war in politics to find the few posts of friends that were non-political in nature turned productive once I saw my friend Chris’ hilarious post: Chris was on a plane with his wife, noting he got a free upgrade to first class, and, without hesitation, left her behind in Economy to live the good life. I was intrigued and awaited the backlash in the comments box, which sure enough came trickling in one after another at mesmerizing speeds. His reply? “I can’t hear you over the bubbles of the champagne.”
I thought it was witty, hilarious and it evoked an immediate sense of space and time. It made me recall the sound of champagne (as well as the witty POP champagne brand named after the sound of the cork popping – and for being a ‘Product Of Pommery’) and it made me recall memories of many great celebratory situations and, yes, the times I too got my flight upgrades.
I spend a lot of time writing about how new brands can stand out and connect with a target audience; strategically, visually and verbally. How your brand looks and feels is crucial, how it behaves existential, but how does your brand sound? Does your brand sound like anything, and if not, should it?
A known advertising routine for Fortune 5000 companies, sound is often times used in audio logos (‘sonic branding’ –Intel comes to mind, well, ears) which sonically enhance the moment in which a brand’s logo is being revealed, as well as memorable jingles, which are oftentimes so memorable that they turn into full-on annoying. Sounds are extremely powerful emotion-triggers. And just like it is the case with the return of print (book sales are up 3.3% in 2016, third growth year in a row), the use of branded audio is a neglected yet powerful way of brand communication and immersion. Because it is not a standard staple for new ventures to be using (yet it became quite affordable to create), it presents a great way for your startup to stand out and to further strengthen the connection points with your audience.
Start by being aware of how your product sounds when you plug it in, when the task is finished in your app, when the brand icon appears, when the videos start and end? Have you given your product, or brand, sounds, or do certain interactions with your physical product already make unique sounds of their own? If so, how can these be leveraged – packaged to be re-used – so that you can lift that moment in time when your customer is fully immersed in your brand and bring it back to other times in your brand journey?
This year, let’s look at empathy in an additional way: let’s not only listen to our audience, let’s listen to our products and make them connect with our audience sonically, creating emotional connections and stories that turn into memories.
So unless you don’t get any flashbacks when WHAM’s Last Christmas starts playing every December, and especially after this last christmas, you will agree that sound indeed is a powerful trigger of memories. Let’s make more use of it and create some sound memories with our brands.
About this podcast:
On the show, Fabian takes a deep dive into the meaning of a brand and what it takes to prepare for a brand launch. He shares what entrepreneurs get wrong 99% of the time when it comes to branding. As a result, he offers a step-by-step guide for those entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping but know brand development really matters far beyond a product or service they offer. In addition to discussing company branding, Fabian also shares his thoughts on personal branding, how technology affects a brand and why you should align with the right people.
Do you know that feeling when you are so inspired by something that you’re left speechless, puzzled and somewhat confused? Perhaps you’ve experienced it from a natural wonder, an incredible speech, a mind-blowing innovation you read about, or simply something your newborn does. Well, I had that moment while watching Netflix.
I know that sounds peculiar, but when I watched the first episode of Netflix’s second season of “Chef’s Table,” the show that dives deep into a specific renowned chef’s way of thinking, it took me a day or so to sort everything I learned into nuggets of insight. The episode starred American superstar chef Grant Achatz. But it wasn’t the balloon cheese dessert, the fact that he overcame cancer (stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth) and was known for years as “the chef who couldn’t taste,” or his quest to reinvent meals daily that inspired me. It was his relentless creative drive that left me speechless.
His quest to transform something (food, in his case) into an emotional experience is remarkable; this is also why I do what I do at my brand consultancy. When I work with startup entrepreneurs on deriving their new venture’s philosophy and shaping their brand’s strategy, voice and image, triggering emotions is key to this journey – and to my own overall personal happiness.
The fact that Achatz would have considered his first restaurant a failure unless it would quickly turn into one of the very best in the country (it achieved that goal, being named the second best in the U.S.) was insane – insane in an inspiring way. What really struck me though was the fact that at the height of his restaurant’s success, he decided to close it and reinvent it from the ground up with new interiors and a completely new menu. For a three-star Michelin restaurant, that is as risky of a business move as there is. Digesting this indisputably progressive way of thinking, and translating it to other brands, got me excited.
Who else would a brand reinvention this sudden and complete apply to? And why? To find out, I pose a few questions that will help guide you down the path of boldly diving into ice cold branding waters, in case that disruption applies to your business.
Knowing what your brand stands for, its single most important objective, and the values that are at the core of it are the most crucial ingredients of branding, ones that I spend ample time crafting with my clients. If that DNA of your brand ends up being best described by the word “innovation,” you are intrinsically forced to implement that thinking across the board.
If that drive for change and reinvention also drives you as the founder, you can not sit back and put success on autopilot. You must constantly go back and rethink, “How would you do this from scratch today?” If the house were to burn down today, figuratively speaking, how would you piece it back together? Likely, you would not literally piece it back together. Instead, you would rethink its purpose, location and foundation from the ground up and opportunities would pile up in front of you.
No one is perfect and no brand is purely a glimmering success. You know it and I know it: There’s baggage hidden in the drawers of every operation.
Creating a list of even the smallest things that require fixing may soon turn into a notebook full of ideas and opportunities. These may turn a call for complete reinvention into an outcry for action; action to turn into the best your brand could possibly be. If you hear that inner call, you can’t forget it.
