When I ride the subway, music keeps my ears busy–but my eyes wander. They often land on subway ads: Banners that promote plastic surgery, posters that remind us to stay vigilant, and PSAs that implore us to practice basic etiquette. But one recent series of ads, for the direct-to-consumer mattress brand Casper, was different: It was a whimsically illustrated hidden object game that invited bored straphangers to “find the elephants in the room.”
I found myself asking, why does a mattress company care about making my subway ride more fun? Turns out, it’s all part of the strategy established by Red Antler, a branding agency based in Brooklyn. Casper isn’t just about a better night’s sleep, it’s about improving our waking lives–monotonous subway commutes included. The ads were like a small but delightful, “gift” to subway riders as they went about their day.
During the Fast Company Innovation Festival’s Brooklyn excursion–which also stopped into the offices of Work & Co, 72AndSunny, West Elm, UTC, Frog, and Huge–Red Antler gave an hour-long crash course in this kind of brand-building. Founder Emily Heyward and Head of Strategy Jonah Fay-Hurvitz first told the group about their philosophy, then set us loose to apply it toward a business idea.
“Today, [a successful company] is not just about the product or the experience, but it’s about the story,” Fay-Hurvitz says. “Brand is the biggest differentiator in what can drive growth.”
Red Antler‘s clients–Brandless, Allbirds, Birchbox, Burrow–are often start-ups, and Heyward points out that a lot of entrepreneurs reaching out to the company for branding work often have similar products or offerings, which ups the ante for really standing out. That’s where branding enters the picture. “The same cultural forces that are leading you to start something, that’s happening to someone else, too,” she says. “You have to create this unbelievable momentum right out of the gate,” she says.
Red Antler’s branding strategy centers around four main areas: Insight, positioning, naming, and designing a vision for the future that goes beyond a single product. It’s about how a company and its products can enrich someone’s life–the brand tells that story. “Know what your target audience needs, define a core idea that speaks to that need, and make sure all design, messaging, and experience speaks to that core idea,” Fay-Hurvitz says. “It’s important that the core idea become the connective tissue between the product and the customer.”
With that in mind, Red Antler broke us up into groups and invited us to either work on a hypothetical business idea, or something that we were working on in real life. A woman in my group is developing an app that lets users crowdsource opinions through a polling feature. For example, a user might ask, “Which dress should I buy?” or “Where should I go on vacation?” and attach photographs of the options. People in the user’s social circle pick what they’d recommend and the app relays the survey results to the user.
To build a brand pitch around the idea, we first talked about what the product was and who it was for. The company’s founder–Lina, a woman from France–walked us through a handful of use-cases and scenarios in which you’d use the product, and explained that it was really for anyone who wanted to get a second opinion. We decided to narrow the focus to consumers only, ultimately landing on an insight about why they’d use the app: People are overwhelmed by choice, need help making decisions, and want that help to come from trusted people–immediately. A number of services already exist to help us make choices, like Google, Yelp, Foursquare, etc.–what makes this app different is that it’s personal. It taps into your existing circle of friends and isn’t controlled by an algorithm, which gives users more trust in the polls.
Since the company already had a name, Ziggtime, we didn’t change it. But Red Antler recommends names that are easy to remember, spell, and pronounce, and have no obvious negative connotations. It also has to be distinctive, as it’s hard to own a generic name or URL. While Red Antler didn’t come up with the name Casper for the mattress company, it’s a great example. “Casper” was one of a handful of possible names on a shortlist, and the company chose it because the name sounded soft, almost like a whisper. Visually speaking, the round letters signaled comfort and softness and offered plenty to work with when it came time to design a logo.
The most insightful part of this exercise was thinking about the psychology behind problems consumers face today–and how to tap into it. Ziggtime originally sprang from a specific problem: Today, consumers have access to so much information and so many options that indecision has become a serious challenge. While Ziggtime’s original purpose was to help people make decisions more quickly, thinking about the psychological utility of this tool made us realize that the app is about more than just the fear of making a choice or a lack of confidence in our choices. It’s about how making more choices can lead to a more enriched life.
“We always want to be rooted in a problem and the insight, but we don’t want to use fear as our way to connect,” Fay-Hurvitz says. “Everything is driven by fear. So we need to know, as marketers, what’s at the core of things? We don’t want to abuse fear, to scare people into using our product. Ultimately, this is a fun product so we want to take a stressful scenario where you’re feeling overwhelmed and a bit like a fish out of water and making it a fun exciting experience where you’re inspired to start making decisions outside of your comfort zone. When you empower people to make choices, what’s that end benefit? It’s people who live a life that’s more expansive and more exciting and that people discover more, people learn more.”
Red Antler uses a Mad Libs-like approach for designing a brand pitch in order to get to a succinct and compelling core idea. It reads like this:
For (insert target customer) who (insert statement of need), (insert product name) is a (insert what the product does) that (insert product’s emotional benefits) unlike (insert competing alternatives). (Insert product name) will (insert long-term vision for the company).
We ended up mad-libbing a brand pitch that read: “For decision makers outside of their area of expertise who feel overwhelmed by choice and need guidance, Ziggtime is a tool that empowers people to make better, faster decisions unlike impersonal anonymous services like Siri or Google. Ziggtime will expand your mind.”
Other groups in the workshop came up with ideas for at-home cosmetic services (Fountain, a botox service that makes house calls “for anyone who likes looking as young as they feel” that could expand to life coaching), a money-wiring app (Cashbird, “a cross-border remittance system based on blockchain so it’s safer, reliable, and cheaper than Western Union), and an in-home plant watering service (Plant Parenthood, a company that takes care of houseplants to help quell the “soul-crushing” feeling of killing your plants).
We transformed Ziggtime from a polling app–similar to what already exists on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram–into a mind-expanding brand, all in just an hour. At the beginning of the workshop, the group knew next to nothing about the app’s or how it would be used. By the time ideas got flowing and we were really thinking about the company’s potential beyond the app, someone joked that we should each receive a 5% stake. The Red Antler’s exercise was a success–we’d given a new idea some real legs.