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Award-winning marketer Margie Agin helps B2B technology companies discover what makes them unique and find the words to say it. She is the founder and chief strategist of Centerboard Marketing, a marketing agency based in the Washington, DC area, and author of Brand Breakthrough: How to Go Beyond a Catchy Tagline to Build an Authentic, Influential and Sustainable Brand Personality.
As both an external strategist and an in-house marketing leader, Margie has helped companies in the cybersecurity, communications, EdTech, and software industries distill complex topics into content and campaigns that drive action. Before founding Centerboard Marketing, Margie led demand generation efforts for Blackboard and digital marketing for Tandberg and Cisco. She also taught content marketing and web writing at Johns Hopkins University. Margie completed her undergraduate work at Tufts University and earned a Master’s degree from American University.
Margie’s Recommended Reading
Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, by Josh Bernoff.
The Story Wars: How brand stories beat advertising tales! by Erik Saelens.
Brand Breakthrough: How to Go Beyond a Catchy Tagline to Build an Authentic, Influential and Sustainable Brand Personality, by Margie Agin.
We don’t have to know what the word means to recognize how it connects our brand with our users. Brand archetypes help us choose the right words, assemble them in the right order, and communicate the experience our users expect. Our brand is how our products speak to the world.
In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Sean is joined by Margie Agin, award-winning marketer and founder/chief strategist at Centerboard Marketing. Margie works with B2B companies to identify and communicate key aspects of their brand and drive action. “We use brand archetypes to reflect our product’s personality,” Margie offers.
“It’s expressing your company, which includes your product, as a human – not just as technology,” she adds. “And when you do that, it makes you more relatable as a company, building trust and closing the gap between your brand and your customers.”
For B2B technology companies that aren’t consumer facing, finding the human elements of your brand can be more challenging. Are you the Hero? Jester? Or maybe your product brand speaks as a Pioneer, Explorer, Lover, or Sage.
Listen in as Margie shares valuable tips that make this task easier, including gathering people with different experiences with your product to identify and validate how it interacts with users.
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Sean [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. This is a podcast intended to entertain, educate, celebrate, and give a little back to the product leadership community.
Sean [00:00:32] Hello everyone, welcome to the Product Momentum Podcast. I’m super excited today to be talking to Margie Agin. She wrote the book Brand Breakthrough. She’s an influential personality in the marketing space around branding and storytelling, and she’s got kind of a unique construct around using archetypes and we’re going to explore that and how to use it in the products leadership space and how we can better tell stories about what our products do and who they’re for and all of that good stuff. So let’s get after it.
Sean [00:01:02] Hi, everyone. Welcome to the pod. We’re here to interview Margie Agin today. She’s the founder and chief strategist at Centerboard Marketing. She’s written a really cool book called Brand Breakthrough, which I think applies to the product community in all sorts of unique and interesting ways. She’s an award-winning marketer. She helps B2B technology companies discover what makes them unique and finds the words to say it. So she’s really a communications strategist and I think we’re going to get some really unique things today. I’m excited to get started. So, Margie, what have you been up to lately? What are you passionate about these days?
Margie [00:01:36] Hi, thanks for having me, first of all. Gosh, you know, it’s funny. These days that is such a difficult question to answer: “what have I been up to lately?” in a time when it feels like almost every day is the same? I guess one good thing about hunkering down, sort of quarantining, hibernating this winter, I’ve been doing a lot of writing. You mentioned the book, so I’m thinking of topics for book number two but also doing client writing. I do a lot of blogs and e-books and website content, so we’ve had an opportunity to sort of hunker down and focus on that.
Sean [00:02:09] Neat.
Margie [00:02:09] So in terms of what I’m passionate about, I love writing. I have always been a writer since I was an elementary school kid with my flashlight late at night when I shouldn’t have been writing. But now, when I write B2B kind of content, I’m passionate about making it sound human, making it sound like it’s not jargon written by robots, even for technology companies. I’m really passionate about making that human element come through.
