Discover more from The FishmanAF Newsletter
When Branding is a Growth Strategy (Part 2)
How to leverage a brand investment to transform your business OR My story of re-branding Patreon for a customer base more creative than me.
Hi there, it’s Adam. 🤗 Welcome to my weekly newsletter. I started this newsletter to provide a no-bullshit, guided approach to solving some of the hardest problems for people and companies. That includes Growth, Product, company building and parenting while working. Subscribe and never miss an issue. I’ve got a podcast on fatherhood and startups - check out Startup Dad here. Questions? Ask them here.
Q: How do I know if I’m investing the right amount of time, energy and money into improving our brand? What’s the right balance?
This is a two-part article and you’re reading Part 2.
Part 2: Steps 5-10 and lessons learned
Building the visual identity and brand guidelines
Firing up the PR machine
Hiding in plain sight
Launch day & Measurement
In the first part of this article I covered:
How to create your positioning statement
How to experiment to validate brand work
Getting alignment with your founder/CEO
How to build a brand personality
Creating both the promise and the proof
In this article I’ll cover how we pulled all of this off and launched with nearly zero issues. Plus how to ignore all the inevitable haters of the new look and feel.
Read on to learn about:
Building the visual identity and brand guidelines
Creating eye-popping assets
How to fire up the PR machine
Hiding in plain sight aka how we built and launched with zero issues
Launch day & measurement
Visual Identity and Brand Guidelines
If you remember the first half of this series we had already created the voice and personality through an exercise where we identified how we’d sound and who we’d be if you bumped into us at a bar.
As a reminder, you can download that PDF here.
But the voice and personality is only part of the equation and for a creator company the visuals (wordmark, logomark, typography, colors, photography style, etc.) are the defining elements of the brand.
We had made it this far in the process with people inside the company but now it was going to be tough because we didn’t have a single visual or brand designer in the company. We also didn’t have any designers who had done brand identity work before at the scale that we were operating.
So we looked for outside help and talked to a bunch of branding agencies who we thought might be able to help us. If you work in tech you’ll know that there are some high-end branding agencies that do work for a lot of tech companies. The problem with that is we didn’t like most of that work.
It felt cold and sterile, not gritty and edgy. So we had to find someone who understood both the tech customer and the creator audience.
The first step in the process was creating a brief that we could share with several brand agencies. The draft of that document is here.
The brief, not unlike a product brief, helped us organize our thoughts, needs, and scope of work. It also clarified our key messages (which we had already vetted through the research I mentioned in Part 1).
Our next step was identifying agencies to send to. With the help of our hero from Part 1, Arielle Jackson, we identified a few that we really liked including Grain and Mortar in Omaha, Nebraska and FuzzCo in Portland, Oregon. At the time we talked to both of them (~late 2016) neither had quite the client roster that they do today, but both were incredibly impressive.
Ultimately we concluded that FuzzCo was better equipped to handle our branding needs at the time. Being in our same time zone also helped quite a bit.
So with the selection of FuzzCo we were off to the races with a lot of work to do.
I found the visual identity to be an incredibly difficult part of the project. The language of design isn’t one that comes easily to me and people will hear me say that I’m “creative, not artistic” when it comes to design.
The raw materials from this phase of the project—iterations on the wordmark, typography, logo, etc.—are documents I didn’t hold on to unfortunately so I’m reconstructing this part of the process from memory as best as I can.
We started with logomark and wordmark explorations. You might be wondering “Adam, what is this newfangled terminology, I do Growth work and I don’t understand.” I suggest reading this for a quick primer on the difference. It came in handy for me!
FuzzCo started with ~6 different directions for the logomark. The idea was to create a representation of the brand that showed we put the artist in the foreground and Patreon retreated to the background.
Concepts they created were called things like: frame, staircase, spotlight, blocks, presenting, etc. We ended up with this one, called “Reveal” which was panned by haters as a pong paddle (amongst other things). But the versatility of this logo was great. The idea was that the line was an anchor point that we could build from.
