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How to Characterize a Software Product Through Branding

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As a SaaS company, the heart of your business is your core software product, but unfortunately, until you grow to a much bigger size and reputation, your product isn’t going to sell itself. You can describe the logical benefits of your product, compare your price to your competitors, and demonstrate expert salesmanship when pitching it to new potential clients, but if it’s missing that “extra ingredient” to compel new users, even the best product on the market can fall flat.

What is this extra ingredient? Branding. With it, an ordinary product can become extraordinary, and an extraordinary product can become unstoppable. But why is this branding element so important, and how can you characterize an inanimate, intangible product with it successfully?

Why Is Branding Important for SaaS Companies?

Branding is important for all companies for the following reasons:

Recognition and customer acquisition.

Branding allows your product (and company) to be recognized at a distance, much in the way that McDonald’s arches and the Nike swoosh have become simple symbols of much bigger, more complicated organizations. Over time, reiteration of these symbols and general atmospheres can lead to higher brand awareness, a better brand reputation, and therefore, a higher customer acquisition rate.

Trust and loyalty.

Consistent branding can also help you establish trust and loyalty in your existing population. When a user has a consistently positive experience, associated with some aspect of identity (such as a visual, or a tone of voice), he/she starts to associate the identity with the positive experience. It makes the decision to switch to a competitor that much harder, and encourages them to stay with your brand, specifically, for as long as possible.

Foundation for advertising.

Branding also gives you a solid direction on how to develop your advertising campaigns. It may give you a tone of voice, limits in terms of humor and sensationalism, visual cues, or a running theme you can exploit many times over. Not only does this make your advertising more effective; it also makes the conceptual process easier.

Internal factors.

Branding isn’t only for your customers. Creating a strong brand for your product, and your organization in general, can help you create a strong internal company culture as well. For example, let’s say you characterize your product as fun, energetic, and down-to-earth; in the right environment, you can nurture these characteristics in your employees, resulting in a more unified, productive, satisfied workforce. Google’s company culture is a perfect example.

google company culture

(Image Source: Google)

But it’s even more important to SaaS companies because:

Competition is fierce.

Everyone realizes what a profitable and scalable model SaaS is, and as a result, the market’s been flooded with software products hoping for a piece of the action. Odds are, you have several competitors with few distinguishing factors between you. Branding can be your key distinguishing factor, edging out the competition immediately.

Face-to-face interaction is nonexistent.

Because most SaaS platforms are hosted online without a physical office, there’s almost no chance of face-to-face or personal interaction during the sales cycle. At the same time, personal connections are important to make strong sales and keep good customers. The solution? Use branding as a personal surrogate, demonstrating brand qualities the way you would a real personality.

Short sales cycles.

Your users are going to make a decision within a minute or two (for the most part). That’s not a lot of time to give your users a tour of your product or exhaustively list all the objective benefits of it. Instead, you have to give your potential customers a quick gut-level feeling that this is a good idea—and branding can help you do it.

Retention is the gold standard.

Finally, you have to know that SaaS companies aren’t won or lost in customer acquisition—it’s retention that separates the winners and losers. Branding can help you breed the familiarity, “personal” relationships, and commitment that keeps your customers subscribing to your service through thick and thin.

The Trouble With Characterizing a Software Product

Unfortunately, branding a product isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. You need something compelling, or else your brand won’t attract any new customers (or retain old ones), you need something that fits with your mission and vision as a company (or else it will be unstable), and you need something sustainable in the long-term (or else it won’t pay off). On top of those requirements, you’re working with something intangible and flexible, rather than a physical product.

Throughout this guide, I’ll walk you through the main strategies you can use to develop a workable framework for your software brand, and implement it across your product, your site, your support network, your social media profiles, and of course, your advertising campaigns.

Establishing Your Brand Standards

Before your start applying your brand to the different areas of your SaaS business, you need to know what your brand standards are in the first place. I’ve written an extensively detailed guide, How to Build a Brand from Scratch, on the matter, so I’ll stay out of the weeds here, but I do want to highlight some of the most important components of a brand, and where those components are going to apply in your main strategies.

Main Goals

There are many goals for a brand to accomplish, but SaaS companies specifically need to zoom in on four of them:

Differentiation.

