How do you build a brand aimed at people who care little for the bells and whistles of traditional marketing?
It’s simple, believes Liam Boogar: you must always, always, be authentic. After building Rude Baguette, a media organisation covering the French start-up scene, Liam took on a challenge that would have many marketers wondering where to start: he joined search-as-a-service start-up Algolia as their Director of Brand. More recently, he has taken on a similar challenge as Head of Brand Strategy for MadKudu, a startup focused on enabling marketing and sales teams to create relevant conversations at scale in the form of a decision API.
Developers as a group are a particular challenge. As Liam says, you can’t sell to them how you might to a marketing, sales or to product team.
“The reason I really like doing branding for developers is they don’t care. They don’t care about magical superlatives and they don’t care about selling points. They barely care about pricing.
“And so, you have this really interesting persona, one that highly values authenticity and is more interested in the value you are creating than what you are charging for it.”
Branding is, arguably, one of the hardest parts of marketing to get right for developer audiences. There’s an uncanny valley effect that quickly exposes inauthentic brands or those that have been developed by people without a strong understanding of developer mindsets.
So, how do you build a brand that connects with developers and puts authenticity first?
As Algolia’s brand director, Liam was faced with that very question. His experience has shown that the most useful thing to do is go right back to the basics and ask: what is a brand?
“A brand is an emotional relationship that you build between a human and a thing that is not a human,” he says. You build that connection by first understanding the fundamentals: what your product does, why it’s different and what you’re aspiring to.
“Trello’s vision was organising anything, any time,” says Liam. “The best planning software for whatever you’re working on. That goes beyond a question of, ‘Here are our features and this our price’ to being an emotional aspiration.”
Building such an emotional relationship allows your brand to act as a touchstone for everything you do. “I put the brand at the centre,” says Liam, “and wrap everything else around the brand. If you do it right, then everything you do is evidence of your brand”.
Liam cites Apple and Harley-Davidson as examples of companies for whom a particular emotion is at the heart of their brands. In those cases, that emotion is rebellion.
This rebel archetype has allowed Apple to jump ecosystems, sectors and industries and enabled Harley-Davidson to be forever associated with personal freedom. All of their products, events and extensions are imbued with the brand.
Such consistency is important, says Liam, because it’s that consistency that enables a brand to be authentic. If your brand values are reflected not just in your communications but also in how your people interact with each other, in the product design trade-offs you make and in the difference you make in the world, then everything you do becomes an authentic expression of that brand.
So, where do you start in developing a brand? First up, it helps to use a framework to put your company into a broader context.
One such framework is a brand strategy canvas. It’s a one-pager that encourages businesses to look at their customers, the environment, their product features and the rational benefits of their product. It also goes back to that question of emotion –– the aspects of a brand that resonate on a deeper level –– brand personality, company values, story and, of course, authenticity.
At Algolia, that authenticity came from a dedication to providing useful content. And even that was a true expression of the team at Algolia. Their first blog posts were written by the engineering team describing what they were working on.
“When we looked at the brand we were trying to build and when we looked at what was authentic,” says Liam, “the most authentic and pragmatic voice was going to come from the engineering team”.
For his first year at Algolia, Liam dedicated much of his time to creating a content strategy. “We had a goal to get as many members of the company producing content as possible.”
The question remained of what content would be most useful in helping promote Algolia. That came down to one thing: educating developers.
“We had a few really basic notions and hypotheses. One was that we believed that if we made engineers smarter, that smart engineers would choose Algolia. That is a really basic construct. We believed that a very well informed engineer would ultimately choose to use us to build search. So, anything we did to try to make them better engineers was good for us. And, ultimately, we built a brand around that.”
That same commitment to providing value translated to Algolia’s events strategy, too. “We made sure that every one of our offices could be a meet-up space. And we didn’t ask to necessarily say much. We didn’t try to recruit. We just said, ‘Hey. We’re Algolia. This is what we do. Enjoy the pizza. Enjoy the orange juice and have a good time.’ And that was all about making engineers better engineers.”
That’s not to say that the developers attending those meet-ups were naive as to why Algolia would provide their space and catering, but the focus was on providing value rather than selling Algolia.
“Developers are among the most open-minded personae across the entire B2B space,” he says. “They are willing to learn something they don’t know. They expect to learn not from a university or a textbook or a business book, but from a blog post, from a person who is currently doing it.
“And you don’t have to worry about authenticity because you are creating something they want. You’re not selling them something they don’t need… I think that is the reason that I really like building brands for developers.”
When it comes to measuring brand growth, Algolia used awareness surveys at regular intervals to track trends, as well as click-throughs, blog visits, conversions and meet up numbers.
Brand impact is a difficult thing to measure, Liam admits. As brands are necessarily subjective, it can be hard to tell if the brand you set out to create is the one experienced by your intended audience.
While anecdotes are not data, they can help track a brand’s impact.
“We saw on Hacker News comment threads that someone would say, ‘ElasticSearch is the best.’ And someone else would say, ‘No, Algolia is amazing and if you read their blog…’
“And you’re like, ‘Oh, okay. Clearly it is having an impact.’ Even if that is only a singular example, it is being said as opposed to not being said.”
Tamao Nakahara and Baruch Sadogursky demonstrate some mistakes to avoid when engaging with developers in this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019.
Amanda Moran from DataStax talks through the good and bad of transitioning from engineering to dev rel in this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019.
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