Why branding can’t just be a cosmetic afterthought for startups

- July 10, 2018 4 MIN READ

Branding strategy is about establishing, as early as possible in your startup journey, the meaningful differences you will deliver to customers that will help you to carve out clear market space versus your competitors. Then, seek to amplify these key differences through everything that your business does.

A question you will be asked by potential customers, investors and employees alike is, ‘What makes this business different?’ In each of these challenging marketplaces – for customers, capital and talent – you need to be able to confidently set yourself apart by identifying your essential differences from competitors that will help make your business a lasting winner.

As strategy sage Michael Porter explains, ‘A company can only outperform rivals if it can establish a difference it can preserve.’ Nailing your differences early will make it easier for you to tell a consistent brand story to the many audiences you need to win over.

Of course, the most immediate impact that branding will have on your business is to shape your physical identity through a name, logo, colours and illustrations. But branding today is about more than just the way your business looks. It is also about the way your business thinks, speaks and acts: forms of differentiation that can be sustained in the long term, beyond momentary product or service advantage.

Customers today expect brands to deliver great experiences that extend beyond purely functional features and benefits. There is a need to create a total delivery culture around your new business that is customer-centred, purposeful and full of personality. Your brand is the mechanism to help to capture your distinctive culture and help it to spread, as your team, your customer base and your market presence grows.

The importance of purpose and personality

The upstart brands that quickly reshape markets have colourful identities combined with a crystal-clear understanding of the breakthrough value they unlock for customers. Brands that are purposeful, characterful and obsessed with customer value have the greatest chance of toppling incumbents.

Purpose has emerged as a powerful leadership concept because it is about building a sense of shared meaning between organisations and their users. As innately social animals, we are energised by the idea of coming together in the pursuit of worthwhile change. And startups are especially invested in this idea of bringing change to markets for the benefit of many.

Most markets today are crowded with high-quality brands offering remarkably similar functional performance. Think airlines, cars, personal tech – it is now a rarity for a brand in any of these sectors to win by appealing to a customer’s rational instincts alone. The brand with the longest list of product features no longer wins. There is a need to inject emotion into every buying decision and to help customers to relate emotionally to a brand’s story.

The simple motive behind brand personality is to imbue your business with positive human traits that help to make the brand more likeable. Just as we build friendships with people because of their shared values and endearing behaviours, the same theory applies to building friendships with brands.

Think about brand personality as the way your business chooses to speak and act, in a consistently characterful way, to build customer rapport and loyalty over time. Give your brand a sense of character, a point of view, maybe even a sense of humour, to make it more memorable and more interesting for people to get to know.

Never underestimate the potential, as a challenger, to stand out from established competitors because of a more colourful and provocative personality. Big brands in big sectors tend to be safe, unexciting and beige. Offer up change enthusiastically – and build a brand that more viscerally engages people’s emotions.

Five steps to build your brand

Build a brand strategy on a page

Bring together your team (and anyone who is close to the needs of your target audience) and seek to capture on a page:

– Your brand purpose: In a sentence, seek to express ‘why you do what you do’. A great purpose statement connects your personal motivations for starting the business with a big, exciting change that you are seeking to deliver to your users. Keep it simple and heartfelt.

– Your brand personality: Avoid assembling a laundry list of adjectives. Instead, isolate just three traits that capture the spirit of your new business – a rational trait (to help build respect), an emotional trait (to help build relatability) and a reaction trait (the overall feeling you want to leave with users, as a result of experiencing your brand).

– Your breakthrough value proposition: In a sentence, link together a definition of your target audience (recognising that upstarts are smart to focus on a small yet attractive slice of the total market at first), your key competition (who or what you are principally competing against) and, most critically, the unique value that you intend to deliver to knock out your targeted competition.

Secure a name for your brand

A tough early test is to secure a legally registerable name and URL for your new business, given that practically every common-use word in the dictionary is already registered or, frustratingly, reserved for possible future use. You will need to brainstorm hard to come up with a fresh and category-relevant name.

Develop a cohesive brand identity system

Work with a branding agency that can help you to build a cohesive identity system made up of the following core elements:

– a logo

– a set of fonts

– a set of primary and secondary colours

– an illustrative and/or photographic style

– a distinctive tone of voice.

Craft your elevator pitch

As you prepare to launch your brand to the world, develop an elevator pitch to share with all staff and partners. Draft your pitch using this simple construct: ‘Brand X is a (what we do) that (the way we do it) so (our core target audience) enjoys (benefits 1, 2, 3).’

Develop memorable brand signatures

Marketing used to be about the ‘management of claims’ that brands made about themselves, largely in paid media. Today it is about the ‘management of experiences’ that are delivered through every interaction with a user. Many brand signatures today are screen based, like Google’s ever-changing Doodles or Instagram’s love heart.

But think about brand signatures designed to engage the other senses: sound effects like Intel Inside, the inescapable smell of entering a Victoria’s Secret store or the pleasingly tactile experience of releasing a new Apple device from its beautifully snug packaging. These small yet thoughtfully designed interactions speak volumes for brands.

Wayde Bull is a founding partner of branding agency Principals. This is an edited extract from the ASX Entrepreneur’s Guide – the full version is available here.

Image: by Lucas Sankey on Unsplash