Raj Sarkar (ex-1Password, Atlassian): B2B Brand Marketing
Blake Barlett: Coming up on today's episode of BUILD.
Raj Sarkar: But I think what is going to separate the good companies from the great companies are basically companies which can do all the three pillars really, really well, PLG, enterprise outbound motion, and brand.
Blake Barlett: Today on BUILD, we're talking all things brand marketing. It's a strategy that's often overlooked or dismissed by B2B marketers. Sure, marketers will buy the obligatory billboard on the 101 in San Francisco, and, yes, a lot of overfunded companies bought Super Bowl ads in 2021, but, beyond that, it doesn't get a lot of love as a viable addition to your marketing mix as a B2B SaaS company. Our guest today on BUILD is Raj Sarkar, longtime marketing leader with tours of duty at Amazon, Google, Atlassian, and, most recently as CMO of 1Password. He doesn't just advocate for brand, he's actually executed it with massive success at big scale. Raj walks us through his philosophy on brand marketing from why it's valuable to how to define your brand identity to, ultimately, which channels to leverage in order to amplify your brand. All that and more on today's episode of Build. Let's dive in with Raj Sarkar. First off, let's level- set on what we mean by brand marketing. What exactly is brand marketing and why is it valuable?
Raj Sarkar: When you think about brand marketing, it's almost like a personality of your company or your personality of your product. Think about every single interaction you are having with the customer, that what defines your brand personality. Let me ask you a very specific example, right? We all use products like Lyft and Uber for ride- sharing, right? They're almost the same product, from a feature perspective is almost exactly the same, but the perceptions of the brand are so different from each other, right? I remember, the few years back, some of my friends and coworkers refused to use Uber. They all used Lyft. It's not the product was bad, but it was the brand perception. Similarly, if you think about a very specific example for B2B, Slack and HipChat, right? HipChat was pretty well known among the tech community, right, so the perception became that this is a messaging solution for developers, whereas Slack, early on, basically figured it out that the way to positioning Slack was for all kind of teams, right? The brand perception makes a lot of difference nowadays, and more and more as CMOs, even PLG CMOs, are realizing the importance of brand.
Blake Barlett: Yeah, my favorite example is always Mailchimp. Obviously, it's a little bit different these days now that it's owned by Intuit, but Mailchimp is, it's a commodity product. There's a lot of email marketing solutions out there and, yes, it's a good product and, yes, it's been around for a while and it's built a great following, but they also created a brand. Me, I've never signed up for it, I'm not a marketer, I don't use Mailchimp, but I love their branding so much. Actually, a few years ago, they had this campaign where their mascot, the chimp, Freddie, they made action figures out of Freddie, and all these different kinds and stuff, and you could get one for free if you entered a competition. And I got one and it's this thing that I love that sits on my desk is this little action figure of Freddie from Mailchimp, and I love it even though I'm not a customer, right? That's a great example of brand done well to stand out in a sea of vendors that do the same thing, but to really speak to somebody and have a personality in a really major way. Yeah, there's some great examples out there, both in consumer as well as in B2B. Why is brand so valuable and why should we dive deep into it?
Raj Sarkar: The way B2B marketing we used to do 20 years back and the way we do now, it's changing. And the reason it's changing is, if you think about the B2B buyers 20 years ago and the B2B buyers now are very different from each other. This is the Facebook generation. This is the smartphone generation. Their expectation is for a company to be not like a robot, but be a human, right? It reflects on your brand, to some extent, how you're having a conversation with your customer. Nowadays, that's why I think it is becoming more and more important. More and more B2B companies are investing in brand. In San Francisco, for example, you're surrounded by billboards everywhere.
Blake Barlett: Yeah, just take a trip down 101, you'll see a lot of brand advertising.