Sean [00:02:37] Yeah, well, product leaders often struggle with educating the community about what the product does, what it is. A lot of times our product marketing teams rely on us to help them describe our products and how it can be put into market with language and storytelling. I think those are some of the key things that I pulled out of your book that I want to share with the audience here. So you talk a lot about archetypes from Carl Jung’s thinking and how you can apply them to brands and I want to zoom in and talk about products and think about products. What are some of your favorite products and what are some of the archetypes you’ve seen used to describe them? Or how could we use that sort of thinking to help us describe and tell stories about the products that we’re building for our audiences?
Margie [00:03:19] Sure. So for folks that may not be familiar with archetypes, you mentioned Carl Jung. I think he is kind of credited with really bringing this into sort of the psychology field. But really, archetypes have been around in storytelling since the beginning of time. And you sort of think about these different characters that come up everywhere from, you know, The Odyssey that you read in high school to Star Wars, to tarot cards, to different ways that movies and books play out in literature today. So we use these archetypes in branding because they’re sort of personalities, characters that people are kind of familiar with. And so you don’t have to explain in as much detail what a certain character is like or how they might behave because people just sort of get it based on their experience in reading these archetypes and literature.
Margie [00:04:13] There are many dozens of these, but some of the most common ones, for example, are the pioneer. The pioneer is like a brand like Levi’s, which is the first to do something, right. They struck out across the West and sort of did something for the very first time, opened up new territories. You have the rebel. A lot of brands, especially startups, who want to be kind of disruptors to a market… In more than being a pioneer, the rebel is a little more aggressive. So they’re overturning the status quo, breaking down silos, you know, turning sort of the common thinking on its head, very much the disruptor model. There are many other brands that are examples of, you know, trying to be funny, like the jester, the witty, quirky, you know, a Ben and Jerry’s, or even a B2B brand. You’re seeing some that are really kind of adopting this almost like snarky, witty, kind of funny tone of voice.
Margie [00:05:10] So it really runs the gamut. And, you know, as a branding exercise, it’s about how you speak in terms of the content that you put on your website, the content that you put in your marketing channels, your emails, and so forth, but especially when you have a product that has a user interface, right, and it has maybe messages that appear to users. Everything about kind of the experience that the user has when they’re interacting with the product is also a key touchpoint in the brand experience, right. So we can kind of take some lessons from these archetypes, not just for the marketing content, but for the content that you integrate into the product interface or technical documentation, you know, any kind of place that a user is interacting with a product.
Sean [00:05:55] I see it as kind of like a personality, like giving your product a personality.
Margie [00:05:58] To go back to even where we started the conversation, it’s expressing your company, which includes your product, as a human, right, not just as technology. And when you do that, it makes you more relatable as a company. It kind of closes the gap between your brand and your customer and builds some trust so that you can kind of move more quickly, possibly through a sales cycle or just continuing to build trust for renewal. There are many benefits to closing that gap and developing a human connection between your brand and your customers.
Sean [00:06:35] Yeah, it’s a unique approach. I think humanizing the product is an important thing. We think about it, but it’s hard to do. So you mentioned three of the personalities. You mentioned the pioneer, the rebel, and the jester. You also have three others: the guide, the muse, and the defender. And your book, it’s a pretty cool framework for kind of figuring it out. So as a product leader, how would we choose? You know, which one of these things should we try to brand our product’s personality with?
Margie [00:07:00] So product people are, for sure, a key stakeholder in this whole process. And then in partnering with the marketing department, the sales department, sometimes, especially in a smaller company or a startup, the founder or the leadership of the company has a very strong opinion about sort of the company culture or company personality. But what I recommend for clients that are kind of getting started with thinking about this process is to get stakeholders from all of those kinds of different groups in a room together where they can hear each other. The reason we do that is because everybody has a slightly different perspective about what the company’s brand is, how it’s perceived, or how you would want it to be perceived. And everybody brings a unique perspective, either from their own experience, maybe comparing it with their experience working in other companies, and also their interactions with customers.