As noted above, one of the biggest challenges for SaaS companies in the current era is competition, so branding must serve as a differentiating factor. What is that factor? That’s up to you and your target audience. For example, compared to your competitors, could you be more professional in tone to appeal to more business people? Could you be more casual in tone to appeal to a younger audience? Do you want to be edgier? More traditional? There’s no right or wrong answer here, but when it’s all said and done, your brand should stand out from anything else on the market.

Connection.

Your brand needs to have a personal appeal to your target demographics. For this goal, it’s helpful to think of your brand as a kind of avatar for your company, representing it in a personal way so that your customers can form a personal attachment. Accordingly, your brand needs to embody characteristics that are approachable, familiar, or otherwise engaging to your target market (and you may need to do some research for this). As an example, take MailChimp’s literal “chimp” mascot, who makes everything seem friendlier, funnier, and more approachable.

mailchimp

(Image Source: MailChimp)

(Side note: you don’t need a mascot to accomplish this)

Immersion.

The immersion factor is one unique to SaaS companies, since some brands have the luxury of limited customer interactions. Your customers, however, will be using your product for extended periods of time, and engaging with your brand in many different mediums, from your app itself, to your content, your website, your help pages, and even your social media accounts. If you want to be successful, you need to nurture an entire environment where people feel connected to your brand—not just one-time representations or one-sided interactions.

Reinforcement.

You need to use your brand to reinforce positive experiences with your product, and continually remind users why they signed up for your service in the first place. A good brand will have the potential to summarize all the visions and values of your company, and repeat itself throughout many channels, mediums and applications. The more places you are, the more you’ll be seen, and the more easily recognized you’ll be.

Main Applications

Now that you know what you need to accomplish, you need to know the main paths through which you can accomplish them. Creating a brand isn’t easy, but it helps if you can reduce your identity standards down to four main “groups” of characteristics.

Logo and colors.

Up first are the logo and colors of your brand, which are usually the first elements that people notice. There’s a reason for this; humans have strong visual senses, so we naturally lock onto and remember visual patterns. You’ll need to select a color scheme that fits your company’s tone, mood, and target audience (as well as your competitive landscape), and your logo should attempt to concisely represent who your company is and what it has to offer.

Image and character.

This set of characteristics is a bit more abstract, as it defines the “concept” of your brand more so than any tangible assets. For this, it’s often best to visualize your brand as a character, and imagine what that character might be like (as well as how it might be different from your competitors). Apple took this step literally in its now-landmark advertising campaign pitting Macs against PCs with actors representing each brand. You don’t have to go this far, but you do need to be able to describe the “type” of person your brand would be.

image and character

(Image Source: Business Insider)

Voice.

As another outlet for your brand’s communication, consider the tone and shape of your voice. I alluded to this a bit earlier, but you’ll need to consider a number of questions regarding how you write; how advanced is your vocabulary going to be? How casual can you be with your words, in terms of colloquialisms, abbreviations, and profanity? Will your sentences be short and concise or long and descriptive? These choices help shape your brand identity, and make a big impact on users whether they realize it or not.

User experience.

Finally, there are user experience factors, and this set of identity standards is unique to SaaS companies. Your users are going to be engaging with your software regularly, so how they interact with your software may help them form a stronger brand impression. For example, how does your app respond to their inputs? What feelings do your users get when they log in? We’ll explore some specific applications and examples of this later on.

Be sure to formally document your strategy for each of these key areas, as this will serve as your identity guidelines moving forward. Keep this document handy as we move through the next few sections.

The following sections will each touch on one area of application for your new brand standards, exploring how best to integrate the concept of your brand in a way your consumers will identify and relate to.

The Product

First, we need to take a look at the product itself, the reason you’re in business. You may already have a set framework or concept for your app, but the final layer of design and development should be heavily influenced by the type of brand you want to create.

Overall design

The type of basic design you offer can make a radical difference in how a user receives your app. Here, you need to think beyond what’s the most aesthetically pleasing (though that helps too) and think about what’s going to cement your brand’s identity in the minds of your users.

These are just a handful of questions to get you started:

  • Do you want to look futuristic, or do you want a throwback look?
  • Do you want something fun and idiosyncratic, or something serious and precise?
  • Do you want something colorful and creative, or something more analytical and defined?
  • What colors should be prominent in your app, and what level of contrast do you want to achieve?

