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Channel vendor Datto recently hosted an all-day sales and marketing online event that covered key points of the MSP sales cycle from lead gen to closing.
Whenever something like this hits my inbox, I get a bit excited — and I get a little anxious. Why? Because I just know that my specialty, my professional obsession, my topic of study for nearly two decades will be part of the conversation.
That is, of course, brand strategy. Specifically, brand strategy for MSPs, as has been my focus for almost seven years of those 20 years.
I get excited because I love talking about brands. I get anxious because I’ve never seen someone in the channel — be they huge vendor or a lone consultant — speak about brand strategy without having some pretty grievous errors in their information.
Sadly, Datto did not become the exception to that trend.
I realized this about halfway into their video, Organically Growing Your Business Through Sales and Marketing, starting shortly after Datto CMO Matt Richards uttered the words: “I’m gonna talk in a moment about brand.”
Brand Strategy Experts = Rare
Before I get into my analysis of his presentation, I want to set the stage:
- I’ve met many successful marketers who don’t understand brand strategy. It is a specialization within the broader discipline of marketing. The best cardiologist may not know jack about neurosurgery. Someone can be an amazing pilot without knowing how to fly every plane on the tarmac. So when I critique someone’s understanding of brand strategy, I’m not judging their overall skills as a marketer or CMO.
- When marketers are asked to deliver a presentation on marketing, they seem to feel obligated to talk about brand strategy. In turn, those who are not specialists just say whatever they think fits, for better or worse. This is how misinformation gets perpetuated.
- Such misinformation then becomes canon through sheer repetition, and MSPs end up wasting time and money — and losing opportunities — because of it.
So, let’s get back to the video.
Brand vs. Reputation
Immediately after introducing the topic, Matt says that each of the touchpoints they’d so far discussed helps to build your brand.
I want to stop right there because that statement immediately sets an incorrect expectation about how building a brand works. (I may be splitting hairs over sentence structure here, but brand strategy is complex, and you don’t want to start the entire conversation with a misleading segue.)
You should not be looking to these touchpoints to build your brand. You must build your brand. Once you’ve constructed your brand identity, those points along the consumer’s journey are where you communicate your brand. It should be deliberate and calculated. If it’s not, the entire system breaks down.
You see, the first common misconception about building a brand is that it happens organically. That somehow you, the MSP, should just do a really good job and over time your brand becomes “an MSP that does a good job”.
That is not a brand. That is reputation, and we use two different words because they are two different things. Despite the way these terms are bandied around, they are not interchangeable! So your first key takeaway from this analysis is:
Do not confuse brand with reputation.
Why Do Customers Choose an MSP?
Moving on to the “numbers” part of the video, Matt shows the result of an end-user survey where SMBs were asked how they chose their current MSP:
If you’ve read my book, REMIX Marketing, you’re probably already cringing at this list.
The first thing you’ll notice is that it essentially reads as a list of things that every MSP on the planet uses as value statements. In REMIX Marketing I explain why these aren’t the types of value statements you build a brand around. The condensed version is because nearly everything on this list is something that’s expected of you. An MSP proudly boasting about their technical capabilities is like a restaurant bragging that their food won’t put you in the hospital.
The whole purpose of your business is to provide technical solutions, expert support, good customer service, and fast response times. These are not marketing advantages, they’re simple requirements of the industry.
Which leads me to believe that the data on this list is relatively useless. I’m assuming that these were multiple-choice responses, which means that respondents were asked to pick from factors that IT channel people think influenced the buying decision, not factors that actually did. With multiple choice, we will never know — but you’re probably an analytical person just like me, and you know in your heart of hearts that this data is flawed.
Lastly, “Value” is the only response on that list that actually matters. And it’s at the top, where it rightfully should be, because value perception is the reason why 100% of those respondents chose the MSP they’re currently using. If “value” is on the list, it should be the only thing on the list.
All of those other choices — the MSP go-to “value” statements — are factors that might influence value perception. Although if the shopper had compared multiple MSPs, these factors wouldn’t influence the value perception very much because no MSP is going around saying they have very few technical capabilities or terrible customer service.
That’s where I came to the realization that any further discussion about brand strategy was going to be frustrating. Anyone who thinks that an MSP can build a brand around technical expertise is stumbling right out of the gate. And if there’s already a misconception of how brand and value perception fit together, it’s going to snowball into more confusion.
Brand strategy is fundamentally about influencing value perception. There is more to it, but it’s important to note that brand does not exist outside of this concept. If the word “brand” is uttered, I don’t want to hear any more words come out that don’t have to do with deliberately driving consumer behavior towards a favorable buying decision — a feat that’s accomplished by managing their perception of value.
