A Step-By-Step Guide to Early-Stage Branding
How Founders Can Establish Their Startup's Brand Correctly From The Start
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A Step-By-Step Guide to Early-Stage Branding
Today we have a special guest post from Chris Kock. If you’re interested in reading the latest founder deep dives on Jay-Z, Nicolas Sharp, Emily Weiss, Dave Portnoy, and more, click here.
Chris is a brand specialist with over 10 years of experience as a Creative and Brand Director.
He began his career at leading agencies including Jung von Matt, DDB, TBWA, and R/GA. Chris has worked with top-tier clients such as Google, Nike, Coca-Cola, and Mercedes.
More recently, Chris worked for BCG Digital Ventures (BCG X now) and early-stage startups.
He has applied the lessons and skills he learned to these ventures, helping them create and build brands that grow faster, raise more money, and reach significant valuations.
As a Co-Founder of FANtium, he not only assists other founders but has also experienced firsthand the challenges and triumphs of launching a brand as a founder.
In this article, we will explore:
In detail, what a brand is and why it is so important
What it takes to establish your early startup brand and how to do it right
Your brand roadmap for going beyond
Let’s get to it.
What exactly is a Brand?
Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos defines a brand as:
There are many attempts to define brands but a brand is definitely not a logo, it’s not your name, and it’s not a tagline. Nowadays, a brand can't just be something on the surface, it has to be a part of the business itself. These Brand assets are only effective if you’ve done the hard work of figuring out what your brand stands for and why it matters in the first place.
Let's take a look at some of the best brands out there. Airbnb, Nike, Allbirds, Coca-Cola or Apple. They are all based on simple, powerful ideas that go beyond just product features and benefits.
These ideas are expressed consistently over time through everything the company does, including advertising and marketing. This idea cannot be created by an external agency or marketing team; it needs to come from the founders themselves. If they double down on that simple idea at the core of their business and continually orient their decision-making around it over many years, they can build a great brand.
Like Airbnb, Nike, and Allbirds.
👆All of these brands have a simple idea at the heart of their business, which informs and directs everything that the business does.
Why is a brand so important even for early-stage Startups?
The barriers to entry for launching a business are decreasing every day, resulting in a surge of new brands appearing at a rapid pace.
Categories are being disrupted one after another, and competition is becoming more intense. Having a great idea, a better price, or faster shipping is no longer sufficient.
If founders do not have enough momentum right out of the gate, the risk of not getting the chance to grow beyond Beta is high.
A brand is an engine that drives business growth, and the sooner startups incorporate brand thinking, the more set up for success founders will have.
A brand will:
Defend your business against the competition.
Build credibility and trust with potential customers.
Help you attract more customers more easily while creating future demand.
Give you pricing power as customers are willing to pay a higher average price premium compared to weaker alternatives.
Founders often question whether they should invest in a brand before proving product-market fit and gaining traction. This contradicts the "lean startup" and "test to success" approaches that many earlier tech companies embraced. With so many new companies launching every second, founders can no longer simply put out an idea, see if it gains momentum, and iterate on their brand as they would on software features.
Here are some examples:
Beloved brands effortlessly combine function with emotion. They offer products that outperform their competitors while making consumers feel good about being part of their world. Casper is a great example of such a brand.
Casper launched in the spring of 2014 in a studio apartment on Bond Street. From the start, they committed to doing things differently.
The mattress industry focused on many different sleep types, but Casper developed one mattress for everyone.
Previously, if you wanted to buy a mattress you had to go to a showroom and be greeted by a salesperson. Casper started selling mattresses online.
With these functional benefits established, Casper focused their brand communication on the emotional aspect. They created a strong and recognizable brand from the outset, setting themselves apart from others in the industry. They speak to people in a completely new way by reflecting their values - simplicity, tirelessness, pioneering spirit, joy, and zing - throughout their brand language. Casper’s always dreaming up new ways to help the world sleep better.
Of course, if you look at the Casper brand today, you'll see that it has matured significantly. The brand now features real people and warmer colors. However, Casper may not have achieved such success if they had not focused on branding early on and still stuck to the simple idea at the core of their business: "Better sleep = better life.”
