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Mike Troiano, CMO of Actifio, pointed to an article today about a company called Slack that just got another round of funding, this time for $160M.  Slack is an office instant messenger, Drop Box sharing, productivity app. I’m sure there is more to it, but it does sound familiar. Anyway, Slack will take this money, bank it, then go out and buy a number of Aeron chairs, a distressed oak conference table, and 6 interactive flat screen video panels. Also lots of servers and next year’s head ware. (Last year was the fedora, this year the knit cap.) What they won’t put on their shopping list is a brand strategy.

They already have nice videos and graphics. A good logo and copy, but the most fundamental strategic document they can own, won’t even be on their radar: a brand strategy. Business plan – check. Mission statement –check. Founder’s vision – check. Cultural manifesto – check. But unless one of the founders has a brand planner as a friend, there will be no check next to brand strategy. Their VCs should know better but they don’t.

This is not meant to pick on Slack. I worked at a start-up (Zude.com) that Robert Scoble and TechCrunch loved. We failed and had a brand plan. This is not me as a furniture salesman saying every company needs new furniture. This is me as a house builder saying every house needs a design and a plan.

Good luck Slack. Get yourself a brand strategy, approve it, and stick to it. (BTW, it’s not a marketing plan.) Peace.

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When doing a brand brief I often look at two primary target types: movements and independents. Movement targets are communities of people driven by a desire for an outcome. When doing a brief for an obesity product this was a movement target; see how it extends beyond the patient to the family.

Ill Fitting – The morbidly obese understand morbid obesity is a diagnosis not an adjective. We call them Ill Fitting because they are both ill and view themselves as not fitting in with the normal population. They look different and are treated differently. (Other than home, the only place with chairs built for them is the bariatric physician’s office.) The Ill Fitting are loved, liked and often conduct their lives in typical ways, but know they suffer discrimination. Just as is the case with those who are discriminated against for race, religion, and sexual preference, the Ill Fitting have their hypersensitivities. The Ill Fitting are quietly defensive about their condition but willing to accept help so long as it is nonjudgmental. Much of their learning about the diagnosis takes place online. The ability of the Ill-Fitting to actively participate in their wellness is welcome but extremely difficult.

The non-obese population, caregivers and loved one of the Ill Fitting are also Ill Fitting when it comes to the condition. It is a topic they find hard to broach.

The other type of target, the independent, appeals to the individuality in people. The opposite of community really. Sometimes people don’t want to follow the crowd. They want to be the trail blazer. It’s a natural phenomenon but for marketers a little more daring. When writing the brief for Zude, the web’s first drag and drop web publishing tool, I used a target called Webertarians – web libertarians — a construct that identified people tired of being governed by closed, proprietary software tools.

Both approaches are viable. Pick one, don’t waver.


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I’m not a big template fan. They stifle natural creativity. A while back as director of marketing at Zude.com, a drag-and-drop web page building tool, I lobbied hard for no templates. The CTO and CEO understood where I was coming from but felt the masses when confronted with a blank white page would seize up. Better to give them some starter designs to build personal web pages. (So they could look like everybody else.) We were competing with Facebook when it had 18M users.

Facebook and MySpace were both template based products – database fed. Zude was more freehand. But expressive. The people who took the time to build their own pages (no HTML code was needed) created pages that looked beautiful – way more so than Face and My. There were also a lot of homely pages, mine included. But on my pages you could feel me. On my Facebook page – not so much.

In our jobs and lives we need to rely less on templates so we can experience new – experience more. Taking the annual marketing budget and shuffling the numbers is using a template. Revising the website using last year’s wire frame is templating. Sending out an email blast to a well-worn list? Templating. We all template but we need to do less of it. You smiling up there Mr. Jobs?


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Back in 2006 while I was writing the brand strategy for Zude.com, there was an 18 million user upstart cutting its teeth called Facebook. You had to be a college kid to have an account back then. Ish. They brilliantly referred to the property as a “social network.”

