Ten years ago it was hard to imagine that you could bill a customer using a tiny hardware device connected to your smartphone. But Square changed the payment processing experience for small businesses and contractors forever.
Pioneering a signature cubic payment terminal and intuitive POS app in early 2013, Square continues to chip away profits from bigger incumbent companies, one exciting product launch at a time.
So what made Square one of the hottest payment startups of the decade? And how did they manage to maintain sky-high brand equity when their target audiences were going through a turbulent time?
We’ve got the story — and marketing lessons other brands can apply.
Square’s Success Story
Launched by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Square was well-primed for success. Dorsey was already well-known in Silicon Valley, and he brought talent and investors with him to his new venture.
The market timing was also right. The creator economy was bubbling, the ecommerce market was sizzling, and traditional POS systems providers were driving away smaller brands with high pricing and complex setups.
When Dorsey voiced his brand vision of “making accepting payments a breeze for businesses and (…) and making payments invisible — for everyone, across the entire economy, for all types of goods and services”, it was well-received by prospects.
What’s more, Square promised to make that seamless payment experience cheaper than other processors and hardware companies. In the early days, they pitched a flat monthly processing fee of $275 — an offer more competitive than anyone else could muster. Then, they launched their simple and sleek chip reader, selling at $29 a pop.
A strategic operational and brand partnership with Starbucks also turned the tide. In exchange for investing in his idea, Dorsey hooked up 7,000 Starbucks coffee stores with a Square reader. Thanks to this collaboration, brand awareness numbers went up significantly.
Over the next decade, Square released several new versions of payment terminals, a series of POS hardware kits for larger businesses, and an ever-growing collection of complimentary online tools and services.
Oh, and they also launched a standalone financial product: Cash App. Plus, they acquired several side businesses such as the website builder Weebly and TIDAL — a music streaming service, backed by Jay Z.
Source: Square Investor Update
Despite huge product expansion, the underlying vision for Square stayed close to the original idea. In 2021, the company still lives by the mission of “building easy tools to empower and enrich people. Tools that shorten the distance between having an idea and making a living from it—because we believe in fair and square”.
Such relatable brand values, paired with razor-sharp product development efforts landed Square atop the payment industry.
Between 2020 and 2021, market circumstances further propelled Square’s financial growth, as contactless payment adoption was accelerated by the pandemic. Customers were done with cash, and even the most “committed” societies like Germany and Japan ditches the banknotes for card taps.
A large chunk of people also (re-)discovered the weird and wonderful world of online shopping.
Business was booming for Square. As of Q2 2021, the company reported a 91% YoY increase in gross profits. Software and integrated payments were the fastest-growing products in their Seller Ecosystem.
What made this success somewhat bittersweet is that new Square users (and loyal fans) weren’t necessarily adopting their products out of the goodness of their own hearts — they did so out of necessity. The pandemic forced many SMEs to pivot to online selling and launch new types of products and services to stay afloat. Cash flow felt tight and the dreadful feeling of uncertainty prevailed for months on end.
During such challenging times, Square managed to not just grow its profits, but also maintain high brand affinity. We analyzed their latest marketing campaigns and identified several inspiring lessons that we're excited to share with you.
Square Brand Lessons: Learn from Your Audiences
To recap, Square runs an ecosystem of business products including:
Payment hardware: card readers and connected POS systems
Online POS software and payment tools
Business banking products and services
Payroll services and employee management tools
Basic marketing tools
Simple online store builder, Weebly
Cash App, a Venmo competitor
Music streaming service, TIDAL
Everything but Cash App, Weebly, and TIDAL are marketed under the Square brand and positioned within the Seller Ecosystem of tools.
We're going to focus specifically on how Square successfully markets all of these products and maintains consistency in branding experience across the product portfolio.
1. Experiment with Customer-Centric Marketing
From day one, Square cultivated an approachable brand personality — the complete opposite of the “stiff and high-brow” financial institutions. The team made abundantly clear: They're here to help ordinary folks get paid for the amazing things they're doing.
This mission-driven positioning reflects strongly in their marketing.
Since 2017, Square has been shooting an ongoing mini-film series “For Every Dream”. It’s a collection of cinematic videos telling heart-warming stories of their customers. For example, a Syrian refugee who opened a falafel restaurant. Or a group of volunteers reviewing the economy and heritage in a struggling Native American reservation. They are a prime example of brand storytelling done right.
Featuring real characters, the stories from Square are inclusive, relatable, and inspiring. They tell the story of the business owner, not the brand.
