Before breaking into the SaaS industry, Karrie worked with several big-name brands and ran her own brand and strategy consulting company. Her experience gave her a strong foundation on how to build a brand:
"When I came into SaaS, I realized a lot of those fundamentals applied and have fallen in love with it."
She began her SaaS journey at Smartsheet, serving as the head of strategy and brand team:
"When I joined, they were at that pivotal point of going into scale and getting so big that you really had to be very deliberate about what you're doing with the brand."
After four years at Smartsheet, she joined Typeform and served as their chief marketing officer for two years.
What is a brand?
"It's something that is out there whether you like it or not. As soon as someone understands your product, your offering, or your service, they start to form an impression of it in their mind.
When it comes to branding, the opportunity for companies is to take charge of that impression and shape it to the way they want to. That is your brand."
Failing to take charge early on will make it harder to change people's perception of your business:
"The longer you wait to define and articulate the core pieces of the brand, who you are, who you're not, who you're for, the harder it'll be to put that genie back in the bottle once people have formed their opinions of you."
How to build a brand
There's a misconception that branding is only about hiring a branding agency to conceptualize and deliver creative assets. While these are part of a branding project, the logo, brand palette, and others are the end products of branding.
Your vision and mission
The first step in building a brand is answering two questions that connect to your vision:
- Why are you building this SaaS product in the first place?
- What's your vision of the world once you launch your SaaS product?
After articulating and forming a strong vision, you can then proceed to think about your mission.
Karrie says that you should write all these down because these are the bases of how you will shape your brand:
"Whatever was that emotional spark that you had as a founder that said, 'There's gotta be a better way,' or 'I have an idea of how to do this better.' Write these down and consult with your supporters. From there, the brand will follow."
Identifying your audience
This will also tell you who your product is for:
"Think about the mindset of the person. Are they somebody who is predisposed to whatever you you are selling? Are they in the most pain?"
Karrie shares that during her stint at Typeform, the product was for people who care about the customer experience:
"If you don't care about the experience you're giving your customer in an online environment, then Typeform is not for you because the whole premise is that there's a better way to experience things online. The people who don't care about it: it's too much for me to try to educate them first to care, and then to choose Typeform."
Positioning and messaging
Once you've narrowed down who your product is for, you can start talking about your positioning and messaging, answering questions such as:
- What is your unique value proposition?
- How might that show up in the world?
And when you can start articulating these things, write and narrow them down. To help with narrowing down your ideas, you can then talk to a bunch of customers or target customers:
"You can get caught up in your own internal loop. Talk to customers, prospective customers, or those people who you think you're for, and hear what they're saying. It will help you think if you are off-target or not. And that'll help you define who you are.
And it's really a statement about who you're for, what pain you are solving for them, why they need you, what would happen if they don't use you?"
The answers to these questions could also help shape your name and visuals:
"If you're a human-centered company, you should probably have a lot of humans in your visuals. If you're security, maybe it's something different."
With a lot of work going into the brand, Karrie emphasizes that it's not just about hiring a branding agency to do it for you:
"It's not paying somebody to come up with a look and feel for your brand. There's some work that has to happen that will help you better articulate your vision, mission, who you're for, what problem you're solving, and go from there."
Getting insights about brand perception
You can use the Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) framework to think about the emotions and frustrations behind the tasks that someone's trying to solve. You need to know things such as:
- What got them to the point that they want to solve this specific problem?
- What have they tried before?
- Why didn't that solution work?
You also want to know what it will mean for them if your product works:
"When they start to say, 'Oh, this will be faster,' and all the typical things that we talk about. Ask them about the personal benefit. Do they get to spend more time with their family? Do they get promoted? Or just the feeling of satisfaction when you're thinking about a brand?
You want to think as much about the emotional benefits as the functional benefits of what you're eventually doing."
Pinpointing the reasons behind their actions and decisions can really help with your branding:
"If you can tap into those, that will give your brand a dimension, as you talk about the value, as you think about how you position and how you show up visually in your messaging."
The balancing act in branding
Up to a certain company size, the company brand is, to some extent, a reflection of the personality of the founders. How do you balance this with what the customers want and need?
"Some of the most successful companies are the ones that put the customer first in terms of what their needs and wants are. And then based on the founder or the unique way that they go about delivering to that customer, that's where some of the personality may come in."
Karrie cautions on indexing too much on any one individual as a part of your brand:
"Whether it's a founder, a marketer or whomever, your brand is tied to that individual for the good times and for when things don't go so well. So it's best to think ahead about the brand as a persona in and of itself. Let that come alive and say, 'If my brand was a person, what would it be?'"