Margie [00:07:53] So the product managers most likely have a lot of direct interaction with customers, but sometimes those are just the successful customers that they’re meeting with, right. Those are the ones that are actively using the product. So they have one perception and maybe a perception of competitors as well. That’s a really key input. Salespeople have a lot to say about customers where they’ve not been successful, right, reasons why they didn’t choose the company or why they lost the deal. And then the marketing department is also thinking about, you know, brand reputation and how the brand is perceived in the market, maybe from sort of an umbrella kind of point of view. So all of these people and more can kind of be in a room, listen to each other talk about what they think the brand actually is. And it’s often a very interesting conversation to be a fly on the wall for or to facilitate because the most important part of it is these folks ironing out some differences and some choices that they have to make.
Margie [00:08:48] You know, you may have one group saying that “we are innovative,” and the other group saying, “yes, but we’re built on tradition,” right. So how do we kind of balance those two things where we want to show that we’re modern and forward-looking but at the same time we want to be classic and traditional or there’s sort of these different nuances? And both may be an element of your personality, but at some point, you have to sort of make a choice as to which you’re going to lean into more heavily and which you really think is where you’re going in the future. So ironing these things out, kind of the pros and cons, and making these choices is something that best happens, not in the product silo or the sales silo or the marketing silo, right, but with sort of that leadership team in the room together.
Sean [00:09:31] So you can use a framework like that, a workshopping tool, to balance out all these different perspectives and come up with some ideas for how you’re going to represent. But do you think it’d be valuable to test that, or do you have any experience testing that on the market?
Margie [00:09:43] Yes, for sure. There’s a lot of workshopping tools to sort of get the internal company perspective, right, and kind of prioritize that and come up with a set of assumptions. But that’s, I guess, one leg of a three-legged stool, right. So another way to look at it is, all right, you’ve put all these things down on paper that describe your brand. But now let’s check to see if those are the things that customers really care about.
Sean [00:10:08] Right.
Margie [00:10:08] I mean, you may say that you are “an elite brand for the best and brightest only.” OK, so now let’s take that out and say, “well, customers, is this how you perceive this company?” That’s number one. You may think that you’re a certain way, but it’s actually what your customers say about you when you’re not in the room, that it turns out to be your actual brand. And sometimes that’s best done with an external person, like an independent third party who can go out and talk to customers because you sort of then get the unblemished, unvarnished truth that they may tell to you that they may not want to tell directly to a brand. So talking with customers about that is key, hearing how they perceive your brand and also if the things that you have decided are your differentiators and make you unique are things that actually matter most to them.
Margie [00:10:57] If you pick something that really is immaterial to them, then that may be great for hiring new job candidates, but it may not matter to customers. So that’s a really key part. And then the third leg of the stool is looking at competitors and saying, all right, we want to find some brand attributes and some brand messages that are true to your company that your customers care about and also that are really unique to your business, a true differentiator for your business. That’s not just table stakes and not just any old company in your industry could say. I mean, most companies hopefully may say that they deliver a return on investment or that they’re easy to use, right. That’s something we’re sort of all potentially striving for.
Margie [00:11:40] But if everybody is saying the same thing, then it becomes less meaningful when you’re trying to stand out in that market. So it may be a very valuable thing to say you’re easy to use if the industry is known for complex, cumbersome products, right, and has gotten a bad rap and nobody uses the competitive products because they’re impossible to use, that could be your differentiator. But if everybody is saying that, then you have to find something else that is true to who you are and that you have some proof points to actually back up.
Sean [00:12:13] Produce some evidence that you’re actually what you say you are. I did find in the book, you had a very cool tool with some good examples, and you used that example, like it would make things easier. So how would you say it? You’d say it differently if you had a different personality style? Like the muse would say, “it’s so easy it’s invisible,” whereas the guide would say, “let us show you an easier way to achieve your goals,” and making that a part of how you communicate how that was valuable.