I don’t want to gloss over how challenging it was to arrive at this point. It seems like a simple outcome but the journey was anything but. One big challenge was that we were not fans of most of the initial logomark proposals that FuzzCo sent and rejected them outright as either too complicated, too confusing, or just not right.
One that I recall being especially bad was the spotlight one which was kind of a three-dimensional “P” with a shadow behind it. That one got the boot right away!
The next step was the wordmark. And here I really struggled because typography is something I don’t quite understand. I have a real appreciation for folks who study and design typefaces. I am not one of those people.
To get to the wordmark we looked at dozens of typefaces. We did an informal poll to get company feedback and pored through a “book” of options that FuzzCo provided. Some were easy to reject outright, but others were so similar with subtle changes in kerning (a term I learned in this process) and other elements of typography that they all started to look the same to me.
In the end, we chose GT Walsheim Bold and ended up with the below. Notice the shared element of the line. This was to capture the “Patreon presents” aspect – Patreon was the platform that creators could stand on.
That led to extensions like this:
And ultimately motion and vibrancy like this:
With the logomark and wordmark figured out next phase was additional typography, color palette, and photography.
Color palette proved to be pretty straightforward. We wanted something that was bright and eye-catching while still being legible on the screen. We explored several different palettes from the earth tones (think Patagonia) to the vibrancy of this proposed MTV update. Ultimately we settled on the coral and blue color palette as the primary colors which, incidentally, Patreon still uses to this day nearly 7 years later.
With typography we had already chosen the GT Walsheim family for the wordmark and we chose GT America (I love their goofy Website) for the rest of the typography.
Photography was a really hard part of this process. In order to get this right I really had to get inside the head of Jack who is a pretty different person from me (from most, actually). If you have a very design-forward founder I’d recommend getting them to send you as many examples of what they love as possible. Jack did exactly that. He was adamant that we show the real, behind-the-scenes view of being a creator. The messiness, the grit, and not any of the glamor. Here are a few examples of the types of photos he liked:
Our photography style ended up being more voyeuristic and authentic. We were “peeking in” on the creator doing their work. A lot of our shots were framed by something—a doorway, a window, a desk—to provide the aesthetic that Patreon was in the background, not staging the shot.
It was around the conclusion of the visual guidelines that I started to feel really defeated. I was using a portion of my brain that I normally don’t use as much and going through the stages of the creative process.
After a particularly draining session I think Jack could see the looks of exasperation and exhaustion on my face. I was burning out and he could tell. So he stayed back in a conference room with me and drew me the 6 stages of the creative process on the whiteboard. As a professional creator, he’d wrestled with this a lot.
I was clearly in the “Nope” phase of the process. Feeling beaten up and drained by all the alignment and influencing I’d been doing across a 100+ person company and with a creative founder. It was one of those times where Jack’s unique abilities and ridiculously high EQ helped motivate me. It remains one of his superpowers.
With the visual identity behind us—wordmark, logomark, typography, color palette, and photography style—it was time to build out all of the assets and artifacts we’d need for a successful launch.
You can see the final Brand Guidelines here:
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Creating eye-popping assets
We had reached the end of the scope of work with FuzzCo and though we worked with them to get some designs for pages on our site we decided to carry most of that work forward ourselves with our product design team led by the talented Scott Takahashi and augmented with huge help from Indhira Rojas and her team. Scott was our Product Design manager at the time and had this to say when reflecting on how challenging that process was:
We had the scaffolding in place but needed to build the building and there was still a ton of work to do.
Indhira “Indhi” Rojas remembers the project in this way:
“We jumped into the Patreon rebrand project at an inflection point where some of the foundational brand identity work had already been completed (logo, wordmark, type, colors). Yet, there was an unsolved question: how do these elements come together to express the feeling of the brand? A contribution we were able to make was defining a brand expression centered on the feeling of creativity and artistic energy, and in this way allow creators to see themselves in the brand. Vucko used motion to connect the brand icon to the wordmark, and conceptually tie Patreon as the platform (and presenter). We worked with illustration artist Shawna X to represent different creators' verticals for the launch videos, and her style allowed us to elevate the Patreon rebrand with a sense of vivid color and a pop aesthetic. Lastly, we codified the brand vocabulary and expression into guidelines all Patreon employees could refer to and build from as they continued to evolve the brand language.”
