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.
This was one of many topics I was asked about by a croatian startup site prior to the speech I gave two nights ago at the University of Zagreb for the Founder Institute. The interview was published in croatian, which you can peruse here if you speak the language (and want to analyze and help me understand why the Backstreet Boys invaded my Brand Atmosphere), but for the rest of you, here it is:
What’s important when you launch your brand, besides your crystal clear vision and superb offering? Great brand strategy and positioning, a name that resonates with your target, a brand identity design that can grow with your new venture, and of course it all comes together in one crucial place: Your key online presence, your website.
Much can be read about user experience, information architecture, programming languages and SEO. None of which I will repeat, and much of it I see as knowledge that you will eventually receive from your web design and programming teams. And then comes the time where they will ask you for copy and assets, and that’s where it all breaks apart.
Today, I sum up the 3 most important questions you, as an entrepreneur, need to have clarity on in order to create your brand’s site, the www’s of www design:
Who are you talking to, who will you engage with? Ensure you have them up front and center, and not your typical pitch talking points, product specs or service capabilities list. Think about them. Then write for them, talk to them.
Why should they care? Care to click further, care to leave their E-Mail with you, care to spread the word, care to contact you? What do you want them to care about? Focus on those questions and provide answers that make them care – the way you want them to care. Many online marketers make CTA’s (Call to Actions) larger. You instead, make the copy and visuals resonate. If they care, they will click. Guaranteed.
What are you selling? No really, what is it that you are selling? We are selling branding for new ventures, but really we are selling brand launch enablement and peace of mind. What are you really selling?
Once you are clear on your 3 w’s, everything else will derive from it. If your consultants focus on CMS, responsive design, site architecture and everything else but these questions, make sure to put the breaks on the project. These 3 w’s will bring your brand launch online the right way. The rest is the engine of your car, which should be reliable and powerful, but if no one likes the design, the color, the badge and the comfort, no one will ever open the hood to take a closer look.
The more online your brand, the more digital your product, the more offline you should think.
Let me explain.
There is an obvious backwards trend happening: Kids love cheap plastic skateboards again. All the hard work of creating gears for bikes is thrown out for fixies, and the hottest Silicon Valley investment is…artisanal coffee shops. Small batch gin producers are next in line. Stihl chain saws only sell through their own little stores, 8,500 of them in the US. You won’t find their products online or at major home-improvement stores, and it’s working great.
Why? Because in 2014 offline is special, it is different. It is tangible and it is memorable. You don’t ‘like’, but you actually truly enjoy a brand. You don’t hit ‘share’ like you hit snooze on your alarm clock, instead you have a real conversation with people who trust you about a brand. Now that we are all well versed with pay-per-click ads and (finally) Social Media, it is time to hit the Pause-button and think about what it is that makes your brand special and how to best engage with your audience in your outreach. How will you create memorable, perhaps even inventive, inspirational campaigns? Some may be online like in 2013, but some should be offline like in 2014 (or 2004).
The best place to look for inspiration is in the most offline of places: Bars. Firestone Walker’s beer coasters (above via crappy iPhone photo by yours truly) are every bit on-brand, while starting a clever conversation about defending ones beer. Remember grabbing matches in restaurants on your way out, back when we were all smoking like chimneys? As we changed our habits, so have restauranteurs and those fun and useful souvenirs have all but disappeared, making them a novelty now. A local bar down the street from our office goes back to basics by offering matches (pictured above) with the most rudimentary and anti-brand (hence memorable) call to action.
Traditional marketing indeed can be seen as a novelty today, and if treated in a unique way, and matched with the core values and personality of your brand, you might agree that retro is the new now, and offline the new online; even for your digital-first brand. If you can pull of ‘the matchbox trick’, remaining on your customer’s mind daily for months, I let you crunch the big data numbers on that one, but I feel you’d see a new type of ROI. So when you gear up for your marketing outreach, perhaps go single-gear and stand out instead.
I was born in Austria. English is my second language. Yes, I write a lot, but I do it because I want to share my expertise, not because I believe that I am a great writer. Yet today I set out to blur the lines of copy writing, branding, enthusiasm, content strategy, your target audience and content overload. Launching your brand puts an emphasis on the About section of your web site, no doubt about it. Even if you have a video and to-the-point messaging on the Landing Page(s), the About page will be sought-after. It needs to explain the following in a swift manner:
That’s a lot to convey on a single page and therein lies the problem for an enthusiastic entrepreneur who writes this important piece of content in a stream of consciousness (it is after all the subject you know best), then quickly proofs it, and by the push of a button publishes it. Rarely do they look back. Yet another item checked off the busy to-do list. Then the journey of marketing and metrics hits in and the About page, long forgotten, is like ‘a ghost employee’ in a well functioning company; it lives on yet it should have been let go and replaced a long time ago.
