Branding for Startups: How to Build a Strong Brand from the Ground Up

Image by macrovector on Freepik

The internet has lowered the barriers and made the field even for all.

For a mere $1000, a platform such as Shopify offers hosting, web platform, templates, and SEO tools that Jeff Bezos could only dream about in 1995.

No wonder the number of e-commerce stores is beyond counting. Best estimates put forth a figure between 12 and 24 million. The spread itself suggests that there is insufficient data.

Most of these startups would die in the next year, the electronic equivalent of the mayfly that lives 24 hours.

Without a doubt, they lacked capital, vision, strategy, and diligence.

But, what they most lacked is branding. It is that intangible quality that separates the winners from also-rans.

Let’s explore how you can build branding for startups that thrive.

How to Perform Branding for Startups

1. Define your objective

This is where branding for startups begins. You can’t just set up a domain, offer a service (that you think everyone needs) and wait for clients.

You have to work backward from what you want to achieve.

  • Identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats by a SWOT analysis.
  • Set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals.
  • Continuously monitor your progress towards your goals and redefine your objective to match changing scenarios.

Bezos began by selling books online.

That was not an accident.

He might as well have chosen airline ticketing online but went for books and CDs.

From the get-go, Bezos wanted enormous reach. His education in computer science and early career on Wall Street had convinced him that data was the new oil.

Therefore, he wanted the largest possible customer base and books gave him the ability to reach out to everyone from 9 to 90.

Instead of selling $1000 plane tickets to a few million, he wanted to sell books worth $100 to a few billion.

In fact, he changed his first choice Cadabra (if you can believe that) to Amazon because the name implied size.

Bezos wanted a huge business in terms of customer reach and revenue (not profit) and chose a befitting business model.

No better example of working backward is possible.

How Amazon grew and grew
How Amazon grew and grew

2. Create a visual identity

Visual identity is a key component of branding for startups.

What’s your equivalent of the Nike swoosh? Or the kidney grill and Hofmeister kink of a BMW?

While exploring this question, Google asked its top designers to formulate a design philosophy that could encompass all its products, including Android, email, documents, and spreadsheets.

They came up with Material Design in 2014. It is a visual language that emphasizes flat, two-dimensional designs.

Material Design toolkit
Material Design toolkit

How to create a strong visual identity for your brand?

  • Choose a color palette that represents your brand personality and appeals to your target audience.
  • Your logo is the centerpiece of your visual identity and should be simple, yet memorable.
  • Choose font styles that are legible and align with your brand personality.

Lastly, document the style and create brand guidelines that detail the usage of the logo, color palette, typography, and other visual elements.

Ensure that all employees understand and follow these guidelines.

If you can’t decide which style logo suits your business, reach out to a branding design agency.

The trouble with branding agencies, however, is that they want you to articulate your vision. For that, it helps to be prepared and armed with answers.

These 5 QnA samples might help

Q: What are the core values that you want your brand to represent?
A: Integrity, innovation, and simplicity.

Q: Who is your target audience and what kind of emotions do you want them to feel when they think of your brand?
A: Young professionals and we want them to feel inspired and empowered.

Q: Can you describe your competitors and how you differentiate from them?
A: Established players in the tech industry, but we differentiate ourselves by helping them pick the service components that will give them maximum RoI in a 5-year period.

Q: Can you provide any specific visual elements or colors that you definitely want to include in your brand identity?
A: Perhaps blue to represent trust and stability, and incorporate a modern, minimalist icon that symbolizes progress and forward-thinking.

Q: How will you use your brand identity (e.g., website, packaging, business cards, etc.)?
A: Across all touchpoints, including our website, product packaging, marketing materials, and company merchandise.

And of course, keep on educating yourself in the art of making a brand stand out.

3. Find what makes it different

Most probably you don’t have the first-mover advantage that Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Musk, et al had.

How you are running a SaaS that more or less offers the same services as another SaaS.

You can try these strategies:

  • Find what makes your products and services different from the competition.
  • Focus on developing features that allow visible differences. If not visible let them be effective differences.
  • If none are possible, reach out to a professional branding service that can craft a marketing message that creates a difference.

