In the past, digitally native businesses found their first success without a brand: In fact, many Silicon Valley companies didn’t even use the “B” word.
Related: The 8 Laws of Branding
Conventional VC wisdom, in fact, supported a model where entrepreneur would take the lowest salary possible, live on the future promise of their equity stake, put all their money into your engineers and their UX designers, code a killer service — and ship it. Some of the most successful digital businesses didn’t launch with advertising. Many still don’t.
The rationale? In the digital space it’s been said that your brand is not your solution. That if you solve for a user need and optimize, optimize, optimize it, success will come. It has also been said that you can’t market your way out of a bad solution and, in fact, only sub-par solutions need marketing in the first place.
But that was the old world. While the traditional de-emphasis on brand may remain the core mantra of the digital-first entrepreneur, it’s a wildly incomplete picture of the path to success. To the contrary, today’s quickest growing digital businesses, like mattress startup Casper, know the value of launching out of the gate with the right digital-driven solution, an innovative product — and a smart brand.
In its first month, the company hit $1 million in sales. The product was working, and the pain points in the mattress-shopping experience were being solved. What Casper now needed was the marketing to continue scaling growth. So, the company went to work not just delivering the “What” (the product), and the “How” (the digital service), but communicating the “Why” (the brand).
This well-defined brand voice led Casper to launch lother efforts, like the Insomnobot 3000 chatbot, which sends texts to sleepless people and “Late Night Snap Hacks,” designed to let a customer trick friends into thinking that he or she is out on the town instead of — as is the case — comfortably snuggled up in bed.
These campaigns have made the brand relatable and showcased its personality, while expanding its relevance with potential new customers. Three years later, Casper is still gaining new users and now expanding into physical retail stores.
So, what does the digital playbook look like today? One, you still need to start with the basics: Identify a real user need and solve it beautifully. Two, allow the solution itself to be a part of the brand message. And, three, maximize growth-hacking and performance-marketing. These are practices defined by leveraging the most targeted way to grow users, and by experimenting, learning and optimizing rapidly.
But these actions are not enough. Eventually, your competitors will catch up, your market will become saturated or your users will get bored; your growth will flatten out.
So, yes, your digital business needs a brand, and here are five reasons why:
You’ll need to create demand.
Growth-hacking assumes that demand is largely present, and some of it is. But to grow exponentially, you need to not only meet demand, but create it. You’re not simply intercepting people looking for a mattress; you’re creating the desire for a new mattress in the first place and opening your business up to a much larger percentage of the population.
Put another way, a critical ingredient growth is not just the act of identifying your key customer today but investing in who your next customer could be tomorrow.
You’ll need to connect with your tribe.
Today’s consumers are drawn to companies that emit empathy, companies with whom they can genuinely connect. You can humanize your own company by identifying your audience and creating a space for true connection.
Listen to these people, and give them a chance to understand your brand in an organic, human way. For example, Glossier started as a beauty blog that connected with audiences around the world by sharing makeup tips and product reviews. In 2014, Glossier launched a direct-to-consumer makeup line, which resulted from years of building trust with its loyal followers. When it came time to launch a beauty line, the progression from blog to ecommerce giant came naturally.
You’ll need to motivate your employees.
Building a strong brand is about more than consumers. Creating a clear brand strategy provides clarity and focus for your team. Branding provides a guideline for employees and motivates them to meet your goals.
You’ll be better off differentiating first.
Look at the travel industry as an example. With the success of Airbnb, there are now a handful of companies offering pretty much the same thing, all scrambling to differentiate and get their piece of the pie. One of the appeals of bringing forward great product innovation is that you invite a host of me-too competitors to the party: Once you solve a problem, someone’s going to be right there trying to solve it better than you.
When that happens, your brand will be your best defense. Airbnb’s success proves that it’s much harder to copy a deeply rooted story and emotional connection than it is to copy functionality and rational benefits.
You’ll have to exist across many platforms. We all know the myriad screens on which we engage with brands today, but the advent of AI and the eventual disappearance of the visible interface means your brand needs to exist in multiple settings to succeed. If your “brand” is really just a logo, how will you reach consumers in connected homes relying solely on Amazon Alexa or Google Home?
In a system of choice driven by audio, you need to think about how your brand sounds and interacts with consumers. And these days, that means that all the traditional elements of branding — voice, look feel and behaviors — are arguably more important than ever.
A good example of this is Seamless, which has witty ads on NYC subways, fun television spots; Seamless also recently extended its brand into an app for Amazon Alexa. The Seamless brand is all about convenience, giving users the ability to order from their favorite restaurants without leaving the couch. Now, with Alexa, the experience further extends the brand offering.
So, the message is, it’s time to change the conversation. Traditional marketers say people don’t buy a brand, they buy into it. Digitally born product designers say people don’t buy into a brand, they use it. Success today and even more future success, depends on all of this:
- user design + brand strategy
- product + experience
Winning will depend upon bringing all of the best practices of marketing to bear. Investing in your brand and your business is a continuous momentum loop that builds on itself, and is the key to finding success as a digitally born business.