Every founder knows it’s important to build a brand, but brand activities feel nebulous, and it’s hard to know where to start. At the same time, customer buying has shifted towards more self-education and self-service, which has made brand building even more important for the modern SaaS company.
I wrote the following essay to offer perspective on brand building and to give founders and early marketers real operational advice on how to build a B2B SaaS brand. Over the past couple years, I've built Lattice’s marketing program from 0 to 1,800+ customers and have summarized my learnings into the following post.
Every brand starts with three foundational elements -- Product, Audience and Market -- and it’s your job as a founder or marketer to understand this complicated relationship.
The best way to understand the dynamics between product, audience and market is simply by talking to prospective and current customers. Customers are a goldmine of information. Customers will tell you the parts of your product that are most valuable, and which parts they’d actually purchase. Customers will tell you all about competitor shortcomings and give you insights into where there are opportunities to create new value in the market today.
To get started, I’d recommend setting up a series of interviews with three different groups:
Each of these stakeholders will share a different perspective that will be instrumental in building your brand. As you meet with customers, it’s important to sift through the noise and try to capture the essence of what they like about your product. You’re looking for an insight around the value that you create in their lives. You want to understand how customers talk about your product. Great brands simply reflect the truth of the customer experience.
As you start to collect research, it’s important to codify what you’ve learned and how you want to position your company. Documentation of your brand will help you scale the brand message across your company and lead toward the creation of marketing collateral that will support the brand story.
Most marketers will create a memo or deck that lays out the classic brand characteristics. Here’s typically what these brand documents feature:
Story: What’s your company narrative
Vision: what does the world look like when you’re done
Mission: how do you approach reaching your vision
Audience: Who you are selling to
Message: how you talk about yourself and the value you provide
Category: type of product you sell
Over time, this brand documentation will evolve and mature -- for example, you might move from a single paragraph that explains an audience to a dedicated personas deck-- but it’s totally okay to start with a simple one-pager. This process of customer research and then synthesizing into brand documentation is a never-ending process that creates the foundation for your entire brand and position in the market.
From there, you’ll move into design and the look and feel of your brand. You’ll likely need to hire a designer or brand agency who will take your brand brief and then develop a logo and brand system with colors that you should use. The last step is that you’ll start to create marketing assets -- you’ll start with a marketing website (or maybe a video) that becomes the storefront of your brand.
Once you’ve laid a solid foundation, the work to scale your brand begins.
The best way to think about brands is through the lens of touchpoints.
Every time a customer interacts with your company represents a touchpoint. Importantly, these touchpoints go beyond marketing; product usage, sales conversations, customer chat support are all important moments that represent your brand.
Now take all of those touchpoints and imagine the people on the other side -- how did that touchpoint make them feel? The combination of touchpoints and audience feelings is your brand.
Touchpoints + Audience Feelings -> Brand
The impression and emotions that you triggered within that customer create a brand experience and now the customer has an associative memory connected to your company. The more you can optimize the tone, impact, and volume of these touchpoints the more control you’ll have over your brand. It’s important that there’s a consistency to these touchpoints and, if possible, differentiated from other companies in your space.
The good news is that brands scale naturally, as you offer products and services to customers. Brand touchpoints are automatically generated when more customers use your product. Over time, customers start to build affinity towards your product and hopefully fall in love with the product enough to tell their friends.
This process of generating organic brand touchpoints is mainly driven through what your product team builds and how they approach growth products. Organic touchpoints are also generated in the natural course of doing business as your sales team sells and your customer success team works with customers. The better the overall experience, the more people who tell their friends to use the product, which will generate more brand touchpoints and grow your brand.
Beyond product, the best way to generate touchpoints is to create programs that provide your current and potential customers with value. Every program you develop creates a reason to interact with your customer base and leaves an impression in their head. Programs lead towards touchpoints, which builds your brand.
Programs -> Touchpoints -> Brand
Programs provide a way for prospects to get involved with your brand before they are ready to buy. At Lattice, one of our early programs was our Resources for Humans interview series. These interviews provided an easy way for our prospective customers (HR Leaders) to start hearing about Lattice and what we stood for as a company, while associating Lattice with well-known brands like Reddit, Asana, and Stripe..
