Before You Brand Your Business

BrandingBefore you decide you need a new brand, or revamp an old one, certainly before you start any design process: you first need to clarify what your brand stands for, just how your service or product is unique. This is essential for any successful design project or marketing plan. Yet, I see so many people who wants to skip ahead and “get going. now.”

It’s a shame. Because it only takes a few minutes of your time, really, to start thinking about this.

There are just three essential questions:

1. Who are you?

2. What do you do?


3. Why does it matter?

Obviously, just how long it takes for you to answer these, to your own satisfaction, varies. But keeping these simple questions (and your answers to them) in mind will do wonders even if you don’t decide to take the time to sit down and write everything out.

If you are interested in looking at these a little more, read on…

Who Are You?

Why are in the business you are in? What do you hope to achieve, in your wildest dreams? What legacy do you want to leave behind? No matter the size of your business, your personality matters (actually, more so if you are bigger. Look at Steve Jobs). Think about yourself. What’s your passion that connects you to your business?

Sorry, but if you have trouble answering this question, you are in a real bad shape. Call someone right now for a consultation.

What do you do?

This states your playing field, but don’t stop with just the product description, or general purpose like “make money.” This is your Core Purpose, the thing that will likely be unchanged for the life of your business.

Neumeier gives a couple of good examples: Google: to organize the world’s information. Coca-Cola: to refresh the world. Kind of obvious? How about some smaller, local brands? Look at successful brands around you, and try and think about their purpose. More successful they are, clearer their purpose (thus easier to guess what they are). My favorites: The Stranger, Stumptown Coffee, Cupcake Royale, Rogue Ales.

Why does it matter?

This is the most difficult to answer of the three, and the most important. Why should I care about you? What makes you unique? This is where you state your differentiator: is it your personality? Is it your products (try not to say “because it has x features” – no one cares)?

In most cases, what makes you unique is a combination of your offerings, narrowly targeted audience, and your environment (trends and competition) as it relates to your audience’s desires.

Neumeier’s exercise called “Onliness Statement” is brilliant in construction: it’s designed to break down the differentiation into easy-to-think-up points:

  • WHAT—the category, your stated purpose
  • HOW—your unique offering
  • WHO—your audience
  • WHERE—your spacial environment
  • WHY—your audience’s emotional needs
  • WHEN—your temporal environment

Again, think of a successful brand and try and guess what their Onliness would be. Let me try:

The Stranger

  • WHAT: Seattle’s Only Alternative Paper
  • HOW: that focuses on sex, drugs and rock and roll
  • WHO: for younger, hipster crowd
  • WHERE: in Seattle
  • WHY: who want media to entertain and be their friends
  • WHEN: in the era of media disillusionment

Is it all clear? Now, once you are comfortable with what these questions mean, it’s time to apply them to your own business.

Is it hard? Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right away. The important thing is that you keep them in mind. As you go about your day, battling with the daily routines of running your business, keep asking these questions, and try and write down what comes to your mind. And, talk to people! Colleagues, partners, employees all will have questions and comments to sharpen your thoughts. After a few weeks, you will have a clearer picture of what your business is all about.

And knowing, is half the battle

Toaster Ovens, Pizza and Product Design

Toaster DesignRarely does a day go by when I’m not baffled by the product of poor design. My television remote that demands a direct line of sight. My wi-fi port that demands that I beg and plead for it to stay connected.

Occasionally however, I’m greeted by the very opposite i.e. a product that genuinely solves problems. And a very good example of this is my wife’s latest purchase, a toaster oven.

At first, I viewed it as a waste of money. We already have an oven. My wife already has a history of wasting money on impulse purchases. To my surprise however, it’s actually something of a game changer, well, in terms of cooking anyway.

It also got me thinking about how easy it is to take one product, improve upon it, and then target a whole new market. Here are five improvements of toaster ovens over standard ovens and how they could be applied to most products.

Go Smaller

Toaster ovens are less than half the size and weight of traditional ovens. This means that you can put them anywhere, a counter, on the ground, on a shelf etc. It also means that they’ve grown popular with college students and others for whom space is a premium.

The lesson here? Take something that’s already great and make it smaller. It seemed to work pretty well for Steve Jobs.

Go Faster

Because toaster ovens are smaller, you don’t need to wait fifteen minutes for them to heat up. Combine this with convection cooking, and you have an appliance that can cook your foot in half the time of a traditional oven.

For those living busy lives .i.e. most of us, this is reason alone to buy. It’s also a design improvement that can be applied to just about any other product whose value lies in the end result rather than the actual process.

Go Green

Depending on the make and model, toaster ovens also use up to forty percent less energy than their bulky counterparts. For some people, this is arguably their primary selling point.

Energy costs money. It also has a nasty habit of making a massive hole in the ozone layer leading to mass extinction etc. It follows that if you can make a product that uses less energy than its predecessor, you’re onto a winner.

