Strategic Branding

MY LIFE AS A SERIAL ENTREPRENEUR. ZERO BS. (EPISODE 3)

by Gilles Raymond

Photo by explorenation # on Unsplash

Gilles Raymond is currently working on his new startup, DONE. In this recurring series, he has chosen to tell us the unedited version of his journey, from the first idea to the final product, the best and worst moments (past and future). No bullshit. Promised.

Previously:
Episode 1, “The Two Foundations” The sale of my previous startup, a news aggregator called News Republic, to a giant Chinese digital group.
Episode 2, “Three Chinese lessons” What it really means to work for a Chinese company. The need to rethink how we interact digitally.

At the corner of Rue de Castiglione and Rue de Rivoli in Paris, overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries sits one of the oldest hotels in the city. The Hotel Continental was built in 1878, on the rubble of the

ministry of finances torched at the end of the French Revolution. It is now less poetically called the Westin Paris Vendôme, to (a) state the brand, (b) assert the proximity with the eponymous square and its stunning concentration of luxury stores. This note is important for what comes next in the developing Done saga.

At the beginning of 2018, I’m staying at the Westin on the advice of a friend who works as a marketing executive at Westin’s parent company Starwood (later acquired by Marriott). She happens to be in Paris that week, so we meet at the bar. She asks me if I like the place. “Quite a lot”, I reply, “But the funny thing is that, despite the location and the Napoleonic style, the smell of the place is the same as in the other Starwood I’ve been to in San Francisco or Beijing. It’s weird”, I said. “Indeed, but trust me, it’s no coincidence. We do that on purpose. Look around you, here, or in your room. While we want to preserve the identity of the building like the St. Francis in San Francisco or the building here, we spend millions of dollars at instilling constant reminiscences of the brand, everywhere, from the music in the lobby, the way receptionists talk to guests and yes, the scent of the place. It is critical that the customer feels a familiar environment”.

During an hour, she tells me everything about the minute details of global branding for each of the 25 brands operated by the Marriott group. She continues: “When we train our salespeople, we provide them a script loaded with the complete narrative. The new hire is expected to fully absorb the script verbatim, regardless of her own history or abilities. No room for improvisation here. At the end of a 30-day training, she will internalize the script and will learn the appropriate way to deliver it, allowing our guests to experience a perfect interaction every time they are in contact with us.” I realize that Westin is not selling a product or a service, it is selling a full experience from A to Z, segmented by target groups.

The conversation floats in my mind as I am crisscrossing Paris. While working at my foundation, The Signal Network (see episode 1), I also start to contact people for our upcoming fundraising for Done. We are one year into the development of the full-featured instant messaging system, where users can communicate, collaborate, share related files and to-dos, all in one place (I described the product, in a previous installment of this series).

Part of my brain is thinking about product functionalities that we intend to onboard, and the other is weighing on how to integrate brand and experience. I want to do it at a much higher level than for any piece of software ever put on the market. I know we need to further explore and test the applicability of these concepts to the service we are designing.

Back in my room, that night, I start looking at outstanding branding experiences suggested by my marketing friend. Take airlines and their boring security announcements before takeoffs; Swiss speaks in a rather dull fashion, while Virgin America opts for the fun side (like this much-hyped clip from British Airways). Same intention, same message, but a completely different approach, which enhances the brand perception (and incidentally, better captures the passengers’ attention).

By looking closer at every sector, I started to notice the importance of branding, not only considered as a visual identity but as an entire experience. Another example: the automobile industry. A car is the quintessential mass-market and highly technical product. It is sold essentially on emotion: status, pleasure of driving, comfort, or design. All the taglines are meant to trigger an emotional connection: “Leaders make the rules” is the baseline of the Mercedes class C, “Timeless machine” for the Porsche 911. There is no mention of the horsepower or the mileage per gallon. For a certain type of car, there is no rationale in the buying process. Interestingly enough, the more expensive the car, the more marketed on emotion it is.

Everywhere I turn, I now see the subliminal attributes that come with a brand. I asked a friend why he liked The North Face: “I like the technicity of the product, but also, what it conveys, their YouTube channel, Alex Honnold [the Free Solo climber]”. Even more compelling is the Under Armour branding: this product carries no technical edge whatsoever. Same cotton fabric, same cut than any other T-shirt, only the black and white logo strikes a chord with buyers, who then pay a premium.

Software’s cold branding

No such thing when I’m using Dropbox or Google, dozens of times a day. These products are as cold as an Icelandic hospital. Zero emotion, connection, or inspiration. The same goes for most of tech hardware. There, it’s all about functionalities, enumeration of gigabits, gigabytes or gigahertz, NITS, etc. For software, the message is sometimes comically barebone: multiple variations of “It Works”, or “It simply works” (why do you need to tell me?) not to mention “Remember Everything” (Evernote), which sounds like an endless to-do list, or “Collaborate with Office Online”, which is definitely a promise of a great life. Only a few brands are able to trigger emotion. Apple, of course, created a complete experience from physical product design to the obsessively designed interface to the store and its signature furniture. To a lesser extent, others like Sony and Bose did the same. But not Dell or Nvidia.

Raising these issues with my fellow entrepreneurs or tech execs usually leads nowhere as discussions about branding stopped at the tagline and the logo.

With the Done team, and more specifically the Chief Product Officer, Sylvain Chaussard (who worked at Virgin), we had hours of discussions on how to embed powerful branding into our product’s DNA.

We decided to look outside the realm of technology. Inspired by our observations and personal experiences, we decided to hire two outside consultants, Morgane Mallejac and Estelle Gironde who did some strategic branding work for the hotel industry.

The goal was to define the positioning of the Done brand, the values associated with it, how to convey it semantically and visually. In retrospect, it was a crucial move for the company.

Testing. Measuring. Learning.

With Sylvain working from Santa Barbara, California, Morgane living in Mexico, Estelle in Paris and me sharing my time between Maui and Bordeaux, we decided that the best way to find the brand positioning was to test it.

We first built a series of mockup websites to measure the click-through rate for the different types of messages. Here is what we got:

We had a clear-cut result. Which, by the way, contradicted my own feeling: I was convinced that the best positioning for our product was the “Be more efficient at work” tagline. In hindsight, I feel relieved that we opted for a more pragmatic and quantitative approach.

We then built three landing pages, with the same message, “The only app you need for work” and ran campaigns on Google and Facebook. For an ad budget of about two thousand dollars, we got a pretty straightforward idea of what worked what didn’t:

Again, we had a clear winner. Users voted with their mouse and they were definitely not leaning to the dry corporate side. The lighter, most joyful design yielded the best conversion rate and the cheapest customer acquisition cost.

In the following weeks, Morgane and Estelle came up with a complete set of recommendations starting with the Brand Platform:

The Brand’s Guidelines also outlined the DNA of Done: a manifesto stating why we built the app, the kind of tool it must be, who will use it; a set of personas that will define our target groups; the core of values associated to our identity. The “message” section of the recommendations included a thorough description of the tone of voice we must use in our communication and a detailed visual identity toolbox, from the color code, to how we use shapes in our graphic or how we crop images. We expect our focus on mindful branding to be distinctive in our product. We left nothing to chance.

Gilles Raymond

In the next episode, we will talk about product design and how to organize a short but intense internal boot camp to define and refine the best features.

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Strategic Branding was originally published in Monday Note on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.