Why brand is more valuable than ever in a data-rich SaaS world
Just about all new B2B software today is sold by subscription. We know why. The Software as a Service (SaaS) model makes it easy to sell software at a low up-front cost, continually update it, and understand how customers are using it.
It also means customers have more choice. You have to earn that customer every day and keep delivering value. It’s no longer one big buying decision, but an endless cycle. Stop serving that customer and they cancel.
I spent 11 years in branding at Red Hat. During that time, the company introduced a subscription model to sell its flagship Red Hat Enterprise Linux. One of the messages we continually reinforced was that the subscription put customers in charge. The stability of a predictable subscription was a perfect match to the transparency and rapid innovation of the open source model. A novel idea at the time, the subscription has now become the standard.
The SaaS model has given software vendors new tools, too.
Vendors now have an enormous amount of data to rely on. They can use it to growth-hack the hell out of a customer experience: Tweaking steps in the customer journey. Making offers. Moving buttons. Changing colors. Adjusting language.
But also remember this: An ongoing relationship is built on trust. SaaS is never finished. The promise of continual improvement is part of the deal. You’re not just buying today’s software, but also buying an expectation that, both for the software and the company that made it, this is only the beginning.
The human side of buying software
Imagine you have the task of finding new project management software for your team.
Your search begins. Google turns up three pages of possibilities. You work your way down the list. How are you judging them? Clearly for fit—the software needs to solve the problem. But it’s also much deeper than that.
We’re human. Whether we’re aware or would admit—when we first go to a company website, we’re looking for signals:
- Is this company the leader? Not just the best solution—but the best choice for you. In other words, the most defendable. Insert your company name of choice to this timeless classic, “Nobody ever got fired for buying ____.”
- When you share the vendor’s site link with your boss and other approvers, will they think it’s the leader, too? Because none of them will bother reading all the third-party reviews you did. Or ask the project management pros in your network like you did. No. They’re going to take one glance at the website between meetings and tell you what they think. Thumbs up or thumbs down like Joaquin Phoenix in “Gladiator.”
- And what about your team that has to use it? You’re also imagining what they’ll think about your choice: Will they like using it? If they don’t, how much will they hate you for it? Will they give you side-eye in the break room and talk about you in meetings when you’re not there?
- Does the software seem simple and easy to use? Because you really don’t want to spend the next two quarters in setup and training. Or answering five daily “Sorry one more question…” Slack messages from Bob. (Come on, Bob. You can do better.)
- And is there any chance that three months after fine-tuning every setting and moving all your data in, you’re going to have to move it right back out? Because by then the team will be sneaking your lunch out of the refrigerator and into the garbage.
We’re social animals motivated by our own survival. Software purchasers know they will be judged on their decision. Leading to the question: What will choosing this company—not just software, but brand—say about me? (Yes, this brand principle isn’t just for clothing and cars.)
Starting a free trial is easy. So is getting out your corporate credit card to start the first month. But the biggest investment companies make in the software they buy is in setup, migration, and training. Not to mention all the team and culture friction of introducing a new tool.
The buyer is putting their reputation on the line. So it’s not just whether the software solves a problem today. It’s a promise that the software, and the company behind it, will repay its faith in you.
And any time you talk about a promise, you talk about predicting the future. Which we aren’t always good at doing. A promise is about reputation. It’s about trust.
That’s where marketing and brand come in.
Why are Brands More Valuable Than Ever in a SaaS World?
1. Brands are reputations built on trust and confidence
Companies build trusted reputations by communicating consistently and doing the right things over and over. Marketing is about matching a product to a customer.
In the brilliant book “Subscribed,” Tien Tzou argues it’s no longer product that drives companies—but the customer. Customers are at the center of the relationship. And this is part of the disruptive shift that is transforming so many industries from an ownership economy to a subscription economy.
The technology always changes. Markets always change. Companies are people serving people. So companies that know the people they serve—and evolve around them—will have a clear advantage.
2. Brands are about knowing your customer, speaking to them, and inspiring them to act
Data can help reveal the unrecognized human emotions that underlie our decisions. But then you need the right message. One that is well positioned and clear to convince customers you’ll do what you say you’ll do and persuade them to take the next step. The questions customers ask:
- Does the company’s message match what I want? Does it connect to me in an emotional way first, then through logic? Does the company share my values??
- Does their homepage sound confident like a leader? Are there themes about helping the customer grow, solve problems, create impact? Or is it just about selling their stuff?
- Does it communicate in stories and not just facts? Does it use emotion and speak to human motivation? Does it talk to you like a trusted friend?
- Does it communicate with confident messages? Are words simple? Are sentences short and bold? Or is it overloaded with sentences full of endlessly long, comma-dense, gotta-say-everything-because-we-can’t-decide, credibility-killing content that over-explains and begs you to buy? Every time a tech company uses a 35-word sentence to tell you their software is simple, Hemingway turns in his grave.
- And does the visual brand and experience look like it came from a leader? Does the logo look like it came from one of those 10 dollar generic logo sites? And on their customer service page, does that guy in the photo (aka “Smiling Professional Man Wearing Headset #4526”) also work for about 15 other companies? (For reference: https://www.boredpanda.com/emilia-clarke-making-stock-photos/)
We may not all be graphic designers, but we’re all visual brand experts by intuition. You know what feels right in a hot second. A good visual brand sends all the right signals about the company:
- We’re legit and established
- We care about design and detail
- We have a consistent experience across all of our products and every department
- We design our software with the same simplicity, clarity, and intention
- We’re worth the money we’re asking you to spend
You know this. Would a Michelin star restaurant dress up the place like your average food court Taco Hut?
It’s human nature and evolution. Check out the bias called “costly signaling theory.” It’s why you feel weirdly assured that your real estate agent drives an expensive car, even though you know their wildly excessive commission is paying for it.
3. Brands are built from the inside out—and the best ones are made to last
Products are made to solve problems. But brands are made to serve people.
And brands should be built to last. Personality-layer elements do need to keep evolving, as all brands must do with time—but at its core, a brand should be built on first principles driven by purpose.
The more the visual and verbal brand is built from the inside out, and the more customers consistently experience it—the more familiar it will feel. Reputation reinforced. Trust won. Churn averted.
Now just do that every day.