Don’t Launch a Product, Build a Brand

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We’re living in a startup nation. A unique time in history when the convergence of exponential growth in technology and the decline in prices and barriers to market entry have created the perfect field for small brands to emerge and disrupt nearly every single category.    

But with greater opportunity comes greater competition. Defining differentiation is even harder, and the name of the game is standing out and standing longer. But your product alone will not win this game.

I had the chance to present to startup and tech entrepreneurs at SXSW Interactive this year about how building brands today has changed. They are built and live inside your company and in the world, not in consumers’ minds. This idea requires a fundamental shift at the operational level, not only at the marketing level.

We used to be able to build products and brands in different teams and work streams. Not anymore. Why? Because people have a window to your corporation in the palm of their hands. The distance between the companies people do business with and their wallets is shorter than ever. Uber is a great example. When allegations and examples of a toxic and misogynistic work culture came to light, consumers stopped connecting with the brand and Uber has been paying the toll.

Because of this shift, your brand should be at the center of your company. It should be the filter for every interaction you have inside and outside the company as well as the foundation for your company’s relationship with the world. We call this a “total brand approach” when the brand becomes a connective tissue between everything you make, do and say. The closer these three actions are to your brand, the more consistent and relevant you’ll be to consumers. And when the products and services you make, the behaviors you live by, the experiences you create and the messages you deliver to the world sync up, you’ll build a strong brand with a competitive advantage in the market.

The soap brand Pacha is a great example of a “make, do, say” company that proves this total brand approach can be implemented at any scale. Pacha is on a mission to spread goodness around the world, and they spread goodness in everything they make, do and say. They’re doing it through the set-up of soap shops, clean water initiatives and other sustainable ventures in developing nations. They make soap using only sustainable and organic ingredients. And they inspire self-love and self-care through their message: to be good to others, you have to start with yourself.

So when should you think about branding? Building a brand has a different role in each stage of your company and the earlier you start thinking about it the better. Here are three brand building hacks to get you started.


Liberate the power of your business

Start by translating your product benefits into human benefits. Based on that, redefine the business or category you’re in. Re-imagine what you offer or how the category you compete in can turn your brand into a catalyst for innovation. 

Think of Bumble as an example. Bumble is not in the business of dating apps; rather, they’re in the business of female empowerment. They’re rewriting the rules of the internet from a woman’s perspective. And when you look at what they make, do and say, it all connects.

Make: It’s not only a dating app. Bumble is now expanding to other offers like Bumble Bizz and BFF to connect women beyond romantic relationships.

Do: All the experiences they create are about kindness and empowerment.

Say: They don’t tell users to find love. They tell them to be the CEOs their parents wanted them to marry.

How can your brand help you change the way you think about your offer or category? How can you expand your potential and shift your innovation focus? Think about the business you’re in today and then put your brand lens on it.


Write your rules of engagement

What are the three golden rules you want your company to live by? This is not a list of values on your website or a mission-vision exercise. These are actionable rules you want to live by. For corporate software maker Slack, a brand about making work life simpler and more pleasant, the rules were simple:

  • Hell yes to being playful and fun. Hell no to being boring and corporate.
  • Always look like a video game, never like an enterprise software.
  • When talking, always do it like a friend and when writing, always do it like an emoji-loving comedian. Never use corporate jargon or talk like a billion-dollar company.

Those simple rules have made Slack one of the unicorns in today’s startup world and a multibillion-dollar company.


To build your brand do everything with intent

The best way to start building your brand today is by starting with the small things, like the way you brew your coffee, the way you hire or the way you treat people. These actions are your brand. So start doing everything with intent today.

Bringing your brand to life through little things can help you start building a culture and a reputation. Remember, your brand is the sum of every interaction people have with your company.


This article is based on a presentation given at SXSW 2018. Visit this link to download a workbook to help build you company’s total brand approach with simple exercises and tools.