Radical Simplicity: Creating an Authentic Security Brand From Within
It can be difficult to quantify the effect of a brand on a company and an industry, given that brands are the gut reaction of the many people who interact with a company, its product and its people. Businesses don’t get to define their brand, their audience does; and a business can only work to reinforce or dispel the traits it’s known for.
When our CEO Dug Song first talked to me about the idea that would become Duo, it was clear that how we did things was going to be as important as what we did. That combination has informed our style from the beginning. Duo’s reputation — its brand — is built on a belief that building the right kind of security product meant building the right kind of security company, one that makes user, customer, and even employee experience a top priority.
An overview of how Duo's in-house team drives business value and is helping disrupt an entire industry.
Michael Brake, noted sociologist specializing in subcultures and collective experiences, defines style as a combination of three things:
*Image* – our presentation, how we look
*Demeanor* – our attitude, how we behave
*Argot* – French for slang, or what we say
The right combination of those things, cultivated by a company with keen self-awareness, has made for an authentic brand that customers and employees are not only interested in, but actually champion, and even love — an outlier in the security industry. It has fueled our growth, adoption and customer satisfaction for years, and has set the tone for a new security industry mindset.
It’s no secret that the information security industry, part of and yet distinct from the larger technology industry, has an image problem — both in the experience of using the products it created, and in the marketing of those products and companies.
As Hafsah Mijinyawa, visual designer at Duo put it in her blog post; Infosec Has an Image Problem:
"When most people think of “security,” the concepts of good security hygiene or zero trust are not likely to be the first things that come to mind. It’s more likely the average individual will cycle through a mind mapping session that starts at the door to a bank vault and might end up somewhere near an episode of Person of Interest. In large part due to mainstream media, the idea of security often becomes entangled with fictional concepts of who the people in the world of security are and what the data battlefield looks like.
Keeping in mind that film and narrative depictions of hacking, cryptography and the digital network overall were often grossly exaggerated by imaginative minds moved by the potential of “cyber” and the brave new technological world, it is interesting to note that a good chunk of aesthetic choices within the infosec industry appear to have drawn inspiration from those same glamorized concepts found within genre fiction."
This dichotomy between the somewhat mundane “industry solutions” and the hacker mythos makes for an inauthentic industry —one that finds joy in complexity, and admires the attackers, while enormous amounts of money are made selling products that perhaps, maybe, hopefully do something to mitigate them. "Selling snake oil" is a common idiom used in infosec to describe disingenuous companies peddling less-than-effective solutions.
Some of those notions of a brave new cyber technological world are real and true — like the potential impacts of software vulnerabilities — but the people depicted as cyber warriors are often simply people whose curiosity and intuition provide them with the ability to figure out how things work.
I’ve often thought of the infosec researchers and practitioners I know (our industry’s “influencers”) as being as “close to the metal” as you can get in technology — sometimes literally etching off the top of a silicon chip in order to poke and prod at its innards. A unique blend of technologists, computer scientists, mad scientists, futurists and straight-up hackers, you’ll find these great minds working for every style of employer you can picture; from military and clandestine forces, to consumer tech companies like Etsy and Facebook.
These makers, thinkers and doers are the first line of assessment when vetting a new security project, but are notoriously put off by the typical heavy-handed marketing techniques of many companies. Too often there is a tendency by security companies to oversell and underdeliver, and to demonstrate a lack of understanding and reverence for the very real subculture that we work in. That fundamental disconnect often led to brands and tactics built on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And while fear certainly sells, it rarely inspires.
We knew we had to take a different approach.
Disrupting Complexity With Radical Simplicity
In some of the very first conversations about the company that would become Duo, two notions kept coming up:
The security industry was creating unnecessarily complex products.
The industry itself had an image problem.
Duo’s brand - its very philosophy - aims to dispel and disrupt those notions.