This has to be baked in from incubation and cannot be an afterthought.

Let’s think of Reddit, a largely unchallenged social media platform that does not worry about losing its users to Facebook or Twitter.

They made it anonymous like Twitter, yet you can write a 5,000-word post like Facebook (the limit is 40,000 words!)

In May 2022, it received 1.7 billion visits. Yet it tries its best to not monetize the site!

It has subreddits where the spiritual gather, and subreddits that have been banned for toxicity!

Reddit was built differently from the ground up.

Reddit is a mature social media app with minimum fanfare
Reddit is a mature social media app with minimum fanfare

How to focus on developing features that offer a possible difference?

Microsoft did it by merging search with AI. That is not only a technological milestone but they now literally have the smartest search engine.

Of course, that is a moonshot example. But I meant that it inspires you.

But the third scenario? Can a marketing message can create a better brand?

By 2015, Apple was seriously lagging (in appeal) behind the bigger and more affordable Android phones. The Galaxy S6 Edge and Sony Xperia Z5 were hogging all the limelight.

Along came Apple with the now famous #ShotOniPhone social media campaign which garnered 6.5 billion impressions that were 95% positive!

#shotoniphone campaign
#shotoniphone campaign

Look to create a difference and let it define your brand.

Again, these questions might help.

  • What are our standout product or service features?
  • How does our approach to customer service differ from others?
  • What are the key benefits of using our products or services that others don’t offer?
  • How does our company approach innovation?
  • What is our unique brand story?

For inspiration, immerse yourself in what the best in your industry are doing. To build a brand for a chain of restaurants, for instance, check out top brand visuals for restaurants.

4. Catch trends on the updraft

Uber and Airbnb launched in 2010. They both cashed into the emerging trend of sharing economy which evolved post-2008 Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street.

The sharing economy represents a shift away from traditional models of consumption and ownership.

Whether the sharing economy actually creates a redistribution of wealth is up for debate but the feel-good factor helped both these brands become household names in 2-3 years.

Can similar branding for startups be possible for a small business?

Yes, it can.

  • You have to be able to identify trends before they have a concrete shape.
  • Once you have, get going and create a minimum viable product.
  • Launch a test version of your product or service, and collect feedback from your target audience.

Collect feedback to refine your approach and make any necessary adjustments.

Basically, you need to be well-informed, active, and able to change strategy on the fly.

5. Find your tribe

Finding your target audience, also known as your tribe, is crucial to building a strong brand.

  • Define your target audience – Clearly identify the demographics, interests, behaviors, and pain points of your ideal customer.
  • Conduct audience research – Gather data about your target audience through methods such as online surveys, focus groups, and social media activities (Instagram comments and likes, etc.).
  • Engage with your audience – Participate in online forums, join social media groups, and attend events where your target audience is likely to gather.

Foster a community of customers and supporters who share your values and mission.

Entertain them, Educate them, Engage them and you have a brand.

Your tribe, once you have it, will create, grow and protect your brand.

Wrapping Up

There are unknowns on this journey. For example, we know that branding for startups is crucial but we have no way to measure the exact impact it has on the top and bottom line (vis-à-vis product research, marketing, and other aspects).

But it is an exercise you have to embark on with help from a branding agency.

Some like Jobs are born with a flair for it, while others like Gates struggle to get their act together (30 years after the first version of Windows was released, we still can’t make up our minds if he was the best or worst thing to happen to personal computing).

Are you a Jobs or a Gates when it comes to branding for startups?

Branding is important for your business because it makes you stand out from the competition. It demonstrates why your products and services are better.

Good branding makes communication with your customers easier and shows them who you are and what you offer. To make your branding strong, you need to have a clear and compelling message which conveys what makes your business unique.

Act now and define your brand or someone else will define theirs.

About the Author!

Nevilson is the Founder of SeekThem design and branding agency. With a passion for design, Nevilson has established the company as a leader in branding solutions. Over the years, the company has helped numerous clients develop a strong and consistent brand identity, and Nevilson continues to lead the team in delivering exceptional results.

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