Startup Branding: Why it is imperative today

There are a lot of people who get uncomfortable with any mention of the word “brand”. And to be fair to them, in the past few years I have figured out that there is a fine line between “a brand building exercise” and “total waste of time.” It has to be a surgical strike done with utmost precision to obtain the desired outcomes.

I do not remember when I first heard the word “brand”, but I do have vivid memories of friends discussing brands of cricket bats and balls, cycles and such; my earliest memory of knowing a “brand” and having the strongest urge to own one is the Street Cat bicycle. All these years later, I can barely remember what were all its features that made me want it so badly; I do, however, remember the emotion the brand triggered in me with their advertising — that it would make me super cool.

I have always been a brand consumer, but my ‘brand experience’ had always been from the consumer/customer side of the table. I moved to the other side of the table six years ago, when I began working with startups.

You see, I had only ever worked with big companies — Tata Consultancy Services, IBM, Oracle to name a few — which were established brands. But now, I found myself working in and around startups who were thinking about their brands for the first time. They were designing logos, creating visual identities, and naming their companies — in other words, making a lot of big decisions on their own. More often than not, this ends up in a disaster, reinforcing their perception that brand exercises are a waste of time and it is their product or service that is going to get them their customers.

Although a lot has changed since the startup revolution began — especially the way the startups deliver innovation and value to their customers — not much has changed in their approach towards their own brand building activities. Having spent a lot of time with the leadership teams of startups across verticals and categories, I see a pattern in the way a huge majority of them approach branding exercise. It is given the least priority.

As a founder, it surely seems like a chicken-and-egg problem. It is reasonable argument that first you should build your core business and then invest into your brand.

But what if brand is part of your core business? What if your brand was one of the first things you invested in, rather than an afterthought? How would that mindset change your approach?

Let me ask you this, why do you consider capital spent on owning real estate, hiring top class employees and subsiding your services or products an ‘investment’, but money spent on brand building and marketing is marked as an ‘expense’?

A good brand will make it leaps and bounds easier to appear established and legitimate. How would that affect your business in other ways — customer acquisition, talent acquisition, good investor relations, media perception and so on?

 

Now, more than ever I believe that perception is everything — so, your brand is your identity. It should be treated as part of the foundation of your business, from day one — and not something to be ‘tackled’ when the time seems right. Treating it as part of the your business foundation means that you’re investing in something that will give you better and better returns as time goes on.

The benefits are cumulative here — all roads leading to the growth of your business.

For many product or service categories, it’s growing more and more difficult to significantly differentiate themselves from the competition. Established players will have orders of magnitude more experience, resources and more capital which means competition will be a near-impossible battle in most cases. If you believe that price is your differentiator, it is only so till a cheaper option becomes available.

So how do you win?
You focus on brand.

This isn’t to say that the product or service can be shoddy — it can’t be. But, a great brand, complemented by your great product or service, is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. This combination of product/service + brand, will put you in a much stronger position to connect with many more customers, you’ll appear more serious and legitimate in all aspects, and you’ll be that much closer to the success you’re seeking.

It is that time in the world where the maximum customers for a whole lot of businesses are going to be the ones from the millennial generation. Every millennial is flooded with zillions of options for each of their purchase. Their mind share is the one that either breaks or makes your business in the next 5 years. I find brand to be one of their main factors of connection with a business. Today, they want to emotionally connect. Even if it is just a toothbrush or a pair of socks, the driving need is to feel like being a part of something bigger than themselves. Good brands lead to good experiences — not only the experiences that the brands directly control but how you live and coexist with that brand and its ecosystem.

Now, a good brand is not just the superficial elements — brilliant logo or jaw-dropping product photography or some other fancy aurally/visually appealing aspect of the product or service. A good brand should also be felt inside the company. It affects everything — down to the seemingly inconsequential items such as the office interiors or your business card. A good brand is not just to attract customers, it is also to attract great talent that works behind scenes to take any business to great heights.

I am pretty sure that in the coming years the leaders you will hear a lot about would be those who realised that branding is not only about making a pretty logo and choosing some nice colours and typefaces, but about fulfilling the emotional imperative of a business to win not only the wallets but the hearts of the market. Their focus on the brand would have left us consumers no other option but to help them grow.

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