Many people discount the importance of brand at startups. I hear founders giving excuses that range from “it’s not necessary for MVP” to simply “it’s fluffy stuff.” Naturally, when I ask them to define their brands, they respond with a list of product features. Very few understand the concept and others don’t really care. Should they?
Short answer: yes.
But the real challenge is thinking about brand in a way that makes sense for startups. Having started a tech company, I can appreciate the myriad of priorities that founders face each day. I can also understand why it’s difficult for them to care about something that’s very qualitative and has no immediate ROI.
Much of the startup world operates on the just-in-time attitude of only doing something when it’s absolutely necessary. If it doesn’t put out a fire, it can probably wait until later. The problem with this approach is that it’s not very forward-thinking. By the time you realize something is wrong (eg your tech was built poorly, you made some bad hires, your company lacks purpose), the problem runs much deeper than you think and may be too late to reconcile.
Branding is something you do for the long run. It may not help you right away, but it will create a strong foundation for the future.
To create a strong startup brand, you first need to understand what a brand is. The American Marketing Association’s official definition of brand states that it’s a visual identifier (eg name, logo, design) of a product or service. However, the general consensus among advertising and other creative agencies is that brand is much more. It encompasses not only a company’s appearance, but also the emotions and opinions that surround it.
From the company perspective, I would define a brand as follows:
A brand is a promise to your customers that is differentiated from competition. (POV: company)
The promise refers to a pledge to deliver a certain set of benefits to your customers. It can be both functional (we offer feature x, y and z) as well as emotional (we make you feel x, y and z). As most startups are built on the future promise of something great, brand is already baked into their DNA.
The promise is compelling only if it is differentiated from competition. The problem is that many consumer web products today are functionally on par with each other. So claiming better features may fall on deaf ears, but creating an unique emotional hook may resonate with your audience.
From the customer perspective, I would define brand as follows:
A brand is the sum total of your perceptions about a company. (POV: customer)
In this definition, the focus is on perceptions, or what your customers think about you. Perceptions are important because they are a reality for the people who hold them, whether or not they are really true. The sum of these perceptions forms the overall customer experience. Some people think that customer experience only relates to the product, which is simply not true. Any interaction with the company influences perceptions, so must be taken into consideration.
Think about the signals your company gives to the outside world: the quality of your investors and founding team, the events you host, even the co-working space where you sit. They all influence the way people think about you, creating perceptions that are either beneficial or not. As you build these perceptions over time, they become more ingrained in people’s minds but also harder to change. Just look at the uphill battle Microsoft has to fight despite decent products like Photosynth or Surface.
CREATING STRONG BRANDS
Now that we understand what brands are, let’s explore ways to create a strong ones. As with most marketing efforts, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each company is different and each company has its own unique assets that can contribute to building a promise. However, most companies think about similar things when creating their unique proposition. To keep things simple, I organized these strategies thematically into the five building blocks of brands.
1. WHAT YOU BELIEVE
Building a strong brand always begins with a sense of purpose. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What problem are you trying to solve? How you expect to change the world? You can answer these questions in a variety of ways, such as articulating your values, drafting mission and vision statements or creating a brand manifesto. To make your beliefs compelling, they must come from your heart and be embraced by everyone in your company.
Holstee made a huge splash in social media when it launched its poster-sized manifesto that encapsulates its beliefs as a company: “This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often.” The manifesto (pictured above) nicely articulates the company’s purpose and is one of its best-selling products.
Fab understands brand more than anyone else in the startup world. Their entire reason for existence is to make you smile (vs. just selling products), which sounds eerily similar to Apple. The reason Fab does this credibly well is that everyone in the company believes in a set of core values.
Skillshare created a beautiful video about curiosity, the driving force of learning and the inspiration behind its business. Why did it spend money on a video? To let its stakeholders know that they’re serious about education and to bring the idea of intellectual curiosity to life (in a way words cannot).
Fitocracy is on a mission to empower everyone to reach their next level of health and fitness. This statement is a major drive of the company’s product roadmap and informs day-to-day interactions with their community.
2. WHAT YOU SAY
Of the most salient aspects of brand is its verbal communications, which includes language, message, vernacular and tone. Together, these elements define the brand voice. If you look at your operations you’ll see that you communicate everywhere, from site app copy and support messages to confirmation emails, social media sites and other marketing collateral. The key to effective communications is maintaing a consistent voice, so it’s best to have one person oversee these efforts.
Flipboard uses emotionally-charged words like “surprising,” “amazing” and “stunning”” to convey the beauty of its product.
LaunchRock conveys a message of guiding startups through their earliest stages of growth. This reflects an expanded vision and product strategy from when it first launched as a simple splash page.
AppSumo communicates all new deals via a personal, authentic review written by a member of its staff. It doesn’t get any more real than this - these guys really believe in what they’re selling and stand behind each product.
Foursquare has check-ins, Pinterest has pins, Facebook has likes, Highlight has highlights and Google is a verb. As these examples suggest, the most ownable vernacular ties closely to a unique product feature.