One of the decisions we made was that we really wanted video stories of creators to be an anchor point for our launch. So we embarked on a multi-city tour to interview and film a whole bunch of creators applying the same photography style from above to video storytelling. We went inside the workshops, studios, and apartments of creators on the Patreon platform to highlight their amazing work and the process of creating. We called it the Creator Tour.
An example of how we combined many of these into an explainer video of Patreon is here:
And few examples of my favorite in-studio interviews are here:
Each one of these videos had a motion graphics element, sound design, and leveraged the new color palette and photography style to showcase the work of creative professionals. Not crowdfunding creators, but creative entrepreneurs with teams; paying people’s salaries.
We designed new site pages for each creative category, all of our social channels, 11 new videos from the creator tour, new elements for all of our email communications, re-skinned the entire product including new iconography, new merch and swag for employees, and a new sign for the headquarters.
But we had to make sure people would pay attention when we re-launched the brand and product experience. That’s where Mollie Starr came in.
Firing up the PR Machine
It’s true that PR and communications have changed shape quite drastically with the rise of social media, but it’s also true that during our rebrand there were still a ton of creators paying attention to what was talked about in the press. And in 2017, we made sure that was Patreon.
If you’re trying to change perception of your brand and shift the conversation to Membership then press can help you.
We took a three-phase approach to our 2017 press strategy in order to maximize the impact of our brand launch. The goal was a steady drumbeat of activity:
Establish contact with publications to re-introduce Patreon and get them excited about us. We leveraged a “big numbers” strategy to do this.
Circle back with more publications to announce our new features, new look, the Membership platform language, and some big name creator launches.
Announce our continued growth and success with a big fundraising announcement.
Mollie had this to say when recounting our 2017 approach:
“From a brand awareness POV among a more general audience, it was a cold start.
Many reporters were learning about Patreon for the first time. A tricky thing about working with reporters is that they like to attach to familiar concepts, partly because it helps their audience quickly understand a new concept. In our case, the familiar concept was Kickstarter-like crowdfunding. But if our coverage would have mentioned crowdfunding at all, it would have been a failure.
We had to do deep education with reporters to explain why Patreon was different from crowdfunding, and back that up with proof. We set up a strategy where we built relationships with press over many months, which meant that we needed to package-up legitimate news.
Our strategy was anchored around three distinct announcements for reporters to examine: big metrics, which showed a big new trend in the creator world; a big rebrand with new product features, which got into the nuts & bolts of how creators actually build a fan-based business; and a fundraising round, which positioned Patreon the leader in the emerging Creator Economy. Our story was complex so this strategy gave us many different reasons to talk with reporters. It also gave us meaningful ways to educate them about the various aspects of the business.
Another part of our rebrand strategy that I loved was re-educating employees. People were used to talking about Patreon the old way, but we needed to have a united front in order for the new positioning to stick. So, we turned it into a game. We held a series of small group workshops so each team could understand the rationale for the new language, and then we did mock conversations so people could practice the one-liner in a very conversational way. Each person was encouraged to share their own examples of the types of creators that use Patreon. So the basic formula was: Company 1-Liner + that person’s customized creator example. We then did an all-company Pitch-Off where the winners from each group pitched their one-liner to the whole company. It was a ton of fun! And, it helped people unite around the story in a way that still felt personalized and genuine to each team member.”
In the measurement section I’ll talk about how we determined that this was a success, but before that it’s important to understand the way that we were able to launch on time and without any bugs in the site experience.
Hiding in plain sight
There’s no other way to describe what we did to ensure a flawless launch day than the title of this section. We hid in plain sight. To rebrand a company you have to change the entire look and feel of the product. A lot of companies never get there; they continue to port over pages for months or years and sometimes abandon the effort entirely.
