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  • Writer's pictureRuth Palmer

Branding for startups: The secret formula for magnetising your brand

Updated: Dec 13, 2023


Magnet and loudspeaker drawing hearts toeards them

If I asked a room of founders what branding was, I reckon about 80% of them would reply, it’s having a consistent look and feel across your comms, or it’s your logo and style guide.


Well, if you have read any of my articles before, you’ll know that there’s more to branding. It’s a valuable business asset that can really magnetise your brand.


Magnetic branding, the kind that captures the hearts and souls of people and builds tribes, is not an easy thing to get your head around to start with. But once you’ve nailed your formula, EVERYTHING gets easier.


It’s hard because a brand is just a perception; an idea someone has in their head about you. It’s difficult to control because so many things influence the ideas people have about you. Literally everything you do, and everything you, and everybody else (there’s the tricky bit) says about you affects the meaning behind your brand.


Branding for startups (or any brand really) shouldn’t be static. Strong brands are more like living, breathing organisms than perfectly sculpted statues. They need to adapt to what’s happening in the world and to how people are responding to them, especially in the startup days. But this makes them harder to control too.


The good news is, if you get understand the formula, and pay attention to each part, you’ll be well on your way to building a brand that has some magnetism. Our formula for great startup branding is…


drumroll…


(Purpose + Culture + Storytelling) x Creativity = Magnetism



Let’s start with purpose.


Now when I say purpose, I don’t mean saving the planet (although that would be great). I mean your reason for being beyond making money. Now that might be to give new mums a shoulder to lean on (through tailored home prepared food for them and their baby delivered to their door, for example; oh my goodness I wish someone was doing that when I had a child…).


Or if you’re TED talks it’s “To spread ideas”


Or IKEA “To create a better everyday life for the many people”


Most startups begin their journey with “we’re making this product which has x,y,z features and it’s great for loads of people.”


This is not very inspiring, or very focussed, whether you’re a customer or an investor. What inspires action and builds tribes are big ideas that are targeted to a specific customer need (usually a combination of a practical and emotional one), and communicated through emotionally charged stories that connect like an arrow hitting the bulseye, with their values.


Your purpose needs to spark something in your customers. Their imagination, curiosity, desire to be better...


Your job as a brand is to help your customers get closer to the person they want to be. This is what triggers emotional decision making (which is basically all decision making). They will choose you over a competitor because you do something for them which is more than just selling you a product. You become a statement of who they want to be, which they then share with the world.


Think about your own purchase decisions. What brands do you buy that you are loyal to? Why is that?


For me, one example is Abel&Cole. I want to get closer to being a person who cares about the world that they live in. I believe in organic farming and looking after the earth for future generations. I can trust Abel&Cole to sell me products that are aligned with that belief, so I don’t have to do all the homework myself. Even though I can buy organic products from other places, I would find it hard to switch enitirely because I am so bought into their values.


Your culture.

Going back to what I said about “everything you do affects the perception of your brand” - well this starts inside your company, with your team. If they are united around a purpose that is bigger than “this product is great” then they’re more likely to be motivated to stay, and go the extra mile.


Creativity can't happen inside a culture that is competitive or without a shared vision (there has been some research on this). People start focussing just on themselves and don't want to take risks. Creativity is your startup surperpower (see later) and is going to become even more important as the speed of change accellerates.


Your purpose gives you your values. From here you can design behaviours into your workplace. Virgin have created a set of behavious that are an extension of their values that help them guide their staff in terms of how they should think and operate. Importantly, theses behaviours need to be enabled too, so Virgin will have needed to figure out a system wherby smart disruption is actually possible for every member of staff.


Heartfelt service

We are warm, honest and authentic

We care and aspire to deliver the best for our customers


Insatiable curiosity

We are open minded, ask questions and keep on learning

We keep searching for the best ideas, approaches and solutions


Smart disruption

We are innovative, focused and shake up the things that matter, together

We explore new boundaries, and balance this with risks


Red hot relevance

We are inclusive, bold and progressive

We lead the way today and anticipate for tomorrow


Straight up

We are straightforward, build trust and act with positive intent

We work together to make money simpler and easier


Delightfully surprising

We look for the little things that make a big difference

We have fun and deliver experiences that make people feel happier


Another nice example of supporting culture from coldwater surfing brand Finisterre is their “positive impact library” full of insightful books on how to make a difference in the world, which supports this part of their brand.


As a startup, you get to design how your company feels to be inside. Don’t waste the chance to get creative with it! If you can infuse your beliefs into your culture by design, this will bleed outwards organically through everything you do. It’s the easiest way to build your brand with no cash but is also the easiest to get wrong if you push your team too hard and don’t have a strong belief system that ties them together.


Storytelling

Your purpose and how you are delivering it needs to be communicated through engaging narratives that are memorable and shareable. What could this look like for your brand?


There are probably many people selling a similar product to you, but only one with your unique story. Don’t be afraid to share it.


Your point of view, your goals and vision are important, but you also need to tell the story of your customer too. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine the path you want them to take through an experience with your brand. What should that look like? How do you want them to feel at the end? Can you describe your product or service from that point of view rather than listing a load of product features? Who are the characters? Where’s the emotional pull? Who are you helping them become?


Give your best customers the tools they need to share your story too. In the early days they will be your best marketing channel. Look after them, give them a space to tell the story of your brand from their point of view. It’s much more powerful and relatable when it comes from them.


How do you multiply the effect of all these elements? Creativity.


So you don’t have the budget to get the reach when you’re a startup, but you do have the opportunity to be more creative than the big company competition out there. You can be nimble, brave and take chances like they can’t (or won’t).


A good example of creativity is Cuvva insurance. Without much of a budget to launch their travel insurance product, they devised a campaign where a fictional character called Bubble man, foolishly goes on holiday without travel insurance, but takes the precaution of “bubble wrapping” himself. A lot of the video is shot by Bubble man himself with the aid of a selfie stick. It’s very low budget but very relatable, and did really well as a YouTube campaign.





The first Dollar Shave Club ad on YouTube took a similar approach and resulted in its first 12,000 subscribers in 48 hours. It was a breath of fresh air. They took a branve, creative approach to connect with their audience and make the competition seem irrelevant.





Do purpose, culture and storytelling well then amplify them with creativity and you’ll be well on your way to creating a magnetic brand.


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