Raj Sarkar: Yeah, yeah, because everyone realizes that brand is becoming more and more important. A lot of conversation around PLG is obviously growth marketing and growth hacking, quote- unquote, right? A lot of conversation is how do you build an enterprise outbound motion on top of a PLG motion, but I think what is going to separate the good companies from the great companies are basically companies which can do all the three pillars really, really well, PLG, enterprise outbound motion, and brand
Blake Barlett: On why brand and why is it impactful, what kind of impact can it have, it can differentiate you. If you have a less differentiated product because there's a lot of similar products in the market, you can be different through brand. People feel differently about you, even if the functionality is fairly similar. There's a differentiating element to brand and it can certainly create that opportunity. But I think also there's a scalability opportunity around your marketing. At some point, you just can't buy more of the same keyword, right? You're already getting all of that and, at some point, all your demand generation, it's good, you always have to have that, but it doesn't scale infinitely. But brand is something, you can also waste a lot of money doing it, but if you do it right, it's infinitely scalable. Look at any of the big brands that people know across the globe, Nike, Coca- Cola, all that kind of stuff. It can scale in a major way, obviously.
Raj Sarkar: Especially after you hit 50 to 100 million ARR, I think you need to start consciously thinking about spending on brand. And the reason is, if your top of funnel is not growing, right, because it's a funnel in the end, you're touching some portion through brand campaigns, they're coming down the funnel. A B2B buyer doesn't buy a product instantly, right? It's a journey. If you're not investing on top of funnel, what's going to happen is your CAC for bottom of funnel is going to go up over time. You have to figure it out, how much you should spend on top of funnel versus how much you should spend on bottom of funnel, like 30/70, some say 30/70, some say 50/ 50. But you have to experiment constantly because, remember, with your brand campaigns, you can create a huge retargeting pool as well in the long run. I've seen companies where they hit the ceiling after a certain point if they are not spending on brand.
Blake Barlett: You started to touch on it there. The next question I wanted to get into is, okay, so when do you do this? Is this something that post- Series A, you're instantly starting to do brand stuff, is it later on? You mentioned that it happens more later once you're at scale, 100 million of ARR. Yeah, walk me through that, walk us through that a little bit. When do you start thinking about brand? When can brand be a helpful thing to add to your marketing mix?
Raj Sarkar: When you are starting the company, when you found it, you need a website, right, and when you're building the website, you're thinking about, " Okay, which color should I choose, right? What should be the style of my copy?" You are already subconsciously making some calls around the brand early on in your journey. And then, if you are a PLG company, your product touches and product experiences is creating the brand personality as well. Even though you are not consciously thinking about it, you have already started on the brand journey as soon as you launch a website and a product. Now, I usually tell the founders, once they hit one to 10 million ARR, they should start consciously thinking about the brand to some extent. And I'm not saying go and spend tons of advertising dollars on brand initially, it's more about the unpaid channels. Think about what he can do from PR and thought leadership perspective. Think about what he can do from an SEO perspective. Think about what he can do from a content perspective. Think about building communities. T one to 10 million is when you should probably start thinking about brand consciously. And then 50 million ARR, 50 to a hundred million ARR, I would say, when you start seeing that your cost of acquisition on your bottom of funnel is going up, you know need to start spending on top of funnel, online digitally. And online digitally. I think the advantage is, like I said, you can create retargeting pools and things like that, right, so you can justify your online spend to some extent. And then, after 100 million ARR, nowadays, like you just mentioned, if you drive on 101, you see all those billboards everywhere, and the reason is online advertising is getting so crowded, so crowded, it's hard to grab people's attention, right? A TV ad or a out- of- home ad, you have a captive audience to some extent. You cannot use ad blockers for billboards, for example.
Blake Barlett: You can't close your eyes while you're driving down the freeway. Yeah.
