Building your brand: A guide for B2B SaaS Companies

Recently, I took a new job at a much larger organisation than im used to.

Dubsat is a 10-15 year old company (I don’t actually know when it began) with 110 staff in 9 offices across the world.

Despite their size and history, I’m finding more and more each day that the task ahead of me is akin to the task of marketing a B2B startup. In the past few years, the company has transiitioned from a very traditional services-based business (with the marketing plan to match) to a more SaaS model, yet their marketing hasn’t been updated to reflect this.

Hence, I now find myself in a position where I need to build their marketing from the ground up, similar to the situation in a startup.

Fortunately, this isn’t my first rodeo. Yet one of the things I haven’t focused on so much in the past is branding and I wanted to write this post to express my thoughts and learnings from the past few weeks.

Why is branding so important?

Being part of the B2B startup world for most of my life, I never really believed that much in branding. Firstly, because I believed branding in B2B mattered much less than in consumer goods (I certainly got it for consumer goods), but also because in startup world you tend to focus on activities that will directly drive you revenue (like SEO, blogging, etc) as opposed to the more intangibles like building the brand.

In the past few weeks though, I’ve come to see branding in a new light: as a differentiator and as a way to increase likeability (which is important considering 3 key pillars of B2B customer acquisition are know, like, trust). I think if you can spend some time getting your branding right, it becomes a foundation which filters through all your customer-facing marketing & sales activities (like videos, website design, language, content marketing, etc.) and presents a cohesive image to the market that aligns market perception (often called brand image) with your desired identity (often called brand identity).

If you look at the likes of HubSpot and their culture code, you can really see what their brand is about. If you then go and look at their website (in particular their videos and their content), you will see how that brand manifests into their marketing activities. Personally, I particularly love how every video starts by talking about the problems their customers have, and how they’re designing their product to solve these problems, but more on that later.

Building the foundation

Through my research, I’ve found that there are a number of things that make up the foundation of a brand, and these extend far beyond the basics of your logo and colour palette (so much so that i’m not even going to talk about them here). Brand experts commonly refer to this as your brand identity or brand platform, and it includes:

Vision

What is that you that want to achieve for the world? This isn’t the part where you write I want to achieve an exit for $100 million, but the part where you talk about what you want to do for your customers. At Dubsat, our vision is to ‘simplify the way media companies manage and distribute media’. At HubSpot, their vision is to help businesses create marketing people love (or something of the sort, i’m just guessing by the way they communicate). Whats your vision?

Mission

Every value needs a mission. The mission statement defines how you will realise the vision through action. At Dubsat, our mission statement is ‘to be the leading end to end digital solution aggregating management and distribution for all media content across the global advertising and entertainment industries’.

Values

Values are a set of written beliefs that when used properly, define the way you act. Whilst this might seem a bit fluffy at first, the more I read about culture (its something I’ve been really interested in lately), the more I see the importance of values and how they (albeit indirectly) lead to success. If you don’t believe me, read the story of Zappos and how their values (Wow the customer at every opportunity being the main one) was one of the largest contributors to their $1 billion sale to Amazon.

Using Hubspot again as an example, you’ll see their values are as follows (admittedly these are their cultural values, not specifically their brand values, but they serve my point):

  • Be manical about metrics
  • Solve for the customer
  • Be radically and uncomfortably transparent
  • There’s more, but this will do.

By recording these and making them central to the company, they act as guides to the way employees and the company in general act. For instance, Solve for the customer drives a lot of the way HubSpot acts, from their marketing activities (producing educational blog posts and eBooks that solve customers problems through education) to research and development decisions (I.e. prioritising features based on how much they will help the customer).

Brand Essence

In my dictionary, I define brand essence as the ‘emotional trait you want customers to associate with your brand’. Again, this is best illustrated by example:

  • Volvo = safe
  • Red Bull = Energy

A brand essence is in essence (pun intended) a one-word summary of the way you want people to feel about your brand, and can become a very helpful filter when making marketing decisions. Always be asking, will this activity help establish my brand essence?

Brand Architecture

Not usually an important consideration for startups, but potentially something to keep in the back of your mind. Most startups typically name their company and their product the same and that makes perfect sense.

For Dubsat though, we have 4 main products or services which have been acquired over the years, and as a result our brand architecture got confusing.

To illustrate, our company name was Dubsat and our original product was also called Dubsat, and this worked really well until we started acquiring other companies and bringing their products under our company umbrella. Ultimately, we ended up in a position where we had sales team who was working for a company called Dubsat (known in the market for it’s TV advertising delivery service) but trying to sell workflow optimisation products to printing companies (through our Adsend product that was acquired a few years back). Not surprisingly, we ended up with a lot of confusion in the market as to what it is we actually did and we weren’t able to own any specific ‘positioning’ in our customers minds.

Again, I stress that this isn’t a problem worth spending much time on for startups, but potentially something to keep in mind (especially if you have a vision of releasing multiple, complimentary products).

Core Value Proposition

What is the core value using your product or serivce(s) delivers me as the customer. I cant even begin to tell you how many companies I see get this wrong, or at least don’t communicate it effectively. There’s been a lot of work done on core value propositions (check out MarketingExperiments work on the subject), but the easiest way to understand it is through examples:

  • Hubspot: Create marketing people love
  • Desk: Delight your customers with awesome customer support
  • Adsend (A Dubsat product): Simplify the way you deliver print advertisements to publishers

Notice the common thread. There’s no mention of the product, no jargon, no big-noting. It simply says what value you, as the customer, are going to get out of using the product or service. What value will your customers get?

Features

While this sounds simple, it’s important to understand this from a customer perspective, not a development one.

I recommend writing your feature set internally but using customer interviews (or analytics if available) to understand and rank the features your users actually care about.

