Product Strategy

Building a brand from the inside out

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A brand is more than just a catchy tagline and logo: it’s the reputation that you build from every customer interaction from your product to your people. Today, I’ll discuss the importance of investing in internal marketing to ensure your external brand success.

Stephanie Bowker:
Hi, everyone. Thank you for having me. My name is Stephanie Bowker and I'm the head of marketing at Spendesk, one of the fastest growing FinTech startups in Europe that is helping businesses spend smarter with spend management software combined with company cards. Previous to that, I worked at Intuit and was the first product marketer at Gusto, where I got to build the product marketing, messaging and brand strategy, which is the topic for today.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, let's dive into why it's important to invest in brand, and particularly why it's important to invest in internal communications as a core part of building a product-led growth strategy. So, why is this important? Well, to start, the numbers clearly show that it's a crowded marketplace. Just the last three months, I saw that there was almost 700 new startups that were created. In addition, I can personally share that I get bombarded on a regular basis with eBooks content, et cetera, offering plenty of new services. So, companies and products have to ask themselves, how can you possibly cut through the noise? Which I always say an answer is brand. There are plenty of levers where you can improve conversion across the buyer journey, but ultimately a brand is one of the biggest and most important differentiators if you really want to lead a product-led growth strategy.

Stephanie Bowker:
And so, for today, what we're going to cover is what are the core four principles on how to build a decentralized, yet unified, brand strategy? So, first, do the work. Second, onboard every employee. Third, craft intentional internal comms. And last, let go to grow.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, to start. Building a brand strategy is just like building a product. It takes a lot of research, brainstorming, analysis. So, in addition to doing qualitative and quantitative analysis, it's super important to ensure that you do take the time to really define who you're uniquely going after, who else they're considering and how you uniquely position yourself in the market.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, to start, the first principle is do the work. And what this means is to put time and resources to really build the core frameworks for what your brand is. I know this is kind of seems pretty obvious, but I'm pretty shocked often when I talk to a lot of different companies who have these thoughts in their head, but don't actually take the time to put them down on paper. And so, that's why I always have to ask, especially as you scale and you're trying to build the house and add more floors, adding more people, product lines, markets, how can you scale and build if you haven't taken the time to build your core floor? And so, there are many different frameworks out there. These for me really are the top 10 main frameworks that I recommend putting in place for every single company that wants to create a differentiated brand.

Stephanie Bowker:
And so, if you need some inspiration, there's lots of wonderful resources across the internet. Many companies even share their brand [inaudible 00:03:40], such as Asana or Uber. I usually do find that the ones that do share you usually already know, and I think it's probably because they've put in work. So, I also want to share that brand is important for all industries. I know many times the examples we see are feel good brands, consumer or [inaudible 00:04:00] B2B, but really brand can be an important lever, no matter what the industry you are. So, for example, a good friend of mine is the VP of marketing at a company called Shiva, a logistics and shipping company based out of Paris. And before she joined, she shared they hadn't put in place personas, messaging strategy or an elevator pitch. So, a quarter after she joined, put these in place. She actually saw a real impact in how it performed in terms of the website. So she saw 3X in conversion and also decreased bounce rate. And this was merely from putting in place a messaging strategy.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, principle number two, onboard everyone. So, I know it's without being said that in all parts of the company, you know how important it is that everyone is really rowing in the same way so that we can work together in what we're building. And so, the same thing comes into place when it comes to brand, especially it's extremely important that every single touch point is consistent because really brand is the reputation that you build from every single interaction from customer success to care, to sales, to product engineering. So, that's why once you really do put in place and do the work, it's super important to make sure that everyone's on board and knows about the work.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, for a specific example on how I learned myself is when I first joined Gusto, ZenPayroll at the time, one of my first projects was to build the personas. So, I did interviews, did the market sizing, the research, and put together a presentation. The CPO and CMO approved it, so I felt pretty good about it. But then they went into the drive. And some time went by, we rebranded to Gusto, we tripled the size of the team. And all of a sudden now, we started to see a change in user satisfaction, and we started to see a longer sales cycle. And so, we had to ask ourselves why. And what we found is it's because we no longer were speaking to the same audience. We'd built these personas, but no one was using them. All of the new people that onboarded had never even seen them before. And so, slowly but surely just over the course of a quarter, we started to build and sell to very different customer bases.

Stephanie Bowker:
And so, lucky I got an opportunity to review them on the back of some segmentation research. I redid the customer personas and implemented a couple of different changes this time. First, took the opportunity to brand them, to make them much more memorable, as we wanted to make sure that everyone could really remember them and leverage them as they're making decisions. Two, was actually add them as part of the onboarding. So, every single person who joined the company was ensured to know who the personas were. And then three is to put them everywhere, print them, put them on the walls, really make sure that every Gustie embodied them in every decision they made.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, in the combination of all of the best practices that I found that works really good is to make sure that everyone in the company knows and uses all of the great brand work that you do, is one, first to add a dedicated brand workshop. So, this is an opportunity for every new person to really be onboarded to, what is your pitch? What are your values? What is your mission so that everyone is working from that same basis and understanding. Two is once you do actually put the work into creating personas, is to give an extra brand love to them, so they're much more memorable. Three is to make the values not only written, visible, and then to actually use them for decision making.