Raj Sarkar: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That's why you see, nowadays, out- of- home is coming back because a lot of people realize that, online, you're not getting a lot. It's getting so crowded that it's hard to grab people's attention. Yeah.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. What it sounds like is that, when you're thinking about when do you do brand, it's not really this binary decision or it's a switch that you flip, it was off and now it's on. There's different phases. It has to be defined. That's kind of the first motion. Then the next motion is, once the brand's defined, some of the things you mentioned, like PR and some of those community, some of those things you might do in those earlier phases, scale- up phases, that's brand awareness. And then, at some point, you're going to have reached a certain level of maturity with knowing what your brand is, people being aware of your brand, and then also scale for yourself and just looking at your overall funnel, and that's where you do brand amplification, and that's what people mean when they say brand marketing traditionally. That's when you're going to be going to the TV channels, the out- of- home channels, and those kinds of things. There's kind of step one, two, three. It's crawl, walk, run versus, " I wasn't doing brand yesterday and now I'm doing brand today."
Raj Sarkar: I like that crawl, walk, run. I'm going to use that.
Blake Barlett: Awesome. We're going to get into more of the details of that, that's kind of the high- level view. But, obviously, understanding the how of do you do brand is super important, so maybe let's get into that. What does that look like for B2B marketing and what does a brand strategy look like for B2B?
Raj Sarkar: Yeah, I think, first and foremost, I think where it begins is what's the mission and the vision of the company? Defining that, early on, is going to be super, super important once you go down the path of defining what your brand is going to be. For example, Nike, right, is one of those brands, very well known. Everyone knows Just Do It, right, and Just Do It mission statement is so powerful because it's not about winning or losing, it's about participation, right, and it resonates so well with their target audience. I think Google had this mission statement that they want to organize the world's information, right, and make it accessible, right? That mission statement is so powerful, right? It's much easier to define what your brand is going to be once you understand what's the mission statement is going to be. And mission and vision is not about, especially when it comes to brand, it's not about speeds and feeds, you're not talking about features, right? Once you define the mission and vision, I think the next question becomes what's going to be your brand identity, identifying your brand attributes. Sometime, if you think about it, some companies have already, over time, have built out a value system for themselves. I always think that your external brand attributes and your internal cultural values, they need to match with each other. They can't be completely out of whack.
Blake Barlett: Now this is something that I actually have firsthand experience with and it was totally counterintuitive to me when I first got exposed to it, but it was actually for OpenView. A handful of years ago, we hired a branding agency and we wanted to improve our look and feel and all that kind of stuff and graduate to the next level. And the branding agency, again, I went in with this perception of, well they're going to help us figure out how to make a cool logo and get our own font, and it's going to be great, and pick our colors and all that kind of stuff, but their first question was exactly that. It's like, " What's your mission? What's your vision? What's your values?" And, again, it caught me off guard. I was like, " Why does that matter?" It's like, well, brand is not colors, brand is not font, brand is, as you're saying, it's an identity. And so what's the mission? Why does everybody come to work? Why does this company need to exist?
Raj Sarkar: Exist, yeah.
Blake Barlett: That's the starting point of your brand and that's way more important than do you like blue or purple better.
Raj Sarkar: 100%. You nailed it. And then, basically, once you define your mission, your value statement, your values, you basically come up with the brand attributes. And to give you a specific example, for 1Password, for example, some of the brand attributes we came up with is human, humorous, humble, which was a testament to the internal culture of the company as well, and then we identified a brand archetype as well. And, strangely enough, when we are talking about the brand archetype, the first person which popped on our heads is Ryan Reynolds because Ryan Reynolds is... he's a Canadian, right?
Blake Barlett: Yep, just like 1Password?
Raj Sarkar: Just like 1Password, and you can think about all the three attributes really map well. This is the reason we selected Ryan as our brand ambassador. After you define your brand attribute, then you basically... what do you call a visual identity and a verbal identity? Verbal identity is not very different from your brand attributes because it's intuitive. Once you define the brand attributes, what's your written personality or your copy personality.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. You speak that way that's consistent with your identity.