We wanted to do it differently at Patreon and were aided by the existence of an underlying design system that our engineering team had been building and iterating on for a year. In order to launch error-free we essentially cloned the design components using and re-built it ahead of our launch.
This was a fairly novel approach using our homegrown feature-flagging system. We had a rebrand flag for employees and turned it on for everyone in the company. This was Jason Byttow’s idea and it turned out to be one of many genius ideas he’s had at Patreon.
Using the feature flag we were able to build and ship the modified components as we were finishing them into production.
As our own team was using the product it became a many-months-long dogfooding project. Because they were hidden to anyone but employees our internal teams could file bug reports when a visual element looked off. We could then fix them without anyone on the customer side ever being aware.
We made one tiny mistake along the way - temporarily turning on the feature flag for everyone only to realize and restrict it to employees again within ~30 minutes.
The results were impressive at launch - zero reported presentation-layer bugs, zero customer-facing issues of any kind, and a generally uneventful launch day (except for the news barrage, of course. Covered above).
For anyone working on their own rebranding project I cannot recommend this strategy enough. It let us deploy regularly and worry-free and then launch without issue when we flipped the switch.
Launch day and measurement
So we’d re-imagined our positioning, our personality, our visual identity, all of our marketing materials, and our press strategy. It was time to press the button and launch this thing.
One of the key concerns when you’re a SaaS platform launching big changes is that you want your customers to be excited about those changes. One of the steps we took in advance of our launch was to preview the brand updates with some of our biggest creators. We knew having advocates on launch day would be very helpful. So we made a list of some of the most influential creators in our ecosystem, called them, and talked them through the changes.
Two things happened with this:
They were fine with the changes and understood the new direction.
They were incredibly appreciative that we had called them to loop them in.
Our launch day started at 5am. I got to the office before just about anyone else aside from co-founder Sam Yam. The code name of our launch was “America” named after the typeface GT America. So naturally we ordered a bunch of America-themed swag for our launch. This was thanks to Tal Raviv, Growth PM on my team at Patreon. Tal has a certain affinity for flair and this was a great idea. That’s me partially cut off on the right hand side of the picture, Scott sitting next to me with Taryn behind him. And Tal is the guy standing up in this photo.
The launch day “tick tock” was organized around an Asana space that I created; this is a small section to provide an example:
This had to be timed well because we were pushing product changes, branding changes, lifting press embargoes, communicating with our community of both existing and new creators, patrons, and so much more. Everyone had a job to do and some part of the launch process to execute.
At 6:30am we pushed Project America to 100% of our audience, at 9am a truck showed up at the office to switch out the sign over our front door, and at 11am we ran a livestream to the entire Patreon creator community talking about the future of Patreon. I was ready to tip over.
One of the aspects of our launch that I had mentioned to the team several times, and included in my internal email at 7:59 am on launch day, was how to ignore the haters:
“And remember that someone, somewhere won't be happy with what we're announcing today. They might even be angry about it. That's also okay. We've done our best to put forth a brand and a product that we are proud of, collected feedback, iterated and iterated and iterated. And we'll continue building a brand and product that we're proud of as we take Patreon into the future. Today is a day to feel proud of that work and remember two things: we will fix what is broken and we can't please everyone all the time."
I had gotten some advice from our board that continues to stick with me today: give it 2 weeks. After two weeks all of the anger from the flash-in-the-pan mob will dissipate and they’ll move on to something else. This was 100% true. We saw people post on Reddit completely shitting on the work we’d done. We trended in the /r/CrappyDesign community. And less than 2 weeks later all those people disappeared and settled into the new normal. This is exactly what happened with the Patreon rebrand.
Most Growth practitioners will lament the challenge of measuring branding efforts. I was no different. But I absolutely had to find a way to measure success with this project.
There were three primary criteria that we used to evaluate the results of the project:
Sentiment and adoption of language in the press.
Creator launches earning money.