Karrie shares a conference activity they did at Smartsheet where they asked their loyal customers about items they could compare the software to:
"We had a whiteboard session where people could come by and compare Smartsheet. We had all these stickers to choose from such as animals, people, and cars. This gave us a lot of insight into what people thought about the company in terms of things like a cheetah, a bullseye, and a Swiss Army knife."
By getting this type of feedback from super users, you get a feel of their perception without comparing you to a direct competitor:
"You can do things with customers that can get to that emotional benefit and give you a signal on how you might want to show up in the world based on how they categorize you with things that are not even software related."
How to source research passively
If it isn't possible to do dedicated customer interviews for branding, you could make use of the artifacts from your existing data like the ones from your JTBD interviews.
Karrie thinks that it's very important for marketers to work very closely with the product team:
"They're doing those insights, research, and understanding of what they're building for, so I should be very much embedded in understanding what those insights come up with."
The insights will help with:
- Your messaging
- Your point of differentiation
- The competitors that they think you have
- The areas where there is no solution
She also sits in or listens to the recordings of product advisory councils, where the best customers will give honest feedback on what the company is developing:
"There's so much signal in there that can be used for messaging because customers are using real-world language. It's not jargon or corporate speak. They're speaking the language of what you should be playing back out in the market."
Aside from your existing research, you can also work with companies like Wynter so you can test things like messaging and visuals.
Naming a new product
There are two kinds of naming:
- Functional naming which is very descriptive and relates to what the product does
- Conceptual naming where it doesn't have to do with the function of the product
"When you're first getting started with a SaaS product, a functional name is a great way to jumpstart people understanding what your product does. You also create that momentum and excitement about the product.
The challenge is, down the road, as your product gets bigger, you want to expand the capabilities. If you expand past that name, it then becomes a liability because people have put you in that box and they think that's all you do."
So if you want to turn yourself into a platform, Karrie says you might face renaming or coming up with an umbrella name that this existing one fits under.
"There are pros and cons to both decisions and it depends upon how crowded the market space is. It can depend upon how much investment you want to make in taking a name that isn't functional and in getting it out there."
Deliverables and assets that shape a brand
Brand architecture framework or messaging framework
This framework would contain:
- Your vision
- Your mission
- Brand promise
- A brief description of who you're for
- A brief description of the value that you bring
This will inform your content teams and product marketing team on what the company will say out in the world.
"And then all of your product messaging should layer under that. So if you're launching a new feature, which part of the architecture does that lay under?"
Meanwhile, a brand book contains all the visuals of how you show up in the world:
- Do's and don'ts
- Color palette
Your team should have an idea how they interact with customers and leads in different situations, especially the challenging ones.
"What's our tone of voice? Are we helpful? Are we serious? Are we irreverent? It just depends upon your customers on what they're willing to expect from your brand, and then go from there."
Internal education about your brand
Aside from your external communications, it's equally important to educate your team about your brand:
"There will be a time when your company gets big enough that you can't get the feel for the brand and how you should behave."
Which is why Karrie believes that it's the responsibility of the marketer to put together written do's and don'ts, and then do a roadshow around the different departments:
"Literally go department by department and say it again. Let them understand how it would feel if we're changing our terms and conditions, invoicing, or doing a price increase. How does that communication feel coming out of that finance team? Is it matter-of-fact? Does it have a little bit of humor in it? What other visuals might be involved?"
By doing this internal framework and foundation, you'll create consistency across the customer experience:
"When your brand shows up consistently in the world, you're building so much trust with those customers because they say, 'Oh, you are who you say you are,' whether it's your CEO speaking, what you say on your website, or they're talking to someone from customer service."
Why you shouldn't immediately change your messaging
When it comes to brand consistency, you need to be clever and getting bored with your own messaging could be your worst enemy:
"It might be boring for you, but right about the time that you get sick of your messaging is exactly when the customers are starting to break through because they don't live in the world of whatever you're trying to sell every day, all day long. They live in the world of being constantly bombarded. So the old adage used to be you had to hear a marketing message seven times for it to sink in. I think it's probably closer to 20 at this point."
Which is why you need to resist the temptation to change the messaging when it gets to that point:
"Just about the time you get bored is about the time your customers are gonna start paying attention. Resist the temptation to change your core messaging."