3. WHAT YOU DO
The most compelling way to bring your company’s words to life is through actions. Actions make ideas real and tangible. While most are not actual requirements for your core business, they’re extremely important because they define the company culture. Think about the behaviors, customs and idiosyncrasies that make your company unique (eg team lunches, volunteering, GSD), and then amplify those with the most meaning. They will help you convey your values to the outside world and attract key talent to your team.
Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses each time a pair is purchased, creating a massive amount of goodwill around its product (“I can buy a stylish product AND help people in need”). Supporting a larger cause is core part of the company’s offering and is one of the drivers of Warby Parkers early growth.
Bonobos is know for its exceptional customer service and even has a motto: “People before profit.” Some companies take a similar pride in customer interactions, with some founders even sharing their emails and phone numbers with new users upon signup.
Google and Zappos find culture so important that the former hired a Chief Culture Officer and the latter a Chief Happiness Officer.
Wanderfly offers all employees (regardless of experience) 4 weeks of vacation to give them time to travel, which helps fuel their passion for the business.
Uber was unfairly criticized over surge pricing during Hurricane Sandy, but decided to accommodate people’s needs by offering cabs at regular rates (and swallowed a $100K loss).
Fab lets all employees pitch new products to sell on its site, creating a collaborative attitude around its core offering.
4. HOW YOU APPEAR
This building block refers to the visual aspect of your brand, but is often confused as its only component. It includes the company name, logo, and design elements (fonts, styles, colors, symbols) which together inform the brand personality. Using visual branding in a strategic way can make your company instantly recognizable and create familiarity in its presence, leading customers to prefer it over others. Remember that your brand’s visual appearing should be consistent both within and outside your app. There’s nothing that screams amateur more than a crappy looking Facebook page or Keynote presentation.
Instagram and Cinemagram have gorgeous logos that stand out in app stores and draw people’s attention away from competition. Logos, like product ratings and descriptions, are considered to be one of the key drivers of consideration on app stores.
Duolingo uses a cute owl named Duo to provide helpful advice to people as they learn a new language. Duo underscores the fun, friendly nature of the brand which contrasts the serious, formal attitude of its competitors. Be careful with mascots, however, as some have not turned out so well (ahem, Clippy).
Lyft, the car-sharing service, uses a pink moustache on its car grilles to build interest in the service and promote a sense of community among riders. It’s not surprising that ad guru Alex Bogusky is the company’s advisor.
Pinterest has a killer name that is filled with meaning (pinning + interest graph) and rolls right off the tongue, while Coursekit changed its name to Lore because it believed that its old name did not properly reflect its new ambitions.
Codecademy and other startups risk brand dilution by keeping the generic and overused Lobster font.
5. WHAT YOU MAKE
The last and perhaps most obvious part of the brand experience is building a great product that solves a real human need. Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds. First, the product needs to be sufficiently different in the eyes of customers. Building me-too features that people don’t care about or those that are interesting challenges for developers is not the right approach. Second, the user experience needs to be great. Having a solid UX means that people will quickly understand the product and easily find what their looking for. Lastly, the product needs to be reliable and function properly. Persistent downtimes and bugs that never get fixed never engender positive feelings.
Spotify built its success on a rock-solid music streaming service that plays songs almost instantaneously from anywhere.
Milewise offers a unique type of flight search that combines cash and points, something no other travel site else can claim.
Path and to-do list app Clear have built their brands on beautiful interfaces that are delightful to use.
Twitter’s famous fail whale almost brought down the company in its early days, while Tumblr’s persistent downtimes still cause a lot of frustrations.
When creating a startup brand, it’s fairly common to transfer your personal brand equity as a founder to your company. Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever did this at Quora, Dave Morin at Path and Noah Kagan at AppSumo. Perceptions take a long time to build, so piggybacking on something that already exists its a great way to jumpstart your efforts. At some point, however, your company should become its own independent and standalone brand, so make sure the spotlight isn’t always on you.
Branding’s end goal is to create a strong emotional and psychological relationship with your audience. Once you’ve developed this relationship, it will give you permission to do things that otherwise would not have been possible. A strong brand can:
- Attract early supporters when others don’t believe in you
- Get you free marketing from rabid fanboys (eg foursquare)
- Buy you forgiveness and time when you screw up
- Allow you to price your product at a premium
- Help you seduce investors (eg Rap Genius)
Some people say that strong brands are only important for lifestyle companies. It’s true that these particular firms must pay more attention to the nuances brand, because managing perceptions is much closer to their core business. But that doesn’t mean a functional tool can’t be a great brand, either. Remember how Dropbox made file-sharing - the most vanilla of tech products - into something people cared about?
Using the building blocks above, think about the brand elements that will help your startup stand apart from others. Then choose a few beliefs, words, actions, appearances and product features that will have the most impact in the market. Provided that you make an honest effort and stay true to yourself, you’ll reap the benefits for years to come.
If you have great examples of startup branding, please share them in the comments below.