If I got a dollar every time an investor or a colleague said that we should "increase brand awareness" or that "great companies have strong brands" I would probably have 326$ in my pocket, maybe even 500$.
Sure it would be great to have a strong brand.
Sure it would be great if everyone knew about what you do.
But should you just stop everything else and work on branding instead?
A lot of "advice" around brand and brand awareness is technically correct but not very actionable. It is the worst kind of advice if you ask me.
Just ask those people:
- What do you mean by a "brand" even?
- Is it different than positioning? How? Are branding and marketing the same thing? What about PR vs branding?
- If you want to increase brand awareness then how do you measure it?
- Do you want to increase brand awareness or just get more signups? Is there a difference?
- Did those "great companies" focus on branding from the beginning or did it happen later?
After one or two of those questions and a few "ok but why" follow-ups, I guarantee that most people will just give up and say that you just don't get it.
But I want to get it. I really do. And I am sure you want to get it too.
One evening as I was listening to this episode of Growth TLDR podcast with Shane Murphy-Reuter, head of Marketing at Intercom I got a smell of information as to how branding matters to people who put developer tools on the market and I started digging.
This post and a few deeper-dive posts are the results of this.
You will learn:
- What is a brand and brand awareness
- The difference between branding, positioning, marketing, and PR
- Why does brand and brand awareness matter
- How to decide whether it is important to you
- How to create a brand identity
- How to measure and improve brand awareness
What is a brand?
A brand is this one thought that comes to mind when you think about a product or company.
Take GitLab for example. For me they are:
- A Devops platform
- Very transparent
- No-fluff, clear, and concise in communication
- Playful and respectful
Now think of GitHub. I'd say they are:
- Public code repository
- Corporate, professional
- Care about collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Helpful, inclusive, and supportive
- Clean and easy to use
I may be completely wrong but this is how I see it.
Those thoughts are very different even though the products are similar in many ways.
How do you see it? Is it the same or completely different?
The closer the "thoughts" that you, me, and other people have to the way the company wants you to think about them, the better job they did at branding.
In the example above:
- You have a really good idea of what GitHub brand is and a decent about GitLab
- I have a really good idea about the GitLab brand but I think that the GitHub brand is very similar to GitLab
- What I think about GitHub is far from reality
- Overall if GitLab and GitHub brand was measured by us two GitLab would have a stronger brand
In a perfect world, everyone on the market puts your product in the very same place in this branding space.
In reality the market sees you differently then you would like to be seen.
Ok, but what are the dimensions of this branding space.
Branding people don't seem to agree but if you merge and adjust what they say, you will get something like this:
- Larger context
- Voice and tone
- Visual style
- Market frame
- Ideal customer profile
- Pains, benefits, and value themes
- And more
I am sure there is more to it, but I think if you get the ones above right it is almost always better than most companies.
Especially early stage.
Let's go ahead and figure out how to create it.
How to create your brand?
Creating a strong brand is hard.
Especially for dev tools.
Especially when those tools are created by devs :).
Branding is inherently touchy-feely, hard to measure, and not science.
It's not like creating a software component.
I attended a branding workshop full of devs and even though we did get to something in the end.
Nobody really felt it was it, there was not a lot of buy-in from the team, and in the end, it didn't stick.
As I needed to figure out branding for neptune.ai I looked into existing frameworks and put together a step-by-step guide that seemed less magical guessing and more like an explicit, educated betting.
I think an educated bet is as much as you can hope for with branding.
Step 1: What is your brand story
Ok, if the brand is this thought people have when your company name comes up, a good brand story is about making this thought memorable, relatable, and important to your target audience.
In this article, I talk about the framework for creating a compelling brand story for your product in 4 (not so easy) steps.
It basically goes like this:
- Create a larger story context (what is the old game, what is the new game, how to get form the old to the new game)
- Go through SB7 story brands framework (hero, problem, guide, plan, action)
- Create deliverables (one-liner, purpose, vision, mission, 50-word brand story)
- Audit with "Made to stick" storytelling principles (simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, story)
Step 2: What are your core company values?
Core company values are principles that guide all the decisions your team makes from hiring to publishing that post on LinkedIn
Most company values (from my experience) are fluffy and non-actionable.
But you can create good ones that will help you shape your company culture.
