For your startup to be successful, you have to be right again and again and again. Your innovation has to be the right fit for the industry. You have to secure the right hires and investors. Your timing has to be right. Your budget. Your short-term and long-term goals. There’s almost no room for error.
There’s a way to improve your odds of success, though. Branding.
By developing and implementing a strong brand strategy, startups can improve sales, market positioning, fundraising, and—crucially—credibility. Nonetheless, as outlined in this article from First Round Review, most founders wait too long to make it a priority. We couldn’t agree more.
Even before a startup is well-established, the importance of appearing well-established cannot be overstated. Companies are just like people. They have unique personalities which are reflected in their behaviors. The secret sauce that most companies lack in their branding is the ability to articulate their own identity. Learning the basics of how to do so will help dictate your mission, goals, and ultimately, the entirety of your brand.
The Blue Meta Design team in action, discussing and researching a new client project.
Branding is a combination of elements: visual communication (your logo, color palette, photography, textures, aesthetics, etc.), written communication (your messaging, tone of voice, etc.), and characteristics (your brand positioning, values, traits, customer experience, etc.). When they work in tandem, you naturally form a connection with your target audience and distinguish yourself from the competition. The best brands position their products and services effectively, but also go beyond the functional aspects of their business by promoting their people and their values in an endearing, relatable way.
In Get to Aha!, Andy Cunningham writes, “Branding is the yang to positioning’s yin, and when both pieces come together, you have a sense of the company’s identity as a whole, an understanding of the essence of who and what the company is and what it stands for.”
Take venture capital firm and Blue Meta Design client Next47 for example. They struggled with their identity since their inception, so they decided to change their investment thesis, triggering the need for a rebrand. By working directly with stakeholders to understand the change in their investment thesis and target audience—early growth stage enterprise founders—we were able to help them build an elevated brand presence, setting them up for success against big name VCs in their space.
As we developed their brand elements, we established a structure for their small marketing team. It included templates that were fit for showcasing the brand externally, but also user-friendly enough to use internally. After all, a successful brand comes down to consistency. Not tons of money or tons of smart people, but attention to details at all times, across all communications.
Executing a brand takes discipline. For instance, let’s say you feel pressure to get your logo in the public eye. Rushing the creative process will always lead you back to square one. And once you begin creating assets the world will see, second guessing your elements is bound to cause confusion.
Branding is the yang to positioning’s yin, and when both pieces come together, you have a sense of the company’s identity as a whole…
Get to Aha!
Therein lies the importance of Brand Guidelines, your company’s set of brand standards. Following and updating these guidelines (and making sure your team does the same) is the easiest way to produce polished, coherent materials. And that’s the fastest way to make a small brand look big. It all goes back to credibility—applying your brand standards the same way every time communicates your identity clearly, which makes you easier to believe in. It also makes you infinitely more recognizable and familiar. For that reason, repetition is your friend.
Solidifying your brand’s look is fairly regimented. Creating your brand’s feel, on the other hand, leaves more room for outside-the-box methods. Whether you want to come off as silly, serious, wild, or relaxed, your goal is to inspire emotion, giving people a deeper sense of who you are and what you care about. There are unlimited ways to achieve that, but there are helpful tricks for getting started. Leslie Ziegler, branding specialist and the subject of the First Round Review article, has a go-to: personification.
“The exercise initially feels silly, but makes internal brand identity very easy to scale. I ask, ‘What celebrity or historical figure would this brand be? Is it George Clooney? Is it George Washington?’” One company she worked with chose Big Bird from Sesame Street. Charismatic and considerate, they felt he represented them perfectly, so they tailored their brand decisions around him
Approaching Your Key Stakeholders
Branding is also how you build your company. Think of it like a skyscraper. The more layered and nuanced your brand gets, the more stories you add. Over time, you become more visible to people walking down the street, driving on the highway, or looking out their office windows. They begin to take notice.
In other words, the branding choices you make are building your startup as much as your programming language or CRM software. Because when these choices are well-ordered and well-reasoned, you can persuade your key stakeholders to help your company grow and succeed.