Many people are uncertain about their financial futures. It can be hard to break into investing. High barriers to entry mixed with abstract concepts and opaque language have created a financial system that thrives on fear and confusion.
Robinhood is an example of a company that prioritized its brand from the get-go, setting itself apart from the rest of the finance market. They aim to do more than just simplify finance; they strive to make it engaging and understandable in a unique way that sets them apart from the competition.
Robinhood's brand also combines function with emotion, a brand, that balances a high-performance product experience with a more engaging and inspiring creative expression.
As you imagine, Robinhood also has a simple idea at the core of its business: "accessible pathways to wealth creation for everyone.”
To summarize, if you only invest in the function of your product and neglect to invest in your brand and emotional connection with customers, they may love your product but not feel any real affinity or loyalty to your company. This can result in them switching to other brands. In such a situation, attempting to rework your product and pricing to be more competitive while also building a brand that customers care about can be challenging.
Internal benefits of a brand
Having a brand early on can even provide internal benefits. When I worked for a venture from Volkswagen and BCG X, I was responsible for hiring the design team. Before we established our brand, it was a nightmare. However, once we presented ourselves as a modern brand, we were able to easily hire high-quality candidates. A brand serves internally in three key areas: assembling an excellent team, securing funding, and forming partnerships. These groups, no less than any others, consist of individuals who seek to feel a sense of connection to your mission and your brand when making a life-changing decision to work with you.
I hope this gives you an idea of why a brand is so important early on. Let's work together to figure out what you need to do to get your brand right from the very beginning. 👇
How founders should set up their early-stage brand to win the long-term game.
The branding process can be divided into three main sections:
Brand foundation: Strategically position your brand.
Brand development: Build your brand assets based on the foundation.
Brand implementation: Establish consistent branding across all channels.
1. The brand foundation
Let's take a moment to be serious, but don't stress too much about taking the first step. Here's a fun fact: Airbnb's original name was "Air Bed & Breakfast." Did you know that Slack was originally intended to be a game rather than an instant messaging app?
As founders, we know that a startup can take on a life of its own and pivot in unexpected ways, so we need to stay open to change. The foundation will probably change over the years as well, possibly in significant ways. However, it's always better to start with a plan than to wing it.
1.1 The golden circle
Start with the basics and use the Golden Circle framework of "Why, How, What".
Every startup should define these elements before launching a new business. The framework will also be needed later for the Brand roadmap. There are many online resources available to assist with setting up your "Why, How, and What".
It's important to delve deeply into your "Why" and extract the "one simple idea" described at the beginning. Print it out and display it prominently in your workspace.
When defining your values, it's important to keep your customers in mind.
Customers are seeking brands that reflect their values, and brands must respond by not only making their purpose clear but also demonstrating how they live up to it in action.
The risk of seeking a connection rooted in shared values is that brands must live up to their promise, or they risk being called out. The moment a brand claims to stand for something, an army of commenters is waiting to pounce on any hint of hypocrisy or inconsistency. However, this is a good thing, as it promotes accountability and prevents brands from paying lip service to ideals they don't actually embody.
If a brand communicates its identity and values, it makes sense that people would feel connected to others who share those values. This is how businesses with a clear sense of purpose build a community in ways that similar businesses cannot. Community is not defined by the number of Instagram followers you have. Instead, real community forms when you find ways to connect your consumers through a shared set of values.
1.3 Brand personality
Creating your brand personality can be one of the most enjoyable parts of building your brand. To do this, imagine how you would look and act as a real human being. Consider aspects of your life, like your hobbies, music preferences, favorite drinks, fashion choices, and even the type of vehicle you drive or ride. Define these elements with your founders. Create a mood board, like we did at FANtium.
Once you’ve defined your personal style, it's helpful to explore why you prefer certain things, like driving a Tesla or listening to Drake. Additionally, identify three adjectives that describe what you are and what you are not.
1.4 Your emotional positioning
Great brands make emotional connections with their audience because people make decisions based on emotions. Brands that successfully create emotional connections with their audience achieve better commercial outcomes for their business.
What emotion do we want our brand to elicit?
