In today’s world of data-driven marketing, it’s easy to get fixated on what’s measurable. While leveraging data is both important and smart, I increasingly find myself wondering if we, as SaaS marketers are overlooking the human dimension of marketing in favour of what’s easy to track, analyse and optimise.
Undoubtedly, brand building falls into the “hard to measure” category, but as we see within the business to consumer (B2C) world, brand is hugely important. By almost any measure Coca-Cola, Apple and Nike, three well-known and loved companies have crafted successful brands. They’re extremely valuable too, and research shows meaningful brands outperform the stock market by 206%.
While brand is rightly a key focus for B2C marketers, it’s often a much different story when looking at things through a business to business (B2B) lense. Indeed, B2B marketers risk becoming fixated on what can be measured at the expense of something that may be the better option. The lesson here is, just because something is difficult to measure, doesn't mean that we shouldn’t.
This challenge is particularly acute among software as a service (SaaS) businesses that are proudly “product-first companies”, and while this means they have a great product and first-rate engineering team, it often results in marketing efforts that are more akin to “moneyball” marketing. With few exceptions these companies focus exclusively on marketing activity that can be tracked, analysed and optimised - or put another way, marketing that can be engineered. That approach means, inherently less-trackable activity, such as brand building will be bypassed.
To be clear, I count myself as a data-driven marketer and use data each and every day to make better decisions. However, I do believe there’s room for activity that is easily trackable, as well as activity that is hard to quantify. It’s easy to overlook the fact marketing is both an art and science, and humans, the very people we’re targeting, are complex, messy and irrational - this is seldom captured in an analytics dashboard.
That being said, the engineered approach to marketing is on the right path, but it’s too black and white - too binary. I recommend companies take a blended approach to their marketing bets, so around 80% of marketing activity and budget is completely trackable, and the other 20% less so. This provides a spread of activity, and more accurately reflects the realities, challenges and nuances of marketing.
What is a brand?
This is a question I ask colleagues, clients and partners all the time. And, it truth, it’s a philosophical question that reveals a lot when someone answers it. Is a brand what organisations say or is it made up of what people think, feel and experience? I firmly believe it’s the latter.
In short, a brand is people’s experience of your company. This could be an ebook, TV advert, social media post, billboard, event, email or even a phone call with support. The way I think about it, marketing makes a brand promise, and then every other touchpoint, whether it be sales, support, account management or marketing (to name a few), either reinforces or chips away at that brand promise.
Someone’s view of your brand is the sum of their interactions with your company at every step. This includes before and during their time as a client, as well as afterwards when this is no longer the case. A brand is a combination of how you make people feel and what they think of your organisation - and this all depends on whether or not you stay true to your brand promise.
A strong brand grows your moat
Companies invest in building their brand as it creates familiarity, credibility, and trust, which further down the line leads to increased brand recognition, so people are more likely to buy a product or service. That’s the bet - get your brand right and it helps differentiate you from the competition, builds brand recognition and ultimately, brand preference.
To borrow a line from Warren Buffet, “A good business is like a castle and you’ve got to think every day, is the management growing the size of the moat? Or is the moat shrinking?” Building a brand helps create a deeper moat that can protect your business and capture mindshare.
Here’s some free advice. If people have not heard of your brand they’re unlikely to buy from you immediately. In fact, 70% of consumers click on a retailer they know. Instead, you need to create familiarity, credibility, and trust. It takes time, focus and money, but when executed well, it results in people searching for your brand or product online. This is true of all brands, regardless of industry.
Let’s look at how branding works:
1. Remarkable experience
Branding starts when a company provides a remarkable experience. It’s easy to focus too heavily on channels and tactics, but to be successful, the experience you provide, whether it be an event, social media post, online advert or ebook, must be remarkable. Indeed, it must be so remarkable that it creates an emotional connection. This stage is all about building familiarity, credibility, and trust, but honestly, most brands never get past this stage. They provide an unremarkable experience that generates unremarkable results.
