Yahoo is the slowest-growing U.S. Internet company in its class—a trend the company is furtively trying to reverse. With Marissa Mayer at the helm, and former Goldman-banker-turned-‘Chief Development Officer’ Jacqueline Reses at her side, Yahoo has been busy restructuring and acquiring - but with Q1 results showing a 4% dip in sales and profit rising only 36% there is still a ways to go.
In recent months, the magnifying glass on Marissa has kept the company even more tight-lipped than usual. Obviously a company in Yahoo’s position can’t reveal all of its strategies, but if the leadership have a clear purpose and vision for their brand, then it’s time to leverage the attention, and start to tell that story. Here’s a way to go about it:
First, define your journey.
We know Yahoo wants to win in mobile and personalized content, its last six acquisitions have been about building the capabilities, products and people to help get them there. Those bets are good – and are an indicator that Yahoo is moving from click centric to consumer centric, but it needs to reconcile the fact that at its core it’s still an ads-for-content company– and that core is not doing so well.
From the outside, its efforts could be seen as a series of quick fixes to magically shape shift, while it leaves its core business to languish (maybe Yahoo Stream Ads will change this!). As a perpetual optimist, and believer in Marissa - I don’t think this is the case - and the Yahoo journey of transformation is well planned. They just haven’t let anyone know about it yet. Let us in! We want to know where the business is going, why – and how the legacy business will play a role along the way. We’re not asking to give away all the secrets – but get us excited, and admit when you’ve gone off the path a bit. A bit of honesty and humility would also be welcomed in a world of platitudinal investor chatter and empty press releases.
Defining a brand purpose that explains Yahoo’s role in the world will show customers that this journey is rooted in the needs of real people, and it will motivate and focus the business along the way.
Second, remember what made you great.
Most companies begin with an ambitious leader on a mission to solve a problem, to fill a gap in the market, or bring a genius idea to reality. They are new, exciting, different. Customers flock to them, everyone wants to work for them, they grow at a dizzying rate, they go public, get rich, they are hugely successful, mission accomplished – or is it…? Wait, what was that mission again?
But it seems a law of physics— as many businesses get older, bigger, more diverse, more complex, more siloed, have more mouths to feed, and increasing pressure to serve shareholders – they slip into a gentle, sometimes imperceptible, state of decline. Think of a struggling Starbucks in 2008, before Howard Shultz returned as CEO to bring them back to customer-centric strategies and their original, neighborhood feel.
Yahoo’s problem, similarly, was not adapting its collegial, quirky, creative DNA into a sustainable competitive advantage. And now more than ever, with all of Marissa’s focus on the new, she can’t afford to forget the old. Not only is it disheartening for Yahoo’s legacy employees to see the focus on the new kids and their toys, there is a treasure trove of value in Yahoo’s history and culture that seems to have been neglected.
They were once the pioneer who defined the creative, non-corporate culture of Silicon Valley. To consumers, Yahoo has never been “evil” or abused its size and power (when it had it) and many want to see them win. Channeling the atmosphere of a younger Yahoo will set the right conditions for their new people to thrive and work together with their existing teams. That DNA will lend them credibility and authenticity not just with talent, but with audiences and advertisers too. Its low ego and willingness to collaborate are exactly right for the next era of this tech company’s growth.
Finally, build your brand on collaboration.
Collaboration is fundamental to Yahoo’s DNA, and it’s key to winning in tech. Already, Marissa has made overtures to partner with Apple to take on Google which is a great first step. But it’s not just about business collaboration – it’s collaborating with the public too.
Yahoo should take a cue from one of its contemporaries in the tech world, Mozilla— a brand that’s built entirely on collaboration from inside and out. Mozilla’s mission to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the Web is their ultimate decision-making filter. They have a global community of thousands of volunteer contributors whose opinions and perspectives are at the center of all their business moves. Moreover, they trust that community to be stewards of their brand – to share it, improve it, and love it like their own.
Yahoo needs to realize that people have a stake in their success too. And if they want to understand what would “make their daily routines truly delightful,” they’ll need to get way more intimate with their consumers. Beyond users, beyond clicks. A passionate partnership that leverages all of the ways a brand can listen to and work with its audience today is the best way to build products and programming that are thoughtful, relevant and attention grabbing.
