At the heart of all good business is good branding. Today, arguably, there are no truly original ideas, and so within the fiercely competitive and increasingly overcrowded realms of the tech startup world, building a robust and memorable brand can be the only assured way of differentiating yourself from your competitors.
But what is branding?
Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder of Amazon, describes it thusly: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
It’s a pretty accurate description, and highlights what startups should really be thinking about when it comes to defining their brand.
Branding is more than your logo. It’s more than your business card. It’s more than your website, your colour scheme, typography and slogan. It’s more than the solution that you have developed, and in fact is even more than all of the above put together.
Branding is your business’s personality. It’s how your business is perceived by your customers, competitors, partners, and the public.
Good branding should create a loud, clear, concise, and consistent message. A message that embodies the core values of your business, makes it memorable, and, ultimately, gives it a tangible identity.
In this sense, branding can often be a startup’s most powerful marketing tool. It’s the branding – not the solution or the business itself – that will cause customers to feel a connection with what you’re doing. And this is what will persuade them to spend money with you instead of your competitors, and will ultimately lead to greater brand differentiation and subsequent loyalty.
The Balance Between Centrality and Distinctiveness
When starting to build a brand strategy, one thing that must be considered – and can indeed emerge as somewhat of a dilemma– is whether to position the brand as central or distinctive.
On the one hand, the startup wants to ensure that the brand is central to the category – which is to say that it is most representative of its type (much like McDonald’s is to fast food, for instance, or as Coca-Cola is to soft drinks). On the other hand, the startup wants the brand to be distinctive and stand out from all the rest.
Brands with high centrality shape the dynamics of the category in which they exist. They are the brands that first come to mind when we think of a particular category.
For example – let’s bring the word “smartphones” into the conversation. You’re probably thinking about Apple, right? Well, you might be thinking about Samsung, too, depending on where your brand loyalty lies.
No matter your preference, it’s safe to say that both of these brands are central to the smartphone category. However, it is arguable that Apple is slightly more distinctive than Samsung – and it’s this that allows Apple to generally command a slightly higher price for handsets than its nearest rival can.
Apple, however, is not an out-and-out distinctive brand. It’s managed to strike a balance between centrality and distinctiveness that has allowed it to become both a household name, yet also have a reputation for producing high-quality, beautiful products that millions around the world are happy to pay extra for.
And this begins to highlight just how important the balance between distinctiveness and centrality really is. As a startup, when building your brand, the choices you make will determine how your customers will come to perceive your product or service, which in turn will determine how many units you will be able to sell under the banner of your brand and what price you will be able to command for them.
So where does your tech startup brand fall in terms of centrality and distinctiveness?
Perhaps a better question might be – where do you want it to fall?
To help brands position themselves, Ivey Business Schools’s Niraj Dawar and Charan K. Bagga created what they call “Centrality-Distinctiveness (C-D) Maps”, which place brands within a category in one of four quadrants – Unconventional, Aspirational, Peripheral, and Mainstream.
Scoring high on distinctiveness but low on centrality, unconventional brands are typically niche players in the category. They stand out in the minds of customers for reasons of heightened differentiation, and, as such, are not definitive of the category and will not be particularly appealing to a large customer base. This means that low sales volumes should be expected, and therefore profitability will have to come from higher prices.
Aspirational brands are the Apples of the world. Both distinctive and central, brands in this quadrant will enjoy high sales volumes even at the high prices they are able to command, due to the high regard in which they are held. It’s a covetable position, but not an easy one to attain or, indeed, maintain. The key for aspirational brands is to pitch their distinctive features just right – they need to be mainstream enough to garner wide appeal, and yet not so mainstream as to appear run-of-the-mill. And this all comes down to well-defined and consistent brand messaging.
Neither central nor distinctive, peripheral brands tend not to be held in high regard, are often not particularly distinguishable between one another in a category, and, as such, don’t enjoy very high sales volumes – even at low prices. The strategy for these brands is usually to present themselves as low-price alternatives to mainstream competitors – and this can prove profitable, due to the fact that there is low innovation and marketing costs.
Mainstream brands are solid and central, defining the category that they’re in. However, they tend to lack the “wow-factor,” though nonetheless represent safe bets for large numbers of customers. As such, mainstream brands become mainstream because they enjoy high sales volumes, though usually at lower prices to their more distinctive competitors.
Who Is Your Brand?
Figuring out in which quadrant your tech startup brand falls will help you determine your whole brand marketing strategy. And, if you’re not happy with the quadrant you (or rather your customers) decide that you’re in, your current position will go a long way towards determining the strategy you will need to adopt to get out of it.
Here’s a short video explaining a little further the concept of C-D maps, and how you can use them to inform your brand marketing strategy.
In any event, the first thing that you will need to do is ask yourself a few key questions:
-What is my target market?
-Who are my competitors and in which quadrant do they sit?
-What are my most unique differentiators?
-What’s my brand story?
-What are my brand’s values, and what is its core promise?
Answer these questions thoughtfully and honestly, surveying your customers where possible to get the most accurate descriptions.
You may well find that your brand is not perceived to be as distinctive as you would like, and, if so, ask yourself what you can do in terms of marketing to change that perception. What content could you create to set yourself apart more decisively from your competitors?
When thinking about this, it often helps to start defining your brand as a “person”, rather than, say, a logo or even a business.
What type of person would your brand be? Would it be male or female? Young or old? Liberal or conservative? What clothes would this person wear to work? How would he or she talk to friends, relatives or business partners? What type of music is this person into? How much does he or she earn? Is this person concerned about the environment?
Who is your brand?
Defining Your Tech Startup Brand
Once you’ve got a clearer idea who your brand is, you can now start collecting and creating content that will help your target market define it in the same terms.
You will need to start forming a tone of voice that you will use through every communication you make with your customers and prospects. Again, think of your brand as a person. Is it serious? Fun? Friendly? Whacky? Authoritative?
In every blog you pen, every email you send, every tweet you post – your brand’s tone of voice needs to be heard loud and clear. Consistency is key.
And this carries over into the images you choose to be associated with your content output. It should even define the colours you use on your logo (redesign if necessary) and on your website.
And while you’re doing all of this, you also need to be conducting some serious analysis of your competitors. Even if you’re hoping to position yourself as a mainstream brand, you still need to be differentiating yourself and focussing on what makes you unique. And the only way to do this is through first understanding exactly what it is that makes your competitors unique, and distinguish yourself accordingly.
Over to You
A business is only ever as strong as its branding. For startups at the early stages of operation, defining your brand’s core message, promise, values and personality right from the start is key to securing long-term growth. C-D maps are a great tool for evaluating where you and your competitors are currently positioned in the market – use them to determine your levels of distinctiveness and centrality, and to inform your strategy as you strive to secure your place in the quadrant most suited to your brand and your customers.
Branding doesn’t only define who you are, but who your customers are as well, and forging connections based on shared values needs to be at the heart of your ongoing brand marketing strategy.
As an inbound marketing agency in London that specialises in tech companies, Incisive Edge has years of experience helping bring brands to life. Our strategic expertise helps you draw in customers and reach your goals. If you have any questions about branding or inbound marketing, don’t hesitate to get in touch today.