I know this feeling well. I see it on a nearly daily basis with our new clients, but I also fell victim to it myself. Here are my top 4 tips on how to go about deriving your About copy:
It has to be right. You can’t just block off an hour on your busy calendar. It has to be more like that moment when you drive to the beach to just sit and breathe and think big thoughts. Make the time for that moment and don’t put a time limit on it. For myself that moment arrived during a 12 hour flight after I have answered ‘all’ E-Mails and there was no WI-FI for new ones to trickle in. I watched the Steve Jobs movie (Inspiration 1), had a glass of wine (Inspiration 2), the cabin lights went out so everyone could sleep (I was in Coach – Inspiration 3), and I knew if I started writing now that I had hours and hours to fine tune and contemplate. And so I did – the time and place were right (Here are the results – What do you think?). Best of all, even if I wanted to, I could not just push it live as I did not have WI-FI, so it forced me to sleep over it and make even more tiny edits when ‘back on the ground.’ It took me 3 hours to write.
Words should not come easy (Ask F.R. David, he knew). If they do, consider it a brainstorm exercise, then work on a synopsis of that copy. Don’t cut paragraphs, don’t review sentences, dive deeper and focus on it word-by-word. In the end your About copy should be thought of as a lineup of tag lines, because in a tag line every word counts, has meaning, adds to your brand story. Think of each word as a strategic component to the whole.
Once you feel you phrased it in just the right way, make sure it will resonate with them. Sounds logical, hence easy, but it is one tough role play: Write in an emotional and enthusiastic manner that conveys your brand’s soul, but then read it from the perspective of your target audience. It helps when you created target personas, that way you can read pretending you are that specific person. If time allows, run it by your target audience and conduct a mini focus group, or even A/B testing of different About pages, to see what sticks.
Make it as simple as possible. Make it as short as possible. If you need to, add links to further content below your CTA (Call To Action). No one reads a long About section. No one. Rather go through steps 1-3 and then edit it down again and have something your audience will actually be compelled to read, because it is short and approachable. This is about getting them excited to keep going further, to click deeper, it is not the page that needs to convey everything, but ensure it has the 5 components listed above embodied.
In a study of user tests it was discovered that users with higher literacy levels also fared better on web sites written for a lower level literacy audience. So keep it brief and keep it simple. I guess I should go back and edit this post, but I don’t feel too bad keeping it this length as someone just released the book ‘Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less;’ it spans 256 pages.
I am sick. And it’s not the flu.
I am sick to my stomach looking at all those amazing new ideas from sharp entrepreneurs going up online. Ideas that are as varied as they could possibly be, all nurtured by a revolution in online fundraising and fueled by an economy that is looking for the next big thing. Many of those ideas I see are truly revolutionary, but it still makes me sick looking at them. They all seem identical and I can not differentiate one site experience from another.
The internet gave entrepreneurs the ability to use cheap, often free, templates and it happens that everybody chose the same ones. I can’t blame them, these are robust templates taking advantage of responsive web design, while being equipped with all the features necessary for most entrepreneurs this day and age. They look and feel modern and they represent what I’d call a MVW – A Minimum Viable Website.
One thing gets lost though, sometimes is even missing from the get-go: A big brand entrance through a unique visual language that differentiates the brand enough to stay in the audience’s minds.
Above: Four startup sites I came across recently. Who is who? Which product is which? Wait, was that the site of that company I liked so much?
Conceptual and visual creativity used to be the integral ingredient of any brand introduction in the heyday of printed communications – they now are missing in action. To many of today’s entrepreneurs it is the product/service idea alone that counts, but sadly that idea gets lost without being embedded into a branded environment. The internet provides free tools; it does not mean that those fit into your company’s launch strategy. Leverage them when appropriate, avoid them when launching a brand. Consumers will get lost and your unique idea will look like a standard idea by using standard templates.
Be bold, be different, be conceptual. Go ahead and inject your enormous amount of creativity, strategy and moxie into your online presence, because it will be the place most people will meet your product/service first. And as far as I can tell it’s anything but standard.
A couple of weeks ago, Bob Garlick, host of Business Book Talk (poking through below), contacted me to schedule an interview about our book ‘How to Launch a Brand.’ With Bob sitting in Vancouver and myself in Los Angeles, I was immediately taken by surprise as there was no script that he shared with me, no canned answers to prep, no warmup chatter and no edits were made to our conversation.
The result is an honest and stimulating conversation between two individuals with a keen interest in design, branding and entrepreneurship, which I’d like to share with you. Below audio not only gives you a peek into our book, but also covers topics such as misconceptions of branding, brand strategy, how brands need to be different than 15 years ago and how to connect with your customers through branding:
(Can’t see above audio player in your E-Mail? Please listen to the audio via our site)
Now that I crossed the bridge by posting audio (how adventurous), I might as well share a quick video in which I further define ‘brand’ specifically for startups, filmed at a mentoring session (how advantageous) at the Founder Institute in San Diego two weeks ago.
