Startup Branding 101: Ten Takeaways from Emily Heyward's "Obsessed"

Sales and Marketing, Strategy and Growth

I recently read the book "Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One," by Emily Heyward. The purpose of this book is to share insights into creating and maintaining a brand for your startup, and ultimately, how to make people obsessed with it.

"Obsessed" by Emily Heyward, book cover
Emily Heyward is the co-founder of Red Antler, a startup branding agency in New York. They have worked with brands including Hinge, Allbirds, Prose, and Casper. In 2020, she published the book "Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One."

After a quick Amazon purchase, I found myself turning pages and highlighting throughout the weekend. These are my key takeaways from each chapter.

1. Let's Start With the Basics: What Actually is a Brand?

Like me, the first thing that comes to mind when you think about brand may be logo. You might consider certain companies that have distinct features. Think: McDonald's yellow and red arch, Nike's Swoosh, Snapchat's ghost, and Apple's, well, apple.

Apple's iPhone with iconic apple shaped logo, Nike shoe with swoosh, McDonald's golden arches sign, Snapchat's pale ghost logo

But, a brand is so much more. A brand encapsulates intangible things as well: feelings, emotions, and memories, to name a few. It should be something that is both seen and felt throughout all aspects of the company.

Right off the bat, Heyward clarifies this important distinction between the "traditional" aspects of a brand and having a true brand identity.

"Leading brands are able to form deep emotional connections because they stand for something that people care about. When I talk about brand, what I'm actually talking about is what a business stands for, at its very core."

Now, let's get into some lessons Heyward shares on how this happens.

2. It's All About the Why

Heyward starts off with the proposition that success is no longer guaranteed by having the best product. You must dig deeper to truly understand the consumer need that your product is solving.

"But underneath these functional needs are core drivers, the universal things that people care about. All the best brands tap into these deeper human needs, beyond the functional, in one way or another."

This boils down to every human's intrinsic fear of death. This idea may seem extreme, but it's really about uncovering the why.

Lightbulb hanging from a wire in the woods

Human motivation often boils down to specific emotions. Some examples Heyward gives besides the fear of death include: fear of vulnerability, need for achievement, or desire for freedom.

Define what problem you are solving, then ask "Why does this matter?" until the answers run out. Understanding this greater purpose will help you tap into how your company provides value to the consumer.

3. Connect the Functional and the Emotional

Marketing has evolved over the years. This idea is even more apparent in recent times. Products aren't only about showing off how something functionally behaves. Although features are important for product success, consumers are looking to feel something, and to feel good about their experience using your product.

"There needs to be connective tissue between what a brand says it does, and how it makes people feel."
Electricity jumping between two metal plates

This is where the mission comes in. It's important to intertwine your mission into everything you do. This idea will help form the connective tissue Heyward talks about, encapsulating what your product functionally does and how it emotionally connects with the consumer.

4. Tap Into People's Sense of Self

To create impact with your brand, your product can forge a connection with people's sense of self. First, this means thinking about the values of the consumer. Then, this means moving away from a product-centered point of view into a consumer-focused space.

Woman stretching at sunrise by the shore

Example 1 (average): "Our product embodies x and y attributes, and by buying our product, you are stating that you care about these attributes."

Example 2 (amazing): "We understand you care about x, and we do too."

"By flipping the equation on its head, branding becomes less about establishing your own identity, and more about creating a shared identity with your customers."

Your company should be putting its best values first, but also making sure that the product lives up to it. To iterate on the first takeaway, the core brand should feel authentic in all areas of the company. This includes from the company's values all the way through its product or service.

5. Find Passion Through Community

People want to be a part of the brands that they love. A brand can create a connection with the customers through a shared set of values. A community can then form around this. People bond over an "insider" status of belonging, and they want to interact with these brands.

Think about walking in the airport. This is a place with a diverse set of people arriving from and departing to different places. Think about the camaraderie you feel when you see someone supporting the same football team you support or the same college you attended. There is a strong a sense of connection to other people in those communities. You may shout "Go Green" and receive "Go White" back if you attended Michigan State, or, if you attended Alabama, like me, "Roll Tide."

This experience should be reminiscent of the way you feel about a brand you are truly obsessed with.

"Brands build strong communities by ensuring that everyone who takes part in the brand feels like an insider."
Two people reaching across a gap to touch fingertips

An authentic sense of community will create loyalty in customers. This response will leave them wanting to engage with the brand on social media, and beyond.

6. Develop Your Focus

The sheer quantity of companies in every space have created multitudes of customer choice. Not only are there different brands to choose from, there are so many variations of products. This issue creates an element of friction to the buyer's journey. Plus, if you're an indecisive person like me, this easily adds a 15-minute delay during your Target run.

"There are thousands of ways to be entertained, millions of places to shop. But instead of this fragmentation leading to a different detergent brand for every zip code, successful brands have realized that reduction of choice is a benefit in itself."
Eagle

Develop your focus in a way that also makes it easy for the customer to decide to buy your product. This can benefit your brand in a big way.

7. Be Purposeful About Breaking the Rules

A brand should innovate to meet the customer's needs in redefined ways, but not just for the look of being "innovative." It is important to think about how you can ground your strategy in consumer truth and disrupt the space to create a new experience.

Heyward asks the following question:

"What can you stand for that no one else is owning, but that people actually care about?"

Man writing on a whiteboard
"A innovative business needs to be designed to meet [customers'] needs in new ways, and the brand needs to be built to drive lasting and meaningful connection."

Then, think about how you can continue to innovate in different ways! This will encourage growth in the future without getting lost in complacency.

8. Don't Be Afraid to Be Real

What this means: we are all human, and brands should feel that way as well. "Consistency is key" is a well-meaning phrase that certainly holds some merit, but can also hold your company back. Heyward encourages brands to embrace tension and uniqueness. This includes how they develop their brands so-called "personality."

"Brands that avoid tension in favor of consistency end up stuck in the land of predictability."
Sticky notes and a Sharpie marker

The following are examples of descriptive phrases with tension that Heyward mentions in Chapter 7: pioneering and lovable, luxury and inclusivity, earnestness and toughness, or rugged and goofy.

9. Use Your Passion of a Founder

A brand's founder(s) can play a big part in giving your brand a human element and driving passion in your community. Many successful founders are able to accelerate the growth of a brand and establish authenticity. Keep in mind what feels right for you.

"One of the key ways for brands to feel more human is...actual humans! Success is often driven by a founding team that forms an inherent part of the brand's story...Rather than inhabiting larger-than-life enigmatic personas, founders of many of today's beloved brands feel like people you could know."
Red heart in a tree

This takeaway relates to driving connection to your brand. It further reiterates each takeaway about how your brand can evoke feelings. It gives you a way to show passion for your purpose.

10. Continue to Give Your Brand Life

Your brand should continue to be a growing and evolving element of your company. It shouldn't be something you create and forget about. In the conclusion of her book, Heyward leaves us with the following parting statement.

"Brand is a living, breathing thing. It's the culture you continue to build among your internal team as you scale, it's all the ways you appear and behave, and it's how you evolve your story and offering as the world changes around you."
Plant growing upwards

This is a crucial sentiment to keep in mind during your branding journey! Whether you already have a living and breathing brand, or whether you are still starting out.

If you are looking to bring elements of your brand to life through software development, make sure to check out our platform at Aloa!

The views expressed in this post are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Aloa or AloaLabs, LLC.

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