Why startups should spend on brand
Why does brand matter for startups?
There are many things that startups must consider in the early stages of development: where the next funding round is coming from, what the next product release will be, whom to hire, and how to scale. Understandably, brand might seem like something to consider downstream. But in a crowded marketplace, brand might be the difference between one startup receiving funding over another. A strong brand can secure higher valuations from venture capital firms, attract the attention of otherwise apathetic influencers, and most importantly, for a business that is finding its way, it can become a valuable decision-making tool.
A strong brand can also help create a better product experience for the user. It can grow awareness, which in turn creates brand loyalty. A powerful brand exemplifies a startup’s unique company culture, one that attracts great talent while reinvigorating existing employees. Your brand is your identity. Brand is not just a value-add to a business; it is at the epicenter of the business.
For several decades, the world’s leading companies have realized the value of their brands in terms of customer loyalty and have attributed a real economic value to them. By actively defining and shaping your brand, you are starting on the path of being able to realize this value too. The reality is, the decisions you make every day are already forming your brand, whether you realize it or not. Read on to understand how you can take control of your brand and ensure it’s pointing your business on the path to success.
Five principles that make great brands
What is a great brand? It is a simple term that has huge implications for a growing business.
1. Great brands are driven by purpose
Your brand equals your purpose. Capture that purpose and ensure it’s the driver behind all your decisions. This will become your brand story. The best brand stories provide a cornerstone for business decision making, a mirror that shows if you are staying true to your intent.
Case study: Virgin
Restless entrepreneurialism has always driven Virgin to challenge the rules. The business disrupts each new industry it enters, challenging the status quo to deliver better, more ethical service than its competitors. By distilling the inputs of over 150 global Virgin employees to get to a common truth as well as the characteristics of Virgin founder, Richard Branson, the brand story was crafted: “Don’t just play the game, change it for good.” The phrase so perfectly encompasses the vision of the founder, it has become established as a Branson quote. It is an authentic, credible story in the language of Richard Branson, but accessible to every employee.
2. Great brands are built through coherent interactions
When a brand finally comes to life, you need to consider how it will be recognized across all touchpoints regardless of whether these interactions are experienced digitally or physically.
Case study: Housing
Housing was born out of its founders’ own struggle to find a home. In revolutionizing the local real estate market, Housing has grown, in under three years, from a small team in Mumbai to 1,500 employees in 45 cities across India. The idea of “look up” became inherent in the brand story of Housing. It also manifested into a unique design signature that brought the Housing brand to life. The mark, the communications, the social campaign, and the site experience all projected idea of looking up. At launch of the new brand, there were over 2 million views of the journey film within two days, and the hashtag lookup was trending sixth in India on Twitter.
3. Great brands are clear and simple to understand
In a world that is ambiguous and volatile, your brand can bring instant clarity about your place and value amidst the complexity.
Case study: Bluewolf
Bluewolf is a global consulting agency and a cloud-consulting pioneer. Already established as the leading business consultancy in the Salesforce ecosystem, Bluewolf wanted to communicate its strengths beyond the customer relationship management (CRM) platform. It needed help to position the business, create a brand system, and craft a communications language to reflect this new, broader offer. Through interviews and workshops with key stakeholders and customers, two prevalent themes arose—a passion for providing customers with the most value from future-facing technologies and the instinct to begin problem-solving and customizing solutions on the spot. These core themes became the heart of the Bluewolf story: “It’s always now.” The story was brought to life through a punchy visual system and action-driven messaging. The “get it done” vigor of working with Bluewolf is immediately clear to those who come in contact with the brand, setting the tone for the relationship from the very first interaction.
4. Great brands are uniquely identifiable and recognizable in their simplest
Logos are powerful symbols but cannot carry a brand on their own. The entire system should work together to ensure your brand is identifiable whether you’re viewing it as an app icon on an Apple Watch screen or seeing it projected larger than life in an immersive environment.
Case study: Asana
Asana is anything but an average Silicon Valley startup. By imagining how people could manage their work the way they manage their lives—socially, openly and efficiently—Asana has grown into a cult SaaS business. Asana needed to clearly redefine its brand and positioning, from a provider of shared task lists and engineering bug trackers to an enterprise-grade collaboration software company. Asana is about the power of collaboration, so it was important this was captured in the redesign and optimization of the brand system. Three vertical dots symbolize alignment and naturally form an abstract “A” in a mark that symbolizes the limitless potential of human collaboration. Every aspect of the mark, typography, and color palette is designed to communicate a sense of balance, clarity, and purpose-driven design. “When I see this on my phone’s home screen, it’s obvious: that’s the teamwork app,” according to Justin Rosenstein, Cofounder, Asana.
5. Great brands reflect the unique culture of the business
A strong brand should find a balance between reflecting your unique culture, yet still look and feel credible and competitive. It allows you to shape the conversations you will have with investors, users, and partners as well as the talent that makes your business what it is.