Zude on the other hand was not a social network. It was a webpage building tool. Our CTO might have called it an “authoring tool” to make is sound more technical. The genius of Zude was in its ability to let uses drag and drop images, text, video and other web objects onto a blank white page and create a web page. No HTML coding required. If you could type and drag and drop, I used to say, you could create your own website.

The biggest problem with Zude was our company’s Facebook envy.  The CTO wanted to be a social network; it was the haps.  It was about friending, and community and growth. So we lost our positioning way and started to build in clunky Facebook-like functionality.  The brand strategy “Zude takes web development to the people,” which was built from the product’s greatest strength, was cast aside due to MySpace and Facebook envy. And we were afloat amidst the tides, currents and winds of a different business model.  

I’m a big boy.  I can change strategy when directed.  But just because you call a goat a horse, doesn’t make it ride-able.  Lessons from the crypt. Peace.

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The Altimeter Group just rebranded according to Charlene Li, CEO. I’ve never met Ms. Li, but did do an analysts briefing with her (while she was in China) during my Zude start-up days. Influential doesn’t even begin to describe Ms. Li’s role in the technology business. She’s the Ester Dyson of the new millennium. That said, Ms. Li has fallen into the trap many have when referring to branding, or in this case, rebranding. Brands are not style and make-up. Not logo design and color. Brands are organizing principles anchored to an idea. A customer facing idea.

The Altimeter Group has altered its logo, PPT, newsletter format and, soon, will redesign its web site — but I’m not feeling a brand idea or brand strategy.  Disruption, social leadership and change are three words to describe the sandbox Altimeter plays in. And as for the Is of the Is-Does, they are definitely analysts. But I’m not seeing a strategy.

Ms. Li and team have been leaders in sharing information on social business strategies. And it is thought provoking, smart, transformative work. However, treating branding with color and design and not a strategy component is like saying social business redesign can take place by adding some Twitter, content managers, Yammer and a video production studio.

Hey Altimeter, What’s the Idea?  


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One of my mantras is “provide every company employee with an understanding of the brand strategy.” A brand strategy being the organizing principle that drives value. Bank account value. Which is fed by perceived consumer value. When employees know the brand strategy, the good ones pursue it, use it and think about it — even on weekends.

At Zude, a start-up I was a part of in the web space, the brand strategy was “the fastest, easier way to build and manage a website.”  The CFO of Zude Jeff Finkle used to say that every employee walking to their car at night should ask his or herself “What did I do today to make Zude a faster, easier way to build and manage a website?”

When Larry Page took over from Eric Schmidt as CEO of Google, he declared this as a company mission: “To get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and seed of a start-up.”  Not a brand strategy.  It’s an operating or operations strategy. Certainly it’s laudable and good business. Certainly employees can ask themselves as they leave the building if they passed the litmus. But it’s inward focused and brand strat needs to be outward focused.  Beware the difference. Peace.

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Read a post today by Andrew Chen on mobile app start-ups which likened their success rate to those of 1999 – bubble time. I participated in a web start-up in 2006-2008, called Zude, when Facebook had only 18 million users.  Zude had $10 million in funding (2 rounds) and shut down in less than 2 years.  I was thinking over the weekend, before I read Mr. Chen’s post, how if we had stayed the course with Zude and stretched that money out, we would have succeeded. We would have learned like school kids what was working and what was not. We would have course-corrected, not given up because we faced an unsustainable burn rate. We chose not to learn, it seemed.

The technology was good. The vision was good, albeit a little bifurcated.  The drunkin’ sailor spending approach, however, was crazy. At one point we had two CFOs.  Even the marketing dude (me) could have looked at the ledger sheet and known changes were needed.

In his post Mr. Chen suggests “don’t burn half of your funding to get to v1.” I agree. Perhaps this is the foundation of the agile approach – never read the books.  My take?  Learning works best over time. If you stick around long enough – stay alive long enough – you have a good shot. Start-ups that quickly discard and move onto the next thing aren’t always giving themselves the best chance for success. Just sayin’.  Peace. 

