According to CreditKarma's CEO, Kenneth Lin, it comes down to a couple of things, including establishing the right set of values between the founders, from the outset, and making yourself vulnerable to criticism, even if it's that last thing that you feel like doing.
It's these two relatively simple activities that have the power to create your strongest brand advocates, as Lin discovered.
In the linked article, which I highly recommend, he shares what he's learned on his journey to building a hugely successful, billion-dollar business in a very unpopular industry; a business which today is recognised as a consumer champion with a very authentic and respected voice.
That he achieved this on a shoe-string budget and with no PR assistance at a time when all the established businesses in his industry were considered untrustworthy pariahs, makes his success even more impressive.
I especially like the unusual but rather inspired approach that he and his fellow founders took to identify the values that their new business came to stand for.
I also like the fact that they recognised the importance of identifying these cultural benchmarks and boundaries right from the outset.
(I'm going to use this approach as we pull together the founding team for the new startup business that I am building.)
Lin reportedly concludes that with CreditKarma, after going back to the drawing board at least once, the founding team ended up with a completely different list of words to what they had been expecting.
The words that they ultimately settled on weren't trendy and they apparently weren't ideal from a sales perspective. They weren't aspirational, as many corporate values are (one of Lin's criticisms). But because of the way they'd reached these words and what they stood for, everyone felt they were more honest and authentic; they were the ones everyone could get behind and apply consistently.
To ensure that these brand values informed every decision within the business, Lin and his colleagues came up with an approach that he still swears by; part of which includes making a concrete list of the choices they would never make, due to the risk of compromising what it is that they wanted their business to stand for.
He describes how even in the face of criticism from others, these value-driven 'guardrails' helped to keep them on course and true to their founding objectives - principles that have struck real resonance with their loyal customer-base and made the business the success that it is today.
The linked article also explores what it refers to as 'the habits of courageous branding', something that Lin's approach definitely embodied. There are some great examples of what he did and how it consistently worked for CreditKarma's reputation, even in the fact of significant scepticism.
As Lin concedes, it probably wasn't the most efficient or sophisticated approach at all times, but they had to bootstrap their way to certain solutions and often, there was no option but to manage without the resources and assistance that established brands can command. Lin simply rolled up his sleeves and bravely waded in, only to discover all sorts of valuable insights and opportunities suddenly available to him.
As to the question of what makes a brand sexy: well, according to the author and Lin, the formula lies in the linked extract below.
It's an inspiring and instructive read that is all about simplicity, integrity, great cultural practices and the right people.
A brand is sexy if it attracts attention from your specific audience. That’s all. It doesn’t have to set the world on fire, just a subset of it. So don’t copy others, or feel like you need all the same bells and whistles of other brands. Find your unique voice that cuts through the noise for your customers by channeling the personalities on your founding team, and being honest among the people who are poised to care about your company most. Listen to what they talk about and the questions they raise. Make yourself vulnerable to criticism even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing... “Brand is not just what you show to the rest of the world. It’s the living soul of your company,” says Lin.