Do it Now! Developing Your Startup Brand Strategy

At Hairpin, we listen to our partner Craig Bida. We suggest you do too. Reposting an article he wrote. You heard him. Do it now!

Hey startup founder: I know you’re busy. Incredibly busy. The experience of being an entrepreneur, and what it demands of you, is like nothing else. You’re stretched in so many directions as you hustle to secure funding, compete for talent, hone your product-market fit, and prove your business model. I’m sorry to add to your load, but there’s one more thing you should be working on that’s critical to your startup’s future, and that you’re likely not doing: Developing your Startup Brand Strategy.

You might disagree. Perhaps even vehemently. Because, as we already discussed, you’re busy. Incredibly busy. You might think worrying about your brand right now is a waste of time given everything else on your plate. I know because other striving founders and startup builders just like you have told me: “I’ve got too much to think about right now.” If we don’t get funding, we won’t even exist.” “We’ll get to the brand stuff later.”  

These reasons are all so startup real and right, but also short-sighted and self-defeating. Delaying the important work of defining your Startup Brand Strategy means missing a big opportunity to positively influence your trajectory of growth and opportunity. That’s because a clearly defined, coherent, compelling brand strategy is a powerful, differentiating strategic asset that can help create value and competitive advantage for your young company.

Here’s a little insider’s secret: Defining your brand strategy doesn’t have to take a mountain of time and angst. Instead, take a rapid-cycle, entrepreneurial approach. That build-measure-learn mode you know so well from developing your minimum viable product? Draw on that to create a Startup Brand Strategy that captures the foundational essence of what you stand for. All you need to do is answer three questions: “Why do you exist? “What value do you uniquely deliver your stakeholders?” and “How do you want to come across?

C’mon, think about it. If you can’t answer these, you’re probably in trouble. Without being able to clearly articulate what makes your startup unique, what value you’re creating, and how you want others to perceive you, how can you ever hope to differentiate yourself, tell your story, and attract important stakeholders like, um, funders, employees, and customers? Get it? A brand strategy is not something you eventually get to; instead, it’s something that can help you get from here, to there….

If you’re like many startups, you’re already backing into a de facto brand strategy— assembling a motley mosaic of sub-optimal brand assets in a half-baked kind of way: Your startup’s name might be something clever that has nothing to do with what you actually do (maybe the word for an obscure reptile in some random language?). Add in a meh logo you got for cheap somewhere, and a vaguely diffuse but inspirational mission that somehow comes out slightly different every time you say it, and without realizing it, you’re falling into a brand strategy trap: You’re starting to accumulate brand meaning, but it’s more happenstance than intention, more scattered than focused—and way less powerful than intentionally developing a clearly defined, coherent, and compelling brand strategy as a strategic business asset.

Humor me for just a few more minutes. Let’s take a run at creating a Startup Brand Strategy together. Try to fill in the blanks as succinctly and clearly as you can:

Brand Purpose (Why you exist):
We exist to _________ because we believe_________.

Brand Benefits (What value you consistently deliver):
We create_________ to help people do_________ , and feel_________.

Brand Personality (How you want to come across):
When we’re at our best, people describe us as _________, _________, and _________.

Of course, there’s more you can do to flesh this out—capturing important nuances and details, and adding in more of what’s important and unique to your brand (It’s always good to bounce initial thoughts like these past stakeholders for input and refinement). Once you have something that’s clear, succinct, and compelling, start to use these words and ideas to tell your story and shape your stakeholder touchpoints, including your website, press releases, investor decks, elevator pitch, name, tagline, logo, you name it….

Over time, you can add in additional bells and whistles like Brand Reasons to Believe (proof points of why people should trust and choose you), and Brand Equity (the distillation of what you want to stand for in peoples’ hearts and minds). Of course, since you’re a startup, all this might (and likely will) evolve as you pivot and adapt to changing realities, but having a Startup Brand Strategy as a steering tool can help you stay true to your founding aspirations and vision—especially when challenges and difficult choices appear.

A great example of a brand that’s doing this right? Former startup Airbnb, which has skyrocketed to a +$30B valuation since 2008. Their success has been fueled in part by a relentless focus on creating and operationalizing a coherent brand strategy centered around a powerful purpose and clearly defined benefits for both hosts (aka “hospitality entrepreneurs,” as Airbnb calls them) and guests: “Airbnb exists to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere, providing healthy travel that is local, authentic, diverse, inclusive and sustainable.” 

For a cautionary tale, look no further than giant disruptor Uber, which surged to success as a young company, but stumbled after a rash of public scandals involving the former CEO, and issues including sexual harassment of employees, and maltreatment of drivers and riders (Uber’s market share has dropped almost 15% since 2016). Only recently has the company begun to tend carefully to its brand strategy. Uber’s CMO Rebecca Messina has said one of her absolute key priorities for 2019 is, “Establishing and expanding the meaning of Uber.” Wait, so a company that started in 2009 is just now getting around to figuring out its brand meaning? No wonder Uber lost its footing: It had no idea know what it stood for.

Building powerful companies and brands is all about creating meaning and relevance—for both internal and external stakeholders. Crystallizing, early in your development, the essence of what you stand for can be a powerful tool to help guide the evolution of your business strategy, shape your consumer experience, and equip you to attract and retain valuable talent. What could possibly be more important than this? Make your fledgling company stronger by developing your Startup Brand Strategy. Do it now.

Craig Bida is CEO and founder of www.thinkdesigndisrupt.com, an impact-focused, brand-building consultancy that designs, reimagines, and activates brands to create world-changing social and environmental impact.  He is CMO and co-founder of VeraCloud Technologies, a mission-driven startup focused on unlocking opportunity for minority, women, veteran, disadvantaged, and other diverse-owned businesses. Craig is also a Senior Fellow in Social Innovation at Babson College, where he teaches entrepreneurship and venture design.