Being Different

By Katherine Li

Relying on buzzwords is a risky strategy–but there are other ways to stand out

Think about your favorite pair of socks.

Do you have one? We wear socks quite often, but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the company that produces them. In fact, many of us only care about the price tag. What matters most is why you wear that pair of socks–for hiking, sports, everyday wear, cold weather? The ‘why’ dictates what features you care most about, whether it’s the thickness, breathability, or the pattern.

Now think about your phone. Why did you decide to buy an iPhone, Xiaomi, Huawei, or Samsung? Is the iPhone more powerful than the Galaxy? Would consumers pay more to feel special or exclusive? Let’s face it–we’re not as performance- or feature-oriented as we’d like to admit. 

At the end of the day, brands are about more than just building superior products or services. They’re about stories that make you feel a connection to the brand, and stories that make you feel a certain way about yourself. The key to owning consumers’ hearts and minds is the ability of these brands to communicate their stories in a way that resonates. 

Start from your audience’s perspective

I’ve worked with and spoken with a diverse array of companies across sectors, from healthcare and financial services, to education and machine learning. Across the board, successful companies understand that building a company brand is complex and requires empathy. 

Use a human-centered design approach where you first seek to understand a problem or question before defining the solution. Actively and openly solicit feedback from your intended audience to map out the ecosystem, problem, and potential solutions. Why? Because working backwards from a tech solution can lead to myopic or biased thinking, leading you into the trap of, “If we build it, users will come.” This problem can be particularly pronounced if you have limited experience in the field of interest (not that this should stop you.)

Come up with a few questions that you’re very curious about, and tap into your networks to see what arises. If you’re not curious, the entire exercise will feel like extra work rather than a learning experience. For example, you might ask: “Why are people excluded from the financial ecosystem? Why aren’t people saving more? Why aren’t more people using fintech products?” Ask people inside and outside of the field of financial products and services, as anyone can have an opinion on these topics. If you really want to disrupt an industry, hearing what outsiders have to say can lead to very interesting ideas.

Stick out from the rest: be different, be memorable

Cloud based, connected, smart, AI this and that, IoT, blockchain, analytics. 

With each coming year, new tech buzzwords rise up to dominate headlines. Their trajectory begins with real use cases that soon become irrelevant when every firm uses the same words to describe themselves. This may work on people who aren’t familiar with tech trends, but when speaking with people in the industry, using these buzzwords incorrectly can vastly undermine your position. In addition, buzzwords are simply not interesting enough to create a sustainable brand, because they shift over time, are overused, and don’t differentiate you from your competition.

Often, startups want to put these buzzwords up front and center, highlighting their tech. Their messaging might say something like, “We are a machine learning platform that…” However, most users care more about the use case: how is the machine learning algorithm making the user’s life more convenient? 

We can use empathy to make sure that the user’s needs are acknowledged. After all, a phone can be described as: “an instrument for reproducing sounds at a distance” (Merriam-Webster) or a device that allows you to talk to your loved ones at any time. One of these descriptions is likely to resonate more than the other. 

You also need to define yourself with regards to your competition. What is the one thing you do better than anyone else that also matters to the audience? If you are in digital health, perhaps it’s the convenience of connecting with a doctor over video and chat, rather than having to schedule a visit each time you have a question. Or, it could be providing excellent customer care for a fintech product. 

In any case, the product and story need to align and be highlighted in order for the audience to recognize and care about the brand. After all, effective branding is more than just a few words that you can share with the media and employees. It’s about capturing the way you work and why you do what you do, and being deliberate about it so that your company stands out from the crowd.

One useful tool for conveying your brand’s message is a positioning statement, which is a short statement that describes your product and why it’s important. While it sounds like a marketing asset, it’s actually used in practice as an internal resource to align branding strategy with the company’s mission or value proposition.

It helps to have several different positioning statements tailored to various target markets. An investor does not care about the same things as an individual user does, and conflating these two groups can cause confusion and friction, preventing the marketing campaign from hitting the mark. The simplest formula for a positioning statement is:

For [your target market] who [target market need], [your brand name] provides [main benefit that differentiates your offering from competitors] because [reason why target market should believe your differentiation statement.]

Hypothesize, experiment, learn, repeat 

Although most of us in the tech arena don’t have roots in science, the tried-and-tested scientific method can still be relevant. It’s a cycle of learning that can help you understand what resonates most with your audience. 

Start with an initial hypothesis as a talking point, and try a few iterations. Asking your friends, family, or even strangers to describe what you do may help you to discover new ways of communicating your brand promise. For example, Airbnb started out with, “Book rooms with locals, rather than hotels.” This was a relatively simple premise that had a clear brand promise. With Airbnb now a household name, their branding now reads, “Find adventures nearby or in faraway places and access unique homes, experiences, and places around the world.” 

This messaging undoubtedly took more than just one or two tries to perfect, but the continual communication of this premise along with user feedback and platform growth, have led to the current iteration.

As with anything long-term, it’s challenging to take care of the company in its current form while still searching for clarity on what it needs to become in the future. Any strategy needs to have an element of longevity, which is why relying on contemporary tech buzzwords is risky. While mobile-first design and app-based platforms were new many years ago, using either of these terms as a key differentiator today no longer works. This transition happens fast: data analytics was a big deal a couple of years ago, but now most tech firms now have algorithms or data analytics capabilities.

As a founder, you have a unique perspective that others deserve to hear and see. Your startup’s story matters, so go forth and tell the world what makes you different. 

About the Author

Katherine Li is the co-founder of Butterfly FX, which partners with organizations to design, create, and deploy financial platforms that serve the underserved, like on-boarding portals, social learning sites, and apps. She has worked with teams to build startups across the world, from San Francisco to Oxford and Kuala Lumpur. Her passion is using tech to address contemporary social challenges like improving financial inclusion for the next billion. She has an MBA from the University of Oxford and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley.


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