Since becoming the CEO of 99designs four years ago, I’ve quickly learned about what goes into establishing a brand. As a company, we viewed our dedication to growing a brand founded on crowd-sourced design contests as one of our greatest strengths. However, our tunnel vision of what our core business was supposed to be, versus what it was evolving into, led us to a failed launch of what we thought would be our next big business.
Our customers kept asking for quick, on-the-spot design work that was easy enough as to not warrant a design contest. So we launched an entirely separate brand: Swiftly — a service that guaranteed small design tasks completed in under an hour. Because this service was not a design contest, we felt it didn’t belong as part of the 99designs brand.
Given the customer demand, we thought Swiftly would immediately take off. It did not. The new brand confused customers; they didn’t see the connection between the companies or understand the difference in product offerings. Similar to Netflix’s 2011 attempt to spin off its DVD business into a separate company, there wasn’t a sense of trust in the new brand. A year later, we had to admit Swiftly wasn’t going to cut it on its own.
We had to make the choice either to drop the service completely or to integrate it into our 99designs offering. When faced with the decision to either let our customers down or change the way we viewed our brand, it became glaringly obvious what to do — we integrated the service into 99designs. Our customers led us to a new identity. We are no longer just a design contest company; we are a design company, period. Here’s what we learned through this experience:
Listen to Your Customers
We thought we had listened to our customers, which is why we launched Swiftly. We didn’t realize that they were asking for quick and easy design from 99designs. If you have already established a good relationship with your current customers, don’t let that trust go to waste. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to establish a second brand if it makes sense; just make the most from the work you’ve already done. Be very clear in your communications to your current customers as to what this new brand is, the reasoning behind it, and what it offers differently. Don’t assume they will just get it.
Talk to Your Customers
When is the last time you spent an hour answering customer service calls or responding to customer emails? I first realized Swiftly didn’t resonate because almost every time I walked by our customer service team I heard the name Swiftly come up. “It’s spelled like the word swift. It’s not Swift dot ly, it’s one word. Yes, it’s from 99designs. No, it doesn’t work like that.”
There’s no online survey or email questionnaire that cuts to the root of the problem as fast and effectively as taking some time to talk directly to your customers, so hop on the phone. Also, there’s no better audience off of which to bounce new ideas. Ask them directly for feedback so they feel like part of the journey.
Be Their Brand
Your brand is not only what you want it to be. It is what your customers believe it is. Because we were primarily building a company based on contests and that is what we thought our customers knew us for, we put too much focus on the how (design contests) versus the why (design that customers want). This limited us in how we defined our brand and closed different avenues that could have facilitated design in different ways.
Allow your customers to decide how they use your product or service. If you make beautifully handcrafted red oak jewelry boxes, and for whatever reason people start to put sandwiches in them to take to work, guess what? You’re a lunchbox maker too! Embrace the gift your customers have given you and let it inspire you.
This experience taught us a lot. Letting go of the brand we wanted and becoming the brand our customers wanted us to be has been empowering. Don’t be afraid to let go, and trust that your customers will take you where they need you to go.
Patrick Llewellyn is CEO of 99designs.