Guide to B2B tech brand marketing with Kevan Lee, Head of Marketing at Oyster
B2B brand marketing is about how your audience perceives your brand, and is a collective result of multiple touch points and channels. It's hard to define, but on this FINITE podcast, Kevan Lee does a great job of it.
Kevan Lee is an experienced B2B tech marketer with an extensive background in fast growth SaaS business such as Buffer and Polly. He is currently Head of Marketing at Oyster - an HR platform for globally-distributed companies.
On this episode, you'll learn what brand marketing entails, where to start, how to find brand and how it impacts the wider marketing function.
This episode covers:
- What brand is in B2B marketing
- The starting point for B2B brand marketing
- The founder story as the origin of brand
- Why brand strategy is particularly important in B2B tech
- How bias comes into play for brand marketing
- Finding the balance between brand and performance marketing
- The owner and decider of brand within an organisation
- The involvement of the C-suite in brand marketing
- How to measure brand marketing
Listen to the full episode here:
And check out more of the FINITE B2B marketing podcast here!
Hey everyone and welcome back to the FINITE podcast. Today we're taking a dive into brand strategy with Kevan Lee. Kevan is currently Head of Marketing at Oyster, an HR platform for globally distributed companies. And Kevan has also led marketing at a number of B2B tech and SaaS companies such as Poly and Buffer.
In this episode, we'll hear Kevan's insights into brand marketing, brand strategy, how they come together, common brand marketing challenges and how to overcome them. This was a really refreshing discussion with Kevan and so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The FINITE community is kindly supported by the marketing practice, a global integrated B2B marketing agency that brings together all the skills you need to design and run account based marketing demand generation channels and customer marketing programs. Head to themarketingpractice.com to learn more.
Hi Kevan, welcome to the FINITE Podcast and thank you for joining me.
Yes. Thank you for inviting me. I'm excited to be here, grateful to be here.
Looking forward to talking all things brand. I said to you just before we started recording, I think we don't do enough brand focused stuff here, and it's easy for us to fall straight into the number stuff, the demand gen, hardcore ROI stuff. So it's refreshing to be talking with and having a brand focused discussion. Before we go further in that direction, tell us a bit about yourself and your background and your current role.
About Kevan’s background in B2B tech marketing
So my name is Kevan. I am the head of marketing. I did that role at Buffer, which is a B2B SaaS product and social media space. So I started early there and scaled and built the team and the brand at Buffer. I then joined Poly, which is the B2B platform that does team engagement on Slack and Microsoft teams.
I was lucky enough to build the marketing team there. And then most recently I joined Oyster to do the same and build the team, build the brand, and build demand for Oyster. Oyster is a SaaS platform that is geared toward distributed HR. So it helps you hire, pay and take care of teammates regardless of their location.
Awesome. And tell us, I know it's only been a few weeks since you started, but tell us a bit about the team and how you organise the marketing side at Oyster.
It's been a fascinating few weeks already, which has been great. I was lucky to have to come into a team that had a bit of structure already and so very grateful for the folks who would lay those foundations. So we divide the marketing into five different areas and then each of those areas has its own teams that work within those teams and also cross-functionally collaborate.
And so those five teams are product marketing, content marketing, growth marketing, amplification and brand. And so we're talking a lot about brand over the next few minutes, but brand is a dedicated team within our marketing org. And there's other teams within that org that also have a lot to do with brand, but that's how we're organising.
We have an interesting sales lead motion that we pay a lot of attention to and we're working on building out a product lead motion as well. So a lot of levers at play.
Cool. And tell me about the amplification team before we dive into that stuff. How does that work and what does that team focus on? It's not one that I've heard that often.
Yeah. At Buffer we called it audience marketing. And so at Oyster, amplification covers PR, communication, social media, events and community. So all those things kind of roll up into amplification. I think we were eager to validate different parts of that puzzle, and so we may see different focuses at different times, but generally speaking, those are the five buckets that it touches.
Interesting. And how did you get into marketing to begin with?
Unintentionally. I didn't go in this direction at first. I got my college degree in journalism and had visions of being a sports reporter and writing the back page of sports illustrated and all these lofty ambitions. And when I got out of school, it was right around the time that the newspaper industry was changing quite a bit.
And so the job market was very different and I had got a couple of jobs and realised I don't know that I want to work deadline at 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM the rest of my life. And what does that mean for family and friends and things. And so I was fortunate to find a connective thread between journalism and marketing, through storytelling and through content. And so that's how I came into marketing.
Brand is very close to that storytelling and content side as well. And so that's been my direction in a lot of ways, coming from that journalism background.
