SaaS branding has some unique challenges that aren’t covered in the average MBA program. As a new communication channel, the Internet has altered the rules of branding for almost every category of product. However, cloud brands that owe their very existence to the Internet often find that the message, the medium and the merchandise are a confusing tangle of clicks, words, sounds, images and experiences that is difficult to describe.
I’m not going to re-hash branding 101, there are plenty of resources available for that. I’m also not going to provide a fool proof recipe for creating killer cloud brands. Anyone who says they have that is lying. What I will do is provide some SaaS branding food for thought by exploring 6 key questions you need to ask before committing to your SaaS branding strategy. Because once you commit, it’s not easy to change. All brands, not just cloud brands, are ultimately owned by their buyers, not their sellers. Once you put yourself out there, the evolution and results of your SaaS branding strategy are no longer your own. Your first impression may also be your last, so you should strive to get it right.
Are You in a Category unto Yourself?
With respect to cloud brands, everyone wants to own the category. It’s where the big, BIG money is. Moreover, the combination of network effects and switching costs common on the Internet often demand that you attempt to own the category, as everyone else is destined to be an “also ran.” Consider the status of the direct competitors of Salesforce.com, Google, and Facebook.
I like Al and Laura Ries description of the relationship between categories and brands.
“The mind is like a sorting rack at the post office, which has a slot or ‘pigeonhole’ for every name on the letter carrier’s route. Every piece of mail is put into the hole corresponding to the name on the mail. If there’s no hole for a new piece of mail, it’s set aside in a pile called ‘undeliverables.’ So too with brands. The mind has a slot or pigeon hole for every category. If the pigeonhole is named ‘safe cars,’ this is the hole for a brand called Volvo.”
When you are creating a new brand, your challenge is to shove your way to the top of the slot by focusing on your unique and valued qualities over the competition. Building a new category is 3X more difficult, as you must first clarify and create a new pigeonhole where none currently exists, second promote the unique and valued qualities of the fuzzy new category relative to unclear alternatives, and third hold on to the top of the slot by outpacing the competition (which will come eventually if the category is real).
If you find yourself in the enviable position of being a BIG category unto yourself and the nature of that category demands that you own it, then your SaaS branding strategy should focus on crystallizing that confusing tangle into a simple, easily describable position that is unlike any other. No easy task as we all have very big, complex post office racks. Fail and your brand becomes “undeliverable.” If you find yourself in a crowded category where you must fight your way to the top, then focus on your unique differentiation to pull away from the crowd. In either case, realize that positioning alone will not win the battle of the cloud brands; you must also deliver.
Are You Experienced?
Cloud brands are the most experiential of service brands. What you see and hear isn’t always what you get. You can’t taste them. You can’t smell them. You can’t touch them. You can only do them. Cloud brands must be experienced to be truly understood. In addition, most cloud brands follow a recurring revenue subscription model which precludes any ongoing discrepancy between your message and your service. Your SaaS branding strategy must be tempered by reality, such that your service absolutely delivers on the promises made in the name of your brand.
The experiential nature of cloud brands is one of the myriad reasons behind the free trial imperative of SaaS. If you are tired of explaining and explaining and explaining your cool new category or you can’t quite come up with the perfect words to describe your difference, any car salesperson will tell you that there is no better way to seal the deal with an uncertain buyer than a test drive. With cloud brands, doing is believing.
The cloud brand experience does not begin or end with your product. Prospects begin to experience your brand based on what they hear and see online and off. A recommendation on LinkedIn may lead to a white paper posted to a community site, which leads to a free trial and discussions with your sales and support teams, and finally to a purchase that after time results in an upgrade and another online recommendation, and so forth. Where does your SaaS branding strategy begin and where does it end?
What’s in A Name?
Some folks will tell you that brand names simply don’t matter, particularly for B2B brands. Other’s will tell you that they matter a lot. I say, “it depends.” One reason brand names don’t always matter is their experiential nature, which we know is extreme for cloud brands. You can attach any name, acronym or logo you like to an experience after the fact. You just need a letter to stick in the mail slot. The main argument against the relevance of names in B2B brands is that the buying process is too rational, and good brand names are chosen to reinforce the emotional connection of the buyer to a brand’s essential quality, e.g., an iPad is mine, a Red Bull is full on energy, etc.
