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13 minutes | Strategy, Brand | 07.12.17

This is the one thing all great B2B SaaS brands have in common

By Pinja Virtanen

Right. The first order of business? Putting you out of your misery. The one thing all great B2B SaaS brands have in common is ownership of a culturally relevant concept. 

You know, the way Coca-Cola owns happiness, Harley-Davidson owns rebellion, and Google owns search? In other words, the key is to tie your brand so closely with an interesting cultural phenomenon that your target audience can't tell the two apart.

But before I walk you through how that works in practice, let’s have a brief history lesson. 🤓

A short history of branding – aka a riveting bedtime story as told in GIFs

Once upon a time, big, bad B2C marketing departments and their ad agencies kept brands locked away in their towers far, far away.

via GIPHY

Back then, consumer brands were communicated through 37-page brand bibles, lookbooks, and style guides, each riddled with dozens of logo variations and RGB codes (preferably accompanied with sexy names like lavender blush and burnt sienna), with ample lorem ipsum thrown in for good measure.

via GIPHY

Meanwhile B2B marketers had absolutely no claim on brand – unless you count PowerPoint WordArt, 20 different cuts of Arial, and clunky jargon, of course.

via GIPHY

But then, something happened.

Slowly but surely, B2B SaaS companies started spawning like mosquitoes on a summer night, and pretty soon, the low low price of $29.95 per month was no longer enough to entice customers to renew their subscriptions.

via GIPHY

And while some of the competitors started dropping like flies…

via GIPHY

…others understood that it was time to make a new kind of a long-term investment.

An investment in brand.

via GIPHY

Enter cultural branding – aka what B2B brands can learn from their iconic B2C cousins

Now, as we can all probably agree, successful B2B SaaS companies aren’t exactly known for their half-assery or lack of passion.

And when faced with a serious need to differentiate, most of these ambitious sons of guns aren’t just going to blindly cut-and-paste a lazy logo book for themselves. Instead, they tend to go for something a bit more thorough.

And whether they realize it or not, often that something is a lot like cultural branding.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, here’s the gist of it:

Cultural branding 101

As Douglas Holt, the brains behind "cultural branding" suggests, brands become icons by tapping into something called identity benefits, i.e. key cultural and societal issues that appeal to the target audience.

Take Dove for an example. Instead of relying on a functional benefit like a product feature (e.g. moisturizing ingredients in a body lotion) or an emotional benefit like a usage outcome (e.g. soft skin), cultural branding is all about finding and clutching to one culturally relevant identity benefit. In Dove's case that's body positivity.

While the product attributes (i.e. moisturizing ingredients that make the skin soft to touch) stay exactly the same, Dove manages to get people to rally around a cause that's way bigger than the product is. 

That's what cultural branding is all about. And the great news is that it's not just for consumer brands anymore.

3+1 case studies to prove my point – aka “Cool, but what does cultural branding have to do with B2B SaaS?”

Good question!

Now let’s see if we can apply Doug’s theory to a couple of our favorite B2B SaaS brands.

Bringing back conversations with Drift

Now I’m not going to spend too much time on Drift, because Edward literally just did that (and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how amazing his multimedia extravaganza was 😍 ).

However, I will say this:

Think about the one thing that plagues B2B buyers.

Yup, you guessed it: forms. Those 21st century content prisons that marketing teams use to gate their best content pieces behind a lead form

So what does Drift do? They start a movement to promote the opposite of forms: real conversations. 

In fact, it’s almost like everything they do in terms of marketing ties back to that very concept:

You could, of course, argue that conversations are not a culturally meaningful phenomenon, but something that have always existed as a natural form of interpersonal communication.

And while that’s all well and true, let’s not forget that Drift is talking to a younger B2B audience, most of whom have spent their entire professional lives filling out forms to access static, one-way information.

Meanwhile, this same audience canand willspend several hours a day chatting to their friends on WhatsApp and getting customer service from chatbots.

 

Key takeaway: Where consumer brands have the luxury of claiming juicy topics ranging from pop-culture to politics, B2B brands are better off choosing a cultural theme that appeals specifically to their strategically defined audience.

