On a sunny, early spring afternoon, panelists, Lorraine Twohill, VP of Global Marketing, Google; Allison Johnson, Founder and CEO, West and former VP of Marketing Communications, Apple; Keith Yamashita, chairman and founder, SYPartners; and moderator Margit Wennmachers, partner, Andreessen Horowitz and Founder, The Outcast Agency, took their seats in front of a packed audience of marketers from enterprise and consumer startups. What followed was a unique discussion on branding lessons from iconic companies that have experienced dramatic growth, re-invented themselves and survived transitions of leadership to become household names, Google, Apple and IBM to name just a few represented by the panelists.
Brand is more than just a foundational piece to a marketing communications strategy, it's a promise to your users. So, how do you build a strong brand and develop brand enthusiasts? How do you take your brand to the next level?
“How do you define the Google brand?” kicked off Margit Wennmachers, host and marketing partner at Andreessen Horowitz.
“We don’t,” responded Lorraine Twohill, who started at Google in 2003, when the company had just 6 employees in its Dublin office.
“We haven’t defined the brand, we don't want anything to limit the thousands of flowering ideas out there.”
Yet the Google brand is represented by unique characteristics – trust, playfulness, but also as a serious resource that can be relied on, and of course innovation.
The same question, posed to Allison Johnson, who has headed up marketing at IBM, Netscape, HP, and most recently, Apple under Steve Jobs, elicited a similar response.
“Brand and marketing are forbidden words.” For Apple, brand is all about product experience.
“If it smells like marketing, that’s a bad thing.”
Keith Yamashita has worked alongside CEOs and their leadership teams to define,and then attain,greatness for their institutions. He has worked with leaders at Apple, Starbucks, IBM, Nike, Gap, The Coca-Cola Company, among others.
“The question to ask is ‘what is a company’s unique character’? And ‘what should the company be’?”
The discussion, starting off with a simple question, continued onto many aspects of marketing, but the central, aligning theme continued to be that brand stems from customer experience and, in particular, product experience.
This brings us to the notion of integrated marketing, that’s the way it’s done now – especially for the enterprise. Gone are the days where you could drip-feed prospects information; now they have a way to shout back at you and know more about your product or service before they even visit your website. This phenomena, that practitioners such as Christine Crandell, a Forbes contributor, describes as the “Customer-centric Buyer’s Journey” means that it is essential to create an ongoing and ever enriching customer experience across all the channels used to interact with the customer.
To illustrate this in the context of launching a new brand, the panelists described companies who have done superlative jobs, setting aside Apple for a moment whose hallmark of a launch is defined by secrecy and drama and the slow reveal.
Notable companies include Leap Motion, the innovator of a fundamentally new but natural way to interact with computers via gestures. Leap Motion previewed their technology over a year ago, then continued to show progress through the year, culminating in a keynote at SXSW in March 2013. By transparently uncovering their innovation they have built up tremendous industry following which will ultimately be reflected in a superior customer experience.
Lytro, another innovative company, that has created a revolutionary new type of camera, built a phenomenal relationship with photographers by focusing in on every detail of the customer experience. Their VP of Marketing, Kira Wampler, has not only leveraged the technology innovation to create buzz, but when customers found that the lens cap was easily lost, a simple email or call got another one delivered free of charge. It’s details like these, that go well beyond product experience to reinforce the kind of relationships that customers crave and ascribe to a company’s brand.
(Disclosure: I have a Lytro camera, loaned to me by a friend of the company, and I too promptly lost my lens cap. I was very relieved to get a new one without any hassle or having to own up to losing it in the first place. Thank you Lytro.)
The danger inherent in a long launch cycle, however, is creating such high customer expectations that key customer segments may be hugely disappointed. Sony PS4, Apple Television, Google Glasses all come to mind. It will be interesting to see how they manage expectations in the run-up to consumer availability.
In discussing brand, we’ve really stayed away from individual product features and really focused on the alignment of customer experience and company culture. In fact, brand and culture must be one. Yamashita referred back to the Watson family who shepherded IBM through its infancy in a very deliberate manner to ensure the company would survive the eventual transition of leadership. They understood that products come and go, but the company must stand for something that endures.
“Start now. Don’t wait to define company culture until you have a couple of hundred people, there will be too much debris. Get it right the first time….this often means separating the quirky nature of a founder from the essential traits of the company,” commented Yamashita.
In Silicon Valley we tend to talk about technology, features and, more recently, design but, ultimately customer acquisition and revenue are driven by customer engagement and branding becomes increasingly the thing that differentiates one company from another, even for cost conscious startups.
Branding should begin even before the first line of code is written. At Google this is the blog post written by the development team, a replacement of an earlier generations’ press release process. Writing that blog post makes you think about who you are, what problem you are trying to solve and what life will be like when you have solved it.
“Think of branding as if you’re planning a huge event—you wouldn’t want to begin tackling the small details first; rather than taking a step-by-step inside out approach, you should work backward from the experience in,” said Paula Dunne, President of CONTOS DUNNE COMMUNICATIONS, a strategic Marketing and PR firm based in Silicon Valley, and creator and chair of the annual MEDIA PREDICTS event for non-profit PRSA Silicon Valley. Dunne continued: “To create something truly memorable and unique with ‘sticking power,’ first create and strategize—then, not only will all the details begin to fall into place, but it’ll feel easy.”