Some characteristics of good company values are:
- They don't include common values like “respect” or “hard work”
- They are actionable
- You have only a few of them (aim for 3-5)
- They are not about the team consensus
- They are enforced
I used the following step-by-step process to create them at my startup and it worked really well:
- Get the CEO behind it: you need the buy-in to enforce values and it is better to make sure you have it at the start
- Survey all employees: Send out a survey to everyone and ask them about values that they see today and would like to see in the future
- Talk to the core team (founders + key employees): Meet with key people in the company to get a deeper perspective. It is also important as they will help enforce them later.
- Combine all input into a long list of value candidates: Merge all the input you got from previous points and extract some themes of values from it
- Vote on the value candidates: Get the entire team to allocate fake funds on values they care about. This is not about consensus but to understand what is important to people.
- Shortlist value candidates with the core team: Get all core team members on a call, go through values and figure out what the shortlist of things that are important is. It is possible that you will get your 3-5 values. But it is possible that there will be more.
- Present the final choice to the CEO: Look at all the data you have and propose the final choice to the CEO. Discuss and converge on something that you both, but most importantly the CEO is happy with. Remember that the CEO will drive the enforcement of values.
- Clean up messaging: Figure out how to communicate those values best.
- Present to the entire company and enforce: Now the fun begins. CEO will drive the process of enforcing those values in day-to-day activities, hiring and more.
I go deep into this process in a separate blog post so check it out if you are working on core company values. Choose three to five values that will impact every decision every employee makes every day.
Step 3: What is your brand identity?
Brand identity is about how your brand feels.
What is the personality, the tone of voice of your brand?
To get it I suggest you do 3 exercises with your team:
- Brand personality sliders: Figure out if you want your brand to be a Friend or Authority, Playful or Serious, Mass appeal or elite?
- Brand tone sliders: Refine that personality with an additional tone of voice-related questions. Formal vs casual, enthusiastic vs matter of fact.
- Brand competitive landscape: Put all your competitors in a 2-dimensional space where X-axis is about “classic vs modern” and the Y-axis is about “reserved vs expressive”. See where you would like to be to stand out.
Step 4: What is your positioning?
Positioning is about putting your product in a frame where it is obviously understood and appreciated by your target audience.
I love the ”Obviously Awesome” framework from April Dunford which basically goes like this:
- Look at your customers and see who loves the product
- List out all the features that your product has and the benefits that those features bring
- Figure out which of those are appealing to the customers who love you
- Combine those features/benefits into a few value themes
- Figure out the market frame where those values themes shine
- Create messaging and sales story to communicate the new positioning in your company
This framework is amazing and I had great success in implementing it in my company.
Without changing anything in the product we managed to change the type of customers that comes to exactly who we wanted.
What is brand awareness (and what is not)?
Brand awareness is basically how many people in your market or niche put you in the correct place in the brand space. It is how many people are aware of what your brand is.
- If only a few people put you close to your brand space location you don't have good brand awareness
- If many people put you close to your brand space location you have strong brand awareness.
- If many people put you far away from your brand space location you DON'T have good brand awareness
The last point is important.
If I said that Gitlab is a secretive company that deals with infrastructure management they would have failed in their branding efforts even if millions heard about them.
People would be aware of something but definitely not their brand.
And so your branding activities should either:
- increase the number of people that are close to your brand space location
- push people who are already close even closer to your brand space location
Ok, but talking about the thoughts and brand location feels a lot like positioning. So...
Is brand awareness just positioning?
Positioning is about:
- Who your ideal customer profile is
- What are the benefits and values that speak to this ideal customer
- What is the market frame where your product is playing
- Values that your company stands by and your ideal customer may identify with
- A feel to how you deliver the positioning message
- A larger story about the relationship of your ideal customers, the problem they are facing, and your product and company
So branding helps to shape your message into a story that your ideal customers relate to.
Once you have it, you just need to communicate it to as many potential customers as possible.
So if it's about pushing a marketing message to people...
Is brand awareness just marketing?
Is brand awareness just marketing?
- NO - but it creates demand which you can later capture
- align brand awareness you focus on putting your brand in a brain box to as many people as possible.
- align marketing you also (and mostly) capture the demand that is there right now for a solution to X problem
But what if those people who put you in the correct place on the brand space don't have the problem that your product is solving.
Should you just forget about them?
They won't convert on your page whatever you do so the money you spent on improving brand awareness is just wasted effort, right?
