With a devoted following of over 50 million users, Trello’s growth has helped prove the business case for content delight. Ten years ago, when Trello was hitting the marketplace, delight was an undervalued quality for project management software. In those days, the b in B2B marketing mostly stood for “boring” and “bland.”
Trello’s product and marketing teams made a conscious decision to break the rules for how productivity tools were supposed to sound. Goodbye, “tasks,” "milestones," and "dependencies." Trello decided to simply describe what people see: boards, cards, and lists.The brand personality was infused with irreverent delight, from help-docs sprinkled with dad-jokes to self-deprecatingly funny 404 pages.
But after their acquisition by the Atlassian family of products, Trello needed to maintain a careful balance of preserving their spunky, loveable, upstart vibe while representing the standards of an enterprise-level company — and repping a new, broader vision for Trello as a productivity software leader.
The team made a risky decision: it was brand refresh time. But could Trello get a facelift while staying recognizable?
How Trello’s brand broke SaaS rules from the beginning
To understand the new Trello brand, we need to examine what made Trello such a revolutionary brand in the SaaS world to begin with.
Taking a horizontal approach to product positioning
Back in 2011, Trello made the strategic decision to throw out the traditional SaaS marketing playbook by positioning what’s essentially a business tool as a consumer product for anyone.
You can see this horizontal approach in one of the first iterations of Trello’s home page. Notice how the tagline, “Organize anything, together,” doesn’t specify the types of projects or the types of users the product is for.
This flies in the face of the decades-old standard of organizing product marketing by persona, team, industry, et cetera. While today’s SaaS go-to-market rules for hyper-specific product positioning help startups stand out in crowded markets, being too stringent can cause problems down the road if a company decides to pivot or capture a new segment. By being broad in their targeting, Trello stayed flexible and ready to adapt as they learned more about user needs.
Swapping typical B2B UX copy for simple visual vocabulary
While many project- and task-management tools focus on creating product terminology around the way people work (think “tasks,” "milestones," and "dependencies" in Asana), Trello decided to simply describe what people see: boards, cards, and lists.
The descriptive approach to product taxonomy extends to every feature: instead of “integrations,” Trello offers “power-ups.” Trello users can access “Timeline views” without having to know what a Gantt chart is.
Using simplified, visual metaphors also opens up the possibilities for where users will take Trello boards — which is everywhere their imaginations will go. (Head of Product and former CEO Michael Pryor once compared Trello to Lego building blocks.)
Building an inclusive user community (over an exclusive customer base)
B2C tech startups like Superhuman and Clubhouse wield the mighty power of FOMO to drive word-of-mouth and sign-ups: The harder it is to get access, the more people will want to use the product. This isn’t a new concept: Facebook started as an invite-only network, as did Gmail.
Not so at Trello. Their “anything for anyone” approach helped to infuse Trello’s brand personality with a joyful message of inclusion: everyone is invited to the sandbox, and Trello is excited to see and share what people do with their product.
The enthusiasm over community-building is apparent in the vocabulary Trello uses for its users: they aren’t “end users” or “customers,” they’re Trellists.
You can see this inclusive attitude formalized in Trello’s Instagram account, which spotlights the variety of Trello boards that Trellists build for their projects (and obsessions).
Embracing human quirks over cold professionalism
Trello avoids the “professional voice” trap traditional software companies fall into (aka stodgy, robotic tone) by treating the person who reads their content like a coworker.
“When you think of a super-gelled team dynamic where everyone is comfortable being themselves at work, able to openly collaborate, and communicate freely and easily with each other — that’s the ‘team spirit’ experience that Trello wants to help create,” Leah Ryder told us. “Trust and reliability is very important in B2B, but business software doesn’t need to be overly formal to be effective at building those values.”
That isn’t to say Trello doesn’t take helping customers and building great products seriously. They just refuse to suck the joy out of the process.
Take a look at this section of Trello’s help guide — a piece of content that traditionally reads like a dry instruction manual.