There are no right or wrong answers to these choices; again, this all depends on who your target audience is and how you want to differentiate yourself. Whatever you choose, your choice should be apparent throughout the application, aiding the “immersive” experience that a successful brand-consumer relationship demands.

Take Workday’s app as an example; it uses bright, palette colors throughout its app and precise, formal design choices to demonstrate an aura of professionalism while still being friendly and approachable.

workday

(Image Source: Workday)

Functionality

Of course, the design fun doesn’t stop at these basic design questions. You’ll also want to consider what types of functionality you want to include, and how those functions might signal different brand qualities to your users.

For example, imagine you have a row of tabs on the main part of your app, and whenever you hover over one, it pops up, growing bigger and changing colors dynamically. Now imagine a wheel of options in the center of the page, and whenever you hover over one option, the others fade away. These produce two very distinct “feels,” the former being more fun and out-of-the-way, and the latter being more pragmatic and efficient.

The type of functionality you present can be at a high level, such as deciding what features to offer your users or how to incorporate those features in a basic design, or at a more specific level, such as coming up with Easter eggs and quirks that your users can find by exploring your app.

A “claim to fame”?

If your software has a “claim to fame,” or some kind of functional distinction that separates it from other brands in your niche, you need to play this up throughout your product wherever you can. For example, let’s say your uniqueness rests on your app’s ability to perform functions faster than any other app on the market. In this case, you may want to include subtle reminders of this “speed” factor, such as tongue-in-cheek references on loading pages, or timers for specific functions.

You don’t need to have one of these, but it can be helpful in securing your users’ loyalty. Brainstorm about the different advantages your company could offer, and settle on at least one that you can play up. This will also help you when you create advertising and social campaigns for your brand.

Site and Support

If you’re like most SaaS companies, you’ll have a website and a support/help center for your users in addition to wherever your software is hosted (website, mobile app, etc.). This is another great opportunity for you to show off what makes your brand special, appeal to curious new users, and of course, retain the users you’ve already collected.

Layout and design

Your first look should be at the layout and design of your website. For the most part, you can follow the same rules you followed in the design portion of your software development. Think about the way your colors and logo can integrate into your design, and question what types of functionality you want to offer your users. Obviously, you want your site to be intuitive and functional, but how are your choices affecting users’ perceptions of your brand identity?

Copy and content

Copy and content are both forms of writing for your audience, but the former is about quick-hitting headlines and opportunities for conversion, while the latter is about presenting information.

In the former case, your web copy can do an awesome job of presenting exactly what kind of character your brand is. Carefully consider your tone, as every word here is going to count, and inject your headlines with bits of humor, or pride, or exclusivity, depending on your brand and goals. Zendesk has an excellent example with this headline, where they reveal their approachable vocabulary and throw in a vanilla punchline to get a quick laugh while avoiding rocking the boat:

copy and content

(Image Source: Zendesk)

Your content marketing strategy is another powerful opportunity to demonstrate your brand, and it can manifest in a few different areas. First, you’ll want an ongoing content strategy to fuel your SEO campaign and attract new readers; this will likely reside in your blog. Second, you’ll want a comprehensive help and support section, full of interactive and searchable documents to help users when they (inevitably) encounter trouble with your software. In both cases, you’ll need to keep your content concise, and strictly adherent to the tone you’ve established for your brand. When users encounter this content, they’ll either be seeing your brand for the first time, or they’ll be in need of help—either way, they’re especially vulnerable, and your angle could make or break their impression of your brand.

Examples and Easter eggs

Throughout your help section especially, you’ll have the opportunity to include Easter eggs and subtle tidbits that your observant users will pick up on. They can be inside jokes, subtle references, or unique pockets of functionality that aren’t otherwise visible.

For example, take MailChimp’s sample template referencing “adorable kittens” as an amusing alternative to something like lorem ipsum text. It falls in line with the amusing and friendly nature of the brand:

mailchimp template design

(Image Source: MailChimp)

Personal exchanges

Finally, whether it’s in a live chat, on a forum, or in some other method of exchange, you’ll probably be communicating with customers directly to resolve issues. When you do this, make sure your customer service representatives are using a voice and approach that falls in line with your brand standards. This will add a layer of comfort and familiarity to the experience, and if consistent enough, will lead to higher feelings of brand trust and loyalty. From there, your customer retention rates will skyrocket.