I don’t want to get into a full discussion around value perception because it’s beyond the scope of this analysis, but I talk about it for 80-some-odd pages in my book if you want to know more.
For the sake of time, we need to move on to the next talking point.
Why Do You Do What You Do?
Matt says, “This is what I want you to think about when you think about your brand: why do you do what you do?”
He says that this question is the core of all good brand stories. This could serve as a really good example of why I think the mythos of “brand stories” is horribly contrived and overhyped.
You’ll understand my reasoning when I ask a follow up question:
How many MSPs have a unique answer to “why do we do what we do”?
The allure of brand stories can only exist in a vacuum, which is why our team spends so much time teaching MSPs how to do something better than brand stories. You do not operate in a vacuum. You have competitors. The market is getting saturated and there are companies out for your blood. Because of this, you can’t afford to lean on techniques that do not differentiate you from your competitors in a way that conveys value to your audience.
The focus on “why do we do what we do” is a half-measure attempt at humanizing your image, but it is not a brand. I would estimate that there are only a handful of MSPs in the entire country who could massage their origin story into a viable brand with some hard work, but that’s it.
They would be able to try because there’s something uniquely valuable built into their origin story and their “why we do it”.
If your “why we do what we do” reads like a boilerplate mission statement about delivering great customer service and providing the best IT solutions, move on. That’s not a why, that’s a what, and you basically just described what’s expected of you as an IT provider.
Here’s a takeaway for this talking point:
If something is expected, it cannot make you exceptional.
Violate that rule, and your messaging either comes across as meaningless or worse, pandering. Matt illustrated this perfectly when he said that the “why” of Datto is “we live to help you serve your customers”.
Isn’t that your business? And isn’t that the driving motivator of every vendor on the planet?
It comes across as hollow and almost insulting when a company states the obvious like it’s supposed to make them exceptional. And sure, we all do it at times. I’ll do it right now:
Your Sales Energy is committed to generating new business for MSPs.
It’s true, but it’s not our brand because every marketing company can say that. And it’s assumed, because it’s our freakin’ jobs.
Build Your Brand Around…Who?
There’s a more important error to the above talking point.
Your brand should be built around your ideal audience, not you. Yes, you and your company will certainly integrate into the overall brand identity, but you should never, ever make the first question you ask a question about yourself.
I’m actually surprised that so many people still think this is a good idea considering the widespread acceptance of consumer-centric sales and marketing approaches.
When it comes time to sit down, take a breath, and seriously start building your brand, your first questions need to be about your ideal audience. If you don’t know who you are trying to communicate to and influence, you can’t possibly know how to construct your brand identity and messaging.
Build your brand around your growth goals (which largely center around your ideal client) not yourself.
Okay, on to the last couple of talking points. We’ll keep them short.
Matt talks next about “What do clients say when you’re not in the room?” He’s absolutely correct when he states that your brand influences the things people say about you.
I just wanted to call attention to this so no one gets confused. What people say about you when you’re not around is not your brand. It’s your reputation. But your brand should influence the way people talk about you, and therefore it will impact your reputation.
It’s just important to know which of these influences the other, and how.
Your Culture Drives Your Brand?
Final talking point!
Matt tells us that, “Your culture drives your brand.”
I’m not a fan of all these statements that make it sound like you are not in control of your brand. You drive your brand. Or better yet, your knowledgeable brand strategist should drive your brand. Company culture is part of the overall equation, but it does not drive it.
I’ll say it again: Your brand strategy needs to be deliberate — that’s kind of the definition of a “strategy,” right? You plan it. You build it to do what you need it to do rather than trying to tweak twenty external factors and hoping that it somehow turns into a brand.
If you want to be competitive, focus less on all of the little factors that can influence your brand, and focus more on actually strategizing a deliberate, powerful brand.
You’re Learning Brand Strategy!
Congrats are in order. Just by reading this analysis, you now know more about brand strategy than 90% of the people in the IT channel.
Hey, it’s a hard discipline. That’s why it’s a specialization and not something you can pick up by watching a couple of YouTube videos. I don’t begrudge any marketer for not knowing it as well as someone who studied it for almost 20 years.
And brand strategy really isn’t a technical discipline. That’s why I’m not surprised when I see something like this:
Yeah, a mechanical engineer probably doesn’t see brands the way a classically-trained marketer with a background in psychology does. I went to school to understand people, not machines, and brand strategy is above all a human endeavor.
Let’s help spread the right information, rather than the stuff that just spins people in circles, right? Share this analysis with your peers. Share the REMIX Marketing book. Discuss, give me feedback, whatever it takes to steer the collective knowledge of brand strategy where it should be.
Thanks for reading!