Since before the peak of the dotcom era, technology companies' value has been primarily in the camp of revolution, as opposed to evolution. To make your mark as the next big thing, you had to position yourself as a "disruptor," breaking down the gates of the establishment, shifting paradigms, making the tried-and-true obsolete and otherwise upending the way business is done. First articulated in a 1995 Harvard Business Review paper, the disruptor identity has served and continues to serve the industry very well, being central to many companies fundraising efforts.
But today—with the chaos created by COVID-19—influential technology voices are asking whether being a disruptor has the same currency as it once did. As businesses continue to deal with global shipping delays, inventory shortages and workforce constraints, they're looking for a sense of stability and certainty more than anything. This is why more tech brands—whether startups or known players—are looking to adopt a "builder" brand profile and communicate it effectively to the market.
Facebook may not be the poster child for public reputation, but even they went from "move fast and break things" in their early years to "move fast with stable infrastructure."
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Nov. '21 Technology PR Magazine
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While this doesn't change the job of tech marketers and communicators, it does require a change in tone and emphasis that meets the demands of the current environment and aligns with stakeholders' mindsets. Below are a few hallmarks of such an approach.
Be a team player
Tech brands have traditionally relied on aggressive language that draws attention to their outsider status or ability to change or even upend an industry. By contrast, builder brands demand softer language and concepts—ones that emphasize values and characteristics such as continuity, ongoing partnerships, and collaboration with existing industry participants. The challenge is not to destroy the current system, but to work together to make improvements while minimizing disruption to clients and the industry.
Co-authoring bylined articles with clients, analysts or other third parties should be one element of this strategy. In addition, tech brands should look to facilitate roundtables and research that brings together a variety of voices who seek to solve industry problems.
Knowledge over solutions
Builder brands likewise tend to rely on domain expertise rather than "hero tech" or radical approaches. Demonstrating the deep understanding you have of your clients' businesses and end markets, and the real business challenges they are asking you to help them solve, is a more welcome approach than leading with advanced features or the latest software-engineering buzzwords. While a strong relationship with the CIO crowd is still important, grounding your brand value in the work your clients do every day communicates the reliability they need.
Practically, this means thoughtful case studies are far more important than press releases, and technical improvements should be communicated in the context of the user experience of your platform or product and the benefits derived Bells and whistles detached from results should be avoided.
For many businesses, choosing to work with a disruptor brand carries an implied risk. Many startups have followed the path of "we came, we broke the mold, we conquered, we moved on" as they strived to be recognized as the next tech unicorn. While some have succeeded, many others have crashed and burned as they switched models and jumped industries to follow the money, leaving a string of abandoned clients in their wake.
Tech firms can position themselves as more durable, reliable partners by outlining a commitment that goes beyond a product roadmap. Having a real dialogue and seeking regular input from key clients to inform a real vision for how you will work with them over the long term is a cornerstone of a builder brand.
While the foosball table in the break room became a classic trope of the dotcom corporate culture, more recently, tech brands who cultivated hard-charging corporate cultures have shown cracks in the façade. With billionaire owners focused on flying to outer space while their companies manage discrimination suits and allegations of—inhumane—working conditions, it's no wonder that staff turnover is one of the historical weaknesses of disruptor brands. A builder brand corporate culture needs to put workers' concerns at the center, ensure transparency and understand the difference between truly valuing staff and mistaking Taco Tuesday for a strong corporate culture.
Before tech brands change their communications strategies wholesale and adopt a builder brand mindset, it's important to think about how long this trend will last. Disruption may quickly come back into vogue once the turbulence stabilizes. But for many, the brand pendulum had swung so far in the disruptor direction that moving it back toward a builder positioning brings some much-needed balance that can help carry organizations through the current crises and provide greater flexibility for the future.
Tom Faust is Managing Director at Stanton, a strategic communications firm that works with a wide variety of technology companies to build their brands.