Why Brand and Messaging Should Be Part of Your Initial Strategy: A Look at Hipmunk

Building your company’s brand and messaging is immensely important as they tell the story of your product and company. According to Stanford, branding is what people say, feel and think about an organization. It’s a set of mental and experiential associations that, when taken together, tell the story of who you are.” Branding done right makes people say things like, “This brand reflects my personality” or “I like the values this brand stands for” which ultimately affects reputation, conversion and sales. Strong brand value gives companies an edge in a crowded marketplace and helps companies to compete on things other than price which leads to a stronger relationship with customers.

For many startups, branding and messaging are often only in the back of founders’ minds. There are usually more important things to take care of, such as the product, than focusing on branding from the start. However, there have been at times, companies who have attempted and succeeded to create a strong brand impression as part of their core strategy. Hipmunk is a company where the brand was conceived along with the idea of the business.

Hipmunk’s advisor and early team member, Alexis Ohanian, said when he first found out about the idea and mascot of Hipmunk, I see this as a huge advantage for us since none of the competition has any character with which to build a connection to their users. When people have a fantastic flight search experience on hipmunk, we hope they’ll associate that with the silly name and the cute logo”. With this mindframe, the Hipmunk founders set out to create a company centered around a chipmunk for users to identify with their brand.


Messaging on your site is equally as important. It is the marketing message and the first line of communication to your potential customers. It’s the first impression, the first part of the process to understanding your brand. People often confuse branding and messaging to mean the same thing. But it is far from the same. To make things simpler, we can use this metaphor: Branding is the mural, whereas messaging is the paint strokes. You need to lay down the foundations of brush strokes (value prop, assets, pic, headline) to ultimately create a beautiful mural (the company, story, characteristics).

Photo Credit: Professor Bop

The 8 Second Test & Value Prop

8 second rule

The average attention span of most people is 8 seconds. We can use this test to determine if a site’s message has been communicated effectively. In 8 seconds, can you understand what the site does? Were you able to effectively communicate your value proposition and offering?

I showed this site to my 12 year old niece, Kristina, for 8 seconds to see if she could understand the purpose of Hipmunk. She answered “I think it’s a website to help you travel better and they have a cute logo”. 8 second test passed!

Above the fold, the viewer can easily read Hipmunk’s value propositions.

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The location and benefit  are just as intended and easily convey what benefits the user will get out of using Hipmunk. “I watch new users interact with the site for the first time and you see these Hipmunk eureka moments or aha moments where they are like, ‘Wow, this is new, this is useful, this is the way it should be.’ When you have got that as a start and you can associate that with a memorable brand, you have got something that is going to stick around a little longer.” says Alexis Ohanian. “We’re building a consumer application, so we really need to build a brand that will win over regular people who are simply looking to take the agony out of flight search.”

The chipmunk mascot gave consumers something to remember that other travel sites lacked. It took a while for the brand to grow its userbase but now, Hipmunk is a common name for travel sites.

A look at the messaging history

Over the years, Hipmunk has evolved to better suit new and returning users. Let’s take a look at how their site has changed over the years using the messaging
framework conceived by Graham Hunter and taught in the Growth Track at Tradecraft. This framework says that good messaging consists of 4 things: explain, emotion, evoke questions, exclude/include. You don’t need to have all 4 elements at once, but ideally should strive for a balance or a mixture of the 4.

Oct 6, 2010

History 1

Hipmunk at the very beginning was very plain and had almost no messaging or any other assets, simply the words “Flight Search” and the chipmunk mascot. The user was left to figure out the product or services this site offered and lacked any connection with the user. A travel booking widget gave a hint that it was for booking trips (flight/cars/taxis?).

Dec 24, 2011

History 2
A year later, we saw some improvement with a Christmas theme and partnership with Rovio’s Angry Bird and social sharing icons for a more modern feel. The messaging had playful emotions especially during the holidays and sought to include a potential subset of users who are familiar with the game. In a way, it’s to align or piggyback (no pun intended) on a stronger brand which conveys a similar message.

May 11, 2012

History 3
In 2012, Hipmunk added an animated video as part of their marketing message. Animation explainer videos were the trend and offered an easy way for companies to explain their solution in a short and simple way. However, the video was located in the top right corner, and getting users to click on the video might have been difficult because the following year, they removed it from their site.

July 28, 2013

History 4
In 2013, Hipmunk completely redesigned their site. The chipmunk wasn’t as big and dominant as in previous years, and the background had a darker tone of blue, going away from the light blue of the early days of Twitter. The search widget was also redesigned for a faster and more simple search experience. The cartoonish clouds evoked a feeling of being sent away which adding social proofs from credible sources provided the user with more authoritative sites that both explained and provided credibility of their service. We also saw a more refined and simple nav bar.  It communicated the services available and allowed the user to jump to what they needed.

Sept 1, 2014

History 5

Little change from the previous year except an addition to their tag line: the fastest, easiest way to plan travel. “Popular destinations with Hipmunk city guides” was added as a way to entice visitors to book. The site continued to play with the emotion of the freedom of travel and evoking questions… specifically “where next?”


