Found Objects V.1

Welcome, Brand voice, Shopify.

Welcome to Found Objects, a newsletter for brand people.

Thanks for joining. This should be fun! This newsletter is very much an experiment and it will likely take different shapes as I learn what you find most interesting, what’s boring, and so on.

I hope to make it worthy of a place in your inbox. Which brings me to your first question: “Why are you writing a newsletter?” Well, reader, I used to blog on Medium, but it kind of felt like a big production every time, and more formal than how I usually talk to people in real life and online. Plus, what I really love doing is gathering and piecing together ideas, insights, links, photos, etc. and thought this would be a better channel for that.

Next question. “Why ‘Found Objects’?” I like this definition from the Tate Modern: “A found object is a natural or man-made object, or fragment of an object, that is found (or sometimes bought) by an artist and kept because of some intrinsic interest the artist sees in it.” Besides loving the concept, I believe there’s beauty and value in the overlooked and under-hyped that we might otherwise miss going about our days. It’s a good reminder to stay curious and keep our eyes open.

Okay! Next on the agenda.

What I’m thinking about: Finding your brand voice

I joined a panel a few weeks back on “Finding your venture capital firm’s brand voice,” because even VC firms have to think about how they sound. A few days later, I rewatched the video and realized that I wasn’t really that happy with my answer. It’s such a big topic (and I kind-of rambled). It’s one of the must-haves in brand world, but it’s also one of the hardest to nail. Even so, every business is trying to figure it out because it is so important.

To me, one of the best compliments a writer can receive is “I can really hear your voice come through in your writing.” It doesn’t matter what you’ve written—be it a college paper, an email, a Tweet, a blog post—that kind of comment sticks and it makes you feel good. It means how you talk as a real life person translates into your writing. That’s no small feat.

Being able to connect with someone through their writing is so compelling. It attracts readers, followers, and builds a community that really feels like they know you. That’s why businesses are so keen on determining their tone and personality, too.

There are 1,470,000,000 results when you type “Brand voice” into Google. Many of them are trying to help people figure out how to find a distinct voice that can set their company apart when talking to and winning customers. The phrase itself is defined as “the uniformity in selection of words, the attitude and values of the brand while addressing the target audience or others.” Branding agencies can help here by offering tone of voice guidelines. They might say something like: you’re “confident, not arrogant,” “professional, not stiff,” and so on.

But even with this wealth of knowledge on the subject, and with helpful guidelines available, finding your brand voice is hard. It’s one thing to talk like a human, but it’s completely another to talk like a disembodied business. This is a common challenge for people in the branding world, as finding your brand voice helps to identify you with customers, to offer a sense of authority on what you’re talking about, and to build community.

Some businesses absolutely nail their brand voice, and some come out really cringe, mostly because they read like they’re trying too hard. While brand voice requires a lot of work, if it’s done well it should look easy. Once you’ve figured out your brand voice, it becomes innate. The tone sort of naturally forms in your head and comes out in what you’re writing.

Getting to that point is tough! When I joined my firm almost three years ago, one of the first things I focused on was our brand voice. And the recent panel reminded me just how top of mind this is for folks navigating the brand world in venture capital, and, more generally, for anyone laying the groundwork for their company’s brand voice.

I thought I’d redo my answer here. These are a couple of tactics that have personally helped me figure out my company’s brand voice, in case they might be useful to you:

  • Spend a lot of time listening to how my team naturally talks to our founders and community.

  • Understand our audience and to whom we’re talking by knowing who’s engaging with us and our content.

  • Realize that it’s okay to tweak tone across platforms since some are naturally more formal than others.

  • Develop a gut instinct and sense for what feels and sounds right or wrong and don’t overthink it.

  • Never forget the “why.”

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Featured brand expert: Erika Strong, Brand Marketing Lead at Shopify

I was very lucky to chat with Erika Strong at Shopify for the first edition of this newsletter. Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

What are your responsibilities as brand marketing lead at Shopify?

Brand as a discipline is a pretty new thing at Shopify. We're a product company, first and foremost. The focus on brand has existed for just about three years. In terms of actually executing brand marketing work, it’s been probably about two. 

Ultimately our responsibilities are making the Shopify brand known and loved globally. That can take a variety of forms, whether it’s running a major multi-channel campaign or making our existing customers feel loved and supported by Shopify. We're always looking for interesting, counterintuitive or unusual ways that we can get attention and increase brand awareness and comprehension in unique ways that are maybe a little bit outside of the norm. 

What are you working on right now? 

