Brand building: How Notion leverages context, clarity, and community
After nearly a decade of toiling under 10%, punctuated by historic lows during the pandemic, marketing budgets are enjoying a resurgence in 2022.
Across both B2B and B2C segments, one category is gaining ground against marketing staples like ad spend, customer relationship management, and content creation. That category:
The non-marketers in the room might be thinking, “branding is just storytelling, what’s there to build?”
But you know branding is more than just a story Marketing puts out to the world. It’s an immersive relationship based on identity — a back and forth where you compel the customer towards an ideal reality.
That relationship is a wealth of qualitative knowledge that helps build your brand.
It’s easy to forget this fact in massive markets like B2B tech, where a revolving door of new competitors and ungodly sums of money drive companies to focus heavily on product development. But even in this setting, informed brand building is the difference between a flash-in-the-pan and sustained growth.
Just ask Notion.
AKA “the other half of Slack,” Notion has experienced incredible growth over the past few years. Their versatile product allows groups of any size to effectively manage projects, share documents, and create comprehensive wikis. They're a fan favorite, and tapping into that enthusiasm is key to creating a strong brand — regardless of the industry.
So, even though your business might be selling dentistry equipment or artisanal soap, Notion’s brand building approach still very much applies.
It’s an approach based on the three C’s of brand building:
Over the past few years, Notion’s SEO metrics, social engagement, consumer sentiment, and financials have surged. Here are some highlights:
Referrals from high-quality domains like Apple, Google, and Microsoft
505 million views on TikTok for “notion app”
Over 2.2 million site visits funneled through social media each month
$275 million in Series C funding, boosting their valuation to $10 billion
How’s that for brand building?
Crunched for time figuring out how to scale your brand? Here’s a TL;DR:
Scaling a brand is tough, whether you’re B2B or B2C, so companies are investing more resources in brand building strategies
Looking at the brand building success of companies like Notion can help you replicate that growth
In the highly competitive B2B SaaS space, Notion has successfully built a brand across multiple vertices by embracing the three C’s of Context, Clarity, and Community:
Context: Notion used individual users to thoroughly study how their product compared to competitors
Clarity: By applying insights from individual users to SMB and enterprise contexts, Notion validated their advantages at scale
Community: Notion leverages its most engaged followers, or champions, to drive further engagement across social platforms
Brand building, regardless of the end customer, is best achieved through understanding context, achieving clarity, and leveraging community
Scaling any brand in any industry is no easy feat. Why make it more difficult by only monitoring the successes and failures of your direct competitors? There’s inspiration everywhere — some of the best inspiration might be outside your category. You don’t have to work in software to learn from Notion’s case study.
They just happen to be a very good example.
Take notes. Using Notion, maybe — I swear they’re not paying us to write that, we just love Notion.
Context — Uncovering your "activated users"
As we said above, B2B SaaS appears to be a very different beast than industries like health and lifestyle, which cater exclusively to consumers.
In tech, there’s rapid scaling, a constantly changing landscape, and an endless stream of venture capital to fight over. Consumer-oriented segments like health and lifestyle are comparatively more stable and businesses take longer to grow. For this reason, most marketing departments treat them as two completely different worlds.
But there are still important ties between B2B and B2C. In particular, the power of people.
And, as Notion’s previous Head of Marketing, Camille Ricketts, said on Forget the Funnel, there are actually three groups of people driving Notion’s brand building:
Single-player: Notion’s B2C segment of individual users
Self-serve: Notion’s B2B segment of teams and SMBs.
Sales collaboration: Notion’s B2B segment of enterprise departments and organizations.
These three user segments are the personas that inform Notion’s brand building approach.
We know; It’s a strategy that flies directly in the face of the old saying “if you market to everyone, you’re marketing to no one.”
Well, Cotton, the results are in, and the strategy of applying individual user insights to their SMB and enterprise users is most certainly paying off for Notion.
One of Notion’s major value propositions is that it breaks down the workplace silos keeping institutional knowledge gated. Whether you’re giving feedback to a creative team or trying to optimize a new template, these barriers lock away the business potential that drives your bottom line.
This is where the capabilities of Notion’s product plays back into their brand building — they have the flexibility to ease into practically any context and become an effective tool. From a student making a study schedule to a startup drafting their Wiki to an enterprise looking to consolidate its tech stack, Notion has it covered.
Knowing the context(s) where business thrives makes it that much easier to inform brand building.
Like your favorite wine, Notion pairs well with any context.
Clarifying your value proposition
A big struggle that many companies face when trying to grow their brand is zeroing in on their messaging.
That’s one thing you never have to worry about with Notion, as a product and a brand: clarity.