What brand is in B2B marketing
And that leads us nicely into the topic for today. So we're talking all about the brand side of things. I guess that's a good starting point, almost defining what brand strategy is. Because some of the reason brand is often overlooked in marketing focus sessions is just because it can be a bit fluffy and hard to touch on what it actually is.
Especially the word strategy, and maybe it's just more comfortable and easier for marketers to fall back on stuff that often takes precedence over the brand type stuff, even though it shouldn't. So why don't you set the scene and tell us a bit about what you see brand strategy meaning?
Sure. Brand is such a large concept, which I think is where a lot of folks get stuck on. It's large and it's cross-functional. So I think with brand, every single touch point with your company is a brand touch point. So brand is this amalgamation of every single thing that a customer or an audience member can come and touch with itself before they are customers. That's all the external facing assets, information, everything from owned, earned, and paid.
So things you don't even know that you had a hand at, people talking about your brand. That is a data point into this bigger brand picture that people are building for your company. So I think that's where it gets a bit tricky, when you think of this giant picture, how do you even start? Where do you even make sense? Or you can think of it from the perspective of, I don't have to do anything because brand is an organic thing that's going to happen regardless.
And so if I just be consistent, it's going to take on a life of it's own. So I think those are commonly the paths that I see companies taking into this. They don't know where to begin, or it doesn't need disciplined, rigorous attention given to it. I think for me, I have found that it is increasingly more powerful and more effective for the company for all of your other marketing programs to have a deliberate approach to brand.
And for me, brand strategy is a three part process of coming up with your brand purpose, your brand positioning and your brand personality and those three aspects each have their own different exercises and frameworks you can use to get specific about how you define those things.
How you operationalise those things, so that you're being consistent. You're educating your internal stakeholders, you're carrying those messages through to your customers and your external facing materials and kind of implementing it and measuring the impact of it. So I think it's possible to be strategic and deliberate about brand, even though it seems like this big fuzzy concept, but there are some playbooks to follow that make it especially effective.
The starting point for B2B brand marketing
Makes sense. And I guess you made that point, that finding the starting point with brand can often be the tricky piece. Where do you feel like it fits in? Because I think from some angles, people view brand as a set of guidelines, and this is something very visual.
And from other perspectives, it's what you believe about the world and your values and your culture. And it's more than just something that's owned by marketing, it's sat at the very top and everybody's involved and then it starts to trickle down and marketing is just a way of pushing it out there and bringing it to life rather than actually owning it or creating it, I guess. Where do you see it fitting in and what is that starting point?
Yeah, it's such a good question. So I think of the three P's that I mentioned, purpose that's where it all begins. And so I guess from an overall perspective, I see brand as this foundational layer for marketing, but also for other functions within the company.
And starting with purpose, I believe that is something that has to happen, not just within marketing. You can't just tell your marketing leader or your marketing team to go figure out your brand purpose. It has to start at the founder level. It has to have a lot of involvement from the executive teams and department leaders. It's really a holistic discovery process to arrive at what purposes.
And fortunately I think a lot of companies know their purpose or they have a sense of what the purpose is. So oftentimes it's just about pulling that out further. Why do you exist? And being articulate about that in a way that everyone within the company can repeat and memorise. That it can get sent out to press, put it in your website and all these other materials. So just being consistent on messages.
The founder story as the origin of brand
That's a good thing about start ups, scale ups. The B2B tech/SaaS world generally is that a lot of businesses in the space are quite purpose driven just by virtue of the journey that they're on. And the founder story and maybe the challenge is more, and as you say, drawing it out and bringing it to life rather than actually having to figure out what it is to begin with.
Exactly. Sometimes it's about focusing it too. There might be some purposes or missions that are very intangible. They're very, very broad. We bring that more to a focus. I think the framework that I use for this purpose is called The Big Ideal, which is a framework used by the Ogilvy, agencies used by companies like Wistia. And the way you put it together is you look for this intersection between cultural tension and brand's best self.
And so if you think of a Venn diagram, there's cultural tension on one side and your brand on the other side, that intersection is where you want your purpose to live. And so for instance, at Oyster the cultural tension is this global talent gap that we're recognizing, where there's a desire and a need for knowledge workers in companies worldwide. There's talented individuals who aren't necessarily based in a tech hub or based in a country where that that company has its headquarters.
And so connecting those two focuses. The cultural tension, the best version of our brand is this delightful SaaS product that makes it easy to hire, pay and take care of folks. And so the intersection there is our purpose is to make it easier to connect great folks with great jobs. And that's where the purpose comes from. And so you can take that framework and apply it to any number of companies and things. But I think it's about being specific around what is the exact thing you're trying to address?