Margie [00:12:38] Yeah, I think that a lot of these kinds of branding exercises people may have experienced in the past and sometimes they get a bad rap because they feel like, “oh, that was a fun and interesting day, but nobody ever used that after that interesting workshop that we had.” So I think it’s very important to start kind of socializing what you talk about in that workshop and providing real-life examples that people will apply to their everyday jobs. So by writing out some of these kinds of examples in, say, a style guide, you can provide examples of the archetype or the brand voice and personality in use for anyone who is, say, writing on behalf of the company, whether they’re writing a blog or they’re writing a customer service email, right, they benefit from having sort of this off-the-shelf language that they can then customize from there. But at least they have some examples that they can point to.
Margie [00:13:31] So the example that you pointed out is really interesting, where like the muse is almost magical, the idea that it’s invisible, where it is really not true, you know, but it’s a way of thinking about technology that the muse would use to convey. Whereas, you know, somebody like the rebel might say something like, you know, “complexity kills.” You know, start this like really harsh kinds of language and more aggressive. Other brands may say, “oh, that’s too aggressive for us; we don’t speak that way; that doesn’t sound like us.” So when I write for a company, one of the very first things we do and we talk about is brand style, brand tone of voice, brand personality. And a lot of times different people within the organization will say, you know, “I don’t know what it really is, but I know it when I hear it,” and that’s why brands become very inconsistent over time is because no one has really taken the time to sort of write down real-life examples and then socialize them throughout an organization.
Sean [00:14:34] Yeah, and I think this is a great tool for a product person to have. The bigger, the more widespread a product is in terms of its usage, the bigger the company, the more important this stuff becomes to have that consistency of how you’re speaking to your customers, you know, in the emails that your product sends out or in the prose inside of the product, even in the imagery.
Margie [00:14:53] Slack is a great example of that because they do communicate so much within the product, you know, with their little bot and their messaging. And the consistency is incredible. They have a team of people internally that will sort of set a brand guide and do a brand review to make sure that the voice is consistent. But, you know, they can’t do that for every single little communication. So they need to be able to set a consistent guideline that anyone who is creating copy for Slack can follow.
Sean [00:15:23] So taking that example, what archetype do you think Slack’s trying to represent in their voice?
Margie [00:15:29] You know, I think they actually have blended, and I think it’s a good example of being able to blend a little bit of the archetypes, like, they have an element of that jester to them because they’re a little bit like quirky and witty and snarky. But I would say they’re more of a guide, a little bit of a muse, ultimately, because I guess they’ve created a vision of the future and a lot of collaboration tools kind of do this where they’re essentially making the world a better place and that has an element of the muse to it where they’re essentially showing you the way to this sort of very, very rosy future.
Sean [00:16:05] This is an important point. You kind of headed me off at the pass to one of my future questions. I was going to ask if a product could morph or if it could have multiple archetypes. And what you basically just told me was you got to create your own. Here’s a guide to help you create your own, but you make it unique and it can be a blend of multiple.
Margie [00:16:22] Yeah, I just worked with a client who, you know, we were heading toward the guide and then we shifted and became the coach. And they were super excited about the idea of a coach because you’ll follow a guide, but really, the guide may lead you off a cliff. You know, they said, “well, a coach, it’s more you know, they’ve been there, they’ve done it themselves, they’ve got a playbook, but ultimately, you know, you’re all working together.” They’re building a team, which a guide is not really doing. You know, they don’t really care if you become a team, whereas the coach actually cares if you become a team. So they actually took my jumping-off point and sort of crafted their own archetype, I guess, off the page. And the key part of that was, again, that they were in the room and having this discussion and sort of all were able to flesh out the details of why the coach was right for them.
Sean [00:17:15] Let’s do another example. I’m curious what your thoughts are on Starbucks and how they position themselves. Because I’m a big fan of their products. In the early days of the Internets, they were one of the first companies that offered free Wi-Fi in their lobby and I used to use it as a place to hold business meetings because we could.
Margie [00:17:35] Right.
Sean [00:17:35] So I’m a big fan of Starbucks anyway. So I’m curious how you position them because I use their application a lot and I interact with Starbucks more through their application than I do actually in-store these days, especially with the current environment.
