It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in the early days of startup life, you’re seriously strapped for both cash and time.
Until you get to that magical MRR number and/or land some juicy funding, your teeny tiny founding team simply doesn’t have the time or money to be doing everything on that to-do list.
You need to focus and prioritize, and then prioritize all over again when things change from one day to the next.
This is the stark reality of launching a startup.
And there will undoubtedly be casualties along the way.
Some of these casualties are fine – they may have been shiny new objects that distracted your attention for a few minutes but were actually not critical to your startup’s success.
Some of them, however, are missed opportunities that probably needed a bit more care and attention to assess their full potential.
One of these is your brand.
❓ Why does brand get forgotten about?
From having worked in brand and marketing for a number of years now, and also having observed how startups operate in those early stages, it’s clear that there are two fundamental reasons why brands get overlooked in the early days.
1) Techie Founders.
A large majority of startup founders are techies.
They have great ideas for products and can bring those products to life quickly and easily with their own dev skills. But very few of them (although not all!) have little to no experience of marketing and branding and so the task of spending time on a solid visual and linguistic identity for their product and company gets relegated to the ‘Future Tasks’ column on their Trello or JIRA board.
This is by no means a criticism, it’s just the reality that if you’ve got a tech background, you’re quite often not going to have had any brand building experience.
Which leads on to the second point…
2) Building a brand ‘takes years’.
The perception of how long it takes to build a brand is a bit of a fraught one. Yes, it can take months to build awareness of a brand, and years to build trust in one.
The connotations of ‘brand’ make us automatically think of the likes of Coca-Cola or Apple, those companies that are instantly recognizable and that evoke certain feelings and emotions in us from just a glance of their logo or even their brand color.
But building the foundations of a brand, the building blocks that will contribute to that long-term success – well that doesn’t have to take months or years.
⚛ What is a brand?
At this point, it’s worth taking a slight step back and examining what a brand actually is.
Although perhaps the plethora of definitions isn’t going to help.
According to the American Marketing Association, a brand is:
“A name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers. The legal term for brand is trademark. A brand may identify one item, a family of items, or all items of that seller. If used for the firm as a whole, the preferred term is trade name.”
So far, so boring!
Leo Burnett has a succinct way of putting it:
“A brand is anything that leaves a mental picture of the brand’s identity.”
Perhaps Seth Godin’s definition points us in a better direction:
“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
Breaking that down into more tangible assets, it’s probably safe to say that a brand includes at least a few of the following:
- Color palette
- Tone of voice
- Style in terms of photography or illustrations
Now there are the obvious global companies that epitomize good branding – you only have to see the tick to know it’s Nike, or a white box of a certain size to know it’s Apple.
Then there are the less obvious ones that resonate with certain groups – often in localized areas such as a specific country or industry.
🇬🇧 In the UK, this could be Marmite.
🇺🇸 In the US, Hershey’s Kisses.
📩 In the field of email marketing, Mailchimp.
🔐 In cyber security, McAfee.
You’d be forgiven for looking at a lot of these and arguing that they’ve had years to build up brand awareness and recognition. And yet, you could also argue that for sector-specific brands, awareness is nil outside of their intended audience.
Apply that same logic to startups and you begin to see where clever brand building kicks in.
Think of the UK Fintech startup, Revolut.
Or the European car company, BlaBlaCar.
Or the global SaaS company, Drift.
Perhaps your grandmother hasn’t heard of them – but then has she heard of McAfee?
The point is, good brand building isn’t just for the big companies with loads of wonga.
Startups can build equally recognizable brands that will stand the test of time.
As Barbora Juhaszova, Marketing Manager at blockchain startup Qadre, explains:
“You don’t have to spend huge amounts of time or money on your brand, but you need to have something as a base. Otherwise, it’s really hard to build on it.”
🤑 Is ‘leaving it till later’ a false economy?
The reality is though that many startups will put the brand stuff off until later, with ‘later’ quite often being when that first generalist marketer is hired into the team.
In fact, one of the first tasks that marketer faces is some sort of rebranding assignment.
Whether that’s the relatively small task of redoing the website, or a complete overhaul of the visual and linguistic identity. It’s a common project that bubbles to the top after the usual couple of weeks of onboarding and training.
“When I started at Rainmaking, the first thing we did was a brand evolution. Listening to and understanding the fast-changing needs of our clients gave impetus to the project.”
Diana Alice Florescu, Head of Marketing at Rainmaking.
