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Branding in Tech

Alfred Lua / Written on 09 September 2020

Hello there,

After I published last week's note, Behind the Scenes of a Product Launch, I stayed up until 12 am for the product launch. At 9 pm my time (6 am PT), I published the announcement on our blog and pushed out other marketing messages such as emails and social media posts. I then monitored our inbox for any replies to the launch emails because I wanted to get a good sense of how people would respond to the new feature and the launch.

The goals of the launch were to acquire new customers and help shift the perception of Buffer as merely a social media scheduler to a complete social media management platform by highlighting our analytics. The responses so far haven't been overly positive or negative. My plan is to do a retrospective four weeks from the launch to see how it performed against my targets. I'll be happy to share the numbers then.

P.S. I'm planning to take a vacation from September 28 to October 11. There will be no Weekly Notes or Weekly Analyses for those two weeks. I have created a publishing schedule here. Thanks for your support so far.

Why branding matters, even in tech

Since early this year, I have been thinking about branding for tech companies. I remember attending an APAC Marketers roundtable in February, and the host Dave Fallarme asked me what had been on my mind a lot then. When I replied, "branding", he gave me a puzzled look.

The internet has created digital marketing, which gave us performance marketing, content marketing, SEO, CRO, etc. Most importantly, the internet gave us data to work with—traffic, conversions, sales. While the data isn't complete, it is something to work with. Unlike running a TV commercial or a radio ad, digital marketing provides us with some numbers to analyze the performance of our campaigns. And many of us seemed to be stuck with the numbers. We tend to prioritize things that can be measured over those that can't. There is a good reason for this: Without any numbers, we can't prove the ROI of it. It's harder to justify doing it. Branding is an example of that.

It is almost impossible to measure the impact of branding on the business. We would need an alternate universe—one where the company has strong branding and one without. Then we can truly measure the impact of branding. Brand surveys are insufficient. They can tell us what customers think about our brand but it doesn't tell us whether customers bought because of the brand or how much more they spent because of the brand.

Some marketers would think branding is overrated. Why invest in branding when it is not measurable and we have so many other marketing channels that we can optimize with data? (Well, people don't really say this out loud but our actions say it.) But a strong branding optimizes our other marketing channels! When people search for something on Google, they would click the first result or the website from a brand they trust, which will help the website move up the ranks. When they see multiple ads selling the same thing, they would more likely click on the one from the brand they know. When they visit a trusted brand's website, they would convince themselves to buy our products more than our "optimized" copy would. It sounds irrational but it isn't. It's rational that we buy from the brands we trust.

The effect of branding is most obvious in fashion. Clothes and bags from most brands are equally functional. But people would spend more, and sometimes much more, for a well-known brand (then convince themselves it is a quality product, it'll last longer, or it has this and that extra thing that cheaper ones don't). As software becomes increasingly commoditized, the impact of branding is becoming greater. Software can still compete on features and design but companies seem to be coming up with similar features and almost similar user interfaces. For example, in the space I'm most familiar with, social media management, Buffer, Hootsuite, Sprout Social, etc. all help customers publish, engage, and analyze. Both Uber and Lyft get people a ride from point A to point B. Mailchimp and ConvertKit let us send emails. People might argue, "nah, X is better than Y because it has this additional feature and it's much easier to use." I believe it's because they were already bought into brand X. We think we make rational comparisons between products. But I think most of the time, we are bought into the brand first. Then we justify why its product is better than the rest.

What branding includes

Almost everything in the company contributes to the branding. Anything that people feel about the company. Besides marketing, the product and customer support also influence how people think about the brand. I had learned this at Buffer. We want to be a friendly, helpful brand, so we would write educational content, sharing everything we know, and provide friendly customer support through email and on social media.

But not everything is within the control of the marketing team. What the marketing team can and should work on are...

  1. The brand language
  2. The visual branding

The brand language is the words used across the company—on the website, on social media posts, in emails, in the product, by customer support people, and so on. If you are curious about how we do this at Buffer, our VP of Marketing Kevan Lee once shared our content style guide on our blog. But note that it's a constantly evolving document and we have made a few updates since.

The visual branding is all the things you see about the company—again on the website, on social media posts, in emails, etc. I would exclude product interface because that's more product design than marketing but include any graphics or illustrations used inside the product. While it might sound trivial, I'm starting to feel the visual elements are just as important as the other aspects of branding because it communicates the brand immediately. People get the sense even before they read any copy. I think the best type of companies to look at are DTC companies. They create consistent branding across their products, packaging, website, social media, emails, and so on. On the other hand, the visual elements of tech companies can be pretty inconsistent—a design style for the website, then another design style for emails, and yet another for social media posts. Inconsistency weakens the brand.

How to measure brand

I don't think brand needs be measurable before we deem it to be important. But having some measurements is helpful for getting buy-in and for tracking progress.

A not very scalable approach I have been using is to monitor mentions of Buffer on Twitter, in relevant subreddits, and in popular social media manager Facebook Groups. I pay attention to what people are saying about Buffer and what context they mention Buffer in. I manually assess the sentiment and keep it fairly simple: is it overwhelmingly negative, neutral or no mentions, or overwhelmingly positive? While I do this for our Buffer brand overall, you can also repeat this for specific brand campaigns. How are the responses to the campaign? Are there any articles about the campaign? I intentionally keep this qualitative. I don't think it's necessary for most companies to come up with a complicated method to calculate a specific "brand score" unless you are an enterprise.

Another proxy I might look at is the company's growth. This is quite unscientific but I think there is a good correlation between brand and growth. Over the last few years, I noticed that as fewer people talk about and recommend Buffer, our growth slowed down a lot. Of course, a lot goes into a company's growth. For example, growth might have slowed because the product has fallen behind its competitors. But another way to look at this is that the product also impacts branding. A great product improves branding while a bad product does the opposite. So for whatever reason the company growth has slowed, it's likely that the brand isn't as strong as before. (Well, unless the reason is the company has captured the entire market, which is quite rare.)

I'm sure there is much more to branding that I'm not aware of. Is there anything you would add to this? Or is there anything you disagree with?