Messaging that compels customers to engage, with a brand that doesn’t turn them off

TLDR; Our experience with “branding” in its traditional connotation is mostly a waste of time in early stage companies, especially B2B. This is not a view shared by branding experts, nor with 56% of respondents to a LinkedIn survey we posted:

Let’s unpack it. 

Start with a niche and problems people care about

A reminder that success leaves clues, and the world’s most successful businesses started with a strong niche. It sounds simple, but many entrepreneurs struggle with this. 

One of the reasons for focusing on a niche is so that your message can be highly tailored, clear, and attractive to your ideal customers. When you don’t yet have a strong brand, all you really have are your words. If you’re struggling to find a niche, or don’t think a niche is for you, our previous article “The Riches Are in the Niches” would be good to read before you continue.

Secondly, sometimes you have found a niche, but customers just don’t care as much as you do. This is a hard one to fix, and often means pivoting to a bigger problem.

“People engage when they read or hear the words that resonate with their story” 

I first heard this line from Donald Miller, founder of the StoryBrand framework for marketing communication. This stands out given its simplicity and truth. Humans are meaning-making machines that walk around the world with our own stories of what we want, and what is right and wrong. Furthermore, our brain is constantly scanning the world for things that will get us what we desire. It’s our internal story that matters the most to us, not someone else’s view of the world.

If you accept this to be true, it means that your customer’s story must become more important than your own. You must use their language and words. You must align with what they think if you want them to stand up and take action. When they read or hear something that does not speak to their situation and desires, the brain will filter it out.

Often, we know our customers better than they know themselves. Often, we see the problems they can’t see, and we have solutions that can help them. None of it matters if you can first connect with them within the realms of their story.

If you confuse you lose  

The second line I heard from Miller was “If you confuse, you lose.” When you try to go broad with what you offer in terms of products and markets, i.e., seeking to solve a number of problems, with a number of products, for a number of customer types, the message starts to become confusing and diluted. You like the idea of a broad message because it could potentially capture more customers. But messages that try to speak to everyone, end up speaking to no one. You can see in your customers’ eyes once you have confused and lost them. Emails get deleted. Texts go ignored.

Where does brand fit?

The word “brand” is loaded with conflict of definitions and should sometimes come with a trigger warning. It includes and excludes different aspects for different people. There’s the look and feel component, and then the intangible “what do you stand for, how do you make customers feel” etc of brand definitions. I am more talking about the design, and look and feel. The intangible aspects are developed in time, after you have achieved great outcomes for customers, which means you attracted a critical mass of customers in the first place…

Yet when companies aren’t getting the traction they desire, often out trot the branding gurus that tend to spend a lot of time on items that don’t tend to move the needle in the early phase. Creative work on your why, your brand story, the feelings your visual brand elicits, what it stands for, and all that jazz.

In B2B especially however, “intangible” aspects of brand comes after long periods of time of great delivery and performance.

Which means you first need to perform.

Which means you first need to have paying customers.

Which means you first need to resonate with customers and get them to buy.

Which means you first need to have the words that get them interested and want to buy.

Again, this all assumes your product is at an acceptable level, and you are solving a problem they care about, and are willing to spend money solving the problem.

Apple, Salesforce, Microsoft, OpenAI, Hubspot, etc., have powerful B2B brands, and they should be aspirational.

We regularly discuss Hamilton Helmer’s 7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy in our Transparent VC podcast. One quote from the book on the power of brand: “A strong brand can only be created over a lengthy period of reinforcing action. A dauting uncertainty in imitating branding is it requires a long investment runway with no assurance of an eventual path to significant affective valence.”

Summary: It takes a long time and may not create the outcomes you hope. 

And yes, B2C can be different. Investment in brand early on has its place for those with the capital for vast advertising budgets. We don’t generally find this in early-stage B2B, although I guess that’s a function of how much capital you have.

I say all this as someone who has hired many brand consultants and spent many hundreds of thousands of my hard-earned money, and sometimes shareholder money on them. In addition to my own experiences, I’ve spent 15 years watching early-stage companies do the same thing. I just wish I could have all that time and money back.

It’s not that brand has zero relevance in B2B early-stage companies. I think messaging is about 90% and brand look and feel is about 10%. So, make that 10% really count. But for an early-stage business, no customer is signing up to your lead magnet, your mailing list, or sales call because of your brand. It will be because somewhere words resonated with their story, and the brand did not turn them off.

Brand look and feel

When it comes to your brand’s visual approach, you want to be subliminally attractive, but the real goal is not turning them off. There’s a threshold of professionalism required, of course; I’m not suggesting it can be something made with a toddler and crayons.

Furthermore, the brand look needs to align with the outcome you are trying to achieve. If your product is something low risk, then your brand look and feel can be fun and playful. If the outcome you are delivering is serious and there is risk to your customer if something goes wrong, your look and feel needs to align with that – serious. “We are to be trusted, you can count on us, we aren’t playing around here.”

“Fancy” look and feel comes about because people are seeking to differentiate. Seeking to stand out. Seeking to be special. But if you stand out in a “wow, this is confusing as hell” manner, it is harmful differentiation.

In the early stage, you are really just trying to ensure you don’t create a “what the F is this all about” situation! When your customer’s brain has to try and digest all sorts of pictures, shapes, and colours that have little correlation to what you deliver, it’s confusing. They will move on to competitors that are simpler to understand.

When a good message and product is not enough

There are situations in early B2B where your message is excellent, the problem you solve is worthy, and customers are willing to pay. Yet they don’t choose you for more “risk” related factors. These factors can include time in business, breadth of team, your balance sheet, etc. Most of us have experienced these rejections, and it hurts.

In this case, often we are targeting customers that we aren’t ready for, and need to focus on customers where these issues aren’t a major consideration. Build upon these customers, and over time move towards customers that are higher on the risk aversion curve. It can take a long time and be frustrating, but is often the reality.

Something Tangible

We believe a great place to start is the following one-liner framework by Donald Miller. It doesn’t have to be this prescriptive all the time, but it is helpful when you are looking at a new product, customer segment or market.  Your one liner should be constructed in 3 parts: 

1. The problem
2. The product/service
3. The outcome

Problem
In the words your ideal customer would use, what is their problem? 

Product/ service
In simple language, what do you do? What is your product or service?

Outcome
What is the great outcome they achieve from your product or service?

Nailing it 100% can be challenging, as there are various ways to describe the problem, the product/solution, and the outcome. The best way to do it is to create it with your perspective customers. Have at least 10+ give you the answers to the following in their own words: 

  • Describe what their problems and why they have them. 
  • Describe what your product is.
  • Describe what great outcome your product produces for them.

Hopefully patterns emerge where customers are saying similar things. If all customers are giving different answers, you are going to have a potential problem down the track as your product may not be niche enough to scale rapidly. 

The simplicity of the approach can be unappealing for some who prefer complexity and creativity. If what you are doing working, keep doing it. If you’re results are poor, somethings obviously not working, and being cute, creative and complex is going to make the issue worse. 

If you’re stuck, or scaling to new markets where you need to change things up, join the next Tribe VC Off-Site (the next one is in May 24…) where we you work with the Tribe team, other founders and investors to get your value proposition, messaging, marketing and sales engine clear. Get clarity and an actionable road map for the markets you seek to dominate, and the ingredients required to beat the competition. 

About the Author

Portfolio Support & Co-founder

Don brings extensive experience as a founder and investor to lead our hands-on support for portfolio ventures.