Margie [00:17:49] Right. That’s a really interesting one. You know, maybe more of a pioneer because they were very much at the time, right, when they first started, sort of building out the idea of what a Starbucks is. Really there was nothing else like that in a way. You don’t hang out at McDonald’s all day long with your laptop. So it was a new kind of model. They’ve done a lot of things for the first time that others have followed in their footsteps. But the interesting thing, too, is that now over time, and this has happened for many kinds of startups that then eventually become the enterprise leader, is that you start off as sort of the rebel or the pioneer and you’re the disruptor. But ultimately, it’s like Starbucks is now like the corporate safe choice. They’re not the rebel where you go to the scruffy coffee shop and, you know, attract people who are like, you know, a little bit more offbeat. They’re like almost the conservative traditional player in a market that they created. So what do you think Starbucks is?
Sean [00:18:51] I would agree with that. I think in their application, too, they’re constantly trying new things. Yeah, it’s a very pioneering sort of approach. A very optimistic brand, you know.
Margie [00:19:00] Yeah, for sure very optimistic and becoming more inclusive as part of their message also. So it sort of also heightens the idea that your brand has to evolve over time. The market changes even if you’ve been the one to create that market, you know, to look back and say, “OK, we can’t really use the same messaging anymore that we did when we were sort of the David against the Goliath, or the upstart, because now we’re the Goliath and so it’s working against us.” So, you know, I’ve seen that happen before where a company has to shift messaging over time because the market around them has really changed. You know what’s a good example of that actually is Salesforce, another like, more of a B2B brand, which is my kind of sweet spot. Salesforce was, do you remember they had, you know, maybe ten years ago, they sort of had that logo that was like “no software.” It was sort of the Ghostbusters thing and they would give out that sign. Now that seems like almost charming and antiquated, like, it was so revolutionary to be a cloud app, a SaaS app, and not have software, right. Whereas now, like, it’s a given, really, that’s how your product is going to go to market is it’s probably going to be a SaaS app. So that’s not a differentiator for them anymore or something that they’re going to lean into. They recently, within the past year I think, kind of changed their tagline to something like, “we bring people and systems together,” which is really the differentiator of Salesforce is that they’re like the quintessential hub and spoke kind of model where everybody wants to have a plugin or some integration to Salesforce because they are the hub where people spend their day. So they have said, “OK, that’s now become really our differentiator in the market, it’s not that we’re SaaS application.”
Sean [00:20:43] That’s a great example of how a product’s morphed sort of how they’re communicating what they are and who they are. All right, let’s change gears a little bit. I’m going to ask you a question about complex products. How do you communicate the value of products that solve a lot of problems for a lot of people?
Margie [00:20:58] I work with a lot of technology companies that have sort of quote-unquote, boring, like nonsexy kinds of products often that sit behind the scenes. So, you know, a collaboration tool like Slack, it’s easier to tell a really, like, sexy story around because it brings people together and helps them communicate. Tools that are behind the scenes sometimes, like cybersecurity tools or automation tools or even infrastructure, you know, it’s harder, I think, to sort of tell a story that brings the product to life. So what I have found is sort of the trick is really to think about the people that are using the product, the people whose lives are benefited because they are using the product.
Margie [00:21:43] So, you know, something like an automation tool in and of itself, it’s not the value that it’s automation, it’s the value that people can do their jobs faster, easier, get home on time to have dinner with their families, not scramble to produce an auditing report and tear their hair out, but be able to just produce the report on demand when it’s needed. So as product managers I think have been doing for many years, you know, we really focus on the use case and then take it to the human level of the user and ultimately what their goal is and how they view success and then work backward. So in a storytelling format, sort of set the vision of what the user views as success, you know, help them kind of picture themselves in this future state living whatever happy life, both professionally and personally, that their goal is. And then we sort of work backward to what it takes for them to get there, the obstacles they have to overcome along the way, the reasons to kind of change the status quo. But we always start with a picture of what success can look like and then kind of work backward from there.
Sean [00:22:51] That’s great advice. So really tapping into the human needs that the product’s meeting beyond just solving that problem that we came there to solve today.