Despite the media scrutiny of Marissa, I feel people are genuinely excited to see where she can take Yahoo right now (I know I am!). And the path could be a bright one by clarifying where you want to go and building a brand purpose to get you there.
Nick O’Flaherty is strategy director at Wolff Olins New York. A version of this article originally appeared on iMedia Connection.
…Or so the new “Take Off” advertising campaign for Acela Express would have us believe. And maybe they’re right. According to the New York Times, 75% of travel between NYC and Washington DC occurs on Amtrak trains. And Acela ridership specifically accounts for nearly 3.4 million passengers on Northeastern corridor rail transit every year.
Here’s a video from the campaign:
When Acela was launched in 2000, it focused on business travel with its offer of speed, efficiency and flexibility. Today, the new “Take Off” advertising campaign hits this proposition well, with a sharp elbow-jab toward the Northeast corridor airlines that comprise the main competition for the business travel dollar. But the “Take Off” campaign pitches Acela even more ambitiously – it speaks of “reimagining business travel”. We wondered if Acela is really doing that and what it would take.
To create a brand experience that delivers on that promise, Acela needs more than a well-articulated ad campaign. They have to start looking for ways to use innovative spaces, better services, and powerful partnerships to shift the current perception of business travel time from “wasted” to “optimized.” Here’s how we’d get started…
The basics matter
In some ways, today’s Acela merely represents the basic standards that business travel should be delivering. What could their “reimagined” business travel look like? Could Acela be the ‘ultimate mobile office’, and what would it take to be that? Maybe it isn’t so much about luxury or premiums, but about the most reliable basic necessities.
Could Acela ensure that every passenger has a super clean and comfortable seat that doesn’t remind you of the 3.4 million other passengers who are using them? And of course…a working power outlet, maybe even two per passenger?
And how about consistently reliable hi-speed Wi-Fi? While both the Delta Shuttle and many express bus services also offer Wi-Fi, Acela’s ‘ultimate mobile office’ would need to go the extra mile to deliver a fast, consistent service. (Easy for us to say, as we don’t have to figure out the location of cellular towers, router reception, demand load, etc.) Acela could look for an opportunity to partner with a best-in-class mobile Wi-Fi provider, and create an utterly compelling Wi-Fi delivery that locks them in as the go-to choice for Northeast business travellers. Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa, Italy’s state-owned TGV, gets high customer ratings for its Wi-Fi Internet, an experimental network available through a co-operation between Trenitalia and Telecom Italia.
Delight with fresh food and dining
Given that many busy business travellers often have to travel during mealtimes, quality, healthy food and beverages could go a long way in this “reimagination” of business travel. Would a franchise partnership with Whole Foods or Le Pain Quotitiden enable Acela to differentiate from the low-grade food options served on most airlines? Acela’s café car facilities, compared to airplanes and buses, could provide their brand a real advantage. The ‘ultimate mobile office’ might even offer its first-class passengers the option of hot or cold gourmet meals served directly at your seat. They could take a cue from Virgin Rail’s Intercity line in the UK and the TGV in France for example, which both offer a gourmet food service that creates a distinctly enjoyable travel experience.
Optimizing the space advantage
Given that air or bus travel makes most think of cramped and stuffy space, could Acela maximize its comparative space advantage to help reinvent business travel? We played with some more ideas to put space to work in a way that would change the game.
Conference Call Pods:
Acela’s Quiet Cars are wonderful – no need to blast music in your earphones to drown out your fellow passengers’ important discussions or telephone calls. But given the reality that business travellers do indeed have pressing matters to discuss, could Acela take full advantage of the space offered by a train and provide a car fitted with sound-safe conference call pods?
Executive Meeting Room:
As time-optimization is high on the list of priorities for all business travellers, wouldn’t it be cool if you could simultaneously nail a key meeting or presentation whilst traveling? Could Acela offer executive meeting rooms equipped with conference table, Okamura or Aeron inspired seats, and a large-format HD screen that connects to a PC for video projections.
Building on our imaginary executive meeting room, could Acela further optimize its space advantage and offer a fitness car? Maybe partner with Equinox Fitness or CrossFit and install stationary exercise machines so travellers could optimize their time and workout while traveling instead of sitting still.
One of the great things about an Acela journey is the low number of service announcements compared to the seemingly never-ending in-flight announcements suffered on your average flight. Could Acela further focus on reducing travel stress and become known for memorable and delightful employee service? Could they model a program on the Ritz Carlton’s “Legendary Service” training program for employee and customer engagement? Or survey their passengers to really understand what comprises the ultimate in service on-board Acela? Per our service-announcement point, they might find that less is more.
