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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

Branding for startups: 5 ways startups get it upside down

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

A car with horns
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

Defining your brand pre-investment is one of the most powerful tools you can use to shorten the investment lead-time. Why? Because the branding process forces you to answer the kinds of questions an investor might ask, and most importantly, it builds belief.

So presuming startups do go through the first draft of the branding process before they raise investment (it’s an ever-evolving process, especially at seed stage), what do they get wrong?

1. They think branding is just your logo and visual style

This is the most common mistake. A startup will get a designer from fiverr to design a logo and website based on something like “we need to look like a tech company” - or in other words, we need to look like everyone else. The problem with this is it doesn’t build in any meaning, anything memorable or anything unique.

A brand is not your logo or the way you look. It’s who you are and what you mean to your customers.

It should answer these questions:

  • Why do you exist?

  • Why should anyone care?

  • How do you want to make people feel?

  • Why are you relevant now and in the future?

Then, your logo and visual identity should represent that. So you need to get underneath these questions first or it’s just like designing the cover of your book before you’ve figured out who the book is for, written the story, understood why you’re writing it in the first place and who the characters are that make the story believable.

2. They don’t do the research

So a startup may do a bit of product-focussed research early doors to build their business plan. But usually this is pretty dry and basic, or based on arbitrary “market share” assumptions; either not very convincing or just unrealistically hockey-stick. An investor wants to know the answer to the “why would anyone care” question that branding answers. For this type of research, you need to talk to people. It’s less quant, more qual. You have to understand people’s lives, the context in which your product will exist and importantly, their values and beliefs and what difference you could make to their lives, practically and emotionally.

I’ve worked with a number of brands that want to skip this part because they feel they already know the audience, maybe they are the audience or they are just steaming ahead making assumptions because it’s easier. But they always come undone and it ends up costing more time and money than doing the job properly (albeit in a minimum viable way) from the start.

3. They think it’s all about the numbers.

But it’s also about belief. Any investor is going to look at the team as much as the numbers. The team needs to be motivated and the easiest way to do that is through shared values and belief, not just cash. This is the stuff of a strong brand. Investors need to be believers too. Your brand has to work really hard to weave your brand story through everything you do (including your investment deck) and it has to be rooted in a strong purpose, vision and values that draw people in.

Also, the brand helps deliver the numbers. A lot of startups don’t realise that a brand can help you increase your margin and accelerate growth. In the long term the brand can become a valuable intangible asset and even outweigh the value of tangible assets.

4. They hire an agency

At the other end of the spectrum, they might hire an agency to create their brand. The problem with this is a) it’s really expensive and b) it will probably need to change, that’s just the way it goes with startups. Things can change very quickly, what if you need to pivot? All that time and money are down the pan.

5. They don’t even consider branding until they can afford to hire an agency

Branding is all about the human-connection, the reason to believe, that magnetic magic that draws people to you (much more effective than shouting out into the world about how great you are, and hoping someone listens).

If all you present is a dry deck in a vanilla style and no sense of purpose, that’s not going to hold anyone’s attention, and it doesn’t demonstrate that you understand how to make people WANT your product.

It will be much harder to get noticed. Startups like this who have asked us for help have had 100+ meetings with investors before they admit that there is something wrong. Don’t let this be you.

So what should you do?

We’ve developed Minimum Viable Branding for exactly this problem. It’s far cheaper than hiring an agency, because you do it yourself, and because you do it yourself, you own it and understand its value deeply, which makes it easier for you to build it into your culture as you grow. Because, brands have to be built, they start on the inside with your people and culture and they are designed through every interaction that someone has with your brand, from your social media to how you write your emails and deal with customer service issues. Everything affects how a person perceives your brand.

If you want to build a bit of magnetism into your company, download this free brand strategy worksheet.

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