Five Brand Building Tips for Startups


I work with all sizes of business. Brand principles apply to them all. But start-ups are in a unique position when it comes to branding.

In this post we look at some key tips to help a startup as they seek to enter a marketplace and set out to change the world. It was originally written for the first branding journal of the Middle East and Africa, Brand Berries.


Credit: Annie Spratt Souce: Unsplash

The unique position of a startup

Startups have no constraints. They are not bound by past conventions. They are breaking into markets and so their audiences do not carry pre-conceived ideas about them. They also have no baggage when it comes to staffing and no problems with internal politics.

However, they usually have little (or no) paying customers to use as a soundboard and are typically still shaping their purpose as well as their product offerings. They have to worry about investment. About creating value and building a solid customer base - and they have to do it with little cash flow.

All of this can get messy. But having a grasp of a brand-building framework can save time and create a strong direction for a new brand. Getting a grip on the discipline of branding is not only helpful to do early in a business's life - I would say - it is essential. Especially if you want to attract loyal customers and talented new staff to join your enterprise.

Why should startups focus on brand strategy?

Firstly - let's get some phrases defined. Your brand is not your logo. It is not a font and some colours. It is so much more.

Your "brand" is the meaning that people attach to you and your offer. It exists in their heads. In their hearts and minds. You do not own it. They do.

“Branding” is the attempt to manage that meaning. To thoughtfully consider the meaning you want people to attach to your business and to which you will hold yourself to account. Branding is strategic. It affects all aspects of your business - from your leadership and business behaviours, through to customer experience.

So before you jump into creating a name or designing a logo. Stop. Take a breath. Consider the below 5 tips for branding on a strategic level before diving into the tactical expression of the new brand.

Having clarity over your strategy helps in so many ways. It gives your business an identity, a direction. It defines who you are here to serve - and who you are not. What you believe in and what you do not. What you value and what you do not. It helps potential customers and employees consider whether they should join you. Or not.

So you see how important brand is. Branding thinking should be applied to every part of your business. It is strategic but done correctly it can inform all of your business tactics - including your name and logo (which I know you are itching to create!).

Tip 1. Define your purpose

There are so many things to consider when starting a business. So what do you need to hone in on in regards to brand? The first step in the quest to manage meaning is to define your meaning. Answer some simple but profound strategic questions. The “Why”, “How”, “What” and “Who” of your brand.

Many startups make the mistake of focusing on what they are delivering. Their products. But it is essential to articulate why they exist and what they want to do for the world.

Why do you exist? What is your purpose? Why does this matter? How are you going to change the world? If I’m going to join your new brand, or invest in your business this needs to be compelling.

This sounds simple but many businesses struggle to define this - and if leadership cannot articulate their purpose how can their staff do so? And if the staff can’t how will customers understand why it is you exist?

The “why” of a brand gives customers a reason to be loyal. To attach additional value in your offering. To join you in your quest - even if it costs slightly more. The purpose adds value.

And we are not talking here about a purpose which is to make money. You might want to turn over a million in year one but that is your personal purpose. Nobody else outside of the company will care about this. Why should they?

What potential customers need to know is why it matters to them that you exist. To attract great talent it is becoming more and more important to be purposeful. Your purpose needs to attract other people who believe in what you believe. Who also think it is worthwhile to do what you are doing. Who imagine the future world that you imagine.

If you are a founder then you may think this is not necessary. It's in your head. But if you don’t get down to documenting these essentials they can easily get lost - especially when you recruit into the team. Working on the great vision and purpose of the business then is crucial for getting brand traction. To articulate it you have to define it. Without this, you will struggle to attract new loyal customers and brilliant staff and you will certainly find it difficult to attract investment.

So - do this early. Purpose is the foundation stone of building a brand. It is worth the time investment. You should be able, in one sentence to say why it is you exist and have backup documentation setting your high-level brand strategy, values, mission and promise.

Tip 2. Design your audience

Without customers, you will not have a business. They are the most important thing to think about for a startup.

The next key stage to branding is to focus on your customer. So who are your ideal customers? Who is it that you exist to serve?

You need to get deep here. Most startups make the mistake of having a hugely broad audience. “Anyone who moves we will seek to sell to”! However, the problem with this approach is that you have to average out your offering and messaging so it appeals to everyone. In so doing it can become average. An ordinary offer and products for ordinary people. This is the fastest way to not stand out and therefore fail. It's the fastest way to begin to compete in crowded marketplaces on price. You will not easily survive with this approach.

You need to be more than this. You need to offer more. To create standout services and products for specific people.

A key thing then in the branding process is to narrow down on who you exist to serve and really get to know this group. Who are they? What do they believe? What do they value and not value? What are their goals and challenges? What are their aspirations? What is their story? Where do they hang out? What do they respect?

It might seem counter-intuitive but it is crucial that you get to grips with a small audience through which you can offer such a focused and exciting experience that they will champion your products and services. You can hone in your messages so you can attract champions of your brand. These loyal champions will become your ambassadors. Not because of the price but because you stand for everything they need you to stand for in that category. They believe in your brand more than any other. Because you are there for them - and most importantly you deliver. They are your witnesses.

I always think it's a good idea to put together some in-depth audience personas. Personas are semi-fictional people based on real-life customers you know. They help to humanise your decision making and can become part of the vocabulary of your teams. “I don't think Corporate Clive would buy that - but Warehouse Wendy might". Think about each persona and their story. Clarify your unique selling points and value proposition to each.

Tip 3. Define your story

Stories are how we make sense of things. They bring us meaning. Humans are natural storytellers. Our brains are wired to listen to stories and we use them to establish an emotional connection in our minds. In the quest to manage the meaning your audience attaches to your business having an emotional story where your brand plays an archetypal role is a powerful tool in the brand toolbox.