Keeping the touchpoint principle in mind, we stretched the content as far as possible to create more opportunities for our audience to interact -- stripped the audio from the videos to create a podcast, transcribed the interviews to develop blog articles and created video snippets that we promoted on social media.
Over time, we developed more programs that provide value to our target audience across the funnel, reaching both the top of funnel and mid of the funnel audience members. Each one of these programs builds on top of each other and are interconnected so that the value compounds as the audience deepens its relationship with your brand.
Importantly, each of these programs are centered around a common theme - providing free education and networking opportunities to the HR Persona. These activities naturally positioned Lattice as someone HR pros could turn to when they needed help, which is a great thing when people were looking to buy software in the future.
Value through education is a common component of B2B SaaS marketing and helps you to develop brand affinity and trust that goes beyond the touchpoint itself. But there might be other ways you can provide value that’s different than education (perhaps it’s networking or maybe it’s offering a lightweight product). Regardless, you should anchor your program philosophy around your customer needs and identify a gap in the marketplace for you to provide unique value.
The best part about focusing on programs and touchpoints is that now when someone asks the Lattice marketing team how to grow our brand presence, we have a clear framework to turn to. We can either expand the scope of the current programs - make the Slack community bigger - or think of new programs to develop -- People Operations School. If we execute properly, each of these programs will create more touchpoints in the world and expand the presence of our brand.
When you combine both product and program building, you start to see an engine that generates more brand touchpoints, as you invest more resources (Capital and People).
The more you invest in product & program building, the more positive brand touchpoints you create, the more customers that you attract, the more capital you generate, the more programs and products you’re able to build. It’s a natural growth loop.
As you hire more individuals and invest more capital (generated from product sales or VC money), then you’ll have greater capacity to develop more programs. A bootstrapped company might only have the resources to invest 25% of a founder’s time to create programs. As you generate more capital, then you have the ability to hire a single marketer to start running programs on their own. Eventually, you’ll be able to build a marketing team with project leads for each program. At Lattice today, we have marketing team members who are focused on solely building community, events, podcasts and more.
As these programs grow, your brand’s reach will expand and increase your entire funnel. You’ll start to create programs that go from doing 4 webinars a year with 500 RSVPs each to a virtual conference with 15,000 RSVPs. By building programs, you can predictably scale touchpoints and grow the reach of your brand.
Now you know that you need to generate touchpoints to build a brand, but there’s a number of things we’ve learned at Lattice to help make these touchpoints more impactful. The following 5 principles are all related to the other side of the brand equation - how the audience feels.
Brand design goes a long way. When you come to a website or view any collateral, your audience has an immediate impression on the quality of your work just through the design. Take a look at how Lattice’s design has changed over the last couple years…
While our message has largely remained the same, we’ve made a deliberate effort to change how we appear to the world and attract more upmarket buyers. By overinvesting in great design and strong aesthetic, founders can take an unremarkable product and make it remarkable (just look at what Liquid Death is doing to water). The best way to invest in great brand design is by hiring a full time brand designer who can consistently evolve the brand as you grow (DMs on Dribbble is a great place to start). It’s important this first designer is a generalist, so that they can adapt as business needs evolve.
Beyond design, the content and words that you use in your touchpoints can make a huge difference in how you make an audience feel, which will naturally impact the rate and scale of your touchpoints. This is why B2B marketers like Dave Gerhardt obsess over copywriting.
One of my favorite examples to prove this point is through speakers. Let’s say that you’re running a virtual conference, and you have two different options for speakers.
The first speaker is me, Alex Kracov. I run a team of 15 people and know a thing or two about people management.
The reality is that my speaker announcement would barely catch your attention, it’s forgetabable. You’ve never heard of me and would likely only be mildly interested in attending. The only reason you might attend is because you’ve heard of Lattice or you’re my mom.
The second speaker is Barack Obama. The guy who ran a country and managed the US government.
Obama’s participation in the event and the content he provides changes the game.
Not only will Obama speaking drive waaaay more signups than Kracov speaking, but it will change the way people perceive your brand. As a result, more positive touchpoints will be created and your brand will grow.
Startups are by definition small and unproven, which creates a challenge when trying to attract bigger companies. Maybe they’ve never heard of you or maybe if they know you, but are hesitant to work with an unproven company.