Add Useful Functionality

Some toaster ovens cost over two hundred dollars. To convince people to spend that much on what is, basically, an unnecessary appliance, companies have had to had quite a few novel features.

Take for example, the Breville BOV800XL, which is generally considered to be the best toaster oven on the market. It provides:

  • Element IQ Techology for greater cooking control
  • A backlit LED screen that changes colour when the food is done. (This sounds pointless but I bet it increased sales by at least 1 percent).
  • 5 heating elements instead of one.
  • Convection cooking (obviously.)

The lesson? Take an everyday appliance and find a way to add genuinely useful functionality. Look what FitBit did to pedometers. Look what Nest did to thermometers. What comes next?

Seven Start Up Marketing Tips

Start Up

Early days in a start up’s life generally mean tight budgets. A dedicated marketing hire is rarely, if ever, a real possibility.

If you need to hit the ground running without a pro, here are seven simple tips that should get you running in the right direction.

1. Put some sweat equity in marketing, please.

There’s a lot of mixed messages out there about this, so I’ll try to be straight up. Marketing is not dispensable. It’s not only essential, but part of your value proposition. Even if someone says “worry about marketing after you figured out your product,” don’t listen to him. He means “don’t spend a lot of money up front.” In fact, it’s very important you think (really hard!) about how you’d be talking about your business way up front. Who are you? What does the business do, for whom? and Why should anyone bother to know more? These are questions you should ask first when you have the idea for a business, not two hours before a presentation.

Related: do you need a logo? business card? My take on this, especially for a startup, is yes, but don’t sweat the details (see below) or pay someone an exorbitant amount of money to do it for you. Better to consult with some trustworthy visually-oriented people and cobble up something together for the time-being. Of course, that means you will need to know a lot more about yourself…

2. Do the homework

Ask yourself: why? Why do you do what you do? Why do you care about this particular idea? Why should someone else? Why? Journalists say “ask why five times before you publish,” and that’s just for getting someone to read something. For free. So if you are hoping people will do more (say create an account with you, pay you some money for a product or services), you see how important it is that you ask these questions constantly, and know some (not all; you will be learning a LOT more later, hopefully soon but never all) of the answers.

Cultivate a visual vocabulary for your brand. Know what kind of personality you are aiming for. Who’re its friends? Enemies? If your brand were a person, what would she show up wearing to a networking event? A wedding? A night out with friends? Collect pictures that resonate with you and your brand. Think about the words that you want associated with it. This is the foundation of your “brand guide” or “stylebook.” You may decide to go with a $99 logo from a web site for now, but at least you will have:
1. a better “brief” to give your aspiring designers than most of their customers; and
2. some ideas for your brand’s concept, and if you have a solid concept, it will be easy enough to evolve your brand identity later on.

3. Listen

Pay attention to what people are saying around you. Can they be your customers? What are their main concerns? How can you help? When in front of an audience (be it in a networking setting with just one person in front of you, on social media, or in a crowd), try not to talk about yourself or worry about what elevator pitch you can give. Instead, try to engage with them as much as you can; listen to their stories and challenges, ask good questions that show you are in fact listening. Offer suggestions. Over time, this will open the channel for further conversations.

4. Don’t worry about the competition

No, it’s not necessarily bad to pay attention to what others are doing around you. You can gain some insights by observing other businesses to be sure. But if you are taking cues from your direct competition, be it marketing strategy (“Who are they going after?” “What’s their ‘thing?’”), pricing (“What are they charging?”) or operation (“Are they in a big office? Should we be?”), chances are you will be lured into mediocrity by imitation. You are a startup. Take some risks, form your own opinions and views, and “draw a line in the sand” as Jason Fried says. Don’t fret what people will say.

5. Don’t fret the details

Again, if you can’t afford a professionally-designed logo, don’t worry about it. If your social media strategy isn’t perfect, who cares? It’s better to be in the trenches trying out stuff than perfecting your “marketing plan.” Do some hard, top-level thinking, then pull the trigger and see what happens. Then later, you can perfect the details, or adjust the course. In a startup, it’s often the case you will end up somewhere you never thought you’d be when you started.

6. Aim for your customers, not investors or board members (or you and your spouse)

Nothing you do, especially in marketing, should ever aim to impress your investors, board members, family members, or yourself. Many times in my career I caught myself thinking, “That would be cool to do (because I’d look good doing it).” I’ve wasted time and money on these vanity projects on occasion, and learned the hard way not to repeat it.

Now, I am not saying that creating memorable PR stunts or throwing a big party for the brand is always bad. It just needs to be done _for_ your constituents, serve your business goals, and/or underline your positioning. And you always have to have your customers needs first in your mind.

7. Have a story to tell

Good storytelling trumps just about anything else. What’s your motivation? What makes your product awesome (in the eyes of your soon-to-be loyal customers)? There could be a really good story buried within these (and many other) questions. Good photographers, videographers, or other marketing consultants, know this; in fact, that’s a big part of what sets them apart from the rest. If you know how to find a good story in your ideas, it will be hard to fail.