The snag with doing it this way round though is that it can actually take longer to do.
The task of unpicking what’s been done before, and rebuilding assets across multiple departments such as product, marketing and sales. Well this takes time and resource – things that could have been saved, had a bit of due diligence been done in the early stages.
What’s more, ask any developer or techie founder which they’d prefer – building an app or product from scratch or rebuilding what someone else has done, and they’ll nearly always go for the former.
Building those brand foundations follows pretty much the same logic.
Building it right the first time is better than rebuilding further on down the line when potentially a lot of the damage has already been done.
💸 Is a poor brand costing you leads?
The other trap that a lot of startups don’t realize they are falling into with early neglect of the brand is that actually, it’s also having a negative impact on leads and customer acquisition.
In other words, those short-term acquisition goals that take priority early on are being affected by the lack of a solid brand.
A recent survey by Venngage and reported on here by Smart Insights shows that consistent branding across channels increases revenue by 23%.
If that’s not enough to show you the value of a brand in relation to customer acquisition, then what is?
🧱 The building blocks of a brand
The important thing to remember is that even some basic branding work will pay off later and that in those early startup stages, you can put in place some fundamentals that won’t then need to be ripped apart and started again later on.
In fact, if you’ve done the due diligence on your product or service, and captured customer feedback along the way, then you’re half-way there already.
If you’ve achieved that elusive ‘Product-Market Fit’, then you’re a step ahead again.
Well, all those customer interviews and feedback sessions you’ve done, they aren’t just useful for product development and building out a roadmap. They also form the basis for your brand too.
To give a few examples, this could be:
- The problems your customers are having and that your product or service fixes.
- The soundbites you’ll get in customer interviews where they learn about a great new feature you’ve just released and what challenge that will solve for them.
- The moment when your customer goes ‘Aha!’ – more on those Aha moments here.
And you have all this already at your fingertips!
You just need to be looking at it in the right way in order to pull out the stuff that’s essential to your brand.
Not just that, but founder stories also help to build the essence of a brand.
As Barbora Juhaszova, Marketing Manager at blockchain startup Qadre, explains:
“Startup founders do have an interesting story behind them so it’s definitely something worth talking about.”
🏛 Brand is here to stay
The other big trend in startup world that is pointing us more and more towards the value of a good brand is where startups are now focusing.
Sustainability and environmental tech are on the rise, coupled with more traditional tech that ‘gives back’ in some way to more socially responsible causes.
In other words, it’s can’t just be another marketing ploy, it’s got to be part and parcel of the brand and company itself.
And you know what else? It’s customer driven.
It’s something that the 16-year old Brit Lysander Bickham has already tapped into with his subscription product Leo’s Box.
“With Leo’s Box, I wanted to create a brand that represented my passion for all things eco-friendly and sustainable. At every stage of the customer experience, from the website to the box delivery, I therefore make sure that a piece of the brand is there. I feel it really helps me build trust with my customers too.”
Lysander Bickham, Founder & CEO, Leo’s Box.
Yes, despite his age, Lysander is building a brand based on something he’s truly passionate about and that also happens to fall into the category of eco-friendly and sustainable products.
He has understood the importance of values early on and has woven these into the very fabric of his logo, his website and even the way in which he hand-packs each box with a personal, handwritten note.
If a 16-year old gets the importance of brand and is able to do it, then there really is no excuse for the rest of us!
As Les Binet, head of effectiveness at agency adam&eveDDB, outlines, many businesses “are still making the error of focusing their [digital] attention on short-term activation and thus neglect the importance of brand building.”
And it’s a trap that many startups fall into in the rush to build a product and generate those early leads and sales, as Mason Morgan, Head of Marketing at the global banking and payment services startup Freemarket, explains:
“A lot of startups, they rush into the first 3 to 6 months, jumping straight into the tactics and campaigns. But you need to define that upfront strategy for further on down the line, as this will come to fruition and pay dividends in the future.”
Some of this comes down to time and resource. But a lot of comes down to a lack of understanding of what a brand is and just how simple it can be to put in place those initial building blocks.
It doesn’t have to take weeks or months – but it will save time and money later on from having to unpick and rebuild.
And it will help customers understand your proposition better, as CJ Tayeh, Senior Brand Strategist, explains:
“When launching a startup, your brand is just like a flag in the sand. Put something in the sand and people will position themselves around that. How you move your flag is subject to the same continuous learning dynamics that apply to your startup.”