With phrases like “go from Trello zero to Trello hero,” you can see that the writers at Trello had permission and encouragement to have fun while writing help content, and that fun translates to a delightful experience for users.
How Trello accomplished Project Spirit: their first all-encompassing brand refresh
Trello’s scrappy team came to Atlassian equipped with the brand tools that breathed life into Trello’s personality, but they soon found that it was a challenge to get Atlassian folks in sync with the Trello-y vibe.
“Early on, one of the banes of my existence was trying to define for the larger organization what the hell ‘Trello-y’ actually meant,” Stella Garber, Trello’s head of marketing, said.
The team at Trello decided this challenge was an opportunity to further define their product principles and develop their own system to help put those principles into action at scale.
In 2017, they released a brand system called Nachos (a name inspired by a combination of hunger and company mascots Taco the Husky and Chorizo the Cat), which gave guidelines to content and product teams at a granular level.
Nachos presented the core Trello principles for design and content:
But as with many things at enterprise companies, the goal was a moving target. Atlassian itself had redesigned its brand and design guidelines to reflect its growing suite of products, and the bold brand refresh was widely applauded. InVision called the new design and branding system “a flexible, enduring identity system for 14+ brands that felt distinct on their own, and unified when together.”
The team at Trello decided the time was right to further define their product principles and put Atlassian's core brand principles into action.
It was going to be a challenge: at the larger organization, Atlassian saw Trello’s brand as a major selling point, so it had no desire to water down what made Trello loveable. Trello needed to maintain a careful balance of preserving their spunky, loveable, upstart vibe while representing the standards of an enterprise-level company — and repping a new, broader vision for Trello as a productivity software leader.
Leah Ryder told us, “With the 10-year anniversary of Trello around the corner, combined with major developments in-product with the new Views feature, it seemed like the right time to update and align our brand and product towards our shared goal of empowering productivity for teams everywhere.”
The mission of the refresh, dubbed Project Spirit, was to further define and distinguish Trello’s voice — not to change it.
DEFINING WHAT NEEDED AN UPDATE — AND HOW FAR TO GO
One of the first priorities for Trello was defining everything about the current brand that was sacred and shouldn’t be changed. Taco the Husky, for example, is a beloved mascot and a treasured element of Trello’s brand and will never be redesigned.
“With brand, things can become emotional as we build attachments and project our memories and experiences onto those symbolic markers,” Leah told us.
Creating guardrails helped to dispel fears about losing Trello’s quintessential voice to assimilation.
“This was always meant to be a refresh and not a rebrand,” Leah said. “Those are two very different paths and it was key to establish that understanding with stakeholders.”
Trello established those guardrails for the sacred by commissioning market research and running an internal listening tour with their leadership team.
“We created a spectrum of options and used that to create the definitions,” Leah said. “For example, with the logo, we decided that overall brand recognition was high and important for us to preserve, so we decided that a larger update to the typography paired with minor improvements to the logomark was the right balance.”
Getting buy-in and agreement across the organization
There were six teams involved in Project Spirit, totaling more than 100 people in rolling stages over a year and a half. Since they were making updates to things that everyone working at Trello had interest in, people wanted to stay informed and get involved.
“Getting people to trust the process and be comfortable changing parts of our identity was a process that took time and open discussion,” Leah told us.
Change management proved to be the biggest challenge for the team, but Leah saw it as a learning opportunity. They were careful to build room into the process for organic feedback and exploration.
“If I learned anything, it’s that this is a really important part of the process and it needs room to breathe,” Leah said. “However, you do need to keep that exploration structured enough to move it out of the theoretical and into the real, live world!“
They made that happen by setting a firm launch date and committing to structured, cross-functional project management.
To clarify roles and responsibilities, Leah’s team relied on the DACI stakeholder matrix.