History 6
The Hipmunk of today has a vastly different look from when it started. Gone are the cartoonish clouds and social icons of last year; and in their place are images of beaches and palm trees suggesting a more lifelike feeling of summer relaxing. We also see a value prop section, a stronger call to action for their mobile app and top destinations. The Chipmunk makes a bigger appearance in both the search box and value prop section. The 8 second test worked well in my initial test because it seems like the site has become more effective over the years and has now reached that sweet spot for that test. Overall, Hipmunk’s messaging has been consistent throughout the years signaling their value, to help travelers get to the best places in the easiest way possible.

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The chipmunk mascot of Hipmunk has become a beloved icon on the web. Hipmunk has done an incredible job of managing and leveraging the chipmunk to further its brand and get loyal fans to create user-generated content. They even launched several campaigns on social media such as the “Hipmunk Me!” campaign that incentivized users to interact with the company in exchange for renditions of the users with a chipmunk appearance.

Hipmunk’s mascot has been selected numerous times as one of the cutest brand mascots of all time. Using this mascot, Hipmunk has been able to create a lasting impression in the minds of their users and get them talking about their brand. The mascot has become the brand and what the company stands for.

Final Thought

As we have seen in Hipmunk, great branding and messaging does not happen overnight. Building a mural takes a lot of effort and patience. Sometimes you may need to redo a stroke or two but with practice and time, you will end up with a great piece of art. Hipmunk was able to achieve a strong connection with their users and used that as fuel to power their brand. Sometimes you just need to start on that first paint stroke on your way to building a masterpiece.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


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How MVMT Watches can improve its current referral program to increase user acquisition.

Referral programs provide a practical and cost-effective method to drive user growth. I conducted a referral program audit with my favorite watch company, MVMT Watches, and uncovered key points in the purchase conversion funnel to implement referral strategies. Creating a referral program will allow MVMT Watches to encourage their customers to become brand ambassadors, AND it can be done practically with minor changes on their website and emails. Referrals can be amazingly effective at growing the client base and boosting profits.

MVMT (pronounced “movement”) Watches launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and currently sells watches on their online store. They promise to deliver on 3 things:

· Minimalistic designs that can be worn in both casual and professional settings

· Watches made from high quality materials

· Priced at less than half of their competitors ranging from $95 to $135

With the buzz around their crowdfunding campaign gone, how do we help MVMT Watches increase sales and grow their customer base? I myself have bought two watches from them; one for myself and another for a friend. I have received many compliments from the look and simplicity of the watch.

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Photograph from MVMT, Classic White Tan Leather

MVMT’s Current Efforts

MVMT provides three methods for their customers to make referrals:

1. On their site with a referral page that is found only after clicking through to the [More] tab, followed by clicking a share button.

2. Email newsletters.

3. Promo codes given during social media contests.

I am going to break down each of these referral methods and where else is needed to make suggestions on how to improve their existing referral program.


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The domain referral link is found only after clicking through to the [More] tab, followed by clicking the share button in the drop down menu. I suggest moving the referral messaging to the homepage in a prominent location.

As a new user, the messaging might be confusing as I read it as “Friends don’t let friends #jointhemvmt”. I think this plays well on social media where their target users are often trend setters and younger adults but without being involved and simply a customer, the message might be lost. The value prop is nice (is there a cap on the rewards earned?) but perhaps as I have already purchased a watch, another type of incentive might catch my eye such as “access to special event, design your own watch face, early access to new release”. For many e-commerce sites, getting your existing customers to make a repeat purchase is difficult if the product isn’t a necessity but if I feel emotionally involved, the barrier is lower.

Entering your email gives us the option below:

The copy at the top of the referral page can be tested to find the phrasing that leads to the highest amount of conversions.

Phrases to test:

· #jointhemvmt with your friends and get 10% off

· Share the love of MVMT

· Help your friend dress better etc.

The email fmvmt 4orm is well written and includes a contact importer widget that makes it easier for MVMT to gather additional contact information from users’ network of people. A message mentioning that the user’s data is safe would help users feel more at ease about entering their private information.

Upon entering my own emailmvmt 5 (not sure why I need to enter mine to refer a friend), I have to click on the pop up to get the link. Why not have the link be ready for me to simply copy and paste? Also to note, the link refers to talkable which is probably the service they use for referral but may look like a spam link to users.

Overall I think it’s a great sharing widget which providesan ability to quickly share. It looks good and very easy to use. My recommendation is placing this option either on the page where returning users would come such as the “wall” page where users can post photos of their watches, after users have made their purchase or possibly in a ‘Thank You & join the MVMT’ page.

Refer Page:

mvmt 6

This page seems unfinished, unpolished, and the promo code did not work during checkout. If this is an expired code, MVMT should take down this page and remove it from their site map. I do like the idea of having a Refer Thank You page. Perhaps combining this page with clips or testimonials taken from their customers or reviews from their social media page would make this page more relevant.


Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 3.51.56 PM

These are the email messages I’ve received from MVMT watches. The #jointhemvmt does not appear in my email newsletter. I also attempted to make a purchase with savings using the promo code provided; however, I did not receive savings off my order (could just be a timed promotion).

