Navigating the New World of Founder-Brands

Creative Director Richard Smith explains how visionaries like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg approach their branding and why it’s important to apply brand thinking to founders’ products

This article originally appeared in PSFK on November 1, 2016. 

Lately, we’ve found that the definition of a “big brand” is changing. Decades ago, the big brands were the heavyweights like 3M or Honeywell or GE — the companies that made products and whose success was defined by how many units were sold.

Then along came the 1990s where the Internet brought forth a new generation of big brands. Microsoft, Apple and Google were successful because of how they powered intangibles, like large-scale computing, information (“organizing the world’s information”), or innovation (“think different”). However, these complex offerings were made more understandable and accessible through cohesive branding – the voice and visual system that conveys an interrelation between every product.

Today, the emerging big brands among us are those that are bringing the future to fruition — changing how we exist, interact, and sustain our lives. They’re making social networks, self-driving cars, hoverboards, and holograms. And most interesting of all, this new class of brand is led by a visionary founder with a particular philosophy, not by a corporate entity acting out a product roadmap against established brand guidelines and architecture. People like Elon Musk, Evan Spiegel, and Mark Zuckerberg are pursuing innovation across product and business lines that sometimes don’t organize quite as neatly under a parent company as the businesses of yesteryear had, and instead are branded in siloes.

So, in a time when founders are starting multiple companies with product offerings that – at face value – don’t align as easily, how can consumer loyalty to one product be translated to another? Is there a way to apply brand thinking to this new generation of visionaries in order to build cross-product loyalty?


Creating a brand as a founder’s proxy

Richard Branson was ahead of his time, in that music, airlines, and cell phones didn’t seem to have much in common other than the disruptive viewpoint Virgin brought to each industry. However, Branson understood the need to unite these products – which lacked any similarity in offering – through visual and verbal cues. Putting the Virgin name on each product made Virgin eponymous with Branson’s own brand.

In a similar way, Evan Spiegel followed the Branson model, creating Snap, Inc. as the parent company to Snapchat and Spectacles. While this move was likely aimed at smoothing the process to IPO, the reality is that when Snap, Inc. launched Spectacles, its familiar branding and purpose (“creating Memories”) was critical in translating Snapchat users to Spectacle early adopters. Time will tell if Spiegel launches another product line outside of the Snap brand, but for now, consistent branding across his two products is wise cross-marketing.

Enter Elon Musk

Though the Virgin name became indicative of a product that was Branson-created (or at least Branson-related), visionary founders today are stepping back from aligning themselves with a single parent brand and are instead creating many different lines of business that each boasts a unique identity and value proposition.

For instance, a self-driving car, a trip to Mars, beautiful solar panels, and twelve-minute trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi share some qualities but don’t immediately stand for the same value and trustworthiness that consumers have grown accustomed to using when making buying decisions. While Musk’s futuristic, innovative offerings appeal to the small set of consumers who follow his Apple-esque events and announcements, for Musk’s brand to enter the mainstream – which appears to be on the horizon – it’s important to find ways to ensure that someone looking to go off the grid with solar is also inclined to wait three years for the Model 3.

However, the Musk focus on sustainability, technology, and innovation is muddied among the varied names, causes, visual identities, and price points of his products. With no core visual elements shared across his brands, Musk’s higher-order ambitions and values of sustainability and innovation get lost.

Zuckerberg setting the tone

Musk would do well by looking to the Mark Zuckerberg model of founder branding. As varied as Zuckerberg’s subsidiary products are, his passion for connecting people with one another is conveyed through tangible expressions of that value: open and friendly communication and design.

This is something he and his team have successfully done across his products, including, Oculus, and the Zuckerberg’s Biohub. He uses Facebook as a platform for announcements and use cases for all of his products, even if they aren’t part of the Facebook brand. For instance, announcements about WhatsApp happen alongside personal posts and still alongside Facebook product updates. Zuckerberg allows these products to interact and intersect with one another without needing a single brand architecture, and in doing this, the consumer can easily identify a Zuckerberg project, and therefore what he and his brand stands for.

Founder brands are not necessarily new, but the weight they hold in the average consumer’s life is growing. For founder brands, many of the same qualities of modern-day corporate branding hold: in order to connect with customers – and increase chances of cross-product sales – it’s important to identify a guiding philosophy, values and tone, and extend that “strategy” through design and communication across channels. Doing so makes it exponentially more efficient to create a company and product brands as founders innovate in new areas, and easier to keep loyalists engaged.