Since the refresh project impacted so many teams, Leah’s team kept communications as transparent as possible. They gave regular updates in company-wide meetings, published research results, and shared the notes and recorded walk-throughs of their creative development. But they also made room for vulnerability and failure as part of the creative process:
“There were times when we kept creative development private so we could try (and fail) at concepts without external feedback,” she said.
Articulating objectives to the creative team
Once the team established the elements that needed an update, they developed creative briefs to explore the many possibilities of how those updates could look or sound like. The key to success at this stage was grounding every creative brief in a desired outcome.
“Once we were elbows-deep in the creative process and feedback rounds, we kept going back to the briefs to make sure our choices stayed true to our desired outcomes, not the flavor of the week,” Leah said. “In our creative brief, the very first question is: ‘What is the overall objective we need to meet?’ Everything else unfolds from there. This becomes the north star that we compare all decisions against.”
Using collaborative tools to get feedback
No surprise here: Trello used their own tool — along with Atlassian sibling Confluence — to organize and distribute resources, including creative briefs.
“The creative brief was circulated and left open for anyone to access at any time,” Leah said. “It’s also open for comments and questions, a place where async discussion about the objectives could take place.”
Innovating new ways to brainstorm messaging
Because COVID-19 made brainstorming in-person impossible, the brand team experimented with new ways to brainstorm from a distance.
One exercise they used was called “build a box.” Each participant chose a box or image that would represent Trello if it had store-shelf packaging like a mass consumer product. They would then include a tagline and three features or brand pillars that would go on the box.
“We kept it to an hour session, with time for sparring,” Leah said. “It was quick, but we realized we were all quite aligned on the top messages for Trello and it gave us a well of ideas to pull from when building out the final page.”
Rolling out the new spirit of Trello
Project Spirit landed on three different directions for stakeholder feedback and user testing before deciding on one path, which underwent hundreds of iterations.
Finally, in late February 2021, after 18 months of work, Trello unveiled its new look and feel to the world.
You can see this evolution in the new messaging on Trello’s home page. Where ten years ago, Trello’s tagline was “Organize anything, together,” today the hero section reads, “Trello helps teams move work forward.”
The headline isn’t the only place where work is the focus. The messaging on the home page centers on business concepts like productivity, teamwork, and building team spirit.
At first, this messaging refresh appears to fly in the face of the “anything for anyone” approach that propelled Trello to B2B product marketing stardom.
But Trello is reflecting how most people use the tool in 2021. We’re in an era where more of us are working remotely than ever before. We need tools to help us work together from a distance, and Trello has been doing exactly that for a decade.
As Leah Ryder told us, “It seemed like the right time to update and align our brand and product towards our shared goal of empowering productivity for teams everywhere.”
Building guardrails around a beloved voice
With the brand refresh, Trello hasn’t abandoned the playful voice that won the hearts of their users. If you take a look at the copy for the Butler automation tool, you’ll see Trello’s goofy humor hasn’t gone anywhere, nor has its plain-speak UX copy.
Under the header “Rule your boards,” the copy succinctly explains how the rule-setting feature works, and ends with “doesn’t that rule?” Preserving punny little moments help Trellists on the internal team and in the larger user community breathe a sigh of relief.
“Trello’s brand impact is team spirit,” Leah tweeted on the day of the new brand launch. “An attitude, an energy, that enables teams to work together in the best way possible. I hope to keep building this internally and for our users. Last week’s launch is just the start of a fresh, team-focused brand energy for Trello."
A brand refresh means putting values into action
Now that Project Spirit is complete, it doesn’t mean that Trello is finished redefining itself.
“Brand is a living, breathing thing,” Leah told us. “The launch is what we consider the start of a long-term vision of continual brand development for Trello.”
Trello’s brand refresh was 1.5 years in the making, and it took a tremendous amount of strategic leadership, partnered with cross-team collaboration to make it happen. It couldn’t have happened without ten years of defining and committing to rule-breaking brand principles. Over the next decade, there’s no doubt the product will change as it adapts to user needs, but with strong brand principles in place, Trellists can always expect a sense of joy built into everything Trello creates.