The email on the left is well written, and they are using an incentive to get me to refer my friends in the form of a contest. Although the email on the right contains a great graphic, however it does not truly convince me to shop even with the discount. I would test using other graphics because the background image reminds me of the outdoors while the watch is aimed toward a more dressy kind of look; two distinct look in a sense.

The timing of MVMT’s newsletters are on point, often arriving for Holidays and special events, albeit at times, too frequent (but that may have been due to the recent Holidays of Thanksgiving and Black Friday).

Referral from my Account:

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This is a very clean and easy page to read. However there is no option to refer a friend when logging into my account. This is surprising as I was able to create a personalized referral link previously. We are also missing a way for clients to monitor and track their own referral link and see how far it was traveled through the world of the internet.

Underneath my account details is an area used to show social proof, with quotes from authoritative sites. This tactic is often used in the homepage to convert visitors into paying customers. However, this is precious real estate(and I have already converted) that can be used for referrals and other promotions.

New User:

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Right after creating a new account, I received an email asking me to refer MVMT watches to friends. I do like the welcoming message but this is bad timing of an referral ask, as I have not yet made a purchase and thus not yet convinced of the value of product and their service. I would advise to instill a message to convert me into a paying customers before asking to send their site to my friends.

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When clicking on the link provided in the email, we are taken to the scoreboard above. It gives users a way to track their progress on referrals and social sharing. It looks great and gives the user, an easy way to share with the social links. However, on the account that I used to purchase a watch, this page was nowhere to be found. I could not find links to reach this page that is appropriate for paying customers. I recommend placing this widget on prior customers who have made purchases as they are the ones who most likely, are comfortable sharing a product they found value in.

This advertisement on social media appears spammy. Many people may be unaware of what MVMT or talkable are. The picture is appropriate for the theme of the site, but it is not very compelling. A colleague had trouble where this widget didn’t appear when pasting the link on Facebook.


MVMT is on the right path to creating an effective referral program. Some changes they can make to improve the program are to refine the messages, ensure existing customers are given a convenient way of referring the site via different channels, and to present the referral requests at an appropriate time in the user flow or shopping season. They need to create a referral copy that is compelling enough to entice users to share MVMT with their network of people.

Sharing via Facebook.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

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What I learned about the Bay Area startup scene 3 years later

I remember the excitement I felt when I left to Hong Kong in the summer of 2012. It would be the start of a new journey away from the failure of my previous startup. It would be a rebirth. The startup scene in the Bay Area in 2012 was more spread out with plenty of space like Hacker Dojo flourishing and many events around the South Bay.

It became too much. It felt very much like the thrill of trying speed dating for the first few times. Excitement, something new and plenty of opportunities seemed to lie in wait. However it soon became dull and tiring. People’s overly optimistic attitude felt unreal, almost like being in a rave party all this time. Hong Kong would give me a break and let my mind calm down I thought at the time.

Now that I’ve been back for several months, I feel like an outsider, almost outdated. Discovering the new “spots” and seeing that the whole startup scene sort of shifted north to San Francisco. Most young startups move there and fewer smaller startups in South Bay. This has created an influx of work force which has driven up prices and rents to staggering levels.

I asked a friend who works in the city of why this sudden shift and why some companies do not move down for cheaper office rent.

“There is mainly 2 reasons.

1. Most talent is found here in the city. If you move out, you’ll have fewer access and/or worst talent pool. Everyone in the world wants to come to city and thats where you find some of the brightest people.

2. The ecosystem is here. The chance of networking with other people and companies is too beneficial. Unless all the companies move south, you’ll be the only one and it will be like living on an island by yourself (if you do move south).

No one wants to be the first to make the jump to the island.

Also to save 30-40% on rent… Is it really worth it? We pay 10k in rent right now. If we found something south SF for 2k then sure! That’s enough saving for another hire. But to save 3k, it’s not worth it especially with VC money coming in so much”

Makes sense to me. I love San Francisco and its where individuality is accepted.

Another change I’ve notice is the attitude of founders. Founders nowadays seem to have big egos and many I’ve talked to very briefly at meetups seem to have a stick stuck up their ass. When you talk to them, it doesn’t feel genuine like they always have a sales mask on. I guess few more beers would help them to get rid of it but that seems like too much work. One founder even asked me to impress him. I’m suppose to impress you? Why don’t you impress me with your product? I have a lot more experience than you and I have yet to see something impressive from a kid like you.

However there are more startups than ever before and some offer very cool services such as one of my favorite Luxe, which offers on-demand (another word thats too used now) valet parking in the city. If you happen to sign up, use my referral code and we both get $20 bucks; JM1. Seems to be that there is a on-demand service for everything (moving, deliveries, house cleaning, gym equipment etc…) as we move into an on-demand economy.

Side note: On-demand services aren’t new in Hong Kong. People call instead of using apps but you can literally get anyone to do anything for you like moving, groceries, laundry etc…

Ill update back after I’ve settle in for a bit more but so far, I’m enjoying myself back in the Bay Area. The weather has been great and I’m getting a nice tan. Maybe someone will create an on-demand tan service…


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