Why brand strategy is particularly important in B2B tech
Yeah, that's a nice clear way of thinking about it. Why do you think brand strategy is particularly important in the B2B tech space? And I guess Buffer is an ultimate B2B SaaS/scale-up success story. I think in lots of different ways, but I don't know. When did you join? How big was Buffer when you first first started there?
Yeah, I was player number 17 there. And I don't remember the exact number between 2 and 5 million a year in revenue. And I was lucky that there was a lot of culture already in place. A lot of the brand identity was there in a way. And so that foundation was really critical for us growing. Where it becomes important for a company is that it builds this bias in people's minds for you as a solution.
And so whether they're looking for a solution at that moment or not, you carve out this space within their psyche that, oh Buffer, when I need a social media product, I'm going to go look for them. Or I know them for all these great reasons and they also happen to do this thing I have a need for. So there's a great connection there, but it was a bit unique in that we didn't have a formerly built out sales function. So that's a bit unique in the B2B space.
And so when I think of this at Oyster, for instance, I think the brand becomes really critical for making all those sales processes more efficient. We get into our conversations easily, we have that brand affinity where folks love us for who we are before they even get to know us for what we can do for them.
And so I think it is going to decrease time to close, it's going to increase all of our operational efficiencies. So there are some core metrics that it impacts as well, which I think is always a necessary component of a B2B prioritisation strategy.
How bias comes into play for brand marketing
Yeah, definitely. And I like that word bias. We talked about it a bit before, but I think it's a word that's quite powerful and can sometimes have a negative attachment to it sometimes. But actually it's quite a powerful descriptor, as you said, of being forefront in people's minds. And so you think social media management, you think Buffer, there's just an initial connection. Is that what you mean by the word bias?
It is. Hopefully that's the connection we make. I think another way of thinking of it might be like, what is your default when it comes to thinking of tools in that space? I think another way might be, there's a lot of consideration on being first to market with certain features from a product perspective.
I think you can also have it similarly in the sense of being first to mind share for instance, when it comes to building that bias. I think there's a lot of power with that. I think there's a bit of category in there as well. And so one of the ways that we measure brand is through what we call aided and unaided brand awareness surveys.
So the questions that you ask are when you think of social media software companies, which ones come to mind? And then you list a bunch of stuff plus the unaided one. And so hopefully Buffer ends up on that list and you measure how that progresses over time. And so you can actually attach these core metrics to how well you're building that bias.
Finding the balance between brand and performance marketing
Interesting. Yeah. We'll come on to talk about measurement a bit more because I think this is where the challenge often is as we talked about earlier, being stacked up against all the other things that marketers have to think about and measure these days. You talked just then about, and maybe this is getting into measurement already, but if brand is playing its role, then it shortens sales cycles and makes sales activity more effective.
But I guess this is not new by any means, but for a long time the marketing world has had this brand versus performance marketing debate, if you like. And they've been mutually exclusive, it's one or the other. I think that's the wrong narrative generally for a number of reasons. But I think as we may talk about brands done properly, should actually support sales and outreach and other things. It should make the performance you do more effective. Is that a fair summary?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that's a hundred percent right. And to the earlier conversation around what is brand, I think performance marketing is brand in a way. Oftentimes that might be someone's first touch point with your product and your company. And so I think oftentimes the delineation for me between brand marketing and performance marketing, it might be as simple as how do you measure success for those different campaigns?
I think performance marketing it's often like a direct response type of measurement. Did we get a lead? Did we get a download? Did we get XYZ? I think that brand marketing campaign side is often a bit more top of funnel in nature, a bit more awareness driven. So it might be impressions, it might be sentiment, it might be reach, it might be a deeper metric. It might be, did we drive a certain amount of branded keyword volume back to the site? And so I think it's just a different way of measuring. But yeah, I'm cheating by saying brand is everything, but in a lot of ways that is the reality.
It's a good way of looking at it. I haven't thought about it that way, but I guess the data must exist somewhere, I don't know whether you've come across anything.
I assume there's graphs somewhere showing that, as your kind of brand awareness measurements you've just talked about increase in size, the effectiveness of performance stuff, if your brand awareness reaches a certain level, then you see a 5% uplift in the effectiveness of your LinkedIn ad campaign or whatever it is. Like the two must be able to be connected from that perspective, it'd be a fascinating study.
I don't think we've seen those specific numbers. I think one of the ways we measure brand is through first touch attribution. And so at Buffer, in the signup process one of the questions we asked you was how did you first hear about us?