Are there startups that are knocking on your industry’s door? Competitors that are racing to take your place? The likelihood of this answer being “yes” is high, but I encounter two types of entrepreneurs: The ones who proactively act upon that knock on the door and the ones who push forward, resting on their share of the market.
In Achatz’s case, the knock came from another Chicago restaurant that just earned a three-star Michelin rating, giving him a local head-to-head competitor for the very first time. That was enough to make him act upon it.
When you see the first signs of competitors racing to take your place, it may be best to completely switch course. That is, “when everybody zigs, zag,” as author Marty Neumeier advises companies do in order to outsmart their competitors by taking a bold move to differentiate.
Many successful founders secretly wish they would not have been quite as successful with their first venture, as they sometimes feel trapped by the success they have created. They build their company into a comfortable and successful venture, then they don’t see a way out while they have many other entrepreneurial passions and ideas. Hiring another CEO feels daunting.
Most of the time it is solely the founders who are imposing that limitation on themselves. If you are one of them and you have many thoughts that would answer the question “now what?” a brand revamp might not only outsmart your competitors, surprise and delight your customers, but also reinvigorate your own life. That is something that should be on top of your list at all times.
Congratulations on your brand’s success – now please start over.
A genius move for the right type of entrepreneur and brand? Most definitely.
In below article, Rebekah Iliff, Chief Strategy Officer at AirPR, discusses the intersection of branding and PR; an intersection too obvious to ignore, yet one that remains ignored too often. With her permission, and as my book is being referenced throughout (well, thank you!), I now like to share her thoughts with the readers of The New Brand Post. It goes something like this:
Without intending to, a company’s departments sometimes end up working in ineffective silos. A tech team without communications professionals can’t shed light on their achievements uber-effectively. An innovative ASMR advertising campaign can’t get many kudos without public relations, and the news of a rebrand can’t spread as fast organically as it can with media outreach. Stitching together cross-functional teams leads to greater innovation and opportunity.
At the same time, there’s a bit of a stigma about bringing too many cooks into the kitchen. Does your art director really need to help approve the imagery you’re sending to a journalist? Does your public relations department really need to know if the copy team is writing a spur-of-the-moment April Fool’s Day display ad before it goes live? In both situations, the answer is yes.
It may take longer to loop in other teams, but it’s worth it. Which brings us to two teams that frequently overlap without many people realizing it: public relations and brand strategy. These teams are often severed from contact, even though it’s paramount that they work together. Together, they are more effective, as both teams deal with messaging, public perception and customer touch points.
Fabian Geyrhalter, Principal and Founder of Los Angeles-based design and branding agency FINIEN, recently released the second edition of How to Launch a Brand, which covers everything from brand positioning and naming to brand identity. He’s launched more than 50 brands – large and small – and knows that brand strategy is more effective when it’s backed by an integrated PR and communications plan. Here are three ways public relations and brand strategy teams are related and why it’s important, according to Geyrhalter, a fellow Forbes Agency Council member.
While copywriters, often living on branding or creative teams, work to align copy with a brand’s voice guidelines, public relations teams align messaging with a brand’s key ideas. In that sense, branding/creative and PR teams are the two wings holding a company accountable for what it communicates to the public, from board members to customers and journalists.
“Consumers respond to brands that have a coherent and straightforward message,” Geyrhalter writes in his book. “Equally important to your message is selecting a distinctive voice and persona for your company. The audience demands authenticity, and your brand’s voice must be authentic and transparent.”
As an executive at a PR tech company, I see Fitbit as a successful brand that has these teams in coordination. Think about Fitbit’s brand voice: It’s clear, concise, encouraging and motivational. If copywriting contradicts the foundational messaging a PR team is using, misalignment occurs and it can chip away at credibility long term. Imagine if Fitbit sent you a marketing email encouraging you to get a few extra thousand steps in today, while its CEO was quoted in a popular health magazine saying steps don’t matter, only calories. Customers may not notice, but journalists likely would; “misaligned” isn’t a way you want your brand to be perceived.
While copywriting and graphic designers and/or UX design control public perception of a brand from a customer standpoint, public relations and communications teams control public perception from the standpoint of investors, board members, influencers (from journalists and analysts to bloggers), and more.
It’s like the two sides of a vanity mirror. On the magnified side, PR people share intricate details with the press who view brands under a microscope. The other side shows a clear, customer-facing view of said brand. Both are needed in order to properly display your “face.”
Both branding and public relations teams give companies real, human faces through characters and spokespeople, some of whom are real employees, some of whom are figments of our imaginations.
“Characters give the audience someone to root for and follow,” writes Geyrhalter, referencing Mr. Clean, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” as personalities that have garnered impressive followings.
Natural foods brand Kashi is another example Geyrhalter mentions in his book. Kashi has taken a different approach in leveraging its real employees as brand ambassadors, showcasing how its actual team members live and breathe the Kashi lifestyle.
“Thinking of your brand as a person will help you create an authentic voice that will connect with consumers,” writes Geyrhalter. He suggests writing a list of adjectives that describe your brand or writing a faux obituary that includes a list of life accomplishments to better illustrate these personas. How would the brand persona be remembered?
In public relations and communications, real spokespeople – from CEOs who can speak to high-level strategy to CFOs who can talk publicly about financial matters such as an IPO behind a brand are what the public and journalists want (versus boilerplate messaging penned by a PR professional).
Next time you’re poised to launch a PR campaign, perhaps take a moment to ask yourself if the brand is represented fully in every aspect of your company’s outward facing narrative. In other words, are you certain that brand and communications are effectively working together?