But this doesn't mean not doing A/B tests or tweaking to inject humor in your social channels. It means not deciding to do an overhaul of your messaging:
"If you're changing your messaging and who you are every six months, even more frequently than a year, you'll be doing damage because your customers are not living in your world. They're not in it all day long. They're seeing, seeing it here and there and it takes a while for that consistency to show up."
Karrie shares that the big mistake she sees other companies make is that they only give their new messaging a month before they decide to switch it again when it doesn't work:
"That's not enough time. If you've done the research ahead of time, you've got to let it sit. It's so hard not to let those things roll for a little while, but it will hurt your brand if you're constantly switching."
When is it time for a rebrand?
In the early part of her career, Karrie says that the lifecycle of a brand took quite a long time because these were often one-way conversations:
"Companies would sit back and say, this is the brand. These are what we're going to put out in the world. We're going to do billboards and TV ads. It was 'produce and consume'."
Nowadays, customers and consumers will give their inputs:
"We've just trained a whole new generation that their input matters. And by the way, they're going to give it whether you want it or not, whether it's through a social channel or something else."
When you're doing a refresh, Karrie advises to let it sit for at least a year.
But how do you know when it's time to do another refresh?
"Your customers will tell you when it's starting to feel old. What are the signs? They'll tell you either by some of their buying behaviors or they'll tell you through your active social channels."
You could also get this feedback from sitting in product advisory councils or if you hold your own marketing advisory council.
"I love to talk to customers specifically from a marketing perspective, and they love to give feedback. Do we like the headline? Do we like the visuals? They'll start to tell you if they're feeling like it's not resonating, or that's not the pain point you solve anymore, or they like this competitor better. They might ask: 'What have you done for me lately?' or hear 'Your product's not evolving.'"
And if you find that you need a refresh, you don't necessarily have to change your whole messaging:
"You just might need to change things up a little bit. Try something a little bit more fun, figure out how to re-engage them, and then listen to their feedback."
Staying on brand when scaling
When a company starts to scale, Karrie says it's best to invest in a good digital asset management system where you can store everything:
"A good digitized management system will help everyone understand where they should go for the current assets. This also lets you deprecate things that you don't use anymore."
Aside from helping your marketing team, the system will also help people outside of the company:
"Everything in a one-stop dashboard or portal linked to a digital asset management system will really help make it easy for people in marketing, but also outside of marketing to self-serve and know this is how we're showing up in the world."
This is also helpful when you're doing a brand refresh:
"You can flip all those assets and then everybody knows that these are the new ones and what they should be using."
Aside from the customers' perception, you also want to think about your employer brand:
"That's something that has also changed a lot in recent years. Even more so is that customers and consumers want to know not just what product you have, but they want to know who they're buying from as a company. They want to know what kind of employees you have."
Which is why marketers should also care about how your brand shows up externally and internally:
"Who you are on the inside and how you treat your employees on the inside will show up on the outside. If it's really good, it's easy. If it's not great on the inside, and then you're trying to put this veneer on the outside of what kind of brand you are, those two will clash at some point."
And this is also why Karrie worked closely with the human resources team to think about recruitment:
"We talk about things like who we are as an employer, what kind of company are we, what's our leadership team like? People want to know who they're doing business with. And thinking that through as part of the brand and how you show up is something to pay attention to. Maybe not in the super early days, but as you move forward, it's absolutely critical."
What can small companies do better?
Karrie says that while it's understandable to focus on figuring out product-market fit and increasing revenue, small teams should dedicate some time to work on the branding:
"You have a lot of that information anyway, because when you're doing your Jobs to Be Done and product-market fit, you just articulate it from a different frame, which is: how are we going to communicate who we are out to the world?
Own your brand. Take ownership of who you want to be because otherwise, your customers will form their own opinion of you whether you want to or not."
She shares that a lot of SaaS companies haven't really taken the time to think about their branding and this would cause difficulty for them down the line:
"It will materially hurt their ability to scale in the long run. If you decide who you are, and the sooner you start working on that, the easier it'll be when you hit that point to scale up if you've already had those conversations."
She also emphasizes that everyone's responsible for branding:
"It's everybody's job. It's not just on the marketing team to do that."
Do also talk to non-customers.
"Talk to people that didn't choose you. There's so much signal in somebody who decides not to be your customer about 'why didn't they?' Is it something that you want to incorporate or not?"
Don't treat the brand as a set-and-forget thing.
"Brand is not something that you just launch one time and forget. It takes as much discipline, attention, consistency, development, and continuous nurturing as the product itself."
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