Size of creator launches.
For the first criteria, Mollie Starr summarized it best:
“But if our coverage would have mentioned crowdfunding at all, it would have been a failure.”
We created a messaging tracker that evaluated every article for sentiment as well as whether it referenced crowdfunding, membership, both, or neither. Success was defined as 75%+ articles speaking about Patreon as a Membership platform rather than a Crowdfunding platform.
The second criteria was creator launches earning money. We wanted to make sure that creators kept launching on the platform at or above the current rate. The important aspect here was waiting for the noise to stabilize. We knew that a lot of creators (and non-creators) would check out the platform following the announcements. We also knew that those people would be “tire kickers” who didn’t have a real intention to launch on the platform—or weren’t actually creators who could successfully launch. They were curious, but not serious. So we wanted to evaluate once we had stabilized in the weeks following the launch announcement.
One important nuance was the “earning money” aspect of this metric. Patreon had lots of creators who launched and earned nothing on the platform. This was totally fine—it could be due to audience size, stage, what you were creating, etc. We knew that platforms like Shopify had the same challenge because not every shop owner who launches can be successful on their platform.
The final criteria was related to the size of creators launching on the platform. Remember that our rebrand was designed to make the brand more appealing to larger creators; those with established followings who regularly post online (from our positioning statement).
As long as Patreon has been around we had a $1,000/month+ creator metric that tracked the growth in the segment of creators who were making more than $1,000 per month. With this rebrand we continued to track that metric and also added $5,000/month and $10,000/month+ to our KPIs.
By these three measurement criteria the rebrand was a huge success. Better than 75% of our press mentions talked about Membership and the new products we were launching to support professional creators. Launches where creators earned money increased and the size of creators launching on the platform also increased. In fact, we paired our rebrand announcement with the launch of several big, household creator names.
In the weeks following this project launched, Jack had this to say:
“We led the entire Patreon organization, not just marketing, through a 100% brand shift, from brand identity, to logos, to core value. It took a full year. We started with WHY Patreon exists and managed the exec team (not to mention two opinionated cofounders) through a tough, existential process that forced us to re-examine what was working, what wasn’t, and the real value that Patreon provides its creators and patrons through its identify. Nothing was sacred. We tore out our logo. We tore out our messaging. We changed how I spoke about Patreon and the words I used to describe its value. It took conviction and guts.”
The 2016/2017 rebrand of Patreon was simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding projects I have ever led. I had to work with a founder who is a professional artist, has strong conviction in his vision, and created the original branding for the company. We had to shift perception internally with a skeptical team and externally to salvage our WoM and UGC growth loops and keep them spinning. Professionally, this project brought me some of the highest highs and the lowest lows that I’ve ever had in my career. The six stages of the creative process are real and they are often painful.
The amazing thing about this project was two-fold.
First, it brought out the best in our teammates. Everyone had an important role to play from marketing, to product, to engineering, to customer support. It was one of the few, truly company-wide initiatives that I’ve been a part of where everyone in the company is doing something to advance this effort.
Second, it worked. Patreon has certainly experienced many growth catalysts over its lifetime, but this was one of the few that were driven by us and not an external force (demonetization, COVID, etc.). Watching the videos we made still gives me goosebumps and seeing some of the creators who have launched on the platform since the rebrand and the way that they have embraced the concept of Membership is amazing.
As Mollie Starr said to me:
“Looking around today, it’s pretty amazing to see how so many things are now rooted in membership”
She’s right! Since we rebranded to Membership we saw behemoths like YouTube change their Patreon clones from “Channel Sponsorships” to “Channel Memberships” and expand it beyond just gaming channels. An entire industry designed to fund the creative class has embraced the Membership language and concepts.
Patreon started a movement that continues today as they send billions of dollars to creators annually.
This is a two-part article. You can read the first part of When Branding is a Growth Strategy here.
Special shout-outs to folks like Scott Takahashi, Arielle Jackson, Mollie Star, Indhira Rojas for all their input into this newsletter series.