What’s a tech CMO really buying when working with an agency?
Branding problems are business strategy problems.
And let’s get this out of the way: Branding is not a logo or messaging alone. It’s not a color or a typeface. Those are assets that become symbols for meaning.
It’s about putting the right meaning in the right places to reach the right people. And sending the right signals about the maturity of your product and the company behind it.
That experience drives leads, marketing outcomes, growth, value.
You can create branding assets without strategy. You can also fashion a parachute after you jump out of the airplane.
It’s easy to get caught up in assets and outputs. But that’s not where the real opportunities lie. Nor the real challenges. Nor some of the best unwritten reasons to work with an outside partner.
But before I write those reasons, let me tell you where I’m coming from. I spent 15 years working inside technology companies: At Gateway, IBM, and Red Hat through 11 years of rapid growth. And then eight years on the outside—working with a large number of B2B tech companies of all types and sizes, at every stage.
Our focus at New Kind is open source and SaaS companies. We serve them because we know them. We’ve partnered with a lot of them in our 10-year history as a company. While the technology is different for every company, many patterns are universal.
But here’s one pattern that is truly universal: Technology changes faster than people.
Changing your company name, changing your positioning, changing your messaging, changing your visual identity—these are high-stakes, high-emotion transformations.
Each with tremendous potential for company- or even industry-changing impact.
Many people will want and need to be involved. Many of those people will not agree.
Because people are people.
That’s when you need to call in some help. Expertise from the outside will help you reveal what’s best on the inside.
Even if you have a large in-house marketing team. Especially if you have a large in-house marketing team.
Here are 10 reasons why:
Does everyone in your organization agree on the brand strategy? And on the positioning of your products and the messages that are used to communicate their value?
How would the world change if they did?
A branding project that is properly led and facilitated gives key stakeholders the opportunity to come together, express their opinions, review the data, discuss, debate, determine the path forward.
We regularly come into environments where not everyone agrees. That’s not always a bad thing. You want a rich discussion. You want diverse perspectives. Dialog helps you discover.
If everyone generally agrees from the start, that’s great. Rare, but great. But if there is misalignment, a passive peace won’t produce breakthrough ideas. It’ll only leave you back at the beginning. So lead the debate. Stir the discussion. Take opposing viewpoints. Then find resolution and create action. A neutral facilitator can help.
That is where a branding project comes to life. Bringing people together, surfacing new ideas, unlocking the puzzle.
Then everyone can get behind the strategy and amplify the message.
The opportunity to amplify the message is happening every day. In every social post, every mass email, every conference presentation. Brand is sales. Brand is product. Brand is recruiting. Brand is experience.
Align first—so you can amplify and accelerate.
2. Strategic direction
We rarely deal with problems about expression alone. It’s not just about headlines or colors or logos or typefaces.
If the positioning is off and you don’t know who you’re speaking to and why and what you’re being compared against—it probably won’t matter what typeface is on the website.
Strategy problems with massive implications are often disguised as as branding problems.
So let’s back up:
- Have you connected the right product with the right customer? Tech CMOs and product managers are always looking for product-market fit. Have you found it?
- Have we taken into consideration every other alternative that customer may choose?
- Is the product positioned correctly against those alternatives?
- Are the customer’s expectations aligned with what you can deliver?
- Are we reaching that customer with the right signals and the right message?
And a key step back even further: Is the purpose of the company clear? Does it flow through the products you create, the customers you serve, the culture you inspire, story you tell? Fix that, and a lot of other elements fall into place.
Bottom line: The answers to the “how should we write?” and “how should this look?” questions are first found in the “who” and “why” questions.
And it’s where the real work of brand and marketing strategy happens. The result might be a new messaging architecture or visual brand identity—all the important decisions that signal maturity as a company—but the deep work comes before.
For that, it helps to have a guide with a map.
New Kind serves tech companies. And because tech companies produce complexity as fast as they write code, we will always have work to do.
Simplifying is tough when you’re too close to the subject. It’s easy to get caught up in your own web of interdependencies, internal politics, or organization structure.
We may hold Steve Jobs-level simplicity as a gold standard. Then we turn around and write three paragraphs of whitepaper-dense copy on our own homepages.
And we wonder why customers are confused, overwhelmed, or just plain lost.
You want to tell a simple story. Your customers want it, too. Promise. We talk to them all the time.
Simplification takes courage. Sometimes you need to borrow a bit of courage from those who are less emotionally attached and organizationally entangled. We’ll share some of ours.
4. Risk mitigation
We often talk to companies that say they’ve done messaging projects in the past, but the outcomes haven’t stuck. Or they needed to change a month after launch.
We hate seeing that. You can do a homegrown project three or four times—or you can do it once and know for sure.