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In marketing there are 3 schools of thought.

There are those who believe the easier you make products to use – the more intuitive they are – the more pervasive they will be.  Out-of-box experience, plug-and-play are terms used by this school. My strategy for Zude operated here: “The fastest, easiest way to build and manage a website.”

Then there is the school that knows people will need to be trained in order to get proper functionality out of products. Long instruction guides, tutorials, and actual training personal are part of this equation. When the level of complication is too great, training comes into play. Know how to tune a carburetor? Have you figured out Excel on your own? Do your teachers know how to manipulate the interactive white board?  Training is a growing category in the commerce world.

Lastly, there is the group that thrives on complexity and for which outsourcing is the model. Medicine is one. Taxes another. Law and reading a financial prospectus also come to mind. When it comes to things like taxes, complication is a cottage industry. Complication is a self-fulfilling industry.

Microsoft plays across all three of these areas.  It creates products a lay person can use.  It also builds into those products with levels of complexity that require mad training. But the over-engineered portion of those products, the 85 features no one uses in Microsoft Word, feed the needs of techies who love training and being trained.  Lastly, Microsoft has an ecosystem that is so complicated it requires outsourcing (Can you say IT department? Can you say systems integrators? Can you say cloud?)   I wonder if this across-the-board approach, which clearly has been lucrative, is what makes Microsoft such a huge, yet often vilified brand.

Anyway, the approach your company takes is a very important, upfront decision and impacts the brand experience. Pick one. Peace!

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There’s a new class of company out there which uses ecommerce to provide higher value products at lower prices.  The entrepreneurs behind this phenomenon believe by producing products in China and distributing them directly via the web, they remove the middle man/middle men from the equation, thereby charging less and making greater margin.  The problem is, they are also responsible for developing their own brands. (Another middleman cost.) And as we’ve seen with tech companies, where the brand building is often left to the chief technology officer or VC partner, it’s done poorly. For every Facebook, there are sixty Zudes.

Another problem with this DTC (direct to consumer) start-up brand approach is that they ascribe part of brand value to cost – one of the key benefits of the new model. We get it.  A no middle man, ecomm product ordered from the web is cheaper (plus delivery). But price, as a brand cornerstone is not a great long-term play. It’s a promotional play. And while this landscape is developing they are parity plays.

The web has changed retail forever. And its brilliant. Eight years ago I blogged about how a good business to be in would be the secure oversized mail box business.  Members of this new class of ecomm businesses needs to spend a couple two tree dollars on their brand plan.  Even before the go to China. Peace!

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“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. He looks black” was a quote by George Zimmerman, taker of Trayvon Markin’s life last March 22. NBCUniversal is being sued for playing this snippet because it was edited together and aired without the dispatcher’s question “O.K. and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic?”

Words are important, but context more so. Taking the dispatcher’s question out of the mix created a whole new context for Mr. Zimmerman’s quote.

Context is rarely the enemy of the brand planner.  For those who work on brands with limited budgets, context (an idea pregnant with meaning) is your friend. Contextual turns of a phrase, e.g., “We know where you live” for Newsday, orwebertarian” for Zude.com (combing libertarian and web), use things already in people’s brains to convey information. Webertarian was the Zude target. Though webertarain was pregnant with meaning the product name Zude had little. It rhymed with dude and was similar to Zune but that’s it.  Without millions of dollars to promote it, the name was a poor choice. 

I have a hard time remembering people’s names.  How many Brian’s can you meet in a lifetime?  The American Indians had it right: Crooked Nose, Crazy Horse, Runs Like Deer…these names are memorable, narrative and contextual.

In brand planning you can build it or you can borrow it. Building is better when you are well-funded. Borrowing is faster but can be less differentiated. For my brand ideas, I use context as an appetizer and push for the new big idea as main course. Peace!

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