Social Media and Advertising

I’ve lumped the two of these applications together because, while independent, they are related. Both involve communicating directly with an audience outside the scope of your software product itself (or your website, in most cases). Ultimately, your brand standards should govern your approach to each.

Personality and content

Social media gives you the chance to truly show off your personality, and you better take advantage of it. Social media is where your users are going to turn when they want to contact you directly, the “you” in this case being your brand. Remember my example earlier, where I alluded to the fact that your brand should be a stand-in for a real person? The concept applies here too. Whenever you make a post, or respond to a user, or do anything on social media, you need to do so in a “voice” that matches your brand standards. This is going to be tough, especially since you’ll probably have multiple people working on one account, and you’ll often be posting as a reactionary measure, rather than a premeditated one. However, with solid and consistent brand standards, you can keep this atmosphere consistent and enhance the approachability and familiarity of your brand.

Multiple social arms

It’s also a good idea, if your audience is large enough, to segment your social media presence into different designated arms, such as one for customer support and one for regular updates. SalesForce takes this to another level, with no fewer than six separate Twitter accounts to follow, depending on your goals.

salesforce twitter accounts

(Image Source: Twitter)

This will help you maintain consistency and delegate responsibilities for different engagements while keeping your overall brand consistent. You’ll also need to apply your brand standards to multiple social profiles at once, simultaneously following best practices for each app.

Community building

The more your brand is mentioned, the more popular and visible it’s going to become; when you develop a powerful enough community, you can ease off the gas and let your community start doing the promotional work for you. At higher levels of development, some SaaS companies start earning more customers simply because they have so many existing customers talking about them and working with them on a regular basis.

You can encourage the development of a community in your own social spheres (and on your site) by creating a forum, engaging with your customers regularly, rewarding customers for engaging with others, and encouraging more brand engagements with contests, questions, and requests for user-submitted content.

Brand as a foundation

There are tons of advertising options beyond content marketing and social media; PPC advertising, banner ads, and even traditional forms of advertising like TV and radio are just a handful of examples. Your brand needs to serve as a foundation for all of these if you want to maximize your potential; if you’re consistent, this will greatly increase user familiarity with your brand, and keep your company top-of-mind with those already engaging with it. Before you develop the concept for a new ad campaign, ask yourself, does this fit in with my company’s image? Is the tone right? Are the company’s colors and logos visible? Does this accurately represent the type of experience a user might have with the app? You need to answer “yes” to all these questions before proceeding.

Parting Thoughts

Consistency.

I’ve covered a lot of information in this guide, and most of it has focused on creating your brand standards and where you can apply those standards to fully characterize your brand. This will help you conceptualize a brand, and it gives you a good visual map for how your brand needs to develop, but there are a handful of further considerations I want to leave you with as you begin your SaaS brand journey.

Branding is one of the most powerful and important marketing strategies you’ll use, in part because it affects all your other strategies, but it’s only going to be effective if you’re consistent with it. You can’t apply your brand to just your product, or just your social media campaign, and hope to reap the full benefits of the integration, nor can you change your brand standards a few months into the game. You can tweak your brand, gradually over time, but you have to give users that consistent look, feel, and comfort, or you’ll never be able to build the recognition or retention you need.

Invisible values.

It’s hard to directly measure the results of your branding efforts; you can’t calculate a brand ROI the way you can with just a social media marketing or just an SEO strategy. Branding’s most impressive values are actually somewhat invisible, unless you try to measure them with qualitative user surveys; for example, how can you measure the average person’s “awareness” of your brand? How can you measure a person’s disposition toward staying with your brand (especially when compared to a hypothetical scenario in which you have a different brand entirely)? You’ll have to rely on indirect indicators here.

Company culture.

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth repeating. If you want to reap the full value of a comprehensive SaaS brand, you can’t think of it as only existing for your customers. Your brand’s character and style should permeate your entire organization, giving your employees a standard to aspire to and giving them a foundation for how to interact with customers and vendors. It’s going to leave you with a more powerful, more cohesive organization—even if you don’t notice it right away.

When characterized with a carefully considered and thoroughly described brand, your software will do a better job of standing out, pleasing your customers, and ultimately making you more money. Don’t take this strategy lightly.

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Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is the Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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