You Are Building a Brand - Whether You Realize it Or Not


Most people in the startup world don’t understand brand. They think it’s something you check off the list, as if it’s a one-time job to be outsourced to the lowest bidder. Having a cool logo, catchy tagline, and differentiated features have nothing to do with building a real brand.

Because it goes much deeper than your external facade, defining your brand is hard. Not that it’s hard to understand what you believe in, but the process of defining your brand runs counter to the energy of the fast-paced startup world, where quantity is valued over quality.

Even if you hire a professional firm to create your brand, it doesn’t mean you actually understand it. Creating a final presentation that wows your Board and gets your team excited has no connection to being able to live it everyday. It’s like putting values on a poster and then never mentioning them again.

I only know this, because I followed that same path.

Creating an authentic brand takes time. Like a fine wine, it starts with your most basic ingredients and over time matures into something people can feel, smell, see, touch, and even taste. You are providing an emotional connection that can’t be described with words, only memories.

As a startup founder, you probably know nothing about brand. Other than a handful of articles, your reference to brand is from the outside in. Wondering how amazing brands are created, it’s easy to buy into a creative pitch that has a bunch of logos you admire, as if those agencies created the soul of those brands.

Although you will never gain the 10,000 hours Gladwell says is required to become an expert in the field, you do have to understand this: You are creating a brand.

No matter what type of product you are building, or how disruptive your technology is, or how much money you have in the bank, the most important metric is your brand. Don’t be fooled, size doesn’t mean better. Just ask Sony who has fallen from a premium brand to irrelevancy, losing trust along the way with cheap product, security meltdowns, and a “me too” mentality.

So before you blindly hire an agency or send your marketing person on a wild goose chase to create the wrong brand, here is a framework you can use to help you answer the question, “How do you define your brand?”

Start With the History

“Study the past, if you would define the future.” ~ Confucius

The only way you know who you want to become is to understand where you came from. Digging deep to reveal the reason you started this company requires you to be vulnerable, talking about feelings you never verbally expressed before. The best brands are connected with the company’s purpose, and anchored in the emotions of the beginning stages of the journey.

Even to this day, Nike never lets us forget about Coach Bowerman and Phil Knight. Iconic black and white photos capture the emotion of the sport and the pursuit for improvement. Despite evolving to neon shoes, crazy social campaigns, and memorable advertising, Nike is clear about its past.

Beyond understanding the motivations of the original founders, you need to study the history of your product category. Everything has been done before, which means there is a tremendous wealth of inspiration around the original culture, products, and brands.

At Contour we studied the origins of filmmaking and the artistic use of perspective. Because we didn’t understand this early enough in our history, we struggled for many years to define the clear voice of our product against the 90-second action videos that GoPro produced. Outside of our iconic design, we failed to consistently tell our own story, bringing film making to the digital world.

Pick an Archetype
Archetypes have existed throughout the history of storytelling. Dating back to the ancient and Roman times, archetypes formed the bases of myths, in which they were depicted as gods and goddesses.

One of the best books I have found, “The Hero and the Outlaw,” talks about 12 different archetypes and how they apply to building your brand. The book helps you transform a lifeless idea into a real character that you can picture, describe, and imagine. Broken into sections focusing on the four human drives of stability, mastery, belonging, and independence, the book does an amazing job of explaining the different archetypes that exist and the brands they represent.

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At Contour we focused on the Creator. Found in the artist, the innovator, the musician, and the dreamer, the creator was inspired by any endeavor that taps into the imagination. Trying to sit at the intersection of engineering, design, and sport, our archetype was in stark contrast to GoPro’s depiction of the Hero, an individual on an action-packed journey that always ended with a conquering feat.

Download a free pdf version of the book.

Define Your Attributes
Defining a brand is like defining a person. No different from how you would describe a friend, brand attributes are the adjectives you choose to define the personality of your brand. It’s helpful to stick to single words with short descriptions, as these attributes help your team understand the values your brand stands for.

Although the words you use might be simple to pick, you want to think about how these adjectives can come to life in everything you do. From the products you make, to the out-of-box experience, to the service you provide, these attributes have to be abundantly clear with everyone involved with your brand.

Anchored in the Creator archetype, at Contour we created attributes around being personal, creative, connected, empowering, and authentic. Using words with simple descriptions, we tried to paint a picture that everyone across the organization could understand.

Create Stories
Stories aren’t marketing campaigns. They are simple descriptions of what you want people to feel when they interact with your brand. Connected to your history, archetype, and attributes, these stories can change over time as you create a deeper understanding of your brand and what it represents.

Born in Encinitas, California, Nixon does an amazing job of telling stories. True to their Southern California roots, Nixon has successfully turned a boring category, watches, into a +$400M brand. Consistent in who they are, Nixon tells rich stories through words, athletes, imagery, product design, and retail selection. Infamous in the action sports community, Nixon even concludes every retailer contract with “I am stoked to open this door.” Because Nixon understands something that most startups miss: They are building a brand.

“We make the little shit better. The stuff you have that isn’t noticed first, but can’t be ignored. We pay attention to it. We argue about it. We work day and night to make the little shit as good as it can be, so when you wear it, you feel like you’ve got a leg up on the rest of the world.” ~ Nixon

Bring It to Life
Now you can hire someone to bring your brand to life. Whether you hire a designer or an agency, you want to find people who have taken a brand from a piece of paper to reality. Polishing existing brands is nice, but creating them is so much harder.

Remember, the brand framework you create will never leave your company’s walls. It’s simply a guide to make sure the tag lines you create on top of it, or the crazy marketing ideas you come up with, are consistent with your brand.

Constantly Be Inspired
Admiring other brands is a healthy thing to do, especially as you think about what you want your brand to represent. I’m passionate about great brands and here are a few of my favorites.

Defining your brand takes time. It requires you to dig deep, making yourself vulnerable in ways that make you uncomfortable. Great brands create beliefs regardless of the competitive landscape. They are clear about who they are and more importantly, who they aren’t. Especially when everyone wants to change your brand, being consistent is worth more than being fresh.

If you think that brand is as simple as hiring an agency to create your logo, you have a very long road ahead of you. Understanding that brand is everything you represent, is the first step towards a long journey in creating something that matters.