21st century rail travel
Rail travel in the US has a long way to go to catch up to European and Asian standards, and perhaps that is more a political question than brand experience. But hi-speed rail tracks that are designed for hi-speed trains would really help Acela deliver on its core promise of speed. And ensure it could truly differentiate from the legacy of Amtrak and freight trains! As the US becomes increasingly conscious of carbon-foot printing (again some way to go to catch up to European standards), hi-speed/hi-efficiency rail travel could give Acela a valid advantage in offering business travelers the greener mode of transport.
Acela brand potential
We wanted to play with the possibilities that a meaningful brand experience could deliver, and imagine what it might really take for Acela to “reinvent business travel”. By providing innovative spaces, services and powerful partnerships that enable business people to travel and work more efficiently, Acela could potentially reinvent the current perception of business travel time as wasted, and reinvent business travel in a way that delivers high value with a low carbon footprint.
We’re onboard, are you?
Angela Riley is a Strategy Director at Wolff Olins New York.
In the first of a series of interviews with inspiring female leaders, Wolff Olins’ global COO, Sairah Ashman, interviews Zena Bruges.
Zena Bruges is managing director of The Future Laboratory, a business that helps clients look into the future to understand how consumers will behave. After studying at Edinburgh University, she has led a number of successful creative consultancies.
What are the most significant shifts influencing your business?
The need for speed and flexibility. We’re increasingly working at an accelerated pace and need to be agile in our business planning, so we can adjust and adapt easily. Clients are relying on us to help them understand what the world will look like in 2, 3 and 5 years it used to be 10. Consumer tastes change far more swiftly now with product innovation and cycles needing to keep up. This is definitely influencing the needs of our clients and how we work.
What do you see as the key growth accelerators for you over the next 12 months?
We’re sitting on a product that not a lot of people know about, so we’re very focused on raising our profile as a way of unlocking growth. We’re also looking at expanding into new markets where our offer is attractive and effective which means mature markets rather than developing ones.
What role do you see brand playing in helping achieve your goals?
We’re hugely aware of the power of brand in the marketplace for ourselves and for our clients. Studies continue to reinforce this and and it’s especially the case for younger generations. Brands are very much an integrated part of life. Like you, we believe brand is an entire experience and not simply a corporate identity. Staying true to this philosophy as we promote ourselves and grow will be critical.
What or who inspired you in the early years of your career?
I spent an early part of my career in New Zealand. It exposed me to a really positive can-do spirit and gave me a sense that anything is possible. My boss at the time was also really good at helping me stretch, giving me room to deliver, encouraging me to trust my own judgement and to just get on with stuff. It’s really stayed with me and stood me in good stead as I’ve set up and run multiple businesses that sense that everything is possible.
What advice would you pass on to others just starting out?
Be entrepreneurial. Think about what’s good for the business you’re in. And what could be a new business even if you don’t want to set one up. Develop ideas and be an opportunity spotter. Be curious and confident, but never arrogant. And have fun!
I went shopping the other day. To Sainsbury’s, but that’s not important. As I ambled along the aisles I saw two things that made me question if what I do for a living is evil and a third that restored my faith in the power of brand and design. Let me tell you about them…
The first was in pride of place in the bread section – a little poly-wrapped loaf of ‘crustless’ bread. Now don’t misunderstand me, I like my snacks to be maize based, my wheat in puffed form and my MSG bountiful. A man who eats as many crisps as me is no food snob but, really, crustless bread? That’s one step away from me getting a trolley full of baby food every week because ‘it all goes down the same hole’.
It’s not the quality of the loaf or the packaging that was unnerving – it’s the brand idea. What is this in the world to do? The fact it exists at all means someone thought the idea had legs. I blame all of us.
This is a product not born of passion and determination but of consumer research and focus groups. We asked the public what they wanted and they said this. Not everyone can make their own hummus or sun-dry their own tomatoes but this isn’t about convenience, it’s about laziness; too lazy to cut, too lazy to chew. This is Henry Ford’s premonition of faster horses brought to life as an anaemic blob of carbohydrates.