And we had a couple of different options in there that were proxies for brand, and we could attach the numbers there. We could kind of figure out how important was brand when it comes to the close. And so I think there are some specific ways to measure. I like your idea of the lift component too. Like how much does it lift the other metrics across the board?
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I meant to ask you, you said that there wasn't a sales function at Buffer, was that just like a self serve SaaS onboarding, no enterprise accounts, people to talk to.
Exactly. Yeah, no hoops to jump through to get signed up. We had a customer success team that we would put on uncertain folks once they were here, but everything else was self-service.
Interesting, but I guess that puts a lot more onus on marketing on product, I guess. In terms of driving those conversions and signups and attribution and everything?
Very much so. It was a very traditional freemium model. And so a lot of the focus for growth is then on, how do we get folks active? How do we get them to expand over time and things? So, it was a neat thing to experience and neat to also see that through the lens of sales at Oyster.
The owner and decider of brand within an organisation
Yeah. Interesting. What do you see as being the challenges with brand marketing? What are the points at which people get stuck or the most challenging part? I can tell just from talking to you, you've got a lot of clarity in terms of like frameworks and structure of how to approach this kind of thing, which I think a lot of marketers could maybe do more with. Not to answer the question for you, but it seems like an area where often it's most tricky, but what are your experiences?
I am not without brand challenges, that's for sure. I think one of the biggest ones I see is what is the company's perception of brand internally? How can you get to that level of clarity with things? So at Buffer, we had lots of conversations around who owns brand.
There was a lot of hesitancy to name an owner because it is such a cross-functional, big concept. Probably the right answer if there is a right answer, is the CEO owns brand. Cause everything trickles down from him or from her. And I think that is maybe accurate, but not really helpful. Cause they're not going to be the ones doing the work to manage and navigate that brand.
And so I think we ended up more with the concept of who's the caretaker of the brand or who's the overseer of the brand and more of a way of measuring and optimising and iterating and bringing that feedback up to the teams, the executives and the C-level that needs to put the things in place in order to evolve the brand. So I think getting alignment internally on what we mean when we talk about brand is one of the challenges.
I think you see that sometimes represented in the way that you resource and staff, that brand function. So for instance, at Oyster our brand team is leaning more toward visual identity than it is brand marketing at the moment. And I think that's something that we will continue to evolve and expand and grow. I think it starts with this place. It's probably going to start at this place for visual identity because that is the most clear and obvious expression of brand, a differentiator for brand often.
And then you usually have other functions within the team that can do the brand marketing and the campaigns, if it's product marketing or content marketing, there's a lot of related functions that can report there. I think over time, it probably make sense to transition a bit more toward a brand marketing function that can think holistically about running integrated campaigns.
Omni-channel campaigns that have goals for awareness and driving keyword, search driving, these top of funnel metrics. And then the visual identity just becomes this base layer or a foundation layer that informs and permeates everything else. But the actual mechanics of growing the brand become more of a marketing system at that point.
The involvement of the C-suite in brand marketing
I think every marketer will be able to relate to, I guess, founder, CEO, others in the C-suite having a way of putting a strong opinion on all things marketing, particularly things that are visual. I think it seems people start to see things and have a strong perspective on them.
I think brand is probably one of those areas that maybe CEO, founder being the owner and marketers being the custodian or the caretaker, which I think is a nice analogy. But is that something you've experienced in terms of needing that company-wide or at least C-suite wide buy-in? And how much involvement should they have in all of these elements we've been talking about around brand?
It's such an interesting question. I've experienced a couple of different perspectives on it. I think the first is it somewhat matters where your co founders and CEOs come from. If they come from a tech and engineering background, they might care a bit less on like the visual presentation of the brand or the brand itself.
I think if they come from a product background I've typically found there's a bit more care and attention given to brand or a bit more, everyone cares and gives attention to maybe less of a detailed focus on the visuals and the specifics and those things. So I think the background of the C-suite matters, and then I think brand also has such a powerful attachment based on the brands that you've experienced yourself personally.
And so I have found that in chatting with C-suite folks, they often have a few different examples of great brands that have resonated for them personally. And so then a lot of the requests are related to what they see in other brands. And I think that is wonderful to have those examples and really helpful to have that framing. I think it's also important to use that as one data point in the overall conversation.
Yeah. I think that's a massive challenge I've experienced too. Cause that can be quite a heavy anchoring point. I think if there's a preexisting idea, I guess there's nothing worse for a brand team or marketers to be told we want it to look like this and this is basically just an example of a business that they admire. And you ask them why and they go, I like the colours and it can be quite superficial and quite subjective and not really based on much apart from this very simple, I like it. And there's so much more to it than that.
