Interview with Rosie Halfhead on the importance of the brand for ISVs and IT start-ups.
With thirty years of corporate experience at the highest level – notably for the global financial services provider SWIFT – Rosie Halfhead has more recently put her considerable talents towards consulting start-ups, SMEs and non-profit organisations, in particular on branding and strategy, marketing and sales, as well as stakeholder engagement and loyalty.
She is the founder and owner of R-Co, a niche consultancy based in Belgium, and regularly works with the Microsoft DX EMEA team to offer practical insights and guidance to start-ups, scale-ups and ISVs on building a high-impact brand. http://boost.microsoft.be/what-do-you-stand-for/
Rosie has broad international and multicultural experience in the B2B sector and believes in the need to balance strategic clarity and business purpose with creative, collaborative and cost-effective implementation. She is a passionate advocate for stakeholder-driven thinking in order to build and strengthen brand and reputation, client satisfaction, stakeholder engagement and overall business success.
How well is the importance of brand understood by start-ups and ISVs, in your experience, does it come to them naturally or is it a bit far away from their thinking?
I suspect it is further away from them than it should be. That’s partly because they obviously tend to be very much focussed on the world of their technology and their solution. Therefore, they often don’t think about brand in a more holistic way but only in terms of the logo and some colours perhaps an advertising slogan. But it’s a lot more than that, and that is what I am trying to get across in my sessions. It needs to be looked at across the entire business, including the products, the services and the people.
So they need to develop an awareness of what brand entails…
Yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily single out start-ups and ISVs, it’s a challenge for businesses in general. Even big, established ones might say, “brand, that is something for the marketing department” as opposed to how it should connect in also to the recruitment process of individual employees, for example: from the moment you’re recruiting somebody, from how they experience that to how they then experience working for the company and on a product or services, and how the customer, in turn, experiences this: all this needs to be linked together.
But how can they achieve that?
I believe that the very top has to take the lead here. Founders, CEOs and executives need to understand the implications of the brand. They might then delegate certain aspects to the marketing department or whomever, but they need to be in the lead. Particularly with small start-ups where the owner or the founder is going to be intrinsic to the way that the brand evolves: famous examples being Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Sergey Brin and Google, Elon Musk and Tesla. When a company is still creating its name, the personality of the individual or individuals who are presenting it are a manifestation of that brand until it starts taking on a life of its own.
But isn’t that a bit daunting for the individuals involved? Not all of them might necessarily be that outgoing…
Well, the ones I have met so far from the ISVs within the Microsoft ecosystem were all very smart, driven and dynamic and knew what they wanted to achieve. So it’s just a question of making them realise that the brand issue is something they should consider, too. I appreciate that many say “in the early days, I need to get my idea converted into a technical solution, I need to be going out and look for investors”, etc. But, you know, if you don’t have a brand and you have no visibility, you are not very likely to attract any investment, either.
We know how important brand is for big companies, but for small, specialist niche operators… is it really that crucial?
Even more so, I would argue. Especially in a business-to-business environment. They might try to sell their product or solution to a more established company. But these companies, in turn, tend to look for established names. Let’s take the example of HR management solutions. There are big, established names offering this, like SAP or PeopleSoft, and whereas a small ISV might offer solutions that could do the job just as effectively, if you sit in a boardroom when the options are presented, they’ll probably going to say: “Fred who? We prefer to go the more secure route because we know the credentials”. So the ISV or start-up has to go into this process knowing exactly what they are going to say, they have to be able to pitch themselves into a more sophisticated corporate environment than their own. They need to know how to get through that door and how to get people listening to them.
And to get through that door you need the face, the brand…
You do. You need credentials and credibility and that might not yet be built on “I’ve been in business for ten years and here is the list of all my Fortune 500 clients”. Or if the ISV is moving into new geographies then a brand that is established in their home country may be unknown elsewhere, so as the business strategy evolves, so must the thinking about the brand. Consider it as a journey. It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, of course, but the more you can do thinking and aligning with the business, the better. The more you can go beyond presenting yourself simply as a more innovative, more client-centred alternative, i.e. using the same words that everyone is using, and present something unique, something you believe in, a purpose beyond what your software does, the further you will get.