Stephanie Bowker:
I know at Spendesk one way that we really use values. That's really important to us is for performance reviews. So, that way we're ensuring the people that we hire actually are fulfilling and living out the values that we hired them for. And then lastly, two is to challenge every employee to make a pitch. Personally, we have everyone create a video during onboarding, so it's a nice opportunity to put themselves to the test if they learned from the onboarding. And then lastly, is any time we build a brand initiative is to really get feedback across the whole company. Not only to ensure that we are more creative, but also to build enthusiasm so that when we do release something, it really feels like a company wide initiative. And they're much more enthusiastic to share.

Stephanie Bowker:
So principle number three, craft intentional internal communications. So, when it comes to brand, I know many of us referenced the external materials that we see, beautiful advertising, billboards, but I really want to emphasize that the work that you put internally is just as important as the work that you see externally. And so, really the core third principle is ensuring that every single internal communication, mass email, that words are taken just as importantly, and that the work and time that you put into making sure that everyone is on board internally really bleeds to how the brand is seen.

Stephanie Bowker:
And so, here's one good example. So, when I first joined Spendesk, one of my first projects was to create the positioning. So, what I did, we were pretty small at that time, is I sent out a survey to first kind of figure out what were people saying today, what did they think the values were, and also what was mission. And so, I was pretty shocked actually to see at that time that most people actually couldn't state what the mission statement was.

Stephanie Bowker:
And so, as a just quick win, what we did is we added the mission statement as the first slide for every single all hands. And so, now I'm happy to see that two years later, despite 4X-ing the number of people, almost 100% of people were able to clearly articulate the mission statement work toward. So, I think just putting these little practices in place where you remind people of what your mission statement is, is super important because then also people externally start to know them as well.

Stephanie Bowker:
To close out with some of my best practices when it comes to building intentional and effective internal communications, first, it's always to go with the motto of less is more. I know that it's tempting to want to share all the details, but just like I encourage the team when building external marketing to really lead with the why and go with more of the menu style option of information versus the full recipe, the same principle goes the same for internally as well. So, people walk away with a key takeaways, which goes hand in hand with repeat, repeat, repeat. As we know from research that it takes about seven times for people to really remember and make something stick, so you want to make sure to use a shared and repeatable vocabulary, messaging and brand principles so people make sure to build consistency in what share externally as well.

Stephanie Bowker:
And lastly, just like external, I think it's important to make things memorable and fun. So, any opportunity you have to add a little extra branding love to the name of a project or any other thing as well, I think it goes a long way and helping people remember it and be more likely to evangelize it.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, the last principle to building effective branding is let go to grow. So we've been told and learn that when you build a brand, consistency is key, and that does definitely ring true. And how have we done that? Well, historically boys created a team that's really centralized and really bottle-necked what was brand. So, that meant a lot of approvals, making sure that everything is reviewed by a specific team and it's really maintain the consistency. But I realized and started to see that it really capitalized our ability to scale.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, at Spendesk, ownership and decentralization is really the core foundations for how we built our product and ultimately your company. And I will admit that this was quite a scary concept when I thought about what that meant for the brand as I really worried that it meant that we were going to lose really control over the ability to make sure that we had a consistent and high quality experience.

Stephanie Bowker:
But actually, I've seen by putting in place very, very good brand development, onboarding people and consistently keeping people in the loop, I've been really happy to see that actually by letting go the keys and allowing everyone to be a brand ambassador, we've actually seemed 3 to 4X, the amount of reach in terms of our videos and campaigns. It's also allowed people beyond the leadership staff to be able to step up and be spokespeople for the company. For example, just last week alone, we had four people featured in podcasts where they're representing the brand.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, therefore, although we're extremely proud of all of our beautiful design work, ultimately this is not our brand. It's the investment and making sure that every single Spendesker lives true to the values, delivers a consistent, great experience for our customer, because ultimately this is our brand.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, to recap on what we covered today, four principles to make sure that you have a unified yet decentralized brand is, first, to always put in the work to build those core brand fundamentals. Once they're in place, to then onboard every single teammate onto those. Third is to then maintain that brand by really building intentional internal comms. And then ultimately, letting go and allowing everyone on the team to be a brand ambassador.

Stephanie Bowker:
So, thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed. Feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn or email if you want to nerd out on any things brand and product marketing. I'd love to.

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Gretchen Duhaime
Stephanie Bowker
Head of Marketing at Spendesk
Stephanie Bowker is the Head of Marketing at Spendesk, driving demand and awareness for the spend management platform that is transforming the way modern businesses spend.