The tough thing is a lot of people will say MailChimp, we want a brand like MailChimp. It's just like, oh no, they have 50 people working on their brand. They have an in-house studio, they have tons of resources. So I think it's awesome to have that aspiration. I think it's also useful to recognise what are the two or three things we can do? What scales well for us given our stage? I think that there's lots of other considerations to make as you go about choosing your strategy.
Yeah. That makes sense. I was going to ask you a bit more about the measurement side of things. I know we've touched on it already from a number of different angles and you've talked about some of the different ways that you can ask the right questions and try and build that picture. I did an episode a while ago with a brand amplification leader at IBM, which is an interesting role that I hadn't come across before.
And IBM's obviously just a huge enterprise business globally. And he was talking about some of the different methods that he uses to measure brand share voice and all of these kinds of things. What's your experience, cause I know you've been through companies of all kinds of different shapes and sizes, but even Buffalo was pretty small when you joined. And I guess most of the businesses you've been in have been in that 50 to a hundred people type bracket, scale up phase.
So carving out a strong niche I'm sure and well known in certain categories, but by no means IBM. And I think the challenge with measurement can often be, if you're not big enough, is there enough, are there enough signals out there to even approach measurement in the right way? What tips do you have for marketers in maybe slightly smaller, more niche B2B companies around how to approach the measurement side?
How to measure brand marketing
Yeah, I think regardless of your size, you can always set baselines for yourself and look to improve on those. And so when it comes to metrics like branded search or social following social impressions, I think you can set yourself targets and goals to grow those regardless of where you start from.
So that was something we did at buffer was starting from that place and moving up. I think another perspective to have on it could be a competitor perspective. And so if you have other brands in your space, in your category, you can look at where they're at in terms of social, in terms of search, in terms of traffic in of web presence.
You can run some surveys even to get a quantitative feedback from users from one to the other, and then you benchmark yourself to others in your space. And so it doesn't have to be this big fortune 500 share of voice exploration, but you can do it a bit smaller.
I think the big surveys of aided and unaided brand awareness, oftentimes those are the ones that I have the hardest time running effectively because you need a certain amount of volume. You need a certain amount of folks to survey who are familiar enough with the space to even give you decent information on that. So if anything, that's one that might be more like a second order data point.
Would you need a market research agency or someone like that to be able to reach that type of audience?
Yeah. I think I've heard like Intercom has run one before and it cost five to $10,000 a quarter to run. And so it's not that cheap either. If you're an earlier stage company, one of the hacks to do it a bit more efficiently is to run targeted LinkedIn ads with the survey, so that they target your specific market. So you get relevant results. The trick there is can you get response rates high enough that the results are meaningful.
That makes sense. And what about moving forwards? You've talked a little bit about your plans at Oyster in the new role in terms of how the brand function evolves there. Have you got any plans to evolve the brand strategy? I was thinking maybe it's an unfair question to put you on the spot, given that it's in a couple of weeks but I thought I'd ask it anyway.
That's all right. A couple of weeks in startup time is like a couple months, couple years. I feel very lucky to have joined the company that has a strong perspective on the impact that they want to have in the world. I think purpose is very concrete at Oyster today. And that's a wonderful place to work from itself.
For me looking forward, I think there's a couple of different aspects that I want to see brand influence. I think one of them is positioning. And so how can we use brand as a differentiator in our space and somewhat that will come down to that. So the second P is in the three Ps of branding for me is positioning. And so that'll look like coming up with a positioning statement that we can use to rally around internally to allow that statement to permeate our website and our sales materials and take that to market. So that's one thing I'm excited to do.
I think on the other side is awareness and that is where we've already seen some positive signs at Oyster of folks recognising us for a differentiated visual identity, which is awesome. So that's an aspect of that awareness play as the visuals of it. Updating our blog to match our website style and updating our presence on social media, just getting the very first touch moments to be in a great spot.
I think there's also a really cool content opportunity to tell some unique stories in the global talent space in particular. I think remote work is a very hot topic at the moment. We want to shift that narrative from remote work being this trendy thing that happened because of COVID to this future movement that is happening regardless. And COVID just happened to make it happen, make it come a little faster.
We see it as this more long-term terminology that people can rally around and accept as this new normal for the way that we work. And so building stories around that and what it exposes for people from all sorts of backgrounds and geographic locations, I think it's going to be a positive for the brand.
Cool. Yeah, it sounds exciting. This sounds busy but big ambition. So I'm looking forward to following along and seeing where it all goes, but we're pretty much out of time. So I'm going to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your insights and your thinking of the world of brand and keep in touch.
Of course. Thank you so much.
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