Margie [00:23:01] Yeah. If you look at persona building, which is a core element of marketing for both B2B and B2C marketers, that’s kind of where that starts, that empathy for the customer. A B2B persona often goes deeper than a B2C persona. Like, I don’t necessarily care that John is 35 and he likes to play table tennis on the weekends and you know, he’s college educated or whatever. What I really care about is, how does he make decisions? Where does he go to find information? What are the pains that he experiences every day and how has he tried to solve those pains in the past that maybe didn’t work? So we go under the covers a little more in a B2B persona. Sometimes we build empathy maps, which I think it’s more of a UX kind of thing, but it can also work in this sort of marketing or product marketing context.
Margie [00:23:50] Like my sort of empathy map, when we think of four quadrants, might be, you know, what did the user think? What did they feel? What do they say, and what do they do? Right. So maybe a little different from how a UX person might think about it because especially I want to know, what do they say? I want to know what words they actually use so that when I go to create the content, you know, the sales enablement content or the sales deck or the website content, I’m reflecting back to them the actual words that they’re using to describe their problems. And oftentimes with technology products, those are very important because the words that they use and the words that you use as a writer are going to be sort of these telltale signs that say, “oh, do you know what you’re talking about or are you speaking technical jargon, are you speaking at too sort of light a level for your technical buyer to sort of take you seriously?”.
Margie [00:24:43] And that’s where the partnership between marketing and product really comes into play, because, you know, I’m not an engineer or developer or a deep technical expert, but I rely on partnerships with the product team to really get the technical language correct and sort of keep it straight and also make sure that however we’re describing the benefits of the product and its vision of the future is actually something that the product can truly deliver on. We can certainly, like, create a future vision, but we never want to promise a product is going to do something and then fail to deliver. It’s actually, you know, shooting ourselves in the foot.
Sean [00:25:19] Of course. All right. Well, to wrap up, we always ask, what’s your definition of innovation?
Margie [00:25:24] Gosh, I think just always being willing to listen and then take that information in and learn from that. Sometimes your customers are way smarter than you are, but you have to be actually able and willing to listen to what they’re saying in order to help solve their problem. It’s not necessarily about coming up with, like, the next new technology or even some cutesy tagline, right, if you’re a marketing person. So we always like change. Marketers love constant change and like new eye candy and a new idea just as much as product people may love new features and functions, but if it doesn’t actually solve a problem, then what’s the point?
Sean [00:26:05] It’s great advice, get out there and listen to your customers. So, Margie, your book is packed with case studies, great interviews with marketing people, and all kinds of activities that I think product leaders can apply to their products if they’re struggling with these problems. Your book can empower them, I think, in their journey to describe their products. So thanks for writing it. Thanks for joining us and for your contributions. And I always ask one more thing, like, are there any other books that you would recommend that any product leader should read?
Margie [00:26:33] One book that I just enjoyed, it’s also a writing book, it’s called Writing Without the Bullshit. That’s a good book. I would recommend, there’s a book called The Story Wars, which I referenced in my book, that also talks about archetypes and talks about sort of the hero’s journey. So these are interesting kind of writer/marketing kind of books. And, you know, I think increasingly in companies where they don’t have product marketing, the product team is being called on in some of these cases to be the writer, right, to blog, to do much more writing maybe than they had been doing several years back. So these are good resources for any product person that’s also being asked to write.
Sean [00:27:15] All right, and you mentioned that you’re in the process of writing another book, so what do we have to look forward to?
Margie [00:27:20] Oh, I will keep you posted on that. It’s going to take a couple of years.
Sean [00:27:24] What do you think it’s going to be about?
Margie [00:27:27] Well, my favorite part of writing the last book was the case studies and interviewing different marketing leaders about their stories of success and failure. So I think that book will most likely focus on, you know, sort of their stories from the field.
Sean [00:27:42] Awesome. Well, thank you again for joining us.
Margie [00:27:44] Thanks. This was really fun. Thanks for having me.
Paul [00:27:49] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.