Where other tech companies might spend exorbitant amounts of money on ad campaigns or rebranding, Notion chose to focus on understanding its broad user base. Here’s Camille talking about the process on Forget the Funnel:
“[One thing we did] was really auditing where people were having conversations about Notion online, whether it was Facebook or Reddit, or on a Discord channel or on Linkedin, and really paying close attention to who was being the most engaged and most vocal online.
And then not hesitating to reach out to them just in an exploratory fashion…to understand why they had gravitated so much to the product…”
These insights give Notion clarity into what their audience — and each segment of their audience — loves so much about the product. Then they apply it en-masse.
Across all of the different dimensions that go into brand building — name, logo, graphics, copy, templates, user experience, and product performance — Notion takes a very measured, minimalist approach that its users love.
From their instantly recognizable, monochrome illustrations:
To their web copy:
To how they position their product for different user segments:
Notion creates an environment that is visually appealing but doesn’t take away from the piece-de-resistance — the product itself:
Notion takes every opportunity to put the product in front of visitors (seriously, read this Reddit thread). No bells and whistles, just clarity about what Notion has to offer, which is…everything (it’s an “all-in-one workplace,” remember?).
Notion is very clear about one thing in particular: they are better than all the tools in your current tech stack. (Their users certainly think so.)
It’s Notion vs. Everybody
A little bit of drama between companies is always fun. You see it a lot on social channels like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok —light banter between competitors to stoke audience loyalty.
Which, we’re not afraid to stir the pot here at Air, either.
While Notion seems to be taking the high road now, calling out all competitors — across multiple industries, no less — was a big part of their growth strategy as recently as last year.
Here’s a look at three snippets from their home page in April 2021, take a look at the right side of the image:
Confluence. GitHub. Trello. asana. Jira. Evernote. Google Docs.
When Notion takes a shot, they really swing for the fences.
Again, this brand positioning comes from a clear understanding of the user’s context:
Notion did their audience research and heard that users hate switching between multiple apps (we feel your pain, Notioners). They’ve validated their single-player context and know that those issues compound for scaling businesses. And they know that their existing customers will come to bat for them because their product is 1) better and 2) reduces complexity.
There’s a reason they have a top rating spot on G2.
Community — Crowd-source your brand building
Notion has been able to build such a strong brand in large part due to their passionate, grassroots, audience base. The audience insights they gathered throughout their growth phase, that clarity we just talked about — none of it would have been possible without this deeply engaged grassroots following.
They have a network of highly engaged followers across Reddit, GitHub — just about any platform with a social component. Take a look at their numbers:
197K subscribers to r/Notion
175K Instagram followers
256K Twitter followers
157K YouTube subscribers
These social followers are a mish-mash of the users from those audience segments we mentioned earlier: Single-player, self-serve, and enterprise. They post “how-to” videos on YouTube, share templates for specific use-cases, and create the type of UGC marketer’s dreams are made of like this top post from r/Notion:
But there’s a special class of the Notioner community that has helped the company achieve new heights:
These are the people who voluntarily create Notion-centered content on social channels and web pages across the world, attracting other users and developing multiple communities that the company leverages for growth.
Ben Lang, was one of their earliest ambassadors. His fan site stuck out so much to Camille and the Notion team, that they brought him on board where he’s currently Head of Community.
As advanced members of the Notion community, these linchpins provide both marketing and troubleshooting services to the wider network. Here’s Camille from the same interview mentioned above talking about how crucial these users are to Notion’s brand building strategy:
“So the biggest example for us is that YouTube is a massive channel, and we are constantly in contact with a lot of YouTube creators of different sizes of audiences…
The people who are actually really excited about Notion are the ones that we love working with. So for anyone out there who's trying to figure out how to crack that nut, I would say doing a sweep of your audience to see who are organic creators and then reaching out to them really proactively is a great way to go about it.”
It’s also important to note that Notion truly is global — more than 80% of their users (and 70% of their sales) are from outside the United States. So when it comes to building a truly global community, these ambassadors are indispensable.
They’ve invested time and money in their community and now their community is returning the favor.
Find the 3 C’s to your brand building success
Notion’s success and cult-following make it look like some once-in-a-lifetime outlier. While their brand building is incredibly impressive, especially within their…horizontal?...it really just boils down to the 3 C’s that Camille describes.
Context, Clarity, and Community.
So, whether you’re hawking boutique pet apparel on Etsy or looking to build the next tech Unicorn, you need to know that your brand-building efforts are on track. This process is about a lot more than just logos, color schemes, and Instagram reels. Make sure you have context, clarity, and community.
It seems like a daunting process at first, but we’ve got the perfect resource to get your brand building strategy on track. Whether you’re a startup, rolling out a new product, or taking on a rebrand to better align with your audience, our questionnaire prompts you to dive deep on your brand’s context.
You know where to go from there. Context, clarity, community.