Raj Sarkar: Identity, right? And then the visual stuff is the interesting stuff. And this is the thing... because I was trying to do a rebrand during 1Password, so the work is still going on. I know that. One of the things I told when I was working with this agency, I'm like, " Show me your website. I will tell you whether it's a tech website or a non- tech website," because every single tech website you go to, the visual identity has either illustrations or stick figures. Stick figure certainly was the new thing. Every single company, , tech company in Silicon Valley was doing it, which is very interesting. Whereas if you go to a CPG company, for example, their visual identity is so different. And one of the things I was talking about, as a visual identity, you need to really stand out. Mailchimp is a great example, right? If you go to any typical enterprise B2B company, everyone uses blue color, everyone. Blue is the de facto way to go.
Blake Barlett: Blue is the way to go. Nobody ever got fired for picking blue as your brand color. Yeah.
Raj Sarkar: Right. Mailchimp, for example, the colors really stand out and this is the reason, you're not thinking about it, but, subconsciously, it's having an impact on you because that's one of the reasons, probably, you like-
Blake Barlett: It's different. Yeah.
Raj Sarkar: Yeah, it's different.
Blake Barlett: It catches your eye.
Raj Sarkar: It stands out, yeah. The visual identity also is part of that, once you defined... because it's a reflection of your brand identity to some extent. One of the things you have to remember, when you're working on the visual identity, that your product UX and your visual identity needs to match with each other. Your design, internal design systems and your external design system, they need to be consistent, or it's going to be a really horrible experience for a customer.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. I could imagine, you mentioned 1Password, some of the brand attributes were human and humorous, but it's a security product. And so, if you get into the security product and then it feels super intense and this is a knock and all these types of things, like more of an enterprise cybersecurity platform, it's not going to feel humorous and human. Yeah. It has to match once you actually get into the experience.
Raj Sarkar: 100%. The next thing is, if you're talking about companies which have single product, it's very easy, right? Now, if it's a multi- product company, then the question becomes, hey, do you want to be a house of brand or a branded house? Just for the audience who are not aware what it means, a house of brand is what usually CPG companies do. For example, you don't know do Dove is owned by Unilever for example, right, but Unilever is the parent company. They don't invest a lot on their parent company brand. They invest a lot on their sub- brands. That's an example of a house of brand. A branded house is basically what, usually, the car companies do, right? They invest in, for example, Honda, then you have Honda Civic, Honda Odyssey, right? That was the debate. I remember early days in Atlassian because everyone knew Jira. No one knew Atlassian. The debate was, " Hey, what should we do? Should we invest in the Jira brand or should we invest in the Atlassian brand?" And we made a conscious call of we're going to go with a branded house. Now, if you go and see any product in the Atlassian family, it has Atlassian in front, so it says Atlassian Jira, Atlassian Confluence. I think Trello is the only one which we haven't... because it doesn't go because the Trello personality, brand personality, that class and brand personality is very different, but all the other brands, it's like that. Now, Google, for example, has a mixture, right? In the initial days, every single product was basically a branded house with Google Mail, for example, right, Google Calendar, or Google Docs.
Blake Barlett: Google Docs, yeah.
Raj Sarkar: And then what they did is they went to a house of brand concept for the brands they want to invest in in the long run. Android, Chrome, YouTube, they have their own brand identities, for example. That's the other call if you're a multi- product company. You need to think about that as well.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. No, that's really interesting because there's different paths to go down for a brand. And this idea of house of brands or branded house, yeah, I've never heard it mentioned that way. How do you know which one is best for you?
Raj Sarkar: I think, if you are a startup, right, branded house makes sense. If you are in an early- stage company, you cannot afford to have a multiple brands because you have to invest in those brands, right? Google can afford to do it. Microsoft can afford to do it, Amazon can. All the big companies, they have a huge brand budget, they can afford to do it, but, the startups, they can't. Early stages, even if you are doing two or three products, you should go for branded house because that's what makes sense.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. Yeah, and I do think that's really good specific tactical advice to anybody that's listening right now. The name of your company should be the name of your product. Don't make it too hard for yourself, right? That's usually what you see, but, every now and then, I still see young startups, still getting traction, it's like, " Our company is called this, and we have two products and they're called this and that," and none of them are the same. And it's like, dude, you're making it too hard on yourself. Make it easy. Just pick one name.
