In a prior blog on the “the riches are in the niches”, I put forward with starting tight with a narrow niche was the ticket to success over going broad and trying to be many things to many people. It sounds simple, but the majority of entrepreneurs struggle with this.
One of the reasons of going niche is so that your message can be highly tailored, clear, and attractive to your ideal customers. It needs to be clear and attractive because there is so much noise to cut through. But it also needs to reflect the words your customers would use to describe the situation.
I first heard the following line from Donald Miller, founder of the Story Brand framework for marketing communication:
People engage and buy where they read or here the words that resonate with their story.
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 want and 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 customers story must become more important than yours. You must use their language. You must align to what they think if you want them to stand up and take action.
When they read or hear something that resonates against their current situation, their brain with sit up and take notice. When they read or hear something that does not talk to their situation and desires, the brain will filter it out.
If you confuse you lose
So when you try and go broad, i.e. a range of problems you solve for a range of customers types, the message starts to become broad. 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.
The second line I heard form Miller was “if you confuse, you lose”. Anyone that knows me hears this so often, you would think I came up with it myself. But again, it is just so true. You can see in your customers eyes once you have confused and lost them. Their brain starts thinking of other things relevant to them, mostly because you probably keep talking about you- which is not relevant to them.
A quick detour: branding vs messaging
Messaging is about 90% of the game for early-stage B2B businesses in our experience. Spending lots of time and money on “brand” too early is a total waste of time (insert cranky comments from branding consultants).
When companies are not getting the traction they desire, out trot the branding gurus. These days they roll in “your why”, “your brand story” and all that so they do often create some words. But the words are generally about the company, not the customer.
In B2B, brand comes after the great delivery and performance. Which means you need to perform first. Which means you need to have customers first. Which means you need to resonate with customers and get them to buy first. Which means you need to have the words that get them in.
Salesforce, Microsoft, OpenAI, Hubspot, etc have powerful B2B brands and they should be aspiring.
And yes, B2C is rather different. Investment in brand early on has its place for those with the capital and the channels. You can build a brand first through advertising, put the product in the faces of consumers and hope that are the point of purchase the brand recognition triggers the consumer to buy. This is not early stage B2B, although I guess that’s a function of how much capital you have. Theoretically you could pull off something similar by flooding LinkedIn feeds, banner adverts, conferences, etc. But its early-stage companies with tight capital constraints we are talking about here.
I say all this as someone that has hired many brand consultants and spent many hundreds of thousands of my hard-earned money on them. Then post my personal exploits in business, 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.
Its not that brand has zero relevance in B2B early-stage companies. As I said above, 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 pictures and the visual noise of your website and marketing collateral, you want to be subliminal attractive, but a big goal is you do not want to turn people off either. Theres a threshold of professionalism required of course; I’m not suggesting it can be something made with crayons.
Furthermore, and the brand look needs to align to 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 are to be trusted, you can count on us, we aren’t playing around here.
In our experience, companies that create a confusing look for their brand, loose against competitors that offer simplicity and congruence. If your product is something fun and your too boring, you create a dissonance that leaves you open to competitors. A dissonance also happens when the product is serious, and your try and be fun and light-hearted. Fancy look and feel and fancy words come about because people are seeking to differentiate. Seeking to stand out. But actually, we find that whilst you may stand out, if you stand out in a “wow, this is confusing as hell”, it is harmful differentiation.
In the early stage you really just trying to ensure you don’t create a “what the F is this all about”. When your customers brain must try and digest all sorts of pictures, shapes and colours that have little correlation to what you deliver, its creating. They will move onto competitors that are simpler to understand.
A final experience on branding that links to my original “riches are in the niches” article referencing above. The branding gurus are often called because we just can’t get cut through with competitors. Theres a market here, customers are buying, just not from us. This often happened because we didn’t focus on a niche to own in the first place, and tried to be all things to all people. By not focusing early, we didn’t become known for something that an industry said, “these are the people that are the best!”.
If that has happened, you’re probably now in a red ocean that’s competing on price with non-scalable CAC. In a commodity business subject to competition, over time the marginal profit always ends up at zero, all things being equal.
If this is you, it is even more important to then get your messaging right so that you can become the best at attracting customers and delivering a high value proposition so that you can defend margin.
Lets get into something functional. Here is an exercise that can help you get a bit of clarity. Tribe Global Ventures regularly runs workshops for our portfolio on these, and sometimes we open them up to up-and-coming B2B companies. Keen an eye on our mailing list and website if you think they may be of interest.
Donald Miller puts together a great “one-liner” framework as a start for getting your message clear:
2. Product/ Service
In the words your ideal customer would use, what is your customers problem?
In simple language, what do you do? What is your product or service?
What is the great outcome they achieve from your product or service?
It can be difficult to sometimes nail it 100% as there are different ways to describe the problem, the product/solution and great outcome. Suggestion: create a table and list them out. Send them to your customers (current and potential) and ask them to rate them. Can they improve on them to make the words resonate more?
Here is a video of Miller doing this exercise with people that is very helpful. You can see the feedback he gives, and how he drives people to stay within the structure.