In parodies of Apple, people have suggested that the advertising comes first, then the product. I’d love to hear if that is true, but what Allison Johnson shared with us was that Marketing has a say in the design and production process. It is the connecting tissue between customer needs and the engineering department. All branding at Apple is coordinated by the marketing group across all disciplines. So that if the product name has to change the day before the launch there’s one group that can work to make that change happen.
How can you decode your customer engagement and grow your brand to support it? Traditional techniques focus on understanding customer behavior, for example tapping into Google Analytics data on the website or watching your customers use the product like Intuit’s famous “Follow Me Home” program. But today there are more innovative techniques to understand your customers, their behavior and more importantly their commercial intent and what affinities exist amongst all the people interacting with your brand - collectively known as Consumer Inteligence. nPario is an innovative big data company, spun out from Yahoo! with investors from WPP, that segments your customers in real-time based on their interactions across the Internet using third party data and on your own digital properties. Used today by advertisers and publishers to facilitate highly targeted advertising, the same segmentation results can be used to hone your marketing message, establish customer loyalty programs, identify customer base growth programs, even optimize your product. Try it out – it’s free at audiencediscovery.npario.com
Any conversation about brand building soon turns to the key question of how to measure brand performance? The answer is that in order to measure, you have to measure. Both the panelists as well as the audience agreed on a number of good approaches:
- Net Promoter Score, a management tool used to gauge the strength of a firm’s relationships and the sentiment of its customers, and is used by Google on an ongoing basis.
- Brand Health Audit also known as Brand Perception or Perceptual Audit, these are essential in depth soundings that seek to identify “what people will say around the water cooler” about your company. Understanding what the perception of your brand is right now is critical as you attempt to shift into a new area
- Retention and engagement, ultimately the true measure of a brands success, is how many customers are being acquired, the retention and growth of revenue from your existing base and the customer engagement rate - which of your customers are driving the next wave of new customers?
Afterwards I spoke with Julie McHenry, president of Communication Insight, who works with emerging tech companies at the intersection of customer experience, marketing and communications strategy and is the co-founder of Waggener-Edstrom, Microsoft’s PR agency. She told me that since a market is still a conversation, understanding what customers think about your company or products is fundamental at arriving at the correct branding approach. A regular Perceptual Audit enables you to take stock of how your company is perceived by the team, the board, advisors, analysts and customers. The insights that come from this type of analysis can be hugely impactful, most commonly issues which the team think are important are not at all important to customers and vice versa.
With experts from the top brands in the world present, the next question was – “How do you do this on a shoestring budget and what factors should you look to, to help you determine when to turn up the volume on activities?”
I expected the answer to be spend, spend, spend, but that’s not what I heard:
- Do an inventory of what’s available for free.
- Are you taking advantage of industry bloggers and increasingly v-loggers? They all need fresh content every day. Don’t underestimate the power of video.
- Build a database and segment and categorize all the people that can help you.
- Reach out to partners who may be more established in the marketplace.
Dialing up spending is all about user acquisition – for software, spend behind success, for hardware it's a more complicated cycle as there is inventory involved.
The final question was prescient, we’ve all run around looking for the next new marketing technique to try - “What new marketing techniques have you seen?”
Complete silence from the panel.
Someone proffered “Pinterest” and people nodded, and then a unanimous chorus from the panelists
“Tell an amazing story.”
It’s as simple and as difficult as that, if you have a great story then we live in a world of ever increasing mechanisms to tell it, no story and you’ll be thrashing.
I came across Nancy Duarte shortly after watching the incredible visuals in Al Gore‘s “An Inconvenient Truth“, visuals that are seared on my mind years after seeing the movie. Nancys company, Duarte Design helps companies communicate big ideas – they create the presentations and they train the people who create presentations (unfortunately as of yet they do not train the executives who often give those presentations). But the biggest impact that Nancy Duarte has had is that through thorough research she has come up with a new framework to communicate ideas. This framework described in her book, Resonate (get the interactive iPad version), uncovers a pattern that is part of every great speech given – Nehru, Martin Luther King and the great Steve Jobs. This video describes the overall model, that draws from story telling, cinema, Greek theatre and Joseph Campbell.
Next Steps: Go Brand
- Don’t wait. Start the process before you code. Get the development lead to write that blog post. That human exercise is the very start of branding
- Understand your customers, their affinities and segmentation – use all the tools at your disposal, not just the easy web analytics ones, explore new tools such as audiencediscovery.npario.com.
- Leverage all the free channels of communication with your customer, make a list of bloggers and vloggers and reach out.
- On a regular basis, check how you are doing – take a deep breathe and do a Perceptual Audit.
- Keep deeply aligned with your core traits – be the brand you want to be.
Thank you to Margit Wennmachers and the Andreessen Horowitz team for bringing together such a deep bench of experienced marketers to discuss brand building – for additional comments look for #a16zchat.