Balancing features and feelings – branding in the technology sector

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Within matters of branding, for our software clients, sits a familiar struggle between hearts and minds. Does it always have to be that way?

Technology brands are a unique breed. Whilst some of the most famous brands in the world come from the technology sector, it is also an industry with some of the biggest companies you’ve never heard of. Multi-billion-dollar businesses, firmly embedded in the devices we use daily, silently getting on with things.

Those that are household names have been built on exceptional brand and marketing expertise; Google, Apple, Microsoft, Uber, Facebook, and Airbnb, to name a few. All of these have been well cited and well thought through. They’ve a clear business strategy as their starting point, they’ve worked hard to understand their market and customers, and been savvy in the delivery of their marketing and communications. However, for every mega brand in the tech sector there are many, many more still working through the particular challenges this industry presents, to build meaningful, long-lasting and valuable brands.

Common challenges
At Together Design we’ve been lucky enough to work with some huge technology brands around the world, and some ambitious local start-ups, and there are certainly common challenges that we’ve faced when working with companies in this space:

–  Many have grown through mergers and acquisitions
–  They have complex products and services
–  The pace of development and change is faster than most other industries
–  There is greater tension between marketing and product development

All of these things make developing, implementing and managing a brand in this sector complex but the pace of change makes it an exciting industry to work in.

Growing pains
The growth strategy for tech businesses is often through mergers and acquisitions and this can lead to a splintering in brand identity. It can be a challenge to pull people together, and a risk. Celia Fleischaker, Chief Marketing Officer of Verint explains: ‘Companies invest millions to buy an IP and every person you lose through integration potentially devalues that investment, so companies tend to proceed with caution in terms of bringing brands and cultures together, but at their peril. It might be more unpleasant to tackle things head on but it’s less painful overall than doing things slowly and incrementally. That’s just death by a thousand cuts.’

Paul Stoddart, CMO of Customer Success Marketing at Salesforce believes that brand is crucial to pulling people together. ‘Brand is made up of feeling plus experience and when delivered well, it offers a sense of belonging. Employees and customers want to belong to something. Investing time to engage them pays dividends over the longer term.’ But engaging groups brought together through a merger or acquisition isn’t easy, nor is it often top of mind for directors focused on broadening their tech portfolios.

To ensure success, we help our clients develop a people strategy for mergers and acquisitions. This defines the type of merger and a timed integration process, ranging from three months to two years, including a mapped-out approach to brand migration covering naming and visual identity as well as induction, training, and cultural alignment activities. These strategies have become recipes for positive integration and support businesses through very complicated transitions.

Pace of change
Complexity is at the core of the tech industry and that brings its own set of challenges. Generally, tech businesses spend less time thinking about, or interacting with, their client base and, as such, their clients’ customers and end users are not at the centre of their development. Businesses that have broad product portfolios often come unstuck over time as the pace of change makes versions of software obsolete. Often, they need to continue to support customers with products they are no longer actively selling. It can create an incredibly complicated product architecture and make defining the holy grail of a customer facing product roadmap nigh on impossible.

A firm frame
The approach to naming that companies adopt can set them free and offer flexibility for product expansion, but it can also be the greatest hurdle. Product development teams can be reluctant to let brand people into their inner circle, but we can really help by representing the voice of the client, customer or user, providing an external view. We work together with product teams to develop a product architecture framework that becomes a valuable tool for communicating the offer externally and informing product development internally. Matt Barrett, CEO, and co-founder of Adaptive agrees, ‘as technologists we need to learn how to stop listening to ourselves and listen to our customers – it is difficult but important. It’s something I didn’t believe as a young developer, but as an owner of growing technology business, I fundamentally believe this now.’

The short v long term message
Complexity married with the pace of change is unique to the technology industry. Bek Simmons, Chief Operating Officer at Riverlane entered the tech sector via healthcare and explains the challenges they face. ‘Quantum is deep tech, it’s a new industry, there isn’t a market to reference, so we are constantly creating from scratch. For us the greatest challenge is distilling very complex things into very simple things, and it is always a moving feast. Tech isn’t constant, messages change quickly and that can be challenging. We need to accept that we don’t need to externalise everything. We try to distinguish ‘moment in time’ marketing messages, perhaps delivered via a press release, from brand messages, by always asking ‘does this fundamentally change our longer-term mission?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then we need to keep going and stay the course.’

Everything about everything
This leads us to the tension between marketing and product development. And here’s the crux. Marketing knows that a clearly defined and constantly repeated message is needed to land a brand narrative, win hearts and minds, and develop loyalty over time. Product needs to say everything about everything because newness is king. Whilst developers want to tell the world how much progress they are making, there is a difference in what companies should celebrate internally and what they need to communicate to customers, analysts, and the market externally. The tech sector is often overly focused on promoting and chasing advancement. It needs to balance this with the company’s over-arching, lofty, brand purpose – reinforcing what the technology is for in the first place, and the benefits it brings.

Follow the leader
Ultimately, brand strategy follows business strategy. Putting the business strategy first helps to align people and activities. If we agree that brand strategy follows business strategy and that marketing, product and communications follow brand, then we’ve a clear filter for defining what should be communicated, to whom and when. It also ensures that businesses are only communicating things that are crucial to supporting and proving their core brand narrative. By clustering marketing, communications, and product together, we put them on equal footing and have a better chance of achieving a balance between complexity and simplicity, aligning the features of the technology with the benefits to humanity.

Function and emotion can live harmoniously if we put the customer at the centre, develop a brand strategy that underpins the business strategy and develop marketing activation in service to that strategy. With the right framework to balance features and feelings imagine how far you’ll go!

Top image: visual identity for Riverlane
Written by: Robin Kadrnka, Brand Planner

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