One noteworthy high-level message we developed with a client has lasted about five years. And the company was acquired in that time. But it’s still the largest message on the product’s landing page. When the message works, it sticks.
That’s why we’ve honed this process over the past decade. We bring people along on the journey so they don’t throw rocks in your path later on.
We do our research. We survey internal stakeholders and customers. We’ll ask big questions. We synthesize responses. We’ll create the message based on that foundation.
We’ve also created an intensive 150+ metric Brand Diagnostic tool to assess, benchmark, and track the health of your brand. That way you know where you stand and what to do next. Done at regular intervals, the Diagnostic can also be a great way to check in on your progress as you evolve and scale.
But without the strategy, messaging is just copywriting and logo design is just art.
5. Making the tough call
Imagine all the choices we make in a given day. Most are small. Some are big. Some are small but bring big consequences.
A CMO’s stakes are raised when an entire company and its army of marketing and sales professionals need to act on your decision immediately.
Sales needs a brand that gets them in the door and a story to tell when they get there.
Going to market with a message has many moving parts. No one wants to make a wrong choice, especially when it’s the future of your business. And we know your reputation is on the line, too.
The challenge is that sometimes you’re too close. The contingencies weigh on you. You seize up in the complexity. Trapped in all the what-ifs of any given direction. Analysis paralysis all over the place.
This is where an outside partner gives you the 20,000 ft., emotionally detached view. One irrespective of internal politics. Representing an impartial voice of the customer. Surfacing the best ideas so you can choose the right one and go.
6. Confidence in your path
Maybe you’ve already made the call.
Having expert validation, or recalibration to keep things on track is what you need.
Getting the outside perspective helps you see blind spots that could stop you later.
7. Perspective in patterns
Let’s be clear: An outside partner will not have the depth of knowledge about a company and its products to match that of an employee who lives, eats, sleeps, breathes it every day.
I know because I was that employee. I spent 15 years on the inside of three tech companies. We expected agencies we hired to listen first. We also knew they could help us break out of our own echo chamber.
But while I spent years on the inside working with a few tech companies, we’ve worked with many, many times that on the outside. That’s just expertise and pattern matching that’s hard to find otherwise.
Often for a high-level strategic or brand project, it can be like as David C Baker writes in his book about The Business of Expertise: Positioning yourself can be like trying to read the label from inside the jar.
Getting an outside perspective broadens your view. You might find a new way to frame the conversation. Or a new model to guide your perspective. Or just a new way of thinking. That generates real insights.
8. An ally
It’s rare—really rare—to see a technology company where the brand and marketing voices outnumber the technology voices. Many tech companies prioritize engineering first, understandably. Especially early on.
A big part of the job of today’s CMO is metrics. Metrics are easy to understand. But when it comes to marketing messages and brand identity reputation—that’s more subjective.
So bringing us in is like bringing in reinforcements.
We have a fantastic, long-time client who often brings us into projects because we know we speak his language. And we know we can help amplify his perspective to an engineering-focused leadership team.
We work with technology companies every day. So we’re bilingual, fluent in both technology and brand. And when you need us, we’ve got your back.
“I’ve tried to get this project done a hundred times.” This is a phrase we’ve heard a hundred times.
Finding an external partner is a great way to overcome internal inertia.
One great open source principle that’s true for community projects and well as company projects: The initiatives that get the most energy are the ones with the most momentum. People vote with their feet.
It’s too hard to wrangle busy executives. It takes too long to create your own process. The team has their own projects to lead. But they also don’t want important projects to happen without them.
So the organization is stuck. Projects die in lonely conference rooms.
Energy creates energy.
It’s the classic power law at work. In any community organizing model, the work with the most energy gets the most attention. If you get attention, you get more energy.
When you launch an internal messaging or brand project, you can generate a tremendous amount of energy if you do it right. This is the first turn of a flywheel.
Once people see results, they’ll want in.
Here’s the reality, CMOs. When you ask internal team members for their opinion on the state of the brand or your message, they won’t always tell you the truth.
We all know why: They don’t want to be negative. They want to maintain good relationships and be team players. It’s safer for everyone’s career to stay in the comfort of complacency.
We fully understand that brands are personal. Nothing is more personal than a company name the founders created. Or the logo you’ve worn on your shirt for years. Or wearing on your body as a tattoo. Yes, tattoo.
I’m as proud as you can imagine that New Kind worked on the Ansible brand, but Adam Miller tattooed the brand on his body. That’s passion.
A brand doesn’t just represent your company, it represents you. Employees. Customers. Community members. Believers. But that’s why brand is worth investing in. And making better.
And when it’s time to make it better, usually everyone knows it. They just don’t want to tell you.
You pay us to ask hard questions. To give you advice based on the answers and our experience. To tell you the truth.
And we’ll tell you why so you can come to the same conclusions and decide for yourself.