In an early stage startup, creating a brand may be the furthest thing from your mind, especially if you're creating a tech company, B2B services, or any other type of company that won't be focused on directly reaching the consumer market.
But the very best companies (which, as a reminder, were all startups once!) have built strong, identifiable brands that instantly convey what they're about to anyone who encounters the brand.
In fact, we recommend to our clients that they consider solidifying and starting to build their brand and voice even before launching their main product.
If you're thinking about creating a strong brand for your startup, you've come to the right place. Read on for our 7 easy (ish!) steps to do it yourself...
(or, contact us to explore a Branding Jumpstart)
Building Your Startup's Brand From The Ground Up
1. Focus on a single brand.
Startups have limited resources, too many conflicting brands or names or product concepts will confuse customers and stretch your resources too far.
The perfect example of sticking with one brand is Salesforce.com.
Salesforce started out way back in 1999 as the world's first SaaS CRM solution. They quickly made a name for themselves as the most modern software for salespeople. If you can believe it, before Salesforce came along, salespeople often had to jot notes down on paper (!) and then retype everything once they got back to the office, sat down at a desk, connected to the company intranet, and logged into a big UNIX based mainframe system. Salesforce cut all those ties, and allowed field salespeople the flexibility of recording sales call information from right within a browser window (and later, from mobile apps).
Nowadays, the Salesforce offering is much more than just a simple Sales CRM solution; they have acquired or built many products for many purposes, including marketing, marketing automation, customer service, quotations, analytics, community and much more. But the core brand is and remains Salesforce.
2. Check for conflicts.
Before you fall completely in love with a brand name, make sure that no one else holds the copyright or trademark of that name. The easiest way to do this is to make sure you can secure the URL. If the base URL is unavailable, it's a good indication that someone else has beaten you to the punch and is using that brand name. You can double check with the Trademark office to be sure (more on that in a moment), but the easiest thing to do is simply choose something else. At CYNSCH, we strongly recommend proceeding with a brand name only if you can secure the .com domain. Starting a company with a .co or other unusual domain type without owning the dot com puts you at an immediate disadvantage.
Several years ago, we worked briefly with a company that was starting out as a SaaS platform, with no mobile app. They loved the name "Tout" but another company, a video marketing platform, already had secured that name. They went ahead with Toutapp.com, and both companies have survived, although there is a lot of potential for consumer confusion between them. Especially because both companies use almost the identical color of blue for their branding!
We don't recommend this.
3. Protect your brand.
Once you have selected your brand name, go ahead and register it with the US Patent & Trademark Office as your Trademark. You will want to do this for a number of reasons, both preventive and proactive. Go ahead and do it at the beginning, so that you're not scrambling or stressed later on. It's cheap, easy and fast. The fees range from $225-$325 to register your Trademark.
#protip: investors will often ask during due diligence if you hold the trademark to your brand name.
4. Know what you stand for.
Now that you have a name, it's time to think about the meaning of your brand, and what it stands for. It's important to understand that a brand is more than just a logo and a color scheme.
What is the personality of the brand? Fun vs Serious? Dependable vs Exciting? Cutting Edge vs Experienced? Colorful vs Subtle?
Smart branding distills a company's entire message into familiar terms. In fact, many branding experts say that one key to the best brands is that they feel instantly familiar, even when encountered for the first time.
We recommend creating a list of 10 to 20 sets of adjectives that describe the brand and the company you want to be. There are a number of formats you can use; here at CYNSCH, we prefer either a simple list of attributes that we do identify as on brand, or a "this not that" list such as "Colorful, not subtle".
5. Create a core message that underscores your purpose.
Once you have reached this step, you should be well on your way to being able to create a core message. Some people call this a mission statement, but bear in mind that for the purposes of branding, this core statement is brief, focused, and definitive.
Let's compare two startups that might seem similar at first glance: Bonobos and Chubbies. They're both in the same general space: men's clothing. They were both founded by young, entrepreneurial guys. They are both aiming for a market in a specific age group and socioeconomic status.
But that's where most of the similarities end.
Bonobos has a clean, clear, modern, no-nonsense image. Their core message really demonstrates just what they are about, and this is borne out by the simplicity of their branding:
Bonobos: we strive to make great clothing
Chubbies has a fun-loving, irreverent, casual and bro-y image. They're colorful, not neutral.
Their core message also demonstrates what they are about, and their branding carries it forward in design and graphic format:
Chubbies: we're all about inclusivity, and not taking things too seriously.
When you compare these two brands of men's clothing, even if their logos and tag lines were the only inputs you had to draw conclusions from, there is a clear and different impression given by each brand.
You can use these same types of differentiating factors in your own branding and marketing. Pay attention to attributes like language choices, color, case (upper case, lower case or mixed/proper case), serif vs sans serif fonts, lettering shapes (for example, the oval letter shapes of Chubbies logo read as "friendly", while the perfect circles in Bonobos branding read clean and modern), and even the sizes of lettering relative to other letters. Notice that slightly off-kilter dot over the "i" in Chubbies? These small choices can make a world of difference in how your brand is perceived.
6. Create a Brand Book.
A Brand Book may be the most important facet of any pre-launch (or later) branding efforts you do. Think of a Brand Book like a Style Guide for your product design or website. It lays out many varied guidelines that will help to direct your choices.
Aspects of a good Brand Book include:
- Core Statement
- Target Market
- Sizing for headings, type, etc.
- Imagery styles
A well-designed Brand Book can also serve as a great training tool for any sales or marketing hires who will join your company. Being able to define specific guideposts for new team members will help them hit the ground much faster, and create assets and messaging that truly resonates with the rest of the team and with your customers and prospects.
7. Apply your brand consistently.
Last but not least, it's important to remember to apply your brand consistently, across all channels. For many founder-led early stage startups, the company's Twitter or Facebook pages read like a stream of consciousness taken straight from the mind of the founder. Depending on the day he's having, it might be a steady flow of positive messaging; another day, there might be angry commentary on the state of venture capital in the tech industry.
By sticking to the concepts in your core message and Brand Book, and simply asking yourself before creating or releasing a new piece of content into the world: "Does this feel like it's on brand?", your startup will reap untold benefits.
Customers, prospects, investors and partners will be able to quickly form a clear impression of who the company is, why it exists, who you serve, what you do, and what they can expect when they interact with your team.
As you can see, the foundations of Branding are pretty simple. As with everything else in a startup, though, it's all about the execution! If you'd like some guidance and help on your journey toward building an iconic brand for your startup, please get in touch today. We're here to help!