Of course, there will be an authentic story about how the business started. Around the problem or opportunity that was spotted and the reason that you have decided to provide a solution to it. But how do you draw this out in a useful and meaningful way that is simple for audiences to understand?

I have found that getting leadership teams to think of themselves as a character in their customers' story is a fun and rewarding exercise. You can use character archetypes. There are twelve: “hero”, “sage”, “magician”, “rebel”, “ruler”, “caregiver”, “innocent”, “explorer”, “innocent”, “creator”, “lover” and “jester” (see this article for more information). Each character has qualities our customer needs in their self-written story. You cannot be all of them. You need to select one primary - and possibly one secondary - to add some depth. Knowing which one you are helps you dress, speak and behave accordingly. They really help set a human tone to your business that speaks to a customers heart. To their desires and goals. Rather than simply to their heads. It’s their heart after all that they will use to make a buying decision. They will then justify it with their head.

So what kind of character are your audience looking for? What's the role your brand plays and the overall value proposition within that context?

The rule of thumb here is to be authentic and keep things simple.

Tip 4. Live your story

Once you know your purpose, who your audience is and who you are in their story it’s now time to begin to live that story.

n today's Google informed and social media-fueled world, customers have all the power. If you promise something you have to deliver it. If you want to make an impact you have to deliver it in a way they have never seen before. Find a way to be different. You cannot be average if you want to succeed. You need to stand out. Why are you different?

Review your products and services in the light of the overarching brand strategy you have pulled together and make sure you are living up to what you proclaim. That you are consistent with the archetypal character you say you are playing in the customers' story.

Are you really solving your specific customers' problem? Are you really improving the world in the way you say? Are you really different? If not then it's time to get creative. How can you enhance the offering? Perhaps it's even a case of thinking outside of the box. To invent a whole new category (Google "blue ocean strategy"!). Innovation is needed - especially for startups. You cannot simply be the same as someone else in the products and services you offer if you want to charge more than your competition. If you want to add and create value.

Use design thinking to map out your customer journey and apply brand thinking to every stage. Do the same with the product journey. Craft each process in your business from the customers perspective. Even get them in the room and listen to their experiences and feelings. Take the time so that things do not happen by accident. Track your results. Measure. Improve.

A lot of these activities can be done in-house. They do not necessarily cost a lot of money. They just take time, leadership and a passion to live up to the brand. If you are struggling consider bringing in an external consultant or engage with a specialist agency. Outsiders can often see things you or your team miss. The key here is to focus on solving customer problems in a unique way more than focusing on your competition. Innovate and invent. Be customer-centric.

As you get bigger I always advise businesses to use brand thinking in their recruitment process. Map out your employee journey. How will you attract like minded people to your brand who believe in what you believe? How will you develop them? How will you recognise and reward their contributions to living the brand? When they leave how can you make this a positive an experience as possible.

Use brand thinking across all areas of the business as it scales. Authentically live up to the brand story. Live it.

Tip 5. Tell your story

The way you position yourself to your audience is so important to the modern business. Design is crucial here and it is at this later stage that you can begin to give shape to the expression of your brand.

You need a name for your brand. A powerful name. A good name that becomes a label that customers can remember is the best way to start. It should be distinctive. Have a good “mouth feel”. A name your audience can easily spell and recall. A name they can Google. A name which they can be to immediately attach the right meaning to. A name you can own.

You also need to consider the ‘visual language’ of the brand. This is the bit I know you’ve been itching to get too! Now you have a strategic direction now is the time to give form to your strategic vision. How will your brand use images, fonts, colours? Ensure you set these up so they can be consistently applied. These need to be significantly different from other brands operating in your category. You need to look different and sound different. You need to become the archetypal character that your audience personas can connect to.

Work with a graphic designer or creative team to set up these as principles before you start to use them on collateral. This will allow for a strategic approach where every element is thoughtfully considered in line with the brand story. Ensure you brief the designer personally explaining all of the strategic decisions you have made and ensuring they see the offering through the lens of your audience. If they are a good designer they will infuse your brand purpose and story through everything they produce.

Work on a ’tone of voice’ - this is a guide which sets out how your brand will speak and sound in writing. A good copywriter will help you set principles which convey the right meaning to your audiences.

The challenge of a good visual representation of a brand is if you can cover up the logo on a piece of marketing collateral - for example, a website, Instagram page or brochure - and still recognise which brand it is. This takes work and effort.

Every element should have meaning behind what is being produced. A good example of this in action is Nando's. The colours, fonts and patterns used as the expression of the Nando’s brand all have meaning attached to them which enhance the brand story.

Use your brand’s ‘visual language’ and 'tone of voice’ consistently across all of your audience touch points. For example your website, social media, in your retail store and in any marketing collateral you produce.

When you consider your marketing and sales processes ensure you have some long term brand activity that you are investing in. You will have short term needs to generate and close leads. But ensure you are not simply about the short term. Encourage your team to work on activities where you are thinking about the future of your brand. Free giveaways to potential customers. Recruitment fairs. Public speaking by your team. University lecturing. Podcasts. Media and PR opportunities. Build your reputation with layers. Be genuine. Be real. Share.

If you have really created something that is special and that improves a customers life they will become your marketing - and this is the most powerful of all.

You've got this

So in conclusion I hope you can see how important ‘brand thinking’ is to consider for a startup. So many do not give brand the focus it needs and they end up in a tangled mess a year or two down the line which costs a lot of time, money and effort to untangle unnecessarily. It’s painful. And can damage your reputation to have to re-think or define after your startup has significantly scaled.

Far better to have strategic brand principles in place from the start that inform all of the major decisions you will make as you start your adventure.

So my advice is: Think brand. And think it early.

Good luck.


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