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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

5 reasons why branding for startups is rocket fuel

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

rocket launching

Twenty years ago, I was fresh out of college and working as a freelance graphic designer when I got a call that changed my life.

Richard Palmer, the CEO of a new start-up called d3o, had seen my work at a graduate show and wanted to know if I could help him build the brand.

Richard and his co-founder Phill Green had experienced an epiphany while standing on the side of a mountain in the Alps, fighting with their bulky protective snowboarding gear.

Thinking there must be a better solution, the two design engineers went back to their lab and developed a new foam-based material which was thin, light & flexible, while also providing outstanding impact protection. It was a truly innovative product with amazing potential, but what became apparent was that without a brand, it was just a foam pad.

So we started to build the brand. Not just the visual assets - which is what most new founders focus on. Visual identity matters, but brand is so much more. At d3o, our brand was the belief system that the company was built on. It was the story that shaped our internal culture, our strategy, our entire way of doing business. And we found that the more energy we poured into developing the brand, the faster the company began to grow.

We made the cover of Time magazine, secured millions in investment and brokered deals with major brands like Head Sports, Puma and Spyder and the US & Canadian ski teams. We’d stumbled on the secret of great branding: get it right, and it’s rocket fuel for your business. Here’s five reasons why:

1. A strong brand helps founders to inspire their teams to achieve great things

d3o’s founders had a clear vision for the company: we were going to revolutionise the sports industry by making impact protection (almost) invisible. We were not selling foam pads, we were selling freedom. This idea was powerful, and contagious. Our awesome team were all inspired by this lofty dream and the brand essence - “revolution” - gave us permission to tear up the rule book and act as mavericks in a previously dull market category.

2. Brand is a belief-building machine

Start-ups are on a continuous journey of belief building, because what you are building doesn’t exist yet. With a strong brand, you can convince investors to back you and persuade talent to jump off their comfortable ships and join you in the raging seas of start-up life. Start-ups need friends, industry champions, press, influencers. As a founder you need to win the hearts and minds of hundreds of people so they’ll champion your cause and crew your start-up ship to glory. The good news is belief is a stronger motivator than logic. The bad news is that it’s almost impossible to fake.

3. Stories are the seeds you sow that will help your brand flourish

At the heart of our brand were great stories. Stories enable you to spread your message through tribes, without spending lots of money on advertising. If your stories are strong enough, your tribe will spread them for you.

At d3o, we built our own tribe of mountain bikers, snowboarders, skateboarders. I think there was even an extreme unicyclist. They gave us insights into what our users needed, how we should talk to them, and what they believed, and they became our marketing channels.

4. Branding for startups allows you to create magic

Through storytelling and design, you can create magic within your brand: simple ideas that produce outsized - sometimes wondrous - results. For us it was a phrase - “intelligent molecules” - which we conjured up to describe how the material worked, along with a practical demonstration which involved the team walking around mountain bike shows with d3o pads hidden under our jeans, randomly hitting each other on the knee with avalanche shovels to demonstrate how well the product worked. I describe these as ‘story tools’ because they explain the product and they are contagious. Everyone adopted the phrase when they talked about our product and the media loved filming us whacking each other on the legs. The material captured people's imaginations, soon everyone was imagining their own 'future with d3o' - it’s one of the biggest reasons d3o achieved so much press in the early days.

5. A distinctive brand stands out - and gets remembered

Whilst staying within the realms of truth and authenticity, as a start-up, you need to be as extreme as possible in demonstrating and communicating your brand idea. For us this meant creating drama in everything we did. This is why our brand colour was fluorescent orange, why we livened up usually sedate trade shows by bashing each other with shovels. Nobody forgets that!

That discovery wasn’t the only way that call from the CEO of d3o changed my life. Reader, I married him. And two decades on from that first fateful call, Richard and I are still building brands together, these days through our agency Palmer&Co.

To get started on your branding for startups journey, download this FREE Brand worksheet.


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