In the early stages of a business, it’s easy to believe marketing strategy is something you can put off — that marketing is icing on the cake once you’ve built up the other facets of your business plan. You tell yourself 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. But that’s not true. If your brand is a cake, marketing is a fundamental building block, more like the flour.
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 simply needs to address three fundamentals:
- 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). A great brand name is simple, memorable, unique, and evocative. Without simply describing the business, it connotes it. “Collective Bias” in Rogers does this well — using a commonplace phrase to evoke its core business, essentially a PR firm placing commercial content with a network of bloggers. On the other hand, 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. Some companies can pay a couple hundred bucks to have one made, while others, like Pepsi who famously paid $1 million to update its logo, will shell out a ton of cash for a well-known designer. Regardless of how much you want to spend on your logo, you should always use these criteria: memorable, evocative visuals, uniqueness that can be trademarked, and some implicit connotation or reflection of your “brand DNA.”
Let’s break down the logo below, which we designed for Paterson Innovators. Montgomery Housing Authority formed the Paterson Innovators to help improve quality of life for its residents and serve as a progressive voice in the realm of public housing. The arrow incorporated into the “P” signifies their slogan “Moving Forward, Together.” Without having to use words, a great logo communicates the values of an organization.
- 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 their purpose so well that it changed the world in the process. Today, Apple is far afield from making the computers it started with, but it is still fulfilling its foundational purpose.
Similarly, 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 only end up as meaningless wall decorations.
Our previous examples of Apple and Southwest, however, underscore the fact that powerful brands are driven by a common organizational mindset that is 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 underscores that being close to your customers is actually a core competency of leading companies with successful brands. Customer-centric and brand-centric cultures are driven by the six C’s:
Commitment to employees
The leader of a powerful startup brand can compete with larger businesses 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.
Forrester’s paper further emphasized that customer service leaders like Virgin, USAA and Nordstrom are successful because they’re highly intentional and purposeful about keeping strong alignment and focus on their customers. At Thoma, we’ve adopted these six C’s as core instruments of our living brand; clients that embrace them, as well, set themselves on a disciplined development path to lift the weights and build muscle in these critical competencies.
While startups may be constrained by all numbers 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.To read more of Thoma’s insights on branding strategy and other marketing topics, click around www.thomathoma.com/blog/.