Modern Brand Builders: The Importance of Having a Distinct Voice (from Dick Costello, pre-Twitter)

This is an absolutely essential post for anyone trying to build a brand today. It's from Dick Costello, before he become the head of Twitter. It's not surprising that it comes from 2007 when social media was really taking off and brands and companies were trying to humanize themselves for the first time, but it's still as relevant today as then. People you are trying to connect with have plenty of choices, plenty of alternatives to choose from. The kind of experience you deliver really can make the difference. And, having a clear, unique, distinctive voice is key to that. 

It is a competitive advantage for you to have a unique voice in your market. Companies with unique personalities give themselves a leg up because people want to embrace other people, and we all dislike antiseptic and bland corporate communications.

I should also point out that when I say it’s important to have a unique voice, I don’t mean that you have to make sure people think your company is fun and cool. Your company voice can be serious or esoteric and still your customers will appreciate you for having a unique voice.

Note that you don't need to be "young", "modern", or "tech savvy". you just have to avoid coming off like a distant,  glossy behemoth. 

Bonus: I love that he namechecks Moosejaw (@MoosejawMadness) , one of the brands i cite the most frequently as doing a great job breaking through via a clear, distinct voice (in this case: Funny, sarcastic, energetic).

Huckberry is Refinery29 for Dudes & The Future of E-Commerce

If you're interested in seeing what the future of E-Commerce looks like, you can check out Huckberry for a pretty great example. It's Refinery29 for dudes. And, i love it.

They are playing well at the intersection of a couple key trends: 

  • Unique, new brands – If you look at the kinds of brands they are featuring, the brands are almost exclusively "new" to most of us. Many of the brands – like American Giant – seem to be riding the wave of "Made in America". Whether imported brands, or start up brands, Huckberry is merchandising their site with interesting options that are hide to find elsewhere, and especially in one place
  • Great Stories – People want to love their stuff they buy, and often the stories about the products are what seals the deal. It could be the founder's story, it could be product's long history, or it could be about the values that shape the culture of the company. When the products come along with a story, they're going to be more valuable. Just ask J. Peterman.
  • Membership-based pricing – Like Gilt Group, RueLaLa and The Clymb, Huckberry asks you to become a "member" before you can browse and buy. It's a marketing ploy, but it does set the right expectations for your experience. 

What's especially great about Huckberry, though, is how fully formed their brand is. And, it's delivered exceptionally well through their overall digital experience, but mainly through the voice that comes out in the copy. Primarily in the emails, but across the whole site, you definitely get a sense of the personality of the organization. And, it's a key part of the differentiation from other platforms. It's so fully formed and richly expressed, you actually care. Care enough to open the next email to see what they are presenting. Care enough to look for it in your inbox folders (when Google moves it to the promotions tab).

I think the sort of experience delivered by Huckberry is the future of a certain segment of commerce. Call it "content commerce" or "story sales"  or something different, but ultimately it comes down to buying stories vs. buying simple products. Or, it's story and eperience as the differentiator over price. In the end, Huckberry is doing something useful for me: Help me discover interesting brands and products i wouldn't have otherwise found, tell me their interesting stories so i know why i should care, and do it in an interesting and entertaining way.  


Evan Williams: Web People vs .dot com people

Worth thinking about this take on the folks in Silicon Valley (and, for that matter, New York)  a couple times (from this longer interview about what Medium is trying to do). Especially, these days. 

Williams has a fascinating way of grouping business types in Silicon Valley between those who successfully managed companies through the dot-com bust (“Web People”) and those who packed up their empty bags and left (“Dot-com People”).

He explains that Web People “loved the web. We loved what was possible and we loved the creativity and we were in it to create; we weren’t in it to make money.”

So, when the bubble burst, Web People stayed — some ultimately making the (very) profitable products we all use today. “The Web People are more sustainable because they kept going. Because they’re driven to create, they’re attracted to the web because of its creative potential. They weren’t scared away when it seemed like it wasn’t an instant path to riches.” he explains, “They were persistent.”

I think most of the people that i see at more traditional ad agencies are .dot com people. They are still trying to figure out how to cash in vs. how to create something new and amazing. 


Ozy Starts / What Can Modern Marketers Learn?

I'm always excited when new publishing titles start, because it's a chance to see the vision and values and beliefs of the founding editors come to life in, almost, realtime.  And, over the last couple years, we've seen a couple really interesting examples.  XOJane, Quartz, or the Kernel, or even the ever-evolving are in different phases of their evolution, but their editorial "point of view" has been clear from the beginning. 

Modern Marketers, as they continue to evolve from a "mass marketing" mindset to a "audience building" mindset,  can learn a lot from successful publishing brands who have built great audiences over time. And, in this case, new publishing brands who are trying to connect with an audience for the first time. The first couple statements from a new publishing venture – their first articles, their first "letter from the Editor", their manifesto - form the foundation of their brand. And, it's a great chance to see how well the editor/publishing team know just who they are as a brand and where they want to go. 

Ozy Media is launching this week, and it will be interesting to see how their "voice"  evolves. Here's the vision, from Carlos Watson

At OZY, our goal is to bring you news and information in a completely different way. Instead of just giving you the same 25 stories everyone else has, we’re going to give you what you really want – the new and the next. Every day, OZY will deliver stories on new people, places, trends, ideas and opinions. And when we say “new,” we’re not just talking about what’s trending now. We’re not focused on three hours or three days ahead; we want to tell you about things months before you hear it elsewhere. 

We want to show you more of this bright, interesting, colorful world we share. And if we do that, then in the end you’ll not only see more, you’ll be more.

And, here's what i think is their version of the manifesto: 

We are the go-to daily news and culture site for the Change Generation, bringing you up to speed on what happened in the last 24 hours and vaulting you ahead by previewing new people, places, ideas and trends in bite-sized original articles that are intelligent, compelling and stylish. OZY is the place where you get a little smarter, a little sooner. Our mission is to help you see more, be more and do more

That's pretty nice. But, it would be great for them to start all this with a more clearly articulated foundation: 

  • Beliefs – What they believe in, and how those beliefs will guide their editorial coverage
  • Values – The basic human values that will guide their decision, and motivate their actions
  • A clear Purpose – A single, clear statement that lays out why the platform exists.

And, in this particular case, i think Ozy is onto something kind of important: the idea of the Change Generation. It would have been awesome for them to take a shot at articulating who the change generation is, why we should think as a "generation" vs. a cohort (and why that matters), and what the change generation really needs.

At this point, i wonder if they were focused on getting the platform up and running, and getting the first articles out the door instead of fully, clearly, convincingly defining their vision, their point of view, their reason for being. With so many alternatives, a new platform needs to convince the audience they are different, they are worth paying attention to, and worth watching or reading.

Modern Marketers are often in similiar situations, trying to convince people to pay attention and care about them. They're rushing to get their social media touchpoints established, their communities started. But, they often skip past the foundation that attracts an audience: Shared values, common beliefs, and a purpose that humans want to be part of. 

At this point, Ozy is interesting because it's new, but i wonder if, over the long haul, they'll be valuable because they've got a voice that matters in the conversation. Brands should be considering the same challenges.  

Starting a Reading List for the Modern Marketer / Need input?

Starting a reading list of stuff for a couple soon-to-be Modern Marketers who are joining my team. Add your suggestions in the comments or tweet them at me (@jcuene).  This will (hopefully) be updated soon)


Presentations online: 


(updated 9/11/2013)