Focus groups are fascinating places to be - in an anthropological sense. The ones that I have been in seem to always follow the same patterns. Loud person dominates the room for a bit, then everyone turns on them, nothing much gets resolved and the occasional bit of gold comes from the quiet one in the corner. Focus groups have their place but not as a way of ‘testing’ a brand. You can’t test the unknown. You just bring a carousel of baggage from other things to it. Viewpoints from a wider audience have to be baked in as you develop a brand idea but not taken wholesale as the answer. A large part of what we do at Wolff Olins is to balance what the world thinks it wants with what we think it really needs to succeed in the future.
The second thing I saw was a copy of a national newspaper. Its entire front page was devoted to the split of a band who were runners up in a talent contest in 2008. It’s a shame. But is it the single most important thing 3.13 million people need to be told about on Wednesday 24 April 2013?
I know tabloid newspapers are there to entertain as much as to inform, so it’s not the paper or even JLS that bother me, it’s how the JLS brand came to be and the plain safeness of it all.
The band are universally liked; sister, brother, granny, mother, everyone agrees they are/were definitely OK. And that’s the issue. Like the crustless bread JLS were born of consensus. 28 writers are credited on their first album. 34.66% of 8 million viewers thought they were better than Alexandra Burke. Of course Marvin and JB will sell more papers than Syria – it’s a safe bet.
The Manic Street Preachers once said “we don’t want to be anyone’s second favourite”, all or nothing, you’re with us or you’re with someone else. The best brands think and act like that – fearless and peerless, they take risks and know that if they are striking out on their own they are, at least, doing one thing right.
Bringing a great brand to life needs strong creative leadership and similarly bold approach with singular decision-making. A clear vision for people to get behind, coupled with a desire to not play by the rules. It’s about maintaining that passionate startup mentality no matter how mature your business is.
Which leads me to the final thing I saw (not surprisingly, in the drinks aisle). A single bottle of Swedish Vodka by a 134-year old brand, and next to it another perfectly un-identical version, row upon row of discordant bottles, sat like interlopers at a tea party.
The idea of limited edition bottles is nothing new but this bottle was one of four million, each one different from the next. I saw the idea for this a few months ago at an awards ceremony. Naturally, it did well but on the shelf it makes even more sense. I watched an old woman put three in her trolley; the care with which she chose each specific bottle from the shelf implied she wasn’t planning to get off her head. What I like the most is this is a perfect extension of the spirit of the brand. A brand that has spent years building the idea of their bottle being a canvas for creativity and now, in an ultimate act of confidence, taking their production line apart to make it a reality. It’s different, brave and it just works.
This is particularly relevant for the UK in 2013. Hell, we even run a government on a consensus driven timeshare basis. But today, more than ever, we need great brand ideas and innovative design to hurl us forward rather than nanny us with vanilla blandness, telling us what we want to hear. We should be making a concerted effort to shake ourselves out of a triple dip funk by embracing the different and difficult. There’s a great opportunity in these times of austerity to break the rules, make some new ones, to put some noses out of joint.
Great brands are peerless, they rebel. They say ‘I’m doing it this way, you do what you like.’
Let’s be more like that.
Chris Moody is Creative Director at Wolff Olins London.
You’re an entrepreneur. You’ve identified a gap in the market and come up with a product with huge potential for growth. The problem? You’re not the only one.
If everyone is trying to solve the same problem, then what’s going to make you stand out and be different? This is a tricky question for startups to answer, as you do not have the same history and heritage to draw from as the Nikes, GEs and Microsofts of the world. It’s a future-facing question that requires you to think about the principles that make your business special and unique.
Your principles should come out of your purpose – your reason for being. They should be equally inspiring and strategic. They should get you up in the morning, but also act as a guiding compass that drives decision-making. They should define your product experience, company culture, and communications.
Skillshare is a great example of a startup that has created set of principles that clearly define what makes them different. There are many wonderful startups that are trying to re-think education, from the Khan Academy to Coursera to the School of Life. What makes Skillshare different from its competitors is its commitment to principles that include “everyone is a teacher”, “teaching isn’t what you think it is”, and “learning by doing.”
Startups in other industries could learn from Skillshare’s example. I recently was on vacation in San Francisco where rideshare services are all the rage. Lyft. Uber. Hailo. Without googling them, I’m unclear on the differences between these businesses. I know that one has a pink moustache on its cars, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.