Of these stakeholders, your first concern is your customers. Making a good impression here, again, requires consistency. The essence of your brand needs to come across at every touchpoint, even those that seem unimportant. One of our favorite ways to inject a little humor into a brand—when their identity warrants it—is a witty 404 page. Even dead ends should reflect your personality.
It’s important to note that you have to target the channels where you’re most likely to attract customers, but you can’t be everywhere. A more efficient and effective strategy is concentrating on your key demographic and building a presence on the sites and platforms they visit most. Social media, for one, is an incredibly vast landscape. Narrowing your scope will not only save you time and money, but also increase your chances of reaching the right audience.
Next, consider prospective investors who need to believe in your product and your vision. In return for their financial backing, this audience expects to see focus. Not just on your day-to-day operations, but on the problem your brand is solving—how it’s making a difference.
To show it, it’s best to assume a professional tone here. Big Bird may be a fitting brand voice for the general public, but it isn’t well-suited for interactions with your investors. You aren’t changing your brand by making this shift—you’re projecting the knowledge and conviction that’s necessary behind the scenes.
It’s smart to interface with board members the same way. As your advisors, they’ll want your team to demonstrate clear goals for your brand, a plan of action to meet those goals, and materials that reflect the direction you’ve chosen. But unlike investors, this group’s primary role is guidance. As long as you’re organized and prepared to do the leg work, it’s not just okay to lean on your board for help. It’s smart.
Take the press into account as well. Conversations with reporters should always be pre-rehearsed. Preparing talking points minimizes your chances of misrepresenting your brand. They aren’t hard to nail down—just create a Comms Doc where you can keep the main topics you want to cover, the questions you’re most likely to be asked, and your short, sweet responses to them. While you’re at it, record some key stats to share, too.
Finally, don’t forget current and potential employees. If you want to attract and keep top-shelf candidates, you have to present a top-shelf brand. Now more than ever, investing in long-term talent is a huge priority. Don’t underestimate the importance of infusing your brand into your recruitment process.
Starting with the Basics
Now you know the value of your key stakeholders and the defining elements of your brand. Time to put it all together in your Brand Guidelines.
Like your brand’s design, your core brand language is only effective if—you guessed it—you’re consistent and repetitive. From press releases to your website to social posts, using the same words and phrases identically across media is a must. Find words your brand can own, use them constantly, and your key stakeholders won’t be able to misinterpret what your company does or what it represents.
One set of words is the most ownable of all. In Ziegler’s view, every startup should press pause until they’ve carefully developed the four most basic parts of their Brand Guidelines, and the first is a company name. It’s best to pick a final name by the time you incorporate, but before you do, ask as many people as you can about it. Don’t be shy.
Of course, there’s your logo, too. It’s the stamp you put on everything you do, so it needs to evoke the thoughts and emotions you want people to associate with your brand.
“Is it modern or old fashioned?” Ziegler asks. “Does every adjective someone would use to describe your logo also describe the company itself?”
Similar to her personification exercise, Ziegler takes founders through a series of questions to help them land on a logo. They start broad, then narrow in on the smaller aspects of the design:
- What words describe the company you want to build?
- What words describe the culture you want to build?
- What brands do you love and why?
- What brands do you hate and why?
- What colors do you like or dislike?
Last are your one-line pitch and your boilerplate. The best one-line pitches lay out the problem your company solves. It’s not enough to explain what you do. Explain how you’ll improve the industry—that’s why your key stakeholders will buy from you, invest in you, and believe in you.
Your boilerplate is just a longer version of your one-liner, allowing for more explanation. Again, consider your stakeholders—this is perfect for the audiences and scenarios that warrant more formality. Keep it to three or four sentences, share your most important company info (your investors, where you’re based, the problem you’re solving, etc.), make it the same every time, and include it in press releases.
If you feel like you need extra direction to knock your branding out of the park, ask for help. It’s smart to enlist the help of your board when it comes to certain aspects of your business, right? There are designers and agencies all over the country who handle branding for a living. Find one who understands the startup space. With your own Leslie Ziegler in your corner, there’s no telling how high you can build your skyscraper.