At the core of both of these issues was complexity. The security industry and its products didn't put users' needs first, and put threats and fear at the center of its messaging. Doing things differently meant getting back to our core principles; solving true security issues without flashiness or over-promising. Our Midwestern roots have influenced our work ethic and principles; the sense of just getting the job done and being upfront and honest about what job we were trying to do.
We didn't need another superhero to take on hackers with more brute strength. What the infosec industry really needed was an antihero who could change how security products were designed and sold, while redefining the relationship between a company, its employees and its customers.
Duo was formed with a distinct vision of radical simplicity and transparency. We wanted to redefine how we communicate across every interaction — not just in the experience of using our product, but in the experience of interacting with our company. All of this combined into a single mission: to democratize security and make it accessible and simple for everyone, not just those with unlimited resources.
Communicating that vision was crucial for us to distinguish ourselves from our competitors and to create an endearing connection with our customers. That gut reaction and connection to the soul of the company is what makes a brand relevant and resonant, and it’s been something we’ve made a point of cultivating from the very beginning at Duo. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to build and lead an amazing team to do just that.
Bringing It All In-House
As a consultant and advisor to the business early on, I was happily parachuting in to other companies like Tesla, Clif Bar and Miramax, doing the mercenary design/branding stint, and parachuting back out. I began the same process with Duo to get the company off of the ground by developing early product designs, crafting messaging and building pitches and websites as needed, even renaming the company.
What was different about Duo (and what led me to curtail a 15-year freelance career to join Duo full-time) was the desire to treat every aspect of the company — including the visual brand, communications, interactions and product experience — as equally important.
Outsiders simply couldn’t cultivate that kind of vision. Duo needed a dedicated in-house team, fully equipped to craft the unique stories of our diverse customers, to build the authenticity of our voice, and to make the empathetic connections that were so desired (and lacking) in the industry.
Reinventing decades of assumptive imagery and communication could not happen through a couple of agency-led one-off campaigns and sporadic updates to the brand. Compelling storytelling through messaging, visual design and high production value had to be a core capability of Duo that was treated with the same iterative and ongoing process that we would use for our product development.
As one of our board members and investors, Matt Cohler (of LinkedIn, Facebook and Benchmark) often stressed, Duo’s message needed to be relevant, inevitable, believable and simple. Our ability to communicate authentically was crucial to our success. An in-house team that lived and breathed the industry, the product and the culture was the only way to instill that authenticity during the hyper-growth stages of a wildly successful startup.
Telling the Story
With the drive to both change the existing infosec narrative and to invest early in design and storytelling, two of my first hires at Duo were a journalist and a filmmaker. This wasn’t exactly a normal hiring round for a software as a service (SaaS) company of only a few dozen people, especially not for what was then a two-person a design team.
The rationale for in-house teams is often based on cost and speed, which are certainly important considerations for an early-stage startup. Being quick and lean can mean the difference between success and failure. But more importantly, it’s about the capability to treat the message of the company the same way we build the product — building upon successes, learning from failures, and looking for innovative ways to instill our vision wherever possible.
We do this with four core components:
A content team that leads with strategic storytelling to impart relevant, useful, educational articles, ebooks, scripts, product copy and more that makes security approachable and interesting to both insiders and outsiders — all while intentionally shaping and keeping consistent the overall tone of Duo’s friendly, casual and authentic voice.
A visual design team that crafts our visual presentation — from trade show booths to ebooks to diagrams and t-shirts — with the same simplicity, straightforward aesthetic and clear communication that we bring to our product.
A video and multimedia production team that brings a range of talents across motion, video, animation, acting, script writing, editing and major production capacity, all in service of telling our story.
And naturally, a web design and development team responsible for the lynchpin of our demand, lead generation and marketing efforts — and therefore the revenue of the company — duo.com.
As we've evolved past those early days, Duo has built much more than just an in-house agency. We've built an essential component of the business that is integral to teaching the rest of the company, industry and beyond our unique brand and vision.
Over the years, we've also created and maintained authentic connections within the industry by bringing our very real personality and opinions to the broader market. We're leaving a lasting mark with our brand, and doing it with style.