Sol Marketing’s Deb Gabor: Focus on the Why, Not the What, in Branding

Blockchain, FinTech, Innovation | May 19, 2017 By:

Deb Gabor is CEO of Sol Marketing, a brand strategy consultancy that has led engagements for organizations ranging from international household names like Dell, Microsoft, and NBC Universal, to digital winners like Allrecipes, Cheezburger, HomeAway and RetailMeNot, plus dozens of early-stage tech and digital media titans. More info can be found at www.solmarketing.com.

Block Tribune asked her about building a brand in the exploding world of blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  You are described as a brand strategist. Tell us what that means and what you do.

DEB GABOR:  As a brand strategist, I help companies answer the deep, existential questions facing their businesses – the ones that can be answered only by incorporating their customers’ points of view into the development of their strategies. I help companies uncover and articulate their core business DNA so they can tell powerful stories to their audiences through marketing, communications, and the delivery of their value propositions. Finally, we enable companies to open up new business territory in new markets, among new audiences, and new products and services.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Blockchain and cryptocurrency are relatively in their infancy. Each day, new companies emerge. What should they consider relative to their initial branding?

DEB GABOR:  Branding is more than a logo, color scheme, or advertising campaign. Branding is a strategic activity that focuses a company on who they are, why they exist, who they are for, what they ultimately do, and how all of those things benefit their customers. The process of branding galvanizes teams by identifying and aligning on the priority initiatives for the organization. But more importantly than directing what companies actually do, branding tells them what NOT to do. Having laser-focus and easy decision making on wasteful activities and marketing spend can make or break a company in the early stages. Branding isn’t just something companies should do in the beginning. I always say: for any company, branding is an activity that they should pursue early, often, and always. Branding is an always-on activity.

However, it’s essential for early stage companies in any industry to be thinking about their brand from their customers’ (or potential customers’) perspective. A brand is a relationship, an experience, that customers have with your product or service. Understanding and controlling how a company “shows up” and relates to its customers in the early days can propel them to success faster, again by providing a filter for competing priorities. The best brands in the world are those that become part of their users’ self-concepts. That means that they have to SAY something about the person who uses them. This is true in both consumer- and business-facing brands.

Additionally, those brands are truly singular and differentiated for meaningful reasons. Finally, every brand has to make its user the hero in the story of his or her own life. So, a shortcut for early stage blockchain and cryptocurrency companies is to start by answering these initial branding questions:

  • What does it say about a person that they use THIS product/service? This question speaks to the self-expressive benefits of the brand.
  • What is the singular thing a customer gets from using our brand that they can’t get ANYWHERE else? The answer to this question is the key to differentiating a brand. This is the hardest question to answer, because the answer can’t be technology, or a feature, or a proprietary underlying algorithm. This must be a unique benefit that a brand provides its customers. For companies struggling with differentiation, they should attempt to answer this question and then follow it up with: “is this really true? Can we actually claim this? Is it truly something we can own?” Until you can answer “yes” to those follow up questions, you’re not truly differentiated in a meaningful way.
  • How does our brand make the customer the hero in his or her own story? Answering this question gets to how a brand tells its story in the market. The true essence of branding comes down to how a brand makes customers live their best lives.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Are there any parallels between the early Internet companies and today’s blockchain/cryptocurrency businesses?

DEB GABOR:  I have barely scratched the surface of the blockchain/crypto companies with my own research, and I’ve only personally worked with only one company using blockchain so far. This exciting company stands to revolutionize the way democratic elections are held in less-developed nations by using blockchain technology for elections. I actually helped them develop a powerful pitch to potential investors. Their struggle to tell a good blockchain story is what I have seen in the tech/Internet industry since time immemorial (I have been working in technology for more than a quarter of a century, and boy, I’ve seen it all!)

Similar to what I experienced during the first and second coming of Internet companies (and, frankly, still see), blockchain/crypto companies are committing the same sins. Instead of talking about WHY they exist, how they impact customers’ lives, and how they make their customers the hero in their own stories, they are prioritizing talking about whiz-bang technology and bits and bytes: things that real live customers don’t particularly care about. Blockchain/crypto companies can accelerate adoption by bringing customers into the conversation early – focusing on the WHY rather than the WHAT.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Any “must to avoid” suggestions for new companies?

DEB GABOR:  “Brand or be branded” is one of my mottos. Companies in every industry and at every stage have a brand whether they like it or not because brands should be about customers and how they impact customers’ lives, not exclusively about the companies and what they actually do. Have you ever heard the term “perception is reality?” Well, that’s true, and that’s why the entire strategic practice of branding exists. There are two parts to a brand: the brand identity (what the COMPANY controls) and the brand image (what CUSTOMERS control, i.e. perception.) When companies don’t control the narrative around their own brand’s identity, they leave it in their customers’ hands. This is a very dangerous spot to be in, especially in the early stages of coming to market.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Blockchain’s selling point is trust. How do you convey such an abstract notion in a brand?

DEB GABOR:  This is one of my favorite “soapbox” issues. Many brands I work with want to market on the basis of trust. Trust is an abstract construct, and it’s not one you can directly communicate. Trust is a condition that is earned by setting expectations and CONSISTENTLY delivering on promises. And trust is not a differentiator, especially not in the blockchain space. Trust is a baseline requirement for the entire category and NOT a differentiator.

Companies in this space need to consider the notion of trust to be the ante to get into the blockchain game, NOT a point of singularity, because trust is something that can be imitated by every other company in the entire industry. Also, companies need to be sure they don’t fall into the trap of trying to make trust part of their core essence or marketing message. If a company believes that their brand is about its customers, first and foremost, then it can’t go to market with a message of “Trust Us.” Saying that seems disingenuous and in authentic, doesn’t it? (Think about Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook?” How believable is that?)

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  Many of these new blockchain and cryptocurrency companies need partners, and certainly the majority need financing. What role does branding play in attracting the right sort of affiliations?

DEB GABOR:  Branding isn’t just about making a company attractive to customers. Branding is essential in attracting partners and investors. Being able to tell a good story of why a blockchain/crypto company exists, the ideal customer they serve, the problem this customer has, a vision for what the world looks like when that problem is solved, and how, undeniably, this company is the one that’s going to deliver on that solution is essential for attracting and bonding with anyone in the company’s ecosystem.

BLOCK TRIBUNE:  How do you identify a branding problem?

DEB GABOR:  Oh wow, this could be an entire article on its own. However, the top ways to identify a branding problem are as follows:

  • No one can answer the three brand questions from earlier in this interview
  • Everyone at the company tells a different story of the company, and they’re never the same twice
  • The company can’t articulate who the most profitable customer would be for them
  • Conversations with outsiders about the company are mind-boggling and met with a lot of blank stares
  • The company can’t connect at all in the sales or fundraising process