If you understand what features matter to your customers, you can build a message hierarchy that presents the most alluring features first, helping get your message across in our lack-of-attention economy.

I’ve also found it effective to categorise features in a logical order, often by workflow. Campaign Monitor do a great job of this on their website (notice how their features are put into categories based on how people work with their product, i.e. create beautiful emails, send campaigns, track your results, etc.) and it really helps people understand what the product does at a high-level as well as presenting the features available to people at each stage of usage.

Benefits

Again, this is something that needs to be developed not internally, but externally through customer interviews.

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time interviewing customers to understand what problems our product solves and what benefits it brings, and I’ve found customers are telling me benefits of using our product that I never heard from internal interviews with sales staff, management, etc.

Interview your customers and ask them what benefits they get, and then create a hierarchy of these benefits based on how many times you hear them from customers (or better yet, create multiple hierarchies for different customer segments).

Activating the brand

All of this is a waste of time if it’s simply words on paper in an unread folder or intranet. You absolutely must use this research as a foundation for your marketing efforts.

One of the companies who does this best is Red Bull. It’s pretty easy to take a guess at what Red Bull’s brand platform may look like, but whats more interesting to study is their activation.

Instead of investing in traditional advertising telling everybody about their drinks, they spend their marketing dollars ‘activating their brand’ by sponsoring every known extreme sports athlete or team on the planet and producing epic content around them, using the brand values each of these people or teams have to bridge them over to their own brand. Not only are Red Bull a case study in content marketing, they are a brilliant case study in branding as well.

The idea of activating the brand in B2B world is similar. Instead of spending money on doing brand building activities or campaigns, what you need to do is filter your brand through everything you do.

To illustrate through example, lets look at Hubspot again. If you consider that one of their main brand values is ‘Solve for the customer’, you will see this core value coming through in a lot of their marketing activities. For instance, the main video on their homepage starts with the sentence ‘It’s tough being a marketer today’. Too me, this instantly says they understand their customers problems, and are actively focusing on ‘solving for the customer’.

Similarly, their marketing approach is almost entirely Inbound and focusing on providing valuable, educational content to the reader. Not only does this net them a bucketload of leads at a ridiculously low cost per lead, but it’s yet another example of how they’re bring the core value of ‘solve for the customer’ to life through their marketing.

I wish I could tell you how to do this within your own organisation, but you have your own values, your own brand essences and your own marketing channels so it would be impossible.

The key takeaway here is that you don’t need to spend money or run campaigns to build your brand, you just need to constantly refer back to your brand platform and foundation and filter those points through every marketing channel and customer touchpoint. It is only through doing this, that you will have a brand image in your customers mind that is completely aligned with the brand identity you are seeking.

Conclusion: Cohesion, differentiation and resonance

Above I have tried to outline a very high-level process of how to go about researching, establishing and building a B2B SaaS brand. Through all of this, I think there are 3 key concepts that you need to keep in the back of your mind: Cohesion, differentiation and resonance.

Cohesion

Throughout each stage you need to have cohesion across all elements, otherwise you will end up with an extremely fragmented brand that will struggle to cement itself in your customers mind. For instance, take a look at three of the elements of HubSpot’s brand platform:

  • Value: Solve for the customer
  • Core Value Proposition: Create marketing people love
  • Marketing Activity: Producing educational content that helps marketers do their job better

See the cohesion here? Their core brand value is solve for the customer, and then the core value proposition they offer to their customers is ‘create marketing people love’ (a problem all marketers want to solve). In order to bring this to life, they produce a bunch of epic, educational eBooks and blog posts that solve problems marketers have (such as how to use social media for marketing) through education.

Differentiation

There’s no point establishing a particular brand essence and brand values if they are exactly the same as someone else in your market, otherwise how are people going to fall in love with you over your competitors.

In Dubsat’s case, we have a significant opportunity to present to our market a much personable, humanised brand. Our competitors present themselves as cold, corporate behemoths and their marketing is extremely product-centric, focused solely on the technical capabilities and specifications of their product rather than the problems it solves for customers.

If we can present a highly personable and humanised brand that focuses not on the products and their technical specifications but on how they solve customer problems, we have a huge chance to stand out in our market.

When establish your brand platform or brand identity, make sure you look at what your competitors are doing and differentiate yourself from (or ‘Find the empty creneau’ as Al Ries and Eric Trout would say).

Resonance

Similarly, there’s no point establishing brand positioning, essence or values if they don’t resonate with your brand. Red Bull are a branding case for the ages, but just because it’s worked for them doesn’t mean it’ll work for Dubsat (in fact, it 100% wouldn’t).

You need to make sure that the brand platform you create will resonate with your target market, and more specifically will meet their needs or address their choice criteria. If you provide million-dollar, business critical IT infrastructure for Fortune 500 companies, you will be cut from the RFP very quickly if you brand yourself like Mailchimp (with it’s cartoon monkey who keeps suggesting ridiculous YouTube videos I should watch). Yeah you might have cohesion and you might be different, but that wont matter in the slightest.

Make sure you understand what the choice drivers are for your customers. If your customers are storing important data with you and value security, then you need to have a more corporate, secure identity. If on the contrary your providing design software to graphic designers, you can afford to have a more fun, visually beautiful brand identity. Conducting customer interviews should help you understand and/or validate this.

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2 Comments

  • Paul Tomes

    29.12.2014 at 08:00 Reply

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing Aaron. Do you have any advice or benchmarks on the amount of money spent on branding (creation and activation) for a start up. I know the answer may be “how long is a piece of string” but wonder if there is any rule of thumb – percentage of revenue (year 1.2.3) or creation = x and activation = y% per month. Thanks for any advice.

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