I wrote this article in November 2017, only publishing it now.
It will cover in length why building a brand and what I think made it a success at Nexvia.
If you read french I also recommend this article from the cofounder of Matters, Eric Raffin, about their new brand, but only if you read french!
Context: why building a brand
Nexvia is basically a “modern real estate agency”. That fits on four words, it is clear and yes, not very glamorous. It is not for us, nor for our customers, yet trimmed from the marketing and founders speech it is true to the bone.
We differentiate ourselves through online tools, through a better commissioning system, through better pictures, through better advices… This succession of “better”s is how most businesses define themselves.
I see two major problems in that litany. First “Featuritis”, it feels like we are lining up features, without really stating a purpose. Even if for some the reason could be “I want to sell my house”, it would be a reason to get any agent, not necessarily us. Second “Lack of Proof”, we enumerate advantages that are not measurable before signing with us, or not measurable at all.
Lack of Proof is the smallest of the problems. This is just barking with the herd, hoping that we will be undeniably identified as better. We are trying to differentiate ourselves by taking the others as a comparison point, admitting implicitly that they are the market reference. We do so because in our mind we are one of the hundred others. Measurable or not, looking who has the biggest one makes you one in the crowd. Lack of Proof, only appears because of Featuritis.
Featuritis is the symptom that something is broken is the way you perceive yourself, you start to enter in an arms race with your competitors when in the end you will just be one tree of the forest. You compare your company with others thinking in radar charts and you want to dominate in every direction. You want to differentiate, yet admitting that fundamental differences do not exist in your industry, so their must be “one best”.
You see those two problems a lot around hardware products like smartphones and computers where you can read reviews comparing the CPU speed, the number of CPU cores, the amount of storage memory… Who cares? The feel measurable, in fact they are proxies to “perceived speed”. Everyone would like the best on one on those dimensions, but almost nobody ever run a computer at full speed or fill up the disk space, and when they do they often are already considering to switch since a long time anyway. Some products, Apple’s in this industry, are underperforming every competitor on almost every dimension for an equal price range, yet they are leaders in their industry.
It is not that people are dumb, it is also that a lot of things can not be measure or are too complex to be grabbed in technical terms. Hence we use values ; high level concepts that we can associate easily to things and that help us to decide who to join, where to fit, what to buy. They are not accurate, but they make the world easier to fit in our mind.
Innovation, speed, experience, environment, social, security, value for money. I do not know the CPU of the last iPhone, but I know that the whole product has a terrible value for money but offers a pleasant experience.
Branding is about trying to tell a story that will assemble around the identity of a company a set of values, that will make the company clearly recognizable in the mind of the customer.
Under that perspective, not any car is a car. Some mean safety, some mean local industry, some mean innovation, some mean value for money, some mean success, some mean sport.
Value for money is usually the default thing, it is for people that do not see brands on your market. They are not receptive to it so they go for what is best on paper, or they do not care, they are choosing a commodity. A car is a car, a commodity that you can swap easily.
Maybe like me you perceive banking as a commodity, it stores money and transfers money, but if you do so, you may hunt for value for your money and no bank can expect to make you a loyal customer because you will switch at the first opportunity where the potential gain outbids the monetary switching cost. Nevertheless for some other things, like your coffee shop, your car, your airline, your sport material, your OS, there are things on which the printed name matters because it is by itself the guaranty that the product you hold matches shared values.
Understanding branding: assembling a market vision
My experience about branding was limited to participating in a very good brand workshop once, reading books (references are available at the end of this article) and articles.
The challenge was to get a better grasp at it but also getting a team on board around that. Convincing ourselves that it was a good investment of our resources.
It is fairly easy to find content around visual identity, for example this one about the AirBnB brand. It is rather hard to find the earlier work of assembling the values, on this Mozilla’s transparency in their branding process provide interesting resources. You will not find a structured process described somewhere but a few people posted about branding workshops for start-ups.
I also looked up for reference in defining a brand personality, like the 12 brand archetypes, visible here or you could also use tests like the 16 personalities test and answer it like your brand is a person.
Finally I also recommend you to look at what your competitive landscape, try to identify where a branding is deploy (sometimes you can not really see one) and to extract the underlying values that a customer would associate to them.
Those elements can provide really good discussion material, and help to build a first common ground around the people composing the branding team.
Thinking the brand
From the previous elements we assembled a branding workshop that worked in three big steps.
First, we gathered opinions about ourselves, our competition, our markets by asking our customers and team members their point of view in an anonymous way. We first shared those ones in the branding team. This helped to focus on building something that would be recognized by ourselves and our market. You build a brand around the structure what you already are.
“It is more a normative process than a creative process”, a good story is looking for an echo in people’s minds.
Second, we worked around values. Starting by labeling with values (and of course post its™) everything in our environment: the industry in a wide sense not just direct competitors, the founders, the important phases of life that we are covering e.g. “buying a house”.
This was followed by a value picking session, that, meant trying to extract four core values, that will guide key decisions. This is by far the hardest part, where you discover that there are no such things as synonyms, every word expressed one intimate nuance.
Third, we derived a personality from the values. This personality was meant to define what the brand personified would do. What would it choose? How would it speak? How would it look like? It is a sparkling young man in a pink suit? Or a bold woman that loves running in nature?
We thought about what wass ok, or not ok for the brand. It meant for use defining what the “voice” of the brand was. And also what was its mission. This “brand mission” is usually thought to be a guide outside of any current business.
In a all sessions, we recorded conclusions where everybody was contributing to express the key elements of the session and what senses we were putting behind the words we picked.
Executing the brand
Executing the brand at Nexvia meant three things.
First and most important thing, make values real values and not forgotten words on post its™. It means communicating them to the team, declining them in choices.
Values have become an element of internal discussion, when thinking product, marketing or other things now we think about what should this Nexvia entity do. An interesting point, values have made some discussions easier, because it is now less about my ideas versus yours, and it is more about making the company spirit something tangible and real.
Second, perhaps optional, we reviewed the company identity. In our case it meant defining logo, colors, visual codes, writing style, we reviewed a lot of things that were already existing but had been thought independently to made one coherent thing. We could say that before the brand look schizophrenic but that this step conducted to assemble one, less changing, persona. The target of this is to provide guidelines to provide a consistent experience around the brand while the people behind it and their mindset may change across channels or time.
Third, we made an inventory of brand touch points, i.e. we listed all elements were the brand / company was interacting with the market: contracts, business cards, social networks, ads, website, job posting… And we checked the compliance between this and the brand and identity defined before.
If you wish to read more about the message behind a branding project. I strongly recommend the reading of Positioning: The Battle for your Mind a very concise thirty years old book that makes it very clear about what matter to make sense to a market, and in a lesser measure Start With Why whose essence is very similar but that I find a bit bloated.
To read something structured in a more global and operational way I recommend Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team.