However, what may seem like an overly generic concept to a certain audience, may actually work wonders in a smaller niche.

 

Trello and the future of (remote) work

As a fairly simple, yet super horizontal product, positioning Trello must not have been an easy feat.

However, considering that Trello has gone from 0 to 25 million users in 7 years, saying that the team has done a decent job in marketing would be a gross understatement. And while their marketing success is definitely no coincidence, the brand’s cultural association with remote work kind of is.

During his recent visit to Finland, Trello’s co-founder Michael Pryor shared the story of how remote-friendliness came to be such an integral part of the Trello culture and brand.

First, he explained that back when Trello was still a startup looking to attract the best talent, the founding team started experimenting with job postings. What they noticed was that remote positions received up to ten times more applications, and that the remote candidates were of a totally different caliber than their local counterparts.

Later on in 2013, Michael was working as the CEO and responsible for putting together the management team. He knew exactly who he wanted to work with, but because neither of his top candidates wanted to move to NYC, the decision to hire them anyway forced the issue of remote work.

This way, something that was seen as a necessary evil at the time, became the culturally relevant and attractive story that still feeds Trello’s content funnel today – and in a variety of formats:

Key takeaway: Often culturally relevant associations happen naturally – either as the raison d´être behind the company (case Drift) or through a series of coincidences (case Trello). But it's up to your marketing team to recognize and maintain those associations as the discussion around the topic evolves. 

 

Evernote ❤️  Productivity

What do note taking and productivity have in common?

Not a whole lot if you ask me (but then I am an obsessive note taker, who would choose thorough over productive any day of the week).

Yet Evernote, the simple text editor / digital notebook has successfully connected the dots.

How?

Now you can challenge me if you want, but I believe the key here is the quality of their content. While the product doesn’t solve all my productivity-related issues by a long shot, the content that they produce is actually so good that I stop noticing the somewhat far-fetched cultural association.

And because productivity is such an incredibly relatable issue, we’ve just collectively accepted the fact that Evernote owns it, and moved on with our day.

Meanwhile, their incredibly well-oiled content machine keeps producing articles, that my frazzled mind is more than happy to consume. And to do so, I am subjected to the Evernote brand.

Here's what I mean:

Key takeaway: Be laser-focused on your customers’ pain points when designing your concept and hyper aware of quality when you start producing content around it. Even if your product only solves for one tenth of the problem, you’ll have top of the funnel content ideas for years, which in turn will help increase brand awareness and thus serve your marketing and sales funnel in the long run.

But do watch out: if you don't have a freemium product, unless you have a freemium product that appeals to almost any office worker (like Evernote does), choosing a universally attractive top of the funnel theme may prove to be expensive and ineffective in terms of conversions.

 

+1: Uber and the curious case of negative association

If you’re still not buying it, here’s a reverse example (although I must admit it’s not from B2B SaaS).

Some time ago, GrowthHackers’ Sean Ellis posed an interesting question on LinkedIn:

Sean-Ellis-LinkedIn-Post.png

And true enough, the comment section was riddled with notions of Uber’s tarnished brand.

Practically overnight, Uber went from the brand that owned the concept of ‘smart transportation’ to the brand that owns ‘structural sexism’.

Key takeaway: Everything, and I mean everything, you do can and will be used to judge your brand. In other words, don’t be an asshole.

Start somewhere – aka some useful advice + a cheap plug

By now we should all agree that cultural branding is the key to success in B2B SaaS.

And to make this post slightly more actionable, I'll share a not-so-secret and ridiculously simple brand formula that we like to apply here at Advance B2B:

  1. Identify a shift in the market (think of Salesforce and the shift from clunky on-premise software to the cloud)
  2. Create a category (think of Uber and ride sharing)
  3. Reinforce a theme (think of HubSpot — previously inbound, now growth)
  4. Start a movement (think of Drift and the "no forms" movement)

Should you need any help with figuring this stuff out, we’re here for you!

CHECK OUT OUR BRAND MARKETING SERVICES

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