“Going to the woods without an axe” is an old saying used to point at people that enter situations without the needed preparation, knowing the ignorance of the action from the get-go. A few years back, we were challenged with building a brand strategy for a pre-product startup, with no first-party data at hand. That situation is precisely what the saying is a great fit for. We were going to the woods without an axe!
When Old Gold Racing was building their crowdfunding campaign, it was clear that in order to sell the idea of a startup before having a product, would be super challenging. Even more so when their value proposition stood in a better and digitized customer experience for a pre-existing old-school market. To do so it would mean that a skin for the company needed to be built before we had the organs in place. And to build that skin on assumptions, with an almost single-shot opportunity, meant that we would have to rely on a systematized intuition and assumption structure.
James, the co-founder and COO spent a lot of time in our offices on endless discussions and what seemed to be interrogation sessions. His background on philosophy of technology was certainly invaluable to our conversations. The challenge: we needed to communicate the intrinsic value of what the company will offer through visual language, such that it will build the trust of potential investors and later to the customers, before the product was launched.The ground rules to building the brand strategy were these: we have built a framework that we follow. This framework has all the bricks to build the brand. The raw information, instead of coming from data (first-hand and quantity based), will come from a qualitative approach. That is from James’ empirical knowledge of the audience and his vision for the company.
When talking about the brand, of course, one must initially build some sort of definition over what it is. Otherwise, it is very difficult to create expectations around the end-result. To go by the infamous Marty Neumeier’s definition, “…a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”, or by Jeff Bezos’ one “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”. But how do you build a gut feeling in a person you haven’t met yet? Or how do you direct the conversation about you in a room you are not present at all?
Being clear that we are not talking about a logo here, or colors, or even a cool website, the brand seems to be a concept rooted far deeper in the human psyche than an end visual result. To build that, one must build the right brand strategy which can ultimately be measurable as well. Here are a few of the points we delve in when building such a strategy:
5 ways to build the right brand strategy
1. Think about the overall look and feel, not colors and shapes.
This is probably the easiest part of the process, but sets out the tone of the whole process. Looking at our target audience and the vision of the company, we build the idea of what the look and feel of the whole brand should look like in an optimal timeframe in the future. From this we do not derive visual results, but rather a few keywords which will be the cornerstone of the visual identity brief that will later on go to the graphic designers. The look and feel establishes rules around which, regardless of trend and tech changes, the visual stimuli of the audience will be oriented. This way, we make sure that even if we didn’t like that first logo we used, or if the time for upgrading it has come, the feeling about the company doesn’t change, and thus still remains true to its original promise.
2. Build a personality through tone of voice, not random bursts of messages.
Now when we think about tone of voice, we try to establish exactly that personality. The type of language that will be used, not only on marketing materials, but by the team, by the customer support crew, and even in TV appearances. The emotion that the tone of voice and the language will
If you have ever watched a crime-drama movie, you have probably stumbled upon one of those crime lords that have a deep dark voice. Their language is very consistent, and usually have a phrase or two that keep on repeating. That’s when you know things are about to get real (by this time you are probably already thinking about the Godfather and “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”). Well a company that doesn’t have a consistent tone of voice often sounds like that kid in puberty that gets the cracks every time they speak up. It always strikes a laugh.
3. Find your place as a brand in your customer’s life.
A critical point of our exercise comes at this point. When there is enough data to look at, we would be comparing it with what we know about our competitors and see where we stand, compare it to the vision of the founders, and adjust accordingly in order to place the company in the right place. When no such data exists, then we compare the vision of the founders to the existing competition, without any data to prove that that would be the case. Nevertheless, a brand is usually expected to be able to live and fit within the market space it fills, such that it is clear to the audience as to what the brand/product/service does without much effort, but also be different enough to be more attractive than its competitors.
We do this by playing a tug of war between relevant concepts of vision and a deep competition analysis.
4. Make sure you clarify what you stand for. Show your values and beliefs.
On a business with a product and customers/users, this is where we would sit with them and our psychologist prepared with several lines of questioning would derive the intrinsic value of the company. A lot of the time we find that what users actually gain from using the product is not very close to the company’s line of sight. In the case of Digital School (See the Digital School case here) we found that some of the crucial reasons students stayed loyal to the school was because of the sense of belonging and confidence they built within themselves while having the right support system around themselves at the school. This was information that the founders had, but hadn’t noticed the scale of it, and neither had they had methodical strategies on how to utilize and capitalize on this value. With Old Gold Racing we had to derive this information from the values expected to be delivered to the customers, and to the existing beliefs of the founders around what the racing industry should actually do for this community. Establishing the values and beliefs is fundamental to being able to choose the right people, partners, and employees to work with. Being able to verbalize them clearly helps build the right company culture, and also build the right hive around the very vision of the company.
5. Align on specific messaging and pitch. Don’t keep bouncing from one thing to another.
To crown the whole personality we have just built, with all its moving pieces, we now need to build that phrase that people will say about you, which puts a name to that feeling they have built inside, once you have left the room. Users need that “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” served to them so that it’s easy to remember and say it, instead of having to come up with something themselves. Working on a clear pitch, and the right messaging, phrases, and slogans around the company does exactly that. This helps the founders and teams to easily transmit what they stand for, and the customers a story they can rely on. This gives the personality of the brand its name at the top.
Conclusion on brand strategy
Having established all of the above mentioned points, and a few more, we managed to have a good grip on what we were aiming at with the crowdfunding campaign and the company. Even though the logo has changed three times since then, dozens of ad campaigns have been unleashed, and thousands of customers have now come in, the brand remains the same, and we keep hearing users talking about us exactly on the tone that we had wanted them to. All this came due to a meticulous brand strategy that allowed us to measure results as we progressed.
Today, about a year and a half since the successful crowdfunding campaign, Old Gold Racing boasts a sale of 8 horses, has built a great team, and is on to a larger round of investment.
Closing off, we see building a brand, not a process of creating a logo, but the process of designing the seeds which will be incepted in our users minds for that gut feeling to emerge.