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Can a student-centered brand win Adult approval WITHOUT losing its brash, no-grownups attitude?

Here's a quick case-study on Brainly, a rapidly upscaling education-technology company.  Brainly runs a gamified social-learning network where each month some 80 million students in 35 markets ask and answer questions about their schoolwork. Brainly started out in Poland, where it barnstormed the market in under a year. From there, it started a global march through Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and beyond, winning significant investor attention along the way. Brainly is now the largest social-learning network ever built, and shows no signs of slowing down.

But there's a catch. Brainly entered the U.S. market with zero brand recognition, and risked being sunk from the outset by American suspicions of Eastern-European technology companies. Brainly's existing branding strategy threatened to worsen that problem. Brainly had long promoted its product as a student-driven solution to the chronic inadequacies of conventional educational institutions, which Brainly argued had failed to bring high-quality, personalized information to all students in a fair and adequate way. Rightly intuiting that students were frustrated with their schools and teachers, Brainly channeled that energy into the message that students could solve this problem by leaving adults behind and banding together to build their own educational network.

Brainly entered the U.S. market with zero brand recognition and risked being sunk from the outset by American suspicions of Eastern-European technology companies.

It's a powerful message, and it brought Brainly staggering early success. But when I ran a few focus groups with U.S. parents and educators, who are particularly fastidious gatekeepers of students' online experiences, it became clear that Brainly's existing strategy threatened to alienate these critical demographics. We found not only that parents and educators were already deeply suspicious of an unfamiliar, new-to-the-neighborhood company that wanted to gather millions of children together on the internet, but that this students-first message suggested to parents and educators that they were part of the problem. Since virtually all of Brainly’s users are minors, a U.S. marketing approach needed to balance the brand’s brash, rebellious image against an indispensable campaign to win the trust and endorsement of the grown-ups in the room.

Brainly asked me to help build a companion site to explain their product to parents and teachers while also packaging Brainly as an ideal workplace for top-tier tech talent. Put another way, I had to craft a single pitch to win the trust and interest of three distinct national audiences: parents, educators, and prospective employees. My approach was to listen carefully, write perfectly, and never compromise the brand.

Here's how.

Validate Brainly by highlighting its global popularity.

Visitors to the website land here, greeted by an energetic assertion of Brainly's global reach. This message makes an immediate play for trust,  as it's invested not in explaining how the product works but in pitching the scale of its "learning community" (never its "user base") as a pedagogical advantage. It's a core asset of the brand, and deserves to be front and center. Brainly, after all, is second only to Wikipedia in the size of its online knowledge-base, and while it might be relatively unknown in the U.S. it's already an indispensable staple of students' academic lives in dozens of countries. By front-loading a message about Brainly's massive global user-base I hoped to communicate to parents and teachers that this product is tested, trusted, and transparent. For prospective talent, this kind of scale makes Brainly an especially easy sell.

Undo the social-network stigma by defining Brainly as a makerspace for young learners.

In focus groups, I found that parents and educators alike perceived online social networks to be unsupervised and unsupervisable spaces, rife with cyber-bullying and polluted by malicious and unreliable content. I wanted to manage that anxiety from the outset by suggesting that Brainly is far less interested in building a social network than in making it easier for students to do what they've always done—to share knowledge and skills with one another. The tagline "smarter together" positions Brainly as an information-age update on the familiar, nostalgic spaces like the school lunch-table or the library, where students have gathered for generations to collaborate on their assignments. To anchor this message throughout the brand, I replaced the language of the internet (terms like “network,” "user," and “site”) with the language of the collaborative classroom (“community,” “teamwork,” and "together").

Showcase Brainly’s social values
and introduce its mission-driven team.

When I first met Brainly's CEO, he described the remarkable success of his young company not in terms of its profit-potential but by referring to a core social mission. Brainly, he told me, was designed to grant every student worldwide, regardless of location, class, or circumstance, access to high-quality information. That drive was equally apparent in the team he had built, and I wanted to be clear to parents, educators, and prospective talent that Brainly has always been guided by its values. Since the brand is deeply invested in its student-driven message (a key tagline being "For Students, By Students"), it was also important to communicate that the team-members operate in a support role for the student community, and not as masterminds of it.

Maintain a values-based message when describing how the product works.

I wanted to explain the product in brief, powerful language that would simultaneously address several key concerns expressed to me by parents and educators in focus-groups and product tests. Here, the language of collaboration ("a helping hand") counters the suspicion that Brainly might facilitate cheating, and from the outset I highlight how students will receive "clear, moderated responses" to their questions, a phrase designed to target concerns about the quality of Brainly's information and the safety of its community. At the same time, I found in user-tests that more advanced students were especially satisfied by the opportunity to help younger and less-advanced students. By describing Brainly as a place where students can "showcase" their "knowledge," both as "leaders" and as "friends," I built Brainly's community-based and values-driven directly into an explanation of its product.

The lovely header illustration for this post is from Jack Hudson.