I have spoken to many tech founders recently and have noticed a trend worth talking about for a moment.
The discussion generally happens as a tech company is stampeding towards the launch of its first product. And unlike the olden days, these are not hard goods that go in boxes but apps, Cloud-driven products and websites.
We get introduced as a branding firm that can help them go to market, launch their brand and their product, and get positioned correctly against the competition. It’s the kind of work that we live for, to unleash a new company on the world.
When we sit down and talk to them, often they mention how fast they are running, and they will get to the branding after the launch – which means that more often than not, the conversation around brand never happens at all. It sounds hard, it sounds slow, and it’s hard to make it a priority. Heck, half the fun of starting a company around a virtual product is the lack of many of the normal hassles.
I mean, let’s be honest, starting a virtual business has some fabulous things working for it. You don’t have to worry about overseas manufacturers messing something up. You don’t have to grit your teeth as your product takes weeks to bob across the Pacific Ocean on some freighter. You don’t have to worry about inventory, channel management or returns. And when you want to update your product you just, well, update your product.
But with this flexibility and lack of friction comes a new problem. The lack of friction also applies to the next company that appears to compete with you. And the dozen after that. The old joke is that you can always tell the pioneers in Silicon Valley by the arrows in their backs. And those virtual arrows seem to pile up a lot faster these days.
So in a way, folks like Tesla have it easier. Yes, massive amounts of capital and equipment are called for. And the aforementioned inventory once again rears its ugly head. But it also creates a massive barrier of entry to the next folks who come along and decide to challenge you in the marketplace.
Without a massive barrier to entry for your competitors, the question then becomes, “What are the tools at your disposal to fight off the competition?” Obviously for tech companies, innovation is No. 1, as the best way to keep someone from shooting you dead is to keep moving the target on them. I once asked an Intel executive what the secret to their success was. His answer was, “Intel eats its young.” In other words, if someone is going to build a faster version of your chip, it might as well be you.
The second line of defense is your brand. Yes, I know we are biased in saying this, but remember that the godfather of business consulting, Peter Drucker, said that “the business enterprise has two – and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.”
And what is at the core of your marketing? Your brand, which represents why you exist in the world, and what your relationship is with your audience. Done correctly, your brand becomes the single biggest wall of defense you build around your company.
Here is another way to look at it: Every year Forbes ranks the top brands in the world. The top three in technology are Apple, Google and Microsoft.
By the way, the top three companies in tech by market value?
Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Here’s the funny part of this. Neither of those three companies were the first in their industry. Companies you probably don’t even remember, such as DEC and Commodore International preceded Apple. Alta Vista, Excite and Lycos all got to market before Google. And there were many software companies that launched before Microsoft. Even though I may have had products from Spinnaker Software (free Theory Associates T-shirt for the first person who remembers them), my day-to-day relationship was with Microsoft … yes, even when I was irritated with them.
In reality, in a world where anyone with a living room and a caffeined-up team of programmers can challenge your product, the one thing they can’t copy is your brand. And a tight brand does not just create and enhance your relationship with your customer, it also powers your ability to define the market in your own image, making it that much harder for interlopers to get in on the action.
To take it even further than Peter Drucker, brand isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a have-to-have. The longer it takes to cement that conversation with your audience, the shorter it will take for someone else to get it instead. And once that happens, you will be the one battling their brand from that point forward.
And if that happens, the only advice I can give is … get more arrows.
Christopher Caen is a partner and chief brand strategist of Theory Associates, a strategic branding agency that creates demand for some of the world’s leading technology brands. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.