The good news is that there are a number of ways that startups can manipulate how their audience perceives them and elevate themselves into being seen as a lasting vendor who is here to stay. Design can help, but there’s more you can do.
One of the best ways to feel bigger than you are is through high-impact paid media placements, especially billboards. Most people think billboards are really expensive and only used by bigger companies. When driving down the 101 in SF, you’ll see billboards from all of the tech giants like Apple and Google, and when you’re in Time Square you’ll see huge screens from all of the top brands in the world.
It feels like you need to wait to a certain scale to run billboard campaigns, but with as little as $50-$100k, you can make an impression. Everyone who sees your billboard will build some brand recognition and will think that you are a certain level of company. This works wonders when you pair billboards with additional marketing channels like digital ads, direct mail and events.
We experimented with billboards early on in Lattice’s lifecycle. When we were a Series A (raised $9.2M total) company, we ran a ~$50k billboard campaign that represented 3% of our overall marketing budget. At the time, our main customer base were startups in the Bay Area, so we decided to run a campaign on the 101 (between SF and the airport) and throughout SOMA.
As you can see, we decided to have fun with the campaign and troll SF. It was at the height of the crypto craze (May 2018) and we wanted to have some fun with playing off the madness in the city. We thought by playing off a value we cared about (investing in your people) against the crypto craze, we might be able to get some attention. And by pairing this with some digital highlights, we were able to stretch the moment from offline to offline.
The more premium and memorable you can make your brand, you’ll develop more mindshare in the audience as a trusted company to work with.
When selling to other companies, it’s important to feel like a trusted vendor and the best way to do that is through social proof. It’s the marketing team’s job to create different workflows and programs that make it easy for customers to tell their story about your brand.
The best place to start is by making logo rights standard in every contract you sign with prospects. If companies are uncomfortable with you using their logos, then they’ll edit it out during the contracting process. Once you have rights to use the logo, then you can start to create logo bars and logo walls that you can feature on the website and on different collateral. This is the bare minimum you should do when it comes to social proof.
The next step is to create case studies of your customers that talk about how they use your product. Start with written case studies -- jump on a zoom call with a customer, ask a bunch of questions and create an article. As you have more resources, create videos of customers to help tell the story in a different format.
Customers should also be actively used in any webinars and events you create. These customers can talk about their work with your company, but they should spend most of the time talking about the industry and profession more broadly. Just by having trusted professionals in your target industry advertised at your events will help to build your brand within your target audience.
Lastly, review sites like G2 are an important resource for building up organic social proof. I’d strongly recommend building up your profile on the site and then also running a gift card program to generate reviews. The more reviews you have, the greater your presence on the review sites. This will help you reach customers at the top-of-the funnel who are just starting their search for software, but also help customers in active buying cycles see that you’re legit. Not to mention it helps attract investors and prospective employees too.
The most important persona in relation to your brand are the employees at your company. Employees are the people who will be talking to customers all the time (so a huge touchpoint lever), but more importantly be working hard to make the brand’s mission a reality every day.
When you’re just starting, it’s easy for all employees to understand the brand story. Everyone is sitting in the same room as the founders and the company’s mission, product position, etc. are second nature. But as the company scales, employees get farther away from the founders and the marketing team, so proactively teaching employees becomes extremely important.
The best way to start training your company is to create a brand positioning document that tells your brand story, and then it really comes to repetition and over-communicating to your employees. Brand message needs to be built into your company on-boarding process, repeated at all hands meetings, and woven into the natural dialogue of your day-to-day work.
Marketing is everybody’s job. Employees need help telling the brand’s mission to customers every day. The marketing team can support clients facing roles by creating videos that talk about what your product does (product video example) or what your product stands for (brand video example). Or maybe for product teams, it means sharing a customer story around a specific use case. It’s on the marketing team to facilitate these processes and to create assets that empower the rest of the company to easily scale the telling of the brand story.
Brand building is a classic flywheel activity. You’ll start to make investments into your brand, and each decision will build on itself. Progress will be slow at first, but will start to accelerate. As you create more touchpoints, the more real estate that you’ll take in someone’s mind. It’s the steady progress over a period of time that will eventually build a brand.
For founders and marketers, it can feel really daunting to create a brand, but just focus on making incremental progress and your brand will grow over time. The more quality touchpoints you create, the bigger your brand.