“This series is about what’s possible when people with small business dreams are really empowered to reach for them. Square plays only a small part in these people’s success — which is why we hardly show our product, and never mention Square by name,” Sean Conroy, Square’s creative director explained.
Square also continued this theme of empowerment in 2020. They were among the first brands to wield their influence for a good cause by asking followers to come and support some of their clients by purchasing gift cards or placing online orders.
Their marketing team also launched the podcast “Talking Squarely”, where they checked in with independent business owners across the country and asked how they were doing. Everyone was welcome to submit a personal or anonymous voicemail to share their highs and lows.
Square later used some of the submitted audio stories to create an emotional national TV and radio ad campaign.
The Takeaway: User-generated content (UGC) is a well-known marketing trick. But referring back to the voice of customer data isn’t old-fashioned — it’s essential for staying abreast of customer sentiment and finding the right words to resonate with them.
You can collect customer ideas directly as Square does for personal highlights. Or use brand tracking software to listen in on the collective conversations happening in your industry, your current or targeted market.
2. Maintain Consistency in Your Creativity
Square has the tough job of marketing a lot of products to different types of businesses — from local restaurants and heritage family businesses to digitally-born direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands and mid-market retailers. They are actively marketing across online and offline channels. And their brand story has to remain consistent across all of these touchpoints.
Last year, Square faced yet another challenge: adjusting its brand marketing to resonate with both struggling small businesses and those living through a boom in online sales. Not every target audience was performing equally well.
Lauren Weinberg, Global Head of Marketing and Communications at Square, shared that their main mission during the pandemic was to “share information about the products and services that could offer immediate help, while also connecting our customers to other businesses experiencing the effects of COVID to create a sense of community”.
Before the worst of the pandemic hit the US, Square was about to launch a global brand marketing campaign. But they had to scrap the creative entirely since it was completely out of place.
“We went around the country and filmed all of these businesses that were real Square merchants, but none of the footage could be used because nobody was wearing masks — especially with restaurants and service industries. That message would have fallen incredibly short had we run with it,” Lauren said.
So they pivoted to a completely new idea and presented The Shape of All Things to Come campaign in early 2021. Shot entirely remotely at people’s homes and via video conferencing apps, the campaign celebrated the resilience, creativity, and stamina of relentless SMEs — powering through the storm and looking into the bright future to come.
Source: Neil Maclean
Unlike many brands who were still sharing “we are in this together” pandemic-marketing creative, Square went with a different storyline. Yet, it was still on-brand and consistent with all the other messages the team dispersed.
Finding the right creative messaging to resonate with people across cultures is no small task. But Square delivered. They once again reminded us that there’s always a way forward and good times are ahead.
The Takeaway: Maintaining a clear and coherent point of view as a brand is essential for cultivating the right brand associations.
You can’t suddenly come and stand up for a bunch of cultural issues like Gillette did in a flopped marketing campaign about toxic masculinity and expect your audiences to unanimously agree with you.
Consistency doesn’t constrain creativity — it takes your ideas in the right direction and helps you pick the right messaging and narrative vector.
3. Cultivate and Refine Your Brand Voice
A major part of Square's appeal over the competition is their low-key vibe and distinctive tone of voice. Accounting, cash flow, lending, capital management — all these things make non-financial folks wince. Few people love doing their finances. But without sufficient financial literacy, few businesses can stay afloat for the long term.
So Square took on the mission to educate people about all things finance and provide them with UX-friendly tools to do so. When explaining their products, Square breaks down all the information without over-explaining.
“Our goal is not just to make people interested in learning more about our product offerings, but also get them to be more comfortable making financial decisions. (Thus), we avoid having fine print everywhere and use interesting type treatment to make our terms a part of our contents, and make paragraphs more conversational and digestible”, the Square team explains about their new copy for Square Banking.
To “de-mystify” business banking, Square also cast real users in their latest promo video. In it, Square products are “just an example” of how others are managing the money in their business.
The Takeaway: B2B products and services are complex in nature. But your marketing doesn’t have to reinforce this idea. On the contrary, spell out all the intricacies, explain the terms and make the “small print” bigger.
People will buy from you more when they fully understand what you are selling.
Final Thoughts: Square Operates with Care
Despite being a majorly successful business with huge profits, Square does not accentuate its size or status. They aren’t a “trusted institution” or “global multinational” — Square is a “friendly business owner from next door”, popping in to ask how you're doing.
Their brand is helpful, humble, and honest — a solid triumvirate of qualities they've cultivated within their community.