2. Brand recognition
If your marketing activity resonates and you manage to establish an emotional connection, people will be receptive to learning more about your products or services. This means they will either go directly to your website having recalled your brand name or they will use a search engine, and search for an answer to the challenge your product or service solves. The person is thinking rationally when searching, but when they recognise your brand, that’s when the emotional sparks begin to fly.
3. Moment of truth
The real moment of truth for any marketer is when you persuade somebody that your products or services are right for them. When somebody makes the journey from prospect to customer it validates that your marketing efforts are working. When the moment of truth occurs it is both a left and right brain decision - people are making a decision based off what they need, plus what they feel about your brand. Many good businesses get to this stage, build a repeatable model and are content, but to build a great company and brand, you need to do more.
4. Delivering on the promise
This stage is crucial and often where things can unravel. Marketing is essentially a brand promise and if a company fails to deliver on that promise in terms of product, support and service they will fail their customers. Just think of a company that makes a big deal of its customer support in a TV advertising campaign, but redirects you to a call centre in a foreign country when you have a query. How does that disconnect make you feel? It’s a prime example of a company failing to deliver on its brand promise.
On the flipside if you deliver or exceed the promise you’ve made, you stand to build a deeper, more meaningful emotional connection. Branding is only one piece of the jigsaw though - it sets the scene, but the rest of the company has to play its part and bring the promise marketing makes to life. Brand experience is everyone’s job.
5. Brand preference
If a company successfully delivers on all previous steps, especially its brand promise, it will then earn brand preference from clients. Brand preference is hard earned and easily lost, but is what all marketers aspire to achieve. Becoming the go-to brand and occupying top spot in a potential client's mind is what matters. Not many companies reach this stage, but when they do their brand truly becomes a competitive advantage.
SaaS Companies Need a Brand
Building a SaaS brand
Now let’s hone in on the SaaS industry. The best way to build a brand in today’s increasingly cluttered world of SaaS is by having a philosophy. Preferably a disruptive or contrarian philosophy that pitches an upstart against a dominant player. Old versus new, heroes versus villains, right versus wrong. You get the idea.
Having a philosophy is easier said than done, but when you have a philosophy it becomes easier to articulate a clear point of view that people can understand and organise themselves around. This is what piques people’s interest and gains attention.
Within the SaaS space, many of the industry’s most successful companies have had notable and easily understood philosophies, such as when Salesforce declared war on Siebel Systems and the antiquated world of on-premise software, as well as HubSpot’s evangelism of inbound marketing versus the old world of outbound marketing. More recently, Drift’s #NoForms campaign, which takes aim at the marketing industry’s reliance on forms is worthy of note too. These disruptive, contrarian philosophies and easily understood worldviews are how you become memorable and build brand preference today. You need to stand for something and it needs to be remarkable. Being disruptive and contrarian gives people a reason to care and has the potential to foster a community or movement (which is often bigger than the company), leading to that all important emotional connection between customer and brand.
Many people obsess over being the first to market, but in terms of branding this is the wrong approach. While first mover advantage is important, the real battle is being first in the mind of the customer. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifth, fifteenth or fiftieth to market if you’re first in the mind of the customer. That’s the coveted, winning spot. But for SaaS companies to earn a place in the mind of the customer they need to provide a winning experience.
The consumerization of marketing
Few SaaS companies have truly great brands. I won’t go as far to say it’s a marketing arbitrage opportunity. Instead, I think it’s more helpful to frame brand as a necessity. It’s importance is only going to grow.
Over the last decade we’ve seen the consumerization of IT come to the fore, with enterprise IT products becoming more like consumer ones. Following the spread of this trend I believe we’re now entering a new period that will see the consumerization of marketing - where people expect B2B marketing experiences to be more like B2C ones. The growth of mobile, bots and messaging are just three examples of this trend in action.
Another outcome of the consumerization of IT is that product differentiation within SaaS products is gradually disappearing - new features can be replicated, and they are now quicker and easier than ever before to ship. And even when competing products have different features, they’re often still being purchased to do the same job. In a world of limited product differentiation a strong brand fills this gap. It puts your brand top of mind, and oftentimes means you have a foot in the door before you even speak with the prospect.
