A recent question from Startup Daily’s editor caused Chello founder Lindsay Rogers to question what she knows about startup businesses as brands.
So she asked a group of founders that question, and here looks at the when, what and why of building your business brand?
I run a creative brand agency and for the last decade we’ve helped businesses of all sizes build their brands.
But, recently Startup Daily editor Simon Thomsen asked me a question which genuinely stumped me: do founders care about brand?
Why did this question puzzle me? Well, I spend every day working with a lot of scale up businesses to develop their brands, and quite often that means establishing codes and strategies for companies which have already been been around for years and are enjoying some success.
Many are even well-known names, but the idea of brand building doesn’t seem to have been high on their priority list.
I’ve attended some start up events over the past few weeks, so I took the time to speak to a few different startup founders and senior managers, and what they told me has been eye-opening.
It turns out most founders don’t really give too much thought to brand, at least in the early days, until they hit an inflection point.
If stages of business follow: entering, refining and then growth, it’s usually between the refining and growth phases which tallies with where we see clients getting serious about brand.
Product talks first
In the early days, product-market fit is the focus. The main objective: growing by acquiring customers. There are some exceptions to the rule, where the brand is a key ingredient to growth, but largely, brand seems to follow a proven-market expansion.
Businesses selling to general consumers (B2C) businesses seem to start talking about brand much earlier in the journey than those in the business to business (B2B) market. Usually this is driven by the need to cut-through to individual consumers via a digital marketing funnel, which requires creative, a tone of voice and a recognisable aesthetic – the beginnings of a brand.
B2B brands tend to start out more relationship and founder-centric – reputation matters most here it seems.
“In the early days our product did the majority of the talking for us,” says Shaun Greenblo, co-MD of bamboo clothing brand Boody.
“We obsessed around comfort and fit, and tried to deliver an accessible experience by stocking in retailers where the customer was seeking better options.
“As we evolved into a majority B2C business, we were obsessed with the end to end customer experience. Every single interaction with our brand, from the moment you discover it online to our post-purchase communications were considered.”
A similar story shared by Tushar Menon, cofounder of the high protein ready meal brand My Muscle Chef, whose relentless focus was on a quality product in the early days.
Even in the face of often costly product decisions he says: “Our commitment to quality products was what customers noticed about us from day one. It’s from these early customers and listening to what they loved, we were able to build out the brand.”
When branding counts
Most founders agree that having a great quality product and company values were the foundational blocks to their early success, with branding becoming a focus after the “entry” phase.
One successful scale up founder talked about the importance of brand positioning, something they hadn’t landed in the early years: “We were busy being everything to everyone, trying to maximise market share until we were forced to niche.
We needed to decide who our core customer was and double down. It made subsequent decision-making so much easier, we could move faster and smarter knowing who we were made for. It’s not to say we didn’t take customers outside our primary customer persona, we just didn’t focus on them.”
From a B2B perspective, things seem to take a slightly different approach, adds Josh Ayscough, Partner and Entrepreneur-in residence at investment firm, Utiliti Group: “In the early days, a start up usually leverages the founders’ personal brand to establish trust. However, as the business grows, priorities shift towards growth and product development, causing a potential disconnect between the original brand and reality.”
Toby McKinnon, former-CMO at B2B scale-up, Sapia.ai, agrees: “All founders care about brand, whether they know it or not. They’ve started a product, they’re looking for product-market fit, they put a name to it, and that’s the brand.”
But when Sapia.ai, formerly known as Predictive Hire, hit a ceiling with its brand in market, Toby knew the brand needed reassessment and an external perspective.
He explains: “I didn’t have to sell the rebrand process to Barb (Hyman), Sapia.ai’s founder. Even though Predictive Hire was her baby, she knew we had to evolve. The business had proven product-market fit, she knew where the geographic growth was going to come from, and that our brand in its then current form just wouldn’t play in a market with that competitor set.”
From an investor perspective, Utiliti Group’s Ayscough continues: “The disconnect between brand and reality can cause commercial issues, for example high customer churn in a B2B SaaS environment. It can also be a concern during a capital raise process, as investors question if the current brand is suitable for scaling and achieving target goals. Founders start caring more about brand when they recognise these issues and the need for alignment between brand and business objectives.”
The value of brands
So, what is the value of brand?
According to Tracksuit, a brand tracking research business, you invest in it for three main reasons:
- It builds trust and an emotional connection with target consumers;
- It helps with loyalty and recall;
- It gives you the ability to charge more.
“The business graveyard is filled with incredible brands with crap products,” explains Boody’s Greenblo.
“We started with a great product and values that were true to us, our job was to leverage these feelings people had interacting with us and our product, to build a brand on.”
So at some point, brand becomes less of a logo and holding page, and becomes something much more meaningful. An inflection point where founders start to think about brand, and employ marketing experience expertise to bring this to life to build the beginnings of a moat.
Success inevitably breeds copycats, with new competitors joining the category. This is when differentiation becomes more of a focus, an investment in brand to win mental and physical availability. To scale, a brand needs to go beyond the existing target audience and create distinctiveness.
The good news is that the AI boom we’re living through may help more founders to start to build brand thinking into their business from the very beginning.
A sea of sameness
One multi-exit founder said just last week he jumped on ChatGPT to ask AI about potential business names for his new idea.
The results returned an array of options, he then asked which could be registered for trademark purposes, and which had available domain names. He chose one, registered it, asked it for a logo, and had a company holding page up before his morning coffee.
With funding tighter and founders under more pressure to deliver sales results earlier, it is definitely important that brand is not just a by-product of the business. There needs to be more thought from earlier in the piece.
Sapia.ai CMO McKinnon, an experienced marketer, explains: “Founders want it all, and want it now, and rightly so. Speed is what you want to see. But building a great brand doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. So it’s this fine balance of how do you build a long-term brand while actually driving, immediate short-term revenue?”
In a world of AI-powered design however, we risk the sea of sameness. The scaleup landscape most commonly centres on a quality product at entry, which creates talkability and generates those great reviews.
But if you can take what makes the product or company great and distill that into a key set of principles, your brand will grow beyond what is “known” and truly hit salience with the target audience. And that’s the inflection point, where the business truly stands on its own two feet, revenue often follows, and life becomes a lot easier for the founder.
* Lindsay Rogers is cofounder and MD of brand and creative agency Chello.