Case study: Coyote
Coyote is one of the fastest-growing third-party logistics companies in North America. Coyote’s story, “Powerful Momentum,” was derived from both the explosive growth of the company and the spirit of its employees. Throughout the organization was a simple and powerful attitude— the desire to win. Its animal-like dynamism and competitive spirit meant it was closing the gap between the company and its competitors. But its previous do-it-yourself identity had failed to capture this powerful cultural essence. It needed a brand as powerful as the Fortune 100 companies it was targeting, giving it the conviction to communicate its spirit emphatically to both powerhouse clients and to its own internal teams.
“Tenacious” and “tribal” were words that resonated company-wide. Articulating the loud, loyal, and fiercely energetic drivers behind Coyote’s superior performance would serve to differentiate it from its competition and drive success in an authentic way. These behaviors underpinned the creation of a comprehensive brand system, including the bold arrowhead logo and stenciled wordmark, strategically differentiated color palette, fierce photography style derived from a shoot with a live coyote, and a tone of voice that encapsulated the employees’ mix of in-depth professional knowledge and fraternity-style rawness. Coyote fully embraced its new brand, with employees literally wearing the new identity on their sleeves in a successful line of branded clothing and accessories.
A three-part approach to building brands for startups
A winning brand can be broken down into three components: Story, System, and Experience. This combination poises a startup to be prepared, future-focused, and creative.
The best brands are built on stories. A good brand story is authentic, engaging, and distinct. It builds from “what” the brand does or “how it does it” to get to the “why.” Brand stories are more than well- written prose. They guide decisions that drive the business—decisions on what the offering should be, how customers should experience the product or service, and whom to partner with.
The core truths and personality at the heart of a brand can be found only in the hearts and minds of its people, and often require difficult and direct questions to uncover. That’s why the process of defining a brand story should involve people from across the business, from founders who hold the vision to the sales manager at the frontline of customer service delivery. Only then will employees feel that they’ve played an important role in shaping the brand and compelled to live it.
Living identify system
We consider the components of a brand identity a living “system.” This system includes both the building blocks for your brand (for instance, logo, color palette, tone of voice) as well as the guidance needed to create from these components. By building the system on defined characters and behaviors, it can adapt to any environment, much like a person would. This ensures your brand can face whatever the future holds. A successful system should have both fixed and flexible elements; this allows the people that use the system the space to build coherent applications within clearly defined parameters. A strong system should be a springboard, not a straightjacket.
A brand is built on a myriad of different “experiences”: microinteractions in an app, the motion design of a webpage load, the design of meeting rooms, the tone of your chatbot’s response, to the sound of your product’s buttons being pressed. Great brands are recognizable by these unique experiences. It is these moments that customers may instinctively bring to mind when thinking about your product and those that can differentiate you in a sea of sameness. When creating these brand experiences, build from the brand story but for your audience. Know who they are and design with them in mind by involving them in the process through research or prototyping.
How to get started on your brand
Write your brief
Sit down and work out exactly what you want to achieve, a timeline, and a budget. Then, write this up into a brief. The discipline of putting it on paper will help to focus your mind. When you do decide to share your brief, precede it with a simple nondisclosure agreement before giving away any secrets or your big idea. This shows you are serious and protects you against any loose talk.
Find the perfect partner
Ask your personal network whom they have worked with; think about which brands you admire, then find out who has worked on them. Deciding between a small or large agency will be your next step. A large agency will have rigor and process and a great track record. But you will be a small fish in a large pond. Ask who the team is that will be working with you and how they will ensure that they do not lose sight of you in their daily work for their larger clients’ business.
With a smaller agency, you will be a larger fish in a small pond and very likely get to work with the founders or principals. Make sure that you have seen their creative work. Do you really like it and can they be broad or will they just give you a “house style”?
Next comes the face-to-face meeting and chemistry test. Having shared your written brief in advance, use this meeting to see if you feel that there is a good fit. Ask the agency’s opinion about your ideas and expect them to ask you the same about your business. This demonstrates they are really thinking about you and not just seeing the dollar signs.
Define your vision
You can start the process by completing the following prompts:
We believe / We will always / We will never / We love / We hate / We are different because / We will be remembered for . . .
Be open and honest and think about the brand you aspire to be. Next, try the “Writing the Future” exercise. Your brand’s future is yours to write. Uncouple yourself from the limitations of the present and imagine the future in purely aspirational terms. Setting the bar impossibly high sets your brand on a path to exceed expectations.
Imagine yourself 10 years in an ideal future. You’re reading an article about your organization—the one that you’re going to frame and put up in your office. What publication is it in and what’s the headline?
Involve your team and stakeholders. This process is meant to be intensive, hands-on, and highly collaborative. At the end of the exercise, you should be able to explain yourself and your business with conviction. Even in its raw form, documenting the intent and vision of your key stakeholders in the early stages of your brand is invaluable.
Those startups that fail to consider brand early on may well end up spending considerable time, effort, and money either correcting their brand or making it fit its customers. Spending money upfront may seem counterintuitive, but it is well worth it. A powerful brand will prove a springboard to sustained business success.