Brand Inciter: Startups Need Brand Strategy, Now

by Martin Thoma (martin@thomathoma.com) 84 views 

There’s tremendous startup activity in Arkansas. In the northwest, the Walmart-fueled economy is generating dozens of shopper marketing services and tech companies every year. UAF researchers are producing innovative science and technology spin-offs. In Central Arkansas, UAMS Bioventures, the UALR Nanotechnology Center and Innovate Arkansas are spawning new enterprises. Incubators are incubating and venture capital keeps forming; the state may need to go back to its retired slogan, “the land of opportunity.”

Observing all this business-birthing makes me think of how important great branding is to the great startup. There’s often a notion in startup culture — informed by the “agile” and “lean” philosophies — that the race is to the swift. That is, the critical competency is to ship, and mistakes or bugs will be addressed in subsequent iterations. This may work in technology, but it doesn’t work with brands. After all, software bugs are easily repaired; reputational damage is not.

There are good reasons not to fuss with branding in the initial startup phase. It’s easy enough to believe in the persuasive force of one’s own vision. It’s possible to argue that branding is too expensive, time-consuming, foreign or unnecessary due to the size of the startup and “free” digital and social platforms on which to build. On the other hand, a clear, cohesive brand strategy is the surest way to communicate value, engender loyalty and establish referability among all customer groups — partners, buyers, investors and employees. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” as a business mentor once counseled me.

A startup brand strategy does not have to be elaborate or all-consuming. It does need to address three fundamentals, however, before you ship anything:

A Brand Identity: your identity is your name plus logo. Gone are the days of naming a firm after the founders (e.g. Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt — even though these examples went on to become powerhouses in their categories). There are some smart brand names cropping up in Arkansas. Collective Bias, Grainster, and Nanomech come to mind. A great brand name is simple, memorable, unique and evocative. Without simply describing the business, it connotes it. “Collective Bias” does this well — using a commonplace phrase to evoke its core business, essentially a PR firm placing commercial content with a network of bloggers. Some terrible brand names include now-defunct Qoop, Fairtilizer, Doostang, Heekya and Thoof. Some good recent vintages include Dropbox, Rent the Runway and Banjo.

Logos are cheap; logos are expensive. You can buy a logo for a couple hundred bucks over the Internet. Pepsi famously paid $1 million to update its logo with a brand-name designer, a rehab that was roundly panned in the design community. You can pay anything in between for a great logo; the criteria for greatness include: memorable, evocative visuals, uniqueness that can be trademarked, and some implicit connotation or reflection of your “brand DNA.” But you do need a great logo!

A Brand Purpose: Startups are generally founded to make something and make money. But their brands have to contain a greater purpose; otherwise the brand will remain an empty shell. Why does your brand exist? What role does it serve and what value does it create for your customers? The purpose creates a basis for customers and employees to form emotional connections to your brand, your service, and your company.

Apple has held true to its core purpose from the day it was founded: create powerful technology that is simple to use. Apple executed so well that it changed the world — or at the very least whole categories — in the process. Today Apple is far afield from making the computers it started with, but it is still fulfilling its foundational purpose.

Southwest Airlines’ purpose is to “democratize the skies,” making airplanes competitive with trains, buses and automobiles. Its core purpose has driven not just advertising and culture but many business decisions — such as whether to give passengers Snickers bars instead of peanuts.

A Brand Culture: Well-crafted, well-executed brand strategies create meaning inside the company as well as outside. Mission, vision and values statements are often considered old school. Rightfully so, when they end up as meaningless wall decorations.

The examples of Apple and Southwest, however, underscore the fact that powerful brands are driven by a common organizational mindset, clearly articulated and advocated by leadership over many years. The way for a leader to do this successfully is to codify and communicate that system of values.

A fantastic research paper produced by Forrester (email me for a copy) underscores that being close to your customers is actually a core competency of leading companies with leading brands. Customer-centric and brand-centric cultures are driven by six “C’s,” including common beliefs, constant communications, regular celebrations and compelling storytelling.

The leader of a powerful startup brand can get a leg up on the competition by mastering these six “C’s” early in the company’s development. In fact, it’s much easier to establish and propagate a powerfully customer-centric culture when you’re young, nimble and small than it is several years later when you’re 100-people strong.

This stuff is the “softer side” of management and company-building, but the Forrester paper makes it clear that customer service leaders like Virgin, USAA and Nordstrom are highly intentional and purposeful about keeping strong alignment and focus on their customers. In our practice, we’ve adopted these six “C’s” as core instruments to the living brand; clients that embrace them set off on a disciplined development path to lift the weights and build muscle in these critical competencies.

While startups may be constrained by all number of limitations — financial, time, human resources, skill sets — they are also by nature at the most influential time of their lives to create and execute a brand strategy that will drive engagement, performance and sustainable results.

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