Evolutionary Branding: Know The Jungle
The law of the jungle states, in evolutionary terms, that only the fittest survive. Before you can effectively brand an organization, you need to understand its clients/customers/donors/community and its competitors. In the marketing world, this is called a landscape analysis.
Often, companies — especially startups and nonprofits — will say they don’t have competitors. Let me get this out right away: Everyone has competitors. Even nonprofits. If you think you don’t have competitors, that means you don’t understand what a competitor is. A competitor is any person or organization taking business away from you.
Michael Newman, our marketing director, is fond of saying: “It’s not who you think your competitors are, it’s who your customers think your competitors are.”
Because of this, the first thing you need to do is interview your customers — or people who you think will become your customers if you’re just starting out. Sometimes businesses have two distinct groups of customers. A venture capitalist, for example, will have customers who give them money to invest on their behalf as well as the companies they must seek out to invest in. In the case of a nonprofit, this may be donors and the people they help with these donations.
The purpose of interviewing customers is so you can understand the landscape you’re competing in. In nature, this would be the ecosystem that a plant or animal lives in. The most successful species find a niche that provides a unique advantage for them. To identify your niche, you first need to find out who your customers think your competition is, then you need to learn what your competitors do well and poorly.
You need to learn what they do well because you will need to be at least as good as them to survive, and you need to identify what they do poorly because this represents opportunity and will allow you to thrive.
The latter is important. It’s the low-hanging fruit. We like low-hanging fruit because you will need to work less to be better at something your competitors do poorly and, more importantly, it can also represent an underserved community or market sector.
Hubspot is a great example. As Deep Patel writes in an article, “HubSpot was launched in 2005. At the time, small and medium-sized organizations didn’t have many options when it came to digital marketing. Today, HubSpot has helped these organizations develop and implement automated inbound marketing strategies, and has become a $3 billion company in the process.”
The next thing you need to do is understand what your customers like.
I had an epiphany not too long ago about this. I was preparing for a big branding presentation and other agencies were participating. Before the meeting, our client asked us to send the discovery questions we were planning on asking in advance. This is something we never do. The reason we don’t send our questions in advance is that some of the questions we ask are deceptively simple and if we ask them verbally, we can tease the answer out of our client. The interesting thing here was that our client decided to send us the questions the other agencies had sent them. These questions were familiar — the same questions I’d seen from hundreds of agencies over the course of my career, and very similar (I’m now ashamed to admit) to ours.
Almost all agencies have discovery documents that ask questions like: What brands do you admire? What colors, fonts and websites do you like? Sometimes they have silly questions like: If your company was an animal, what animal would that be? Sometimes they make mood boards — a practice I’ve always hated but until now never understood why.
My epiphany was this: Everyone — ourselves included — was doing this wrong. It doesn’t matter what our clients like. Sure, knowing what they like may make it easier to sell them a logo, marketing services or a website, but it will not make what we create perform better. The questions we really needed to ask are: What brands do your customers like? What colors do your customers like? What fonts do your customers like? This is what is important.
Moodboards especially are a colossal waste of time because they tell you nothing about what your customers like.
Michael likes to say that if you design a website for yourself, be prepared to buy all of your products. Only when you understand the landscape from the perspective of your customers can you develop a brand that will be able to compete in your niche. This is the foundation for everything we do because only when you understand your competition from your customer’s perspective can you articulate what you do differently and better in a meaningful way that will resonate.
Here are some ways to do this:
1. Email surveys to your existing customers and offer them a discount or free product for taking the time to fill it out.
2. Create a Facebook audience for your ideal customers and serve them ads offering them gift cards, discounts or free products for taking the time to complete a survey.
3. Call some of your most loyal customers and simply ask them.
This sounds simple but you’d be surprised how few organizations do these things. We used to skip the landscape analysis when branding an organization if their budget was limited or our client said they knew who their competitors were, but we noticed that the work we did for clients who did the landscape analysis always looked and performed exponentially better. So now we make it a mandatory requirement for taking on any new client be it a branding, web development or marketing project.
We get a behind-the-scenes peek of a lot of businesses. I’ve noticed that the really successful entrepreneurs take this process one step further. They don’t just identify what their competitors do well or poorly but also what their own business does poorly and improve upon it. That’s where you find the real opportunity.
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