The issue of differentiation goes beyond transportation; it can also be applied to startups in crowdfunding (Indiegogo v. Kickstarter), ecommerce (Gilt v. Myhabit v. Rue La La), travel (Kayak v. Hipmunk). The list goes on.
You might be first to market, but defining what makes you special becomes especially important as your industry becomes more complex and competitive.
Where failure is the rule, not the exception, it’s important to start thinking about this question now rather than later.
Melissa Andrada is a strategist passionate about creating businesses that inspire people, do good, and make money. In her spare time, she teaches classes on branding for startups at General Assembly. @themelissard
Indigo’s success can be attributed to its single-minded focus on service – unquestionably, this is the key strength of its brand.
Planes leave and arrive on time. Such reliability makes Indigo the dependable option for business travellers, something that is absolutely essential when managing a busy schedule that requires city-hopping across a country as vast as India. Over and above being affordable, being reliable is the brand’s key driver.
Indigo’s dedication to service and reliability goes a long way to explaining why it has such a loyal customer-based and is one of the few airlines that is making money at a time when the Indian aviation industry as a whole is struggling. Jet Airways is rather like our Indian Parliament, hampered by bureaucracy; witness the recent shocking apology on the death of James Dean, the pet cat that was entrusted to the airline but run over on the tarmac at Delhi airport. The incident reflects how Jet seems to have lost its human side and everything now seems so robotic. For Kingfisher things don’t look so rosy. And as for Air India, it holds the dubious honour of being reliably (and not fashionably) late!
The launch of the new Air Asia / Tata venture, Air Asia India, is primarily going to hurt SpiceJet, Jet Airways and may even sound the death knell for Kingfisher. Because Air Asia India is for now a South India-centric service, its entry into the market won’t affect Indigo much. However, any expansion into North India could cause a few furrowed brows at Indigo HQ.
The risk is that arrival of Air Asia India will stimulate a fresh price war, which won’t do anyone (except perhaps the consumer in the short-term) any good. The way for Indigo to beat Air Asia India’s low cost offer is to offer “real” value and not to lose its nerve. To succeed in this increasingly competitive marketplace, Indigo will need to firmly stick to its guns by keeping up its meticulous timekeeping. Not only that, the carrier should continue to develop new markets internationally. So just as Jet and Ethiad are forging links to capture a bigger share of long-haul traffic, Indigo could similarly consider partnering with Emirates to extend its reach further afield.
Inspiration – who else is getting it right?
There are inspirational models and lessons to be learned around the globe. Remember Go created by British Airways? It was a low-cost airline set up to compete with the new players like Easy Jet that were posing a serious threat to British Airways’ business. It was a strong, contemporary brand with the heritage and existing affection for BA behind it. Ultimately the strategy failed because behind-the-scenes, the logistics weren’t quite at the level necessary to enable Go to remain competitive. However, the carrier earned valuable lessons for BA, allowing it to then go on to compete in low-cost and shorthaul arenas under its own name. Indigo does not have such issues to address, in terms of logistics, it’s sorted!
In the US, Southwest Airlines is a good example of a “better value” alternative to buses, coaches and rail services, and the much-admired JetBlue based in New York features a smart, clean fleet with comfortable leather seats and helpful staff offering a small, but a quality selection of snacks. Both these airlines enjoy high levels of customer loyalty, enabling them to prosper in an otherwise challenging market. With its unwavering focus on service, it’s fairer to compare Indigo to Southwest and JetBlue rather than the likes of Easyjet, Ryanair, Pegasus or even local rival SpiceJet.
Small tweaks but beware too much tinkering
Often when creating a successful strong brand it’s the small steps and considerate, thoughtful gestures that build brand loyalty, and this is certainly true in the world of airline travel. I’m not suggesting massive change at Indigo, but rather minor improvements to the service; seemingly little, but useful, things that their customers want and that anticipate needs. Think about a full brand experience: the flight itself is just one part of the customers’ relationship with the airline and there is an opportunity to engage more with customers- not only at the booking, travel or baggage collection stages. The experience starts from the moment a customer decides to take a trip to when they return home safely.
Improvements might includemaking it easier for international passengers to purchase tickets, or in fact any meaningful and thoughtful additional services whichcould elevate it even further above the competition. Additionally, Indigo could do more in the digital space, perhaps by using social media more effectively or automatically sending an update SMS to guests awaiting passengers at arrivals with a flight’s status. The real trick will be to stay relevant, not just different.