Raj Sarkar: And think about SEO as well. SEO becomes harder if you have three different product names.
Blake Barlett: Even buying your brand- new keywords, you got to buy three of them, yeah. Yeah. No, that makes sense. Just a quick break in today's conversation to make sure that you're getting all the latest in PLG content from OpenView. First things first, if you haven't subscribe to BUILD in your favorite podcast app, make sure you do that now. We drop four episodes per month and subscribing is the best way to stay in the loop. And, while you're at it, drop us a rating and review for the show so that others can find it as well. And, secondly, did you know that I'm a YouTuber? I put out weekly videos on the latest and greatest in PLG with my show called the PLG123. Every video is two minutes or less and features VC perspectives from yours truly on the latest in VC, SaaS, and, of course, product- led growth. Find me on YouTube by searching Blake Bartlett and make sure to subscribe to my channel so that you don't miss a single video. Okay, now let's dive back into today's conversation. Okay. That's how do you do brand, what does brand look like in B2B, what does that journey look like, defining it. Okay, you've done that, now you're getting close to 100 million of ARR and you're like, " All right, I want to amplify this. I want to do brand marketing." What are the channels that you should think about there and how do you measure the impact of brand marketing once you flip that switch?
Raj Sarkar: Yeah. I think that, well, I touched on it, the first thing, the digital channel becomes important, right? Even before you spend out- of- home, you should start investing in digital channels and there are various ways you can do it. There's this concept called site takeovers. If you go to cnn. com, you'll see something on the top, for example, right? The cool thing about doing digital is you can easily measure it. Anything can be measured online, right? Even if someone sees your ad or sees your video, for example, which is on a third- party site and they come later to your website, you can track them very easily, right? That's where it's powerful. Online channel, there are lots of ways you can do top of funnel spend, so online is where you should start initially. And then the next one is, basically, I think, at a certain point in time in the near future, you have to start thinking about out- of- home. You have to start thinking about streaming. I'm not saying TV, I'm saying streaming, and the reason I'm saying streaming is because streaming nowadays, you can do even specific targeting. For example, when we did the Ryan Reynolds commercial, right, we partnered with this agency called MNTN agency, and what they do is, basically, you can go and create, just like in Google Ads or Facebook ads, you can go and create your demographic profile of the customers you want to go after, right? And, nowadays, if you notice, if you are a subscriber of YouTube TV, for example, you have to log in to your account, so they know who is specifically actually watching the show. That's why they created all this.
Blake Barlett: They're doing the hard work for marketers to make it all attributable. This is great.
Raj Sarkar: Yeah. Yeah. Now you can say, " Hey, I want to target all this specific age group, right, living in New York," for example, and you can even say they work in the B2B space, for example. You can do all sorts of things nowadays with online streaming, but the holy grail is obviously Super Bowl. You have to do it sometime in the near future, but I don't know how effective it is. I don't know how effective it was for Coinbase. The Coinbase ad was amazing, if you remember the Super Bowl ad they did, that was incredibly smart. These are the ways to, basically, think about... but, one of the things, you have to make sure that you measure it, and then other ways to measure it as well. Holistically, what you can do, you can hire an agency, for example, and they can measure how much your, for example, awareness has gone up over time. And you can do even segment specific like SMB, mid- market enterprise, for example. And then there are other agencies which measure something called the brand equity. For example, at 1Password, we were using this agency called Blue Ocean, which basically spewed us a score every month saying how are we doing from a brand perspective.
Blake Barlett: Got it. The good news is that it's measurable, because I do think that, and, historically, it was this way, and I think a lot of people still have this perception, is that brand is something that is almost impossible to track. How do you track the efficacy unless there's a specific kind of promo code in a print ad that you do or in a radio ad or in a TV ad or in a billboard? How do you track those things? There's not pixels on those things. But, through streaming and then some of these new supporting technologies, agency partners, a lot of this stuff, if not all of it, is much more attributable, much more trackable. You can actually see the impact of your brand. It's not just like, " Well, we're going to spend a million dollars and hope for the best." You can actually see where it went and what it did.