My team is thinking about the buyer, or consumer, audience. We focus most of our efforts on entrepreneurs, whom we call merchants. Most of our attention goes towards our existing customers and people who potentially want to become entrepreneurs. As a brand we don't spend a ton of time looking at the people who buy from the entrepreneurs. We think there's such a need this year to do something there and encourage consumers to think about supporting independent businesses, more than ever. 

It's new for us to talk to a buyer audience or a consumer audience because we haven't really talked to them before. It's an exercise in explaining what Shopify is, what we do, what we mean and why the buyer should care to support the people we support.

How do you view Shopify’s approach to brand marketing? 

We think about ourselves as a product company, and everything we do is to develop the best product we can for our merchants. Our marketing has been very focused on growth marketing. The evolution there has happened only recently, where it's understanding how we can bring a more purpose-driven approach to the work we're doing, how we can bring emotion and storytelling.

We're really focused on the “why” behind what we're doing and who the precise audience is that we're hoping to talk to. Brand work is always incremental. We do something, we see how it performs, then we say “Okay, that tells us that we should maybe tweak it this way or try something new.” We're measurement and results-focused, so we always want to understand how it works and how we can improve. Everything here is very experimental, but not without rationale behind it. We're very reluctant to say, “Yes, this is the way we're always going to do things.” We're always trying to iterate and change and shift our approaches based on what we're seeing. 

Are there any common misperceptions about Shopify that you encounter? 

Spotify, that's a huge one. I joke that like 10% of my job early on was correcting each article that had Spotify, because I think it would just autocorrect. The reality is that Shopify is a very complex product. There are so many aspects to it as well as a little confusion around whether Shopify does this or that for me versus does it enable you to do any number of things. 

We're the brand behind the brand by design, and a lot of people might misunderstand that we’re not the people who sell the thing. It's a little challenging to understand that we're the platform that powers these businesses. Especially because we have taken the behind-the-scenes approach and we want the businesses on our platform to be the ones shining.

There’s so much momentum around ecommerce due to COVID-19, with Shopify very much at the center. What effect is that having on the business? 

The time we're in right now is so unique. It's hard and challenging, but there are lots of opportunities coming out of it. Before the pandemic, online shopping was only a fraction of all of the commerce that was happening in the world, and now that's changing. For us, it's an opportunity to galvanize people who want to take this time to do something different and start a business—out of desire or necessity. We want to be there as an opportunity for them. 

When COVID started, we released a bunch of features very quickly (gift cards, extending Shopify Capital to new regions and curbside pick up), and Shopify employees were working nonstop to get those out there. We offered an extended free trial of three months versus the typical two weeks. We wanted people to have a chance to start something, whether it was because they needed it or because they wanted it. That's a huge motivator and inspiration for us. 

We also focused on a couple new areas, like restaurants, that were all looking to come online but not typically our bread and butter. We looked for opportunities around how we could enhance the platform for those kinds of businesses. It's an interesting time for us because we can think about our platform creatively and question assumptions we had about who we were for or how we should be acting. 

What sets really good brand marketers apart in their roles? 

Being curious and having an open mind, because sometimes people don't necessarily understand what brand marketing is. So, when people come to you with an idea or something they saw, it can be easy to say “Oh, that's not a fit for the brand.” But it helps to try to understand where that's coming from, because maybe there’s something there, maybe there's a way to learn something from that or look at what other brands are doing. It could be that it’s not right for us, but what's the insight behind it and how can we bring that into what we do? 

So, not being so strict or specific all the time. We're more focused on what’s the right thing to do for the company and what’s right for our audiences. It doesn't have to just be the things that fit into this box, there could be lots of ways that we achieve our goal if you just look at things with a curious mind.

Liked this interview? Follow Erika on Twitter.

Brands I’m eyeing: Through the looking glass(es)

I recently decided to overhaul my kitchen cabinets and went down a rabbit hole of glassware. Ultimately I opted for Verishop (1). But I had a lot of fun perusing fun glasses from a couple different brands I still might buy from including Upstate (2), Mociun (3), Rosemary Home (4), Coming Soon (5) and NUDE (6). Please admire.

Cool brand jobs

Director of Brand Management, NY - Pattern Brands

Senior Director of Brand, NY - Prose

Director of Brand Marketing, NY - Cure Hydration

Brand Copywriter, NY - Maven Clinic

Senior Brand Partner, NY - Morning Brew

Found object (but no found bird)

Please send your thoughts, comments, suggestions, brand jobs, and found objects via DM.