These are strong arguments and it’s easy to come up with countless examples of brands where the names are simply arbitrary, not just in B2B but B2C as well, e.g., IBM, Oracle, Xerox, Louis Vuitton, BMW etc. Outside of consumer packaged goods, it’s difficult to make the case that brand names matter at all. How many descriptive, metaphorical and emotional names can you find in the top 100 corporate brands? Not many. Your agency is likely to tell you to play it safe either way. After all, it’s easy enough to come up with a decent name–for a price–so, why take the chance?
Let me tell you when and why I think names do matter for cloud brands. Most examples of successful brands with arbitrary names are exactly that, successful brands. They are not startups. They are not fuzzy, unknown categories. Cloud brands matter most when you are creating the category and you intend to own it. The reason for this is that category names cannot be arbitrary, they are descriptive, and cloud categories can be very hard to describe. If you’re signing up for 3X the work to create that mail slot, then you darn sure want to put your name on the address bar. The best way to do that is to co-opt the category name, e.g., Salesforce.com, Facebook, Box.net, etc. A descriptive, but not quite generic, trademark not only facilitates building a new category by reinforcing clarity of message, but as you capture the market it all but ensures your brand will be synonymous with it.
Can You Play Variations on Your Theme?
If SaaS branding is all about the experience and names only matter so much, then how do you guide the cloud brand experience? Craft a compelling story and publish it deep and wide. SaaS branding must adhere to the new paradigm of the new breed of B2B buyer. It is no longer sufficient to come up with a name, logo, positioning statement and core message and call it quits. Developing your cloud brand image requires telling your whole story by publishing tailored variations on these primary themes that increase their relevance for prospects and make them easier to find through search and social media.
The Internet is an organic, networked communication channel and your SaaS product sits right in the middle of it, merged with it, evolving with it, part of it. It is not a broadcast medium like television or radio. Prospects decide for themselves what they will see, hear and do. You can offer up experiences, but your prospects choose, which means you must consistently offer up new and varied experiences to cover their diverse range of interests and virtual locations in relation to your offering. One prospect may care about costs and find you on Google, whereas another may care about improving customer service and find you on an industry portal, and a third may not know what she cares about, but hear about you from a recommendation on LinkedIn. Killer cloud brands are everywhere their prospects are with every story they want to hear.
Are You Under The Influence?
I’m not asking if you’re smoking dope (Although I’ve seen my share of business plans where the management team clearly was!), I’m asking if your cloud brand is “under-influenced.” While your content strategy should cover all your buyer personas, problems, benefits, media, channels, keywords and the like by exploiting the myriad variations on your story, it’s important to keep in mind that not all listeners are created equal. Finding and leveraging influencers in your community accelerates online and offline word-of-mouth and increases the credibility of your cloud brand.
Influencers come in lots of shapes and sizes today from online friends, bloggers and recommenders to traditional mainstays like customers, press, analysts and old-school industry experts that like to sit on panels and publish white papers. Whoever they are, you want them backing your brand and your message. Your SaaS branding strategy should lay out your plan to win over the influencers in your space. My advice here is to go beyond telling them your story and make them part of your story. Don’t go it alone. Friend your brand’s friends, blog with influential bloggers, tell your customer’s stories, help the press dazzle their readers, analyze with the analysts, and organize panels for those old-school experts. In the end, they will own your brand more than you. Great cloud brands facilitate ownership.
Can You Be Trusted?
The underlying goal of all branding is trust. Trust so thorough that prospects and customers no longer need to think through a purchase, they just buy on trust. There are many elements that impact trust, but honesty, reliability, and risk are right at the top of the list. Cloud brands must live up to very stringent trust standards, because of the ongoing 24/7 relationship inherent in the SaaS model. There is no room for anything less than 100% honesty when your customers can always see for themselves. Any discrepancy between service expectations and service delivery is immediately apparent. And, risk cannot be transferred when a customer can cancel anytime.
Great cloud brands say what they mean, and mean what they say. They don’t promise anything they can’t deliver. One of the great cloud ironies is that beyond the fear, uncertainty and doubt of putting sensitive data and applications on the cloud, cloud brands must by their very nature live up to greater standards of trust than their software equivalents. I can’t count the number of stories I’ve read about shelf-ware and failed enterprise software implementations. In comparison, major outages and security breaches at SaaS providers, while highly publicized, have been few and brief. Cloud brands that fail to engender and deliver on trust go out of business, fast, because they tend to fail for all their customers at once, not just one at a time.