Having said this, Indigo needs to be careful not to tinker too much with its brand and its professional business model in the way that Jet Airways has. The last thing we need in India is another Jetlite, Jetconnect, Jet-the-third! Indigo will succeed by remaining dedicated to, and focused on delivering its promise of dependability. It already enjoys high levels of word-of-mouth recommendation—the best kind of unpaid communications a company could ask for and the one that matters most. Like many people, I trust my friend’s recommendation over a glossy ad any day. Way to go Indigo! Keep us recommending you.
Zia Patel is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins Dubai.
How many Indian companies devote a whole person to brand and culture? Kassia Karr, who up until now has been an Internet friend, handles both at Bhane, a new entrant in India’s online retail scene. Based in Delhi, Bhane is a little company that sits within a much larger one. Founder Anand Ahuja and his team of 14 operate the business out of one section in a massive factory that manufactures clothes for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Gap. His grandmother started the family business, and it is now one of India’s largest export houses.
I am visiting Delhi and Kassia has invited me over. The guard who signs me in corrects my pronunciation, “Oh, you mean Bhaa-ney”. Anand is amused when he hears this and declares that people should pronounce the name however they like, just as they should wear Bhane’s clothes however they like. In keeping with the spirit of our times, forging your own path is the essence of Bhane.
Bhane has peppered my Instagram feed since it launched a few months ago. It comes across as quiet and authentic. Just when I thought Zara had taken over Delhi, Bhane has appeared as an affordable alternative for everyday basics like cotton shirts, trousers, tshirts and jeans. On the website, outfits are photographed by street-style photographer Manou. I want to be friends with these beautiful girls and boys, invite them over for dinner.
Kassia takes me on a tour of the export house factory. Bhane has the advantage of infrastructure. I walk past mannequins of little boys and girls, pregnant women, large women - real people. A jigsaw carves into a delicious thick cake of red lace. Hundreds of shirts are hanging out to dry. Kassia points out the needle-detecting machine. All around factory workers are puzzling together abstract pieces of cloth into more recognisable shapes. Brands blur together at this stage, I can’t tell a Next from a JC Penny. And it doesn’t matter, because the clothes lose their meaning when I see them in such enormous quantities. Ironically, the scene is a testament to why branding matters. As I walk through the factory, it strikes me again that form and function are not the only reason we choose one chambray over another. It is also the stories we weave around them that bring meaning.
“So why do you have a brand and culture person?” I ask Anand. He says, “Once I have my basic garments in place, I need to give people a reason to come back. That’s where Kassia comes in.” Bhane has consciously decided to spend nothing on marketing and leverage social media. “We’re making it up as we go along,” he admits.
As they walk me out, Anand tells me that he prefers not to call his company a start-up. “That makes it sound like the only goal is to spin it off and make an exit. We’re building something to last.”
Sagarika Sundaram is strategist and designer based at Wolff Olins Dubai.
Another acquisition, another day: early this week, Yahoo snatched up Summly, a mobile product startup. Since falling under the leadership of Marissa Mayer, the struggling Internet giant has been making aggressive moves to bring in killer talent and innovation by acquiring the rising star startups. But in a world where every three out of four startups fail, how can new companies boost their chances of not just surviving, but thriving in a way that captures the attention of loving customers or big buyers?
For budding businesses focused on creating and innovating the next big thing, brand couldn’t be more important. And I’m not talking about the traditional ‘positioning + visual identity’ model of brand. I’m talking about a model that requires a clear definition – at the start of the business and product strategy – of what your business stands for in the world, what needs you’re meeting, and how you’re making an impact – commercially and socially. Here are some ways to get started:
1. Articulate your vision, attract the angels
Oren Bass, co-founder of Pave, a new business that helps ambitious young people crowdfund their careers and give back to society, said it best: “if you don’t know who you are, then how can anyone?”
You’re young, the talk of the Valley, can code like a wizard, and you may even be solving a great problem for humankind. Still, mere mortals are struggling to really get what you do and it’s not quite raining angels and VCs yet. You need brand to translate your vision into something people can understand and buy into.
2. Bulletproof your brand
Last year Facebook infamously bought Instagram for $1 billion. Instagram’s brand was young and hip and the mobile product outshined Facebook’s. There are a million photo apps like Instagram on the market – but this one continues to prevail because it means something important to its loyal customers.
