A BRAND-NEW ERA
When we started Red Antler in 2007, "brand" was only just starting to get on the radar of entrepreneurs as something that needed their focus. "Design" was very much in the conversation as something startups should pay attention to, but for many that still meant user experience design, not brand design.
Back in the ancient times at the start of the new millennium, great user experience design, or UX, was a meaningful competitive advantage. If something was easy to use, if it functioned beautifully, that was enough to get people excited. Google is the ultimate example of a business that launched at a specific point in time, with true and meaningful technological superiority, innovative UX, and a brand that almost seemed purposefully nonexistent. Its search results were just smarter (so smart they would give you only one result if you were "feeling lucky"!). Gmail was just easier. But if Google were to launch today, it would have to follow a different playbook. Uber is another company that got very far with mind-blowing technology and a user experience that felt like nothing that had come before. It frankly felt like magic, and at the time, that was enough. But even with all its success, Uber made itself vulnerable to Lyft and other competitors by not approaching brand through the right principles.
Regardless, most businesses are not Google or Uber. I am here to tell you that it is very, very unlikely you are sitting on the next Google, in the same way that your college band was probably not the next Beatles. But that's okay! It is so unbelievably rare these days for a business to be meaningfully differentiated through its technology, or even its UX, alone. Once in a while, you'll see a company introduce a significant innovation, like dating app Tinder's swipe functionality, but it's only a matter of time before competitors copy it and the distinction simply starts to matter less. In most cases, UX is now more about elegance and simplicity than a major overhaul of how people are accustomed to having things function.
Q: If tech's not enough, and UX isn't enough, how do I differentiate?
That's where brand comes in. This does not mean you get to slap a cool logo on the top of your website and call it a day. Brand is not a logo, it's not your name, it's not a tagline. All of those things are important expressions of your brand, but they are only effective if you've done the hard work of figuring out what your brand stands for and why it matters in the first place. Just as tech and UX are not enough, "branding" in the traditional sense of the word is also not enough. At Red Antler, we aren't interested in working with businesses that want to create a "better brand" but don't offer any meaningful improvement on what exists today—as if brand is just about your colors and your copywriting. People come to us with these kinds of ideas all the time, pitching copycat businesses that have no good answer to the question "What makes you different?" yet think branding will make them stand out and succeed.
We also get approached by legacy businesses that want to compete with emerging challengers by creating a more appealing brand identity, but that aren't changing anything fundamental about the business itself. For example, we've had conversations with multi-decades-old retailers hoping to compete with e-commerce businesses. They want a new "brand identity" but don't want to invest in changing their physical spaces. They fail to realize that their stores are an inherent part of their identity and could even be a selling point compared to e-commerce. You can't have a conversation about brand today that doesn't start with the overall experience.
To build a winning brand today, you have to start with your customer and the problem you are solving for them. The brands that people love most are embedded within the business idea itself. Among the next generation of leading businesses, the best are thinking about their brand's purpose before they even launch. They seek to create a better experience that starts with their business model and extends to how they communicate and behave. Business model, tech, UX, brand experience—there's no clear delineation of these different elements; they all work together. And it all needs to be in service of the people you're trying to reach, because the consumer has never had more power or more say.
SOLVING A REAL PROBLEM
Whenever we kick off a new project with entrepreneurs, it always starts with a conversation. This is a chance for us to ask a million questions, get into their heads, understand their business and their vision, and tease out the points that are actually going to matter as we build a brand together. Founders don't struggle with a lack of ideas for what they're trying to achieve—usually it's that they know too much. A good founder can talk for hours about why what they're building is better in every way than anything out there (and ultimately how what they're really doing is changing the world!), and sometimes that's even true. The problem is that you can have an amazing product, and a big vision, but without a focus on brand from the beginning, it's going to fall flat. Today, nothing could be further from reality than "if you build it, they will come." That may have been true in the early days of the internet, when people were just so excited that they could buy [whatever] online, or that an app could do [that]. Those were the days when a new technology or an innovative business model was actually a meaningful point of difference, and you were able to launch with very little focus on brand and still gain traction.