Belonging: Accepted, Included, Valued, Respected (Airbnb, Dove)
Reassurance: Calm, Contented, Confident, Trustful (Volvo)
Enjoyment: Amused, Playful, Happy, Joyful. (Coca-Cola, BMW Mini, Slack)
Reward: Satisfied, Successful, Triumphant, Proud (Snickers, Xero, Heineken)
Reverence: Aesthetically Appreciative, Respectful, Admiring, Awed (Tesla, Patagonia)
Intimacy: Nostalgic, Romantic, Sexual (Tiffany & Co, Louis Vuitton)
Inquiry: Interested, Curious, Inspired (AF Drinks)
Affirmation: Hopeful, Optimistic, Excited, Energetic ( all birds, Red Bull )
Motivation: Creative, Courageous, Ambitious (Apple, Nike )
Below are some great examples of brands that embody the following emotions:
Use our spectrum and examples to think about the emotion that you want to elicit from your customers in your brand marketing.
💡 Tip → If possible, involve 1-2 customers in this process. This will help you build your brand early on around your customers. If you don't have the chance, use at least the empty chair technique.
2. Brand development
Okay, so designing a great brand is all about avoiding being boring. You want a brand that's different from everyone else and that really speaks to people, both emotionally and accurately. This is what creates real value for your business.
As a startup, you're essentially unknown, so you need to be willing to break the rules. While everyone else is doing things a certain way, you need to be the one to come in and shake things up. Casper did this brilliantly with the mattress industry!
Don't be deceived into thinking that your competitors have discovered the "secret code" to satisfying customers and that the safest approach is to emulate them. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Your chances of success increase significantly when you distinguish yourself and take a different approach. If all of the brands in your category have a similar look and feel, customers will become perplexed and you'll be quickly forgotten. So, go ahead, break the mold, and make your brand truly one-of-a-kind!
2.1 Naming: What do they call you?
The name is one of the most emotional and important brand assets. When working with early-stage startups, founders usually set the name themselves, considering it their entrepreneurial privilege to name their own "children." However, when working with venture-building companies like BCG X, the naming process can take weeks or even months of exploration.
Naming your brand is a crucial step in the development process because it can significantly impact its success. A good brand name should be memorable, relevant, and unique. The best brand names tap into a feeling instead of relying solely on functional benefits.
Sometimes, new brands make the mistake of creating a name that describes exactly what they do. They ask, “If my brand name doesn’t communicate anything about my product, doesn’t that mean I need to spend more time and effort explaining to consumers what it is?” However, as businesses evolve (as most do), they can end up in a situation where their name no longer encompasses their offering. For example, Mailchimp had to run advertising campaigns explaining that their business does more than what its name suggests.
How to choose the right name for your brand 👇
Keep it easy to spell
Make it satisfying to pronounce
Keep it to 3 syllables or less
Keep it open enough to avoid limiting growth
Allow people to embed their own meaning into it
Choose a name too close to competitors
Use names that people, AI, or pronunciation software will always get wrong
Choose a name that is too descriptive that it sounds generic
Criteria for name selection:
Availability of main social media accounts
Desirability by target group
Domain trademark availability
Potential to internationalize
As you can see, one of the best approaches is to use a Metaphoric Name. If your preferred name is already taken, you can try different variants for the domain and social media accounts, such as @heyyourname, @theyourname, @hey_yourname, or @the_yourname.
Keep your logo simple and readable. Every famous brand has a clean, simple, and readable logo. Even the car industry has adapted to this trend in recent years.
Develop a unique brand asset
A unique brand asset is something that is both widely recognizable and unique to a particular brand. A great example of this is McDonald’s golden arches. They are immediately recognizable as being a symbol of McDonald’s anywhere in the world. They do not need to be accompanied by the brand name ‘McDonald's’. The same is true of Nike’s swoosh and Coke's dynamic ribbon. Adidas has its three stripes. All of these visual assets are completely unique to their respective brands. They didn't start by trying to emulate others in their category but began with a piece of design that was completely unique.
It’s important to keep using these unique assets as much as possible, anywhere your brand appears. To determine whether your unique brand asset is effective, take the favicon test. A design professor once said that every logo had to work on a stamp. Nowadays, it must work as a favicon in the browser. Check the brands mentioned above to see how well they work as a favicon. (Adidas should not use a PNG, though:-D)
Favicons from brands should have a unique brand asset.