Raj Sarkar: I was just talking to a founder, Blake. You cannot imagine the kind of companies which are getting founded. That company, what they do is they have this entire inventory of billboards online. You can specifically go and pick the billboards, see them where they are exactly, they have pictures for it, and you can say, " Hey, I want to buy space on this billboard from this time to this time." And then they basically integrate with your internal data systems and they basically tell you how effective your out- of- home campaigns are going. Nowadays, to your point, everything's measurable.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. And is the out- of- home stuff, is that using geofencing or is that as attributable as other brand channels?
Raj Sarkar: I'll use a very good example because Google, in the initial days, when they ran the Chrome ads, they did basically pick a specific location, ran the ads, saw how effective it was, and then made the call of taking it national. For example, I think they picked Boston, initially, to run some experiments and see if it's working or not. It's easier for B2C companies, it's harder for B2B companies, to some extent, to do geofencing. But, nowadays, there are a lot of interesting ways you can measure. I was just talking to another vendor. What they do is, basically, they track your mobile phones and, based on your mobile activity, if you come to the website later on, they can tell you saw the out- of- home and you basically came to the website, and that is based on the out of out-of-home ad running out of location X, for example.
Blake Barlett: Yeah. Yeah, I like that as another way, you gave the Google example, but, if you're going to, " Hey, let's saturate a city and let's see if we get a lot more people signing up in that city." And I agree that, in B2B, or at least traditional B2B, it's a little bit harder because blast the entire city and, hopefully, you get all of the CMOs while you're at it. That's our only buyer. That's a little bit harder. But with PLG, increasingly, you're building everyone products. It's like Calendly can be used by everybody, Zoom can be used by everybody, as it was in the pandemic, and Slack can be used by virtually everybody. 1Password can be used by everybody, me as a consumer or me as a CISO as well. And so PLG and building these mass market products that serve all audiences actually open up a much bigger brand opportunity for PLG companies and for B2B in general.
Raj Sarkar: You are saying my mantra.
Blake Barlett: In closing, for founders and marketers that are listening right now who want to take action on this advice and they want to take a first step, but they're not yet at that 100 million dollars of ARR, they're not going to buy the Super Bowl ad this upcoming year, what's the first step? Where do they begin? What should they be focused on first?
Raj Sarkar: You just need a pen and a pencil, not pen and pencil, pen and paper. You need a pen and paper. Just take a pen and paper, sit down, right, think about what's the mission statement, what do you want to achieve, what do you want your product to achieve? Start there, and then you already know to some extent, if you're the founder, what is the internal value system of the company? Write down those value system and then go from there. Define what you want your personality to be, talk to some few customers, and then go from there. I don't think you need to invest millions of dollars to start on your brand journey. You can start on your brand journey very easily.
Blake Barlett: Well, back to that sort of crawl, walk, run, the first starting point is brand definition. What is my identity? Who am I? How do I want to be perceived in the world? And, yeah, you can get that done day one, so thinking about those different steps, and it's, again, back to where we started that it's not this binary switch that, " I wasn't doing brand yesterday and now I'm doing brand today." You can think about it in this progressive thing and you always need to build that foundation, and then ensure, back to some of the things we were talking about, consistency, that, from your mission, vision, values to your brand voice, and brand attributes to your user experience, to your product marketing, to just the design system that you use for your product, does it all match? Does it all feel consistent or is it a little bit disjointed? That's a really good place to start. Amazing advice both for scaled companies as well as younger companies. This has been awesome, Raj. Thank you so much for joining us here on the BUILD podcast.
Raj Sarkar: Thanks for the invitation.
B2B marketers usually overlook brand in their marketing mix. Brand marketing is only for CPG companies, right? Raj makes the case that brand marketing is not optional, if you want to win your category.
But brand marketing isn’t just buying a Super Bowl ad. Before you think about channels, you need to define your brand identity and build awareness. Done right, brand marketing can become an infinitely scalable strategy to drive growth.