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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

Branding strategies for startups - what is brand and why is it important?

Updated: Jun 1, 2023


Sign saying turn ideas into reality

Before we talk about brand strategy, the first question we should ask is “what is a brand anyway?”

My favourite definition is from Marty Neumeier, who has written many great books on the subject of brand and really resonates with my experience of brand. Marty describes a brand as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s not what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.” or as Jeff Bezos puts it “what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

If you’re more of a visual thinker, this illustration from Marty Neumeier’s book ZAG describes brand brilliantly.


So, if brands are what people feel or think they are (not necessarily what the brand book says) - then we need to build brands through experiences that live on in the minds of the people who interact with them. These experiences of the brand need to align with the company's vision for the future, but also resonate with the consumer’s vision of THEIR future too.


neon sign, this must be the place

How do you build experiences?

At d3o, despite being a B2B company, we built a team of athletes who were passionate about their sport, and how d3o could enable them to do more. We built a place where they could share their stories, not just of d3o but of their own journey. We also made the experience of learning about the product memorable and shareable by using the raw material, which is a sloppy goo that instantly turns solid when you hit it.


d3o trade show exhibition

Asics are really delivering on their mission “sound mind in a sound body” creating real world experiences like “Upliftford” which transformed the town of Retford in Nottinghamshire into an interactive outside gym. Asics used their “State of Mind Index” to determine that Retford had the lowest state of mind score in the UK. Residents recorded their state of mind before and after the experience with the Mind Uplifter tool. The town’s mood score increased from 56 to 71 over the course of 100 days. Through this initiative not only did Asics make a real difference and raised awareness of an important issue, but the brand connected with people on a much deeper emotional level than a purely transactional one. Branding strategies like this add both short and long term value to a brand.


Asics Upliftford - ball wall

Today, actions speak far louder than words. These brand experiences need to be repeated over and over. By demonstrate who you are and what you stand for through what you actually do, the meaning people associate with your brand will be much more memorable and meaningful.


Joseph Pine and James Gilmore have been talking about brand experiences since 1998. Their point of view (after considerable research) is that all products will have to become experiences one day as it is a natural progression in the shifting of economic value, “leading-edge companies—whether they sell to consumers or businesses—will find that the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences.” Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, HBR.


So if branding is all about creating experiences, then the result of great branding is not only connecting and having a lasting impression on your customer, but a profitable, future proof business too.


They describe this in the graph below:


Graph showing the progression of economic value and differentiation

So, brands are ideas people form about you based on their experiences, and positive, relevant, meaningful experiences sell and connect. So, now back to the question, what is brand strategy and how is this all so important for startups?


Strategy is really just another way of saying “what problem are we trying to solve, and how are we going to achieve it?” Another way of framing this is:


  • Why are you here?

  • Who do you serve?

  • Where do you play?

  • How will you win?

  • How will you grow?


So the starting point of a good brand strategy begins with the company's vision, mission and purpose, which later on helps you build out experiences of your brand that turn a simple transactional experience into something that helps consumers to articulate their own sense of self through their interaction with them.


boat on the water sailing into the clouds in the dark

Vision is aspirational. It describes your utopian shared vision of the future of your company. You have to think long-term for this one, say 5-10 years.


Mission is how you are going to get there. What’s the plan that will help you to achieve your goals?


Purpose is why your company exists beyond financial gain. Purpose gives you the opportunity to connect with and inspire those inside and outside of your brand. It gives you permission to become a part of someone’s life in a much deeper and longer term way. It also pushes you to think about the ecosystem in which your brand exists. How can you contribute? How can you give back?

When we work with brands we hash all this out in a fun but pretty intense co-creation session, with as many of the company in the room as possible to ensure buy-in, and to make sure everyone’s voice is heard - after all brands are built on the inside first.


post-it notes on a wall


Why is all this so important for startups?


Belief

Because, startups, more than any other stage of business, need to be a belief building machine to get off the ground. As a startup you need many many people to help you to share your vision of the future of your company in order to create that snowball effect or “tipping point” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it. Experiences can make or break a relationship with your brand, but for startups this is much more important because you need every customer and you need them to share their positive experiences in order to help you scale. As Accenture found, 66% of people said that beyond price and quality, they were attracted to a brand because it had a great culture and delivered on its promise. 55% said because the brand “stood for something bigger than just products and services that aligns with my personal values.”


shutters with love hearts graffitied on

Investment

When you are raising capital it’s important to show how the value of the business will grow and to demonstrate the future financial value you will generate. However when you are at a very early stage the mathematics of these financial predictions and the necessary assumptions used to generate them are very easy to pick apart. This is exactly why you need a brand purpose so that you can connect with investors (in a way, these are your first customers). You need to inspire them with your vision of the future and not just convince them through the measurement of your projections. Building a brand is about offering people something to believe in, and this is no different for investors.

Brands don’t build themselves

Building brands doesn’t just happen because your CEO has a good vision. It takes diligence, persistence, consistency, creativity and empathy. Many startups miss this trick and plough ahead without being strategic about who they are, what they are trying to achieve and who they need to convince to join them on their journey. Creating a strong brand strategy at launch or scale stage has enormous power to unite your team, streamline your efforts, connect and create a tribal following that will pull you through the hard times.


Interested in getting help building your brand strategy? Drop me a line on at sayhello@palmerand.co or sign up to our newsletter and download your FREE Brand Purpose Canvas here.

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