Not really, they just don't need your product today.
They do know what it is and who you are.
The reality is that most people don't have the problem that you are solving NOW but they may have it in the FUTURE.
In their next project, next job, or even next sprint.
Brand awareness is about preparing for when that moment comes.
It is about creating future demand for your product not about converting existing demand into users.
A strong brand will:
- be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about "solution to a problem X"
- have more word of mouth as people will talk about your product when someone mentions a problem that your product solves
- have better conversions because of more trust and familiarity
But improving brand awareness is a long-term investment in the future rather than a quick activity you do to get signups.
And you may already have more brand awareness than you can handle.
If you are getting a lot of traffic for your problem-related keywords, getting good conversions on your product pages and people are signing up left and right you may not need to focus on brand awareness today.
Besides, you may already be doing many brand awareness activities without even knowing it...
Ok but before we get into brand awareness activities let's first talk about your brand and how to create it.
Why is brand awareness important?
Brand awareness impacts your website conversion rates, how easy it is to sell your products, how many word-of-mouth signups you are getting.
But it doesn't do it directly.
It makes things easier. Gives you more credibility.
Makes it more likely that people will talk about you to their friends.
So is brand awareness important?
- YES - it creates the future demand that you can capture
- People estimate that for strong SaaS products up to 80% of signups come from word of mouth
- Most people don’t need your product today but you can create a box and put your product there for the future
How to increase brand awareness?
A simple answer is that you do things that put more people closer to the location on the brand space where you want to be.
Cool, but this is not helping.
The problem is that people in marketing often just say they do X or Y to improve brand awareness but they don't really know if what they did actually improved things.
Because to actually improve something you have to measure it first.
How to measure brand awareness?
In the perfect world with unlimited resources, you could just ask all the people:
- What do you think when you hear a brand name?
- How would you describe our brand to your peers?
- When you have a problem X which tools/solutions do you consider?
Then you would analyze the results and see how far, on average people are from your location on the brand space.
Yeah, right, but we both know that in reality, you need to make adjustments:
- You cannot ask everyone and need to sample
- Often you cannot ask at all and you need some proxy test
So what you can you do to measure brand awareness?
Here are some options:
- Sales outreach: Use your brand story in outbound sales campaigns and see if it resonates better.
- User surveys: Ask your website visitors or users.
- Channel surveys: Ask people on Reddit, Slack, Facebook where your users hang out
- Share of voice on Social Media: See if people are talking about you on social media with tools like Brand24
- Share of voice in Google Search: See if people are searching for your problem-related keywords more
- Word of mouth signups: Ask people after signup how did they found out about your product and measure how many people say "from a friend"
- Direct traffic to your site: see how many people go to your home page or blog directly. It is likely that they got this link through word of mouth.
- Brand search: See how many people are searching for "brand name", "brand name + problem X", "brand name + vs competitor Y"
Now the tricky part is that it will still be hard to attribute the impact to a particular activity and you may only see the direction rather than the value of that change.
Unfortunately, in marketing, direction is usually all you can get.
There are some tricks that you can do but they will make sense on a larger scale.
For example, you can run a Facebook ads campaign in Russia only and measure the impact on direct traffic to a website from Russia after a month.
Or you can run a survey before and after you run that campaign on a Russian-only forum and see how close people are to your brand space location.
Now that you know how to measure brand awareness let's see what you can do to improve it.
Brand awareness activities
Every interaction with your company and brand can impact brand awareness.
It could be on the side of marketing, product, support, hiring, or anything else.
EVERY interaction someone has with your company is a brand awareness touchpoint.
- Social posting
- Blog content
Product and Support:
- User journey emails
- GitHub issues
- Live chat
- Error messages
The key part though is not to run a campaign but to understand WHY you are doing it.
Similar-looking activities may aim at conversion of existing demand or at brand awareness.
If you are focused on why you are doing it you can do it better.
What is next?
If you got to this point you should have a decent understanding of branding and brand awareness.
- what is a brand and how to create it.
- what is brand awareness, why it is important, and how to measure it.
- how you can increase brand awareness and if you should focus on it.
Now you need to act:
- Create your brand definition, positioning, identity, and story.
- Share it with your team so that everyone is on the same page.
- Measure your brand awareness among your target customers.
- Run a brand awareness campaign and measure the impact