Most things are cheap to make these days. But however cool or innovative your product might be, it can always be imitated. Brand will separate and protect you from pretenders (e.g. Kickstarter vs Indiegogo), making you exciting for your consumers and attractive to the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
3. Filter and focus
Refinery29 is making a concerted effort to turn content into e-commerce. The business was built on engaging content creation and has developed a strong community of users. This gives them a leg up on traditional media companies and they’ve recently secured $3.5 million of private investment to flesh out their commerce business.
Like them, you probably have an endless source of ideas for things you could do (note: that doesn’t mean you should do them all), yet limited resources. Brand is your much-needed filter to help you focus your development and make decisions. Having a clear brand will make you more efficient and help you progress further, faster.
4. Talent talent talent
Mark Zuckerberg is open about the fact that Facebook acquires companies solely for their talent. This goes for all the successful giants – much of their acquisition strategies are based more on talent acquisition than business ideas. So use your smart startup idea as a demonstration of your smarts.
Talented people want to work for a business that has purpose, aligns with their values and allows them to take part, and complements their skillsets. Many will even accept lower pay if it means they are doing something they are truly passionate about. The proof is in the numbers – 79% of millenials are looking for purpose and 50% would accept less pay to do ‘meaningful’ work. A strong brand will ensure sure you attract and retain the top 0.1% of talent you need for your business and make you more attractive to buyers.
Don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking you are building an app. Instead believe you are building a company, driven by a clear purpose. We’ve seen top players like PayPal, Twitter, Groupon, YouTube all have to pivot over time in order to maintain relevance. While this can be off-putting to customers initially, those moves clearly worked well in the long run.
If you’re up and running and things are looking good, but people aren’t using you like you thought they would, you’re going to need to change course and shift your message while bringing everyone along with you. You might have to make decisions that make you unpopular with some, but if you have a strong brand, people will stay loyal and give you their trust.
In short, brand shouldn’t be an afterthought, but a driver for innovation and a platform for the long-term survival of your venture.
Sam Wilson is managing director of Wolff Olins New York.
Atkins, Hollywood, South Beach, Master Cleanse, Zone, Dukan. Over the last decade there’s been a proliferation of diets with capital letters. Celebrity diet setters who claim to have the key to skinny nirvana. Pseudo medical insights that rationalize bizarre eating habits. And merchandise to follow.
We’ve become accustomed to branded diets advocating that we only put certain things in our bodies at certain times. Sometimes they work. Often they result in only a short-term loss of inches, and some less pleasant side effects (as anyone who’s lived with a Cabbage Soup diet devotee can tell you).
And yet, we can’t afford to ignore our health. Obesity can be fatal – shockingly, kids in America today are the first generation expected to live shorter lives than their parents. Food habits are a huge part of that problem. But so is our increasing lack of activity. Nike and partners’ ‘Designed to Move’ report reveals that inactivity is expected to kill more people than smoking this year. Activity is vital, in every sense of the word.
So, it’s interesting to see that fitness brands are emerging to rival diet gurus for people’s attention. SoulCycle has taken New York by storm: it’s indoor cycling but with added motivational music, mood lighting and confessional therapy that makes spinning somehow more sexy and addictive. On both sides of the Atlantic, CrossFit is also creating its own ‘cult’. Like many of the best consumer brands out there, it builds a community (posting a new workout online every day that’s followed by CrossFit gyms across the world), encourages sharing (people are beating the clock and each other’s times), and has a clearly defined approach recognisable anywhere (a unique mixture of aerobic, gymnastic and weight lifting activities that involve a circus-like mixture of props – ropes, tires, batons etc.). Perhaps more than most enterprises, they also have complete staff buy in: they are literally living the service, body and soul.
These are powerful brands, growing quickly. You hear about them at parties. You see them listed under ‘interests’ on CVs. Of course you see the branded hoodies and bags. But you also see the bodies. Afriend of mine spotted another CrossFit disciple across the room at a wedding just by checking out the definition of her shoulders (and perhaps sensing the same whiff of obsession).
I’m not sure what this new fitness fervour means. Time will tell whether they have the focus and innovation to survive long term. But I’m happy to see that some of the smartest tactics in brand building are being applied to getting us more active, and I’m willing to give it a go.
Amy Lee is a senior strategist at Wolff Olins New York.