Google “brand and startup” and you get a lot of content. Talk brand with startups and you get a lot of glazed eyes. Most of the internet content comes in a list format and most of the startup talks are from creatives who eat, sleep, and breathe brand.
What a lot of people get wrong at a startup level is that brand isn’t about beautiful visual execution. It’s not about having a great logo, stunning imagery, or a well designed website. It’s not even about hiring a rad agency that “does that brand thing that we suck at.”
As a startup, brand is much deeper.
Brand is about purpose.
Figuring out how you are going to win the market is a much harder problem to solve than brand. Winning is binary, brand is not.
You don’t even have to make a pretty brand to win. Ugly brands win all the time, just ask Amazon. They could give two cents about visual identity. Instead they just crush the living s%&# out of everyone, in every market they touch.
I’ve lost to an ugly brand before. It made losing that much more excruciating. All I could do was shake my head and go WTF.
Whether you are creating an ugly brand or a beautiful one, here is what I’ve learned about startup brands the past 15 years.
Brand Forces You To Have A Clear Purpose
A brand should answer the question…”why do you exist?”
Regardless of B2B or B2C, being able to answer this question is both hard and important. Not because the exercise is difficult, but because you often make up words trying to craft the perfect sentence.
Usually the answer is simple. Everyone starts their company for a reason, that reason is your purpose. It’s probably around making something better, people happier, others more successful, etc. Whatever the reason, write it down.
That is the foundation of your brand.
Have A Character
Read this book, “The Hero And The Outlaw.” It will help you visualize the archetype that represents the person your brand will become.
Even if you just express brand through words, having a clear picture of the character helps to move brand past visual to something tangible. It’s easy to describe your friend and their attributes. Your brand should be equally as clear.
Learn To Tell Stories
Everyone wants to fall in love, especially with new young brands. They provide an un-biased opportunity to discover a company that shares their same beliefs. The reality is that people are buying into your beliefs as much as they are the product. Who you are, what you believe in, and why you made this product….is brand.
Learn how to share that message through stories. All kinds of stories from short ones to long ones to visual ones to words. Tap into emotion and purpose as much as you can. It’s the narrative that people want to connect with.
Your stories may suck at first and that’s ok. It takes a lot of practice to get good at telling stories.
If you are just competing on a check list of features it is a very long road to winning hearts. And even longer road to winning the market.
What ever your brand stands for, don’t stop repeating it. That goes for your name and it especially goes for your purpose. Once people create a perception of who you are and what you stand for, it’s very hard to change it.
To GoPro’s credit they were incredibly consistent with their brand. They didn’t change their name, we did three times. They didn’t change their message, we did that a lot. They didn’t compete on the features, that’s all we competed on. Instead they focused on the emotion of action video and told that story over and over again through video.
It is much harder to capture minds than it it so to capture hearts.
You Can’t Be Wrong
Here’s the thing…if you go all in, you can’t be wrong. If you are sharing your beliefs no one can say that you are wrong. They may choose not to believe what you believe, but they can’t argue that you are wrong.
On the other hand if you just sell features anyone can argue that something else is better. That your product doesn’t do X as well as company Y. Or that they prefer company Z because they do feature W better.
MLK often used the word, ‘believe’. It was a powerful statement that you couldn’t challenge.
Brand Alone Doesn’t Win
This isn’t discussed enough within the startup community, but winning is incredibly hard. Once a market develops there is one winner and a whole lot of losers. And unfortunately if you are a venture backed startup you have only one choice but to win. Coming in second doesn’t provide nearly the return that is required.
Having a purpose, sharing your beliefs, and telling your story over and over again is just one piece in figuring out a market winning strategy.
Image Credit: By Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office – Flickr: “I’ll have Another” crosses the finish line to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby., CC BY 2.0,