Where brand fits in today’s marketing playbook
Data-driven marketers, by their very nature are drawn to predictable, repeatable and consistent lead generation activities. In the first instance, for SaaS companies, this means a playbook that leverages channels like Google AdWords, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and social ads.
Once these channels are cranking the next wave of activity will likely focus on tactics, such as search engine optimization (SEO) and inbound marketing. This is time consuming and increasingly competitive work, and will likely mean doubling down on authority building and content creation. These activities can be tracked, measured and optimised, which is good, however it also means they’re now highly efficient tactics, so the opportunity to benefit from them is diminishing (which is bad, obviously).
When these initial activities are up and running, the regular playbook is for a SaaS business to start building their brand. This is the third wave of marketing activity, but it risks brand being merely an afterthought. It’s never too early to start building a brand as its acts as an insurance policy of sorts. To share a brief example, Indeed.com, my former employer is heavily reliant on website traffic from both Google AdWords and its search engine.
However, since the launch of Google Jobs, Google has become both a competitor, as well as an important vendor of Indeed.com. If Google were to stop accepting AdWords from Indeed.com or update its search algorithm in a way that negatively impacted Indeed.com, the company would lose a significant level of website traffic. Thankfully, Indeed.com has been investing heavily in its brand since 2014 with a number of campaigns that increased brand recognition and preference, resulting in more candidates and employers going directly to its website. A strong brand doesn’t just help you win, it protects you too.
Three smart ways SaaS companies are building their brand
Without doubt, one of the most exciting parts of being a marketer is the perpetual challenge of finding new channels and tactics to leverage. Below I have identified three ways leading SaaS companies are providing a remarkable experience, which creates an emotional connection, and ultimately builds their brand:
Today, podcasting is a genuine marketing arbitrage opportunity. There’s limited competition and the barriers to entry remain high (you can’t outsource a podcast in the same way as a blog post). While this tactic is becoming more common among SaaS companies, it remains a tremendous opportunity for smart marketers to get ahead of their competitors, and increase the reach of their brand. Podcasts may score high on emotional connection, but low on tracking, however they remain a highly effective tactic to highlight your philosophy and share your point of view with the world.
Despite living in an era of seemingly endless content, we’re now seeing some SaaS businesses take the unusual step of publishing (physical) books. The act of reading a book is completely immersive and has the potential to provide a remarkable experience that creates an emotional connection more easily than other channels or tactics. From a branding perspective, books are once again a great way to articulate your philosophy and point of view, although understanding their impact and exact attribution is tough (however, you should be comfortable with that reality).
Many SaaS companies are turning their back on industry events in favour of creating their own - this gives them full control over the experience attendees have. There’s much research to show just how important experiences are to today’s consumers, and events when executed flawlessly are in my mind the best way to let people truly experience a brand. Events help build a community around a brand as they bring together like minded people to share an experience.
Measuring the strength of your brand
It’s tough trying to measure the strength of a brand and much of this post has focussed on how a brand is inherently hard to quantify. Unsurprisingly, there’s no standardised measurement. Many companies commission surveys to understand brand recognition and brand preference. This is anecdotal and enables companies to benchmark and track performance, and how it compares to competitors.
It’s also possible to track online sentiment, mentions and content consumption as an indicator of brand strength. But for me, branded search traffic, people typing your brand name into a search engine is the leading indicator of brand strength. While measuring a brand is a perennial challenge, this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority. My advice is to create a balanced scorecard of brand metrics - made up of leading and lagging indicators, as well as qualitative and quantitative data. This will help you identify where you want to go and if you’re being successful on your brand journey.
The brand opportunity for SaaS companies
By investing in their brand, SaaS companies can steal a march on their competitors. However, this window is getting smaller each day as others wise up to the value of a strong brand, and the consumerization of marketing becomes a reality. Indeed, branding is becoming less of an opportunity and more of a necessity. The question marketing leaders must ask is whether they want to seize the branding opportunity now or play catch up later.