Brand Now, Build Later: Lessons I’ve learned in branding startups

20th August 2019 / 5 minute read

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If you’re at the stage when you’re considering updating your startup brand, then this is for you…

Over my career, I’ve seen an array of marketing and brand practices. The issue of the brand first or brand later regularly comes up in conversation. Some people say brand should be the main focus others say build the business first then worry about the brand later. I say it’s a journey.

So what’s my opinion on the debate and my recommendation to start-ups?

The big boys

For the majority of my career I’ve worked in the corporate world and what I observed, which won’t come as a surprise to most, is that they are slow and sluggish.

It can take forever to plan out a project, get it off the ground and then you’re up against a rigid decision making progress. Signing off each stage one piece at a time. This can take its toll and sap the energy from any enthusiastic marketers. But what it does do is lend itself well to protecting a brand. No one goes guerilla…it’s not part of the strategy. Brand reputation is everything and nothing can damage it.

That is what these enterprises do so well. They are always building their corporate and product brands and will spend millions doing so. They do however start with a bloody fantastic product — spend a decent chunk of the budget on obtaining customer insight, articulate their proposition so it’s watertight, ask 3 or 4 agencies to ‘get creative’ and pitch. Then it’s into the design, build and planning of a big campaign. When the time is right and everything has been approved within an inch of its existence. Go live.

A methodical, long and well thought out process.


Small yet mighty

In comparison, the start-up world is agile, exciting, visionary and can move to market at lightning speed. They don’t care for processes and just want it done as quickly as possible.

Brand is often the last thing on their mind, especially if they are the brains behind their product or service. That’s their skill set and trying to navigate marketing isn’t their forte nor should it be. They just need to get to market and test their assumptions.

One thing I love about start-ups is their passion and understanding of the sector in which they operate. Their business idea was born from raw insight, a problem they desperately wanted to solve. They know their target market through and through.

Understanding the market might sound blatantly obvious but it’s harder said than done. Start-ups are much more aware of the needs of their customers as they have lived the problem. They then build their product based on this insight.

A start-up brand is often a mirror image of the founder. Who they are, what they stand for and how they act. The level of marketing and brand building really depends on that entrepreneur. I’ve seen some business plans which are outstanding others are clearly lost in this area.

Unlike the corporates, startups don’t have thousands of pounds to pump into their unicorn brand. It’s normally a creative friend who helps them out with their logo and the rest follows from there. And, with only around 15% of start-up’s making it in the UK, it would be crazy to spend too much money on a beautiful brand before gaining revenue.

So a logo, some form of visual identity and a basic website does the job. It’s what’s needed to get going. In this instance, it’s certainly a case of build later.


Becoming sustainable

After the initial phase, the tables turn. There is a pivot point where growth is inevitable and investment is required to meet the plan. You can’t sustainably grow a business if your brand hasn’t been thought through.

I’m not just talking about a logo or a pretty picture again, I mean the fundamentals of your brand. A well-architected brand creates consistency so you know how you look and how you talk about yourself. It informs your website, your sales assets and future employee actions.

It even informs your product development — people often forget that your product also needs to be ‘brandified’.

In the world of SaaS, for example, there will be your shop window aka website.

A suspect will learn about you in the awareness stage of the buying cycle. — the why, how, what you do and how it benefits them.

They are then nurtured to consider your brand with a downloadable asset or option to take a trial. At this stage, the now evaluating prospect has registered for the trial, is familiarising themselves with the system and brand. They are exploring…trying to decide if they should buy or not.

Wouldn’t it be odd, if that system looked and sounded completely different to the shop window?! And, the customer touch points with your brand don’t stop there.

After a few days into their trial, they will be contacted by a sales-person to check how they’re getting on and to squash any objections about the system. This salesperson could be the deciding factor in their decision-making process. So, they also need to sing from the same hymn sheet and 100% echo the language of the brand.

As a start-up, you don’t want to confuse people with differing identities. You need one clear voice, one direction. Test it and evolve as you grow but don’t just get out there haphazardly. It works for a time but to grow sustainability it must be coherent.


In conclusion…

So for those start-ups who are on the next stage of their journey and have ambitious plans to grow. I’d recommend doing the following:

  • Write down your vision and share it with your team, agree that it encompasses what your business is about and where you plan to take it (at the moment!)
  • Review your brand identity, is it ready for growth in its current form. Will it resonate with your target audience in the long term.
  • Test the assumptions you make about your target audience. Get out there and talk to people, nothing beats a face to face interaction and gauging feedback on your business and brand.

And finally,

  • What is your marketing strategy? If you don’t have one think about your objectives and how you’re going to achieve them. Then plan out the next six months, everything that you’re going to do from a marketing point of view and measure it. Don’t waste precious marketing funds on activity that isn’t working.

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