“The word ‘brand’ needs a re-branding – due to its brand longevity the brand legacy is not brand-correct anymore,” I heard myself say unexpectedly in an interview earlier this week. It has been on my mind for a while. To no surprise, running a brand consultancy I am using the word a hundred times a day. Furthermore I just published a book titled ‘How to Launch a Brand’. The word gets tiring, especially since it leaves a bad aftertaste and I feel the need to first convince people that it is not a bad term before I start talking about it any further. Brand is not a four letter word.
Despite the negative connotations with the term, branding is more important today than it has ever been before and it is not only consumed, but furthermore created and curated by the masses through their very own personal (public/social media) brand. Brand is alive and kicking and we will not be able to change the term, but one can change the perception away from luxury good logos (Gucci, Chanel) and larger-than-life corporations seen as evil-doers (Exxon, Walmart) to a modern necessity, which, if created and nurtured in an honest and authentic way, turns ‘brand’ into a holistic ‘aura’ of a product/service provider (or person) that we are allowed to have admiration for (From an iPhone to a Celebrity), aspiration towards (From a Nonprofit to a highly ranked University) and sometimes draw inspiration from (From Ted Talk to Oprah).
To me, a brand is a service, product, company, or person with soul, that is attractive and smart.
1. Soul is the beating heart, the reason a company should exist and why your initial attraction matures into love. You put your trust in brands with a soul and most often your money follows soon thereafter. Not much different than with human relationships, soul is the reason why we care for each other, or a particular brand.
2. Attractive is the brand aura that allows for the gut instinct emotional connection you feel when getting in contact with the brand. It is the design and the voice that is carefully created and curated over time in a particularly consistent manner. Attraction is not to be mistaken by shallow beauty.
3. Smart is its usability. How easy is it to engage with the company/product/service/person? In the tech industry it is User Interface and User Experience, with consumer products it is the product and packaging design and with services it is often the design of key offerings combined with its delivery.
Now that we ‘talked’ about the complex strategy that creates the beautiful simplicity that makes a brand, maybe we should give the word another chance?
‘Is branding the key for a successful start-up?‘ is the topic for a speech I was asked to give at Internet Hungary this week. I could make it a 5 second speech and say ‘Yes, it is one of the most important factors,’ but lucky for me the topic is broader and will go deeper into the keys of creating a successful brand. Let me use this opportunity though to dive knee deep into this question as some brand elements are more important to certain types of companies at time of launch than to others:
No one shall skip the Brand Platform creation at the onset of a new venture, unless you want to compete on price, be boring and unattractive to work for, and are not keen on acquiring the right target audience at time of launch. You tackle the Brand Platform right after you draft your business plan (from fully fleshed out to napkin version – all are acceptable forms of business plans at this stage, depending on your own comfort level).
Launching with a meaningful and unique Name and Brand Identity Design seems like a no-brainer, a must for all entrepreneurs. If for whatever logical reason (budget not being part of that logic) you feel forced to launch with a sub-par name and logo, knowing you will have to go through a (more costly) re-naming and re-branding exercise upon showing first successes, it is the easiest to do for a tech startup or B2B venture that requires solely test users or relies on a very small niche audience, which will make it easier to educate them on this big and disruptive brand change down the road. Some Tech Startups (especially apps) are prototyping until the day of launch, making it an easy excuse to skip this essential step, whereas it is much more advisable to work on a prototype whilst formulating the brand platform, that way you are educating yourself about the target audience while you see them use the actual product, enabling you to create a meaningful brand that will not have to be rebuild soon thereafter. A win – win.
Needs for Brand Atmosphere Touch Points vary in importance and specifics from company to company with retail and other mainly offline B2C companies leading the list, E-Commerce and Tech Startups surviving off some basic, consistent touch points bundled with heavy E-Marketing template creations, while most B2B brands fall anywhere in-between, depending on their structure and audience. If bootstrap is your motto, these can be rolled out over time, making it essentially more pricey, but allowing you to spread the cost.
It only makes sense that ventures leading with digital need to make UI/UX Design part of their strategic brand implementation. Most companies – B2C/Retail and B2B – rely heavily on brand-centric (responsive) web sites to attract and convert leads of different types. For Online Retailers and Tech Startups where the web site also is the product, the prototyping should be addressed in parallel with the Brand Platform creation as it will educate the branding process as a whole. Some companies are able to save on development costs using existing WordPress templates (and such), but brand will still be key at launch.
To conclude, whenever a startup founder tells me (and they tell me all the time) “I can not afford branding at this early stage of my company formation” I reply with “No, you cannot afford not to brand at this early stage of your company formation. Unless you think a strong brand is worth less at time of sale or IPO than an ugly yet functional prototype.‘ This often marks the end of our conversation, until they call a few weeks later to get started with branding their new venture.