Color, along with the name of your start-up, is one of the most powerful and emotionally resonant brand assets for any start-up or venture-building company. However, choosing the right color can be one of the hardest parts of the process. Everyone has an opinion when it comes to colors, including the most experienced partners, CEOs, or investors. Relying solely on personal taste can be risky, as it may not align with the brand you are trying to build.
The best and easiest way to choose a color is to select one that fits the previously defined Emotional Positioning. Colors are the easiest way to trigger emotions.
As an early-stage startup, I highly recommend starting with only one highlight color. While there may be reasons to diversify later on, it's important to create momentum and not confuse users in the beginning.
When examining other established brands, it is common to find that they limit themselves to a specific range of colors. Examples include Coca-Cola, Starbucks, YouTube, T-Mobile, Spotify, Netflix, Yahoo, and MailChimp.
Having a single highlight color can be a powerful tool for assets like pitch decks or digital products. It guides your audience in the right direction by emphasizing the most important message. For instance, in pitch decks, you can use it to highlight the key points you want to convey. Similarly, when designing digital products, using one highlight color per screen can help customers find what they need quickly and easily.
There are also reasons for using multiple colors, as seen with companies like Google, eBay, and Slack. However, these companies have a broad target audience. If you have the same target market, you can consider doing the same.
💡 Tip → Be cautious about using your highlight color more than once per slide or screen, as it can indicate a lack of focus. While challenging, sticking to a single highlight can be a game-changer.
Typography is an often undervalued brand asset. Many startups end up using Google Fonts before putting in the effort to find font styles that accurately convey their brand positioning.
At FANtium, I researched a unique font that captures the dynamic of sports. The Grivel Font is mainly used for headlines and social media or marketing assets, while we use Inter for product screens and any long-form copy format.
The only downside to using such fonts is that they often do not work on Google Slides. However, the benefits of having an attractive font are often worth the hassle for presentations.
Using AI tools such as Notion AI to generate copy and adjust the tone of voice based on your brand language is easy nowadays. However, as a new company, it's important to follow certain rules.
The truth is that words, not pretty websites, sell products. If your message isn't clear, your customers won't listen.
When people receive too much random information, they tend to ignore the source of that useless data to conserve energy. In other words, our customers' brains have a survival mechanism that tunes out confusing information.
The key is to make your startup's message about something that helps the customer survive, in a way that is easy to understand. Anything that doesn't serve the plot has to go. Noise has killed more ideas, products, and services than taxes, recessions, and lawsuits. The essence of branding is to create simple, relevant messages that we can repeat over and over again so that we "brand" ourselves into public consciousness.
What is your product or service?
How will it benefit your customers and improve their lives?
What is the process for purchasing or obtaining it?
💡 Tip → The most significant and unspoken power of design is not that it looks cool, sleek, or sexy; it is that it conveys your foundation and your simple idea. The easiest way to achieve this is through copywriting.
3. Brand implementation
When implementing your brand as an early-stage startup, it's best to start with something simple. The main assets you need are:
Brand book: Make sure every new hire knows it by heart, especially the leaders.
Style guide: Ensure consistency in design and marketing.
Brand assets hub: Create a central location for downloading your main brand assets. This can be a simple Google Drive folder or a website.
Product design system: You can download a basic system for your start, but avoid using one that is too complex in the beginning. This can slow down your team. The system will grow with your product.
Your startup growth plan
As a founder, your job is to create enough growth in the short term (i.e. the next 12 months) to successfully blast off and create sustained growth in the long term (the many years ahead) to complete your mission.
Effective brand building differs in a few key ways, depending on the life stage of your startup. The context, challenges, and what works are all different. Understanding and responding to these differences is critical for every brand's success.
Startup: Very tight early adopter target
Scaleup: A broader group of target customers
Mature-Brand: Mass, mainstream
Thanks for checking out the article. I really hope it was helpful and informative.
If you're interested in learning more about early-stage startup branding, I'd be happy to connect with you on Twitter.
If you are an early-stage founder and need support with building your brand, let's connect at brandsooner.com.
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