Good news! The understanding and awareness of the importance of branding is changing among startups. Fewer and fewer startups relate brands with only visual elements (e.g. name, logo, slogan, domain). It is becoming clear that brands should go beyond their visual elements. They are definitely important in the whole brand-building process, since they represent the visual part of the brand, but are not the only elements that should be considered. Don’t be among those startups making the very basic mistake of leaving branding to the end of the process.
Unfortunately, there is still little knowledge and discussion regarding where and how to start building startup brands. With this in mind, we have sought to elaborate 11 steps explaining where and how you should engage in this process.
In the beginning, you need to understand that your brand is always a matching of two perspectives – the customer’s and yours. The narrow customer’s perspective is focused on the unique experience the customer has from the first moment of interacting with your product. Your perspective – the entrepreneur’s perspective – is a much broader one that includes all the organization’s activities, such as technology, finance, and marketing that customers don’t think about when they buy, use or recommend your brand. These are the two perspectives of the branding funnel.
Image copyright: Ruzzier & Ruzzier, Startup branding funnel
Are you ready to start developing your brand? Do you know for whom to develop it and what steps to follow on this journey? First, you need to observe and understand both the market and yourself very well. This need is addressed in these first five steps:
Step 1. Your branding journey should start by setting your broader vision, which places your brand in the future and directs its further development. Vision is something each founder should have and usually reflects the solution of the “pain” your startup wants to address.
Step 2. With your broader vision in mind, start to analyze the industry in which you are going to operate. Try to understand where the industry is going and what the trends are in the area in which you want to work.
Step 3. Be realistic in your self-evaluation and the evaluation of your team’s knowledge, skills, and financial and other resources. Think about where you can get additional resources. It’s crucial to have the core competencies needed to develop your brand within your team. You can’t outsource them!
Step 4. Get to know your competition in the area in which you would like to work. Don’t forget about indirect competitors. You might check them out by asking your potential customer about the brands that solve their problems and how they value the difference your brand would offer them.
Step 5. Try to identify and understand your target customers and how they behave. Think about their potential changes in behavior and how this can influence your business. Be realistic about how big your target group should be in order to be able to support your growth proposition.
You probably dealt with some of the above activities and elements when searching for your product-market fit using the lean methodology and when designing your business model. Reconsider them and use your knowledge in the next steps of your brand development.
Step 6. Now you are ready to start developing your minimum viable brand and upgrading your product-market fit into a brand-market fit. Start with story. You need to find the best mix of identity elements (features, benefits, value, culture, personality, relationship, communities) to form a unique story that engages your potential customer not only on a functional level but also on an emotional level.
Step 7. Upgrade your story with different visual elements (name, symbol, slogan, domain, etc.) and invite your potential customers to validate your story and its visualization. Visual elements should be derived from and be related to the brand’s story. Think about brand architecture: what to brand and protect (a brand, company or even both). Don’t forget about intellectual property and its protection, if relevant.
Having a unique story with appealing visual elements cannot help you if no one is aware of it. Now is the time to implement it.
Step 8. Start telling your story. First, spread it inside your company (internal branding). Brands should be well understood by you, your team members and other employees. These can be the best brand ambassadors, but first, they need to understand what the brand stands for! The unique culture and values of the company can represent an important distinguishing element for target customers. When a startup grows, these values need to be well communicated throughout the company and new employees.
Step 9. Understand communication as a dialogue or conversation, which invites customers as brand co-creators and turns them into brand ambassadors. Try to use interactive, flexible and cost-effective tools, such as buzz, social media, viral marketing, PR (public relations), online advertising and other growth-hacking techniques. Well-executed PR can be an important factor in determining the success of your startup. Understand, and have skilled people who understand, how to execute the best campaigns, by combining different tools, while measuring their effectiveness and adequately adapting them. Never underestimate the power of online communities (either public or private) in brand building, and do your best to get the most out of them!
Step 10. Be sure that your brand will reach your target customers. You need to know what channels will be the most effective ones to reach your target segments. There are two main possibilities: you can sell your brand directly to your customers (direct marketing), or you can use intermediaries (indirect marketing). In most cases, a combination of both approaches is used. Be effective and innovative regarding marketing channels!
From the vision onwards, have your target customer in mind. Understand and engage customers to be a part of this journey, not only after the brand is launched to the market but also during its development. The final step (step 11) relates to all the previous steps:
Step 11. Constantly validate and evaluate your brand by speaking with your target customers, and later by using more elaborate metrics. After your launch, you start building your brand equity. In this stage, entrepreneurs can develop some metrics and start a more comprehensive evaluation of the brand to understand its strength.
Developing and maintaining a strong brand is a dynamic, never-ending process of iterations and adaptations to the changes of your customers’ behavior, and technological and environmental changes you need to perform in order to prosper and hack your growth!
Gone forever are the days when branding was connected only to large companies, even multinationals. Branding in startups follows the idea of the lean approach: with each iteration, the brand responds even more to modern customers. Therefore, “branding like a startup” has become the new challenge even among large and well-established organizations. Dynamic branding is introducing us to a new breed of companies!