Between talking to customers, building a product the market wants and needs, finding and hiring top talent, meeting with investors, and generating a healthy pipeline, startup founders are busy. Needless to say, it can be easy to let the brand fall by the wayside or push off brand decisions until the company is bigger, more established, and has more data points.
While this seems logical (brand decisions should be informed in part by customer feedback, data, and research), failing to make critical brand decisions early actually causes more headaches for the entire business than choosing a brand direction, even if the direction is only 60% correct.
As a Brand Manager at High Alpha, I help our new startups build their brands in their first year as a business. Here are a few reasons why it’s important to make, and document, brand decisions earlier rather than later.
But first, let’s talk about “defining a brand”
When I say “define the brand”, I’m referring to documenting key brand elements that contribute to your overarching brand strategy. The point here is to keep things simple — you don’t need messaging frameworks for every ICP under the sun or every individual in the buying process. Since startups are operating off of a lot of assumptions, getting too granular can be inefficient — you might spend days building something out that changes in a week.
I recommend startups define the following:
Some like to call it a mission, or a company’s “why.” This should be concise, memorable, and repeatable.
Some call these ideal customer profiles (ICPs). For startups, try to limit the list to three at the very most. I like to stack rank these in order of importance.
This should be a straightforward list of what makes your company different from competitors, or however your audience is currently solving the problem.
Benefits + Value
These should be derived from your differentiators. So, if a differentiator for your platform is that it’s much faster than others on the market, the value might be that users save time. I like to stack rank these as well.
This refers to the adjectives you want others to use when describing your brand. This list should not include more than 10 words. (If you’re everything, are you anything?)
Where your platform would be placed on a website like G2 or Capterra.
An internal resource (please don’t paste this on your website’s homepage) that quickly explains who benefits from your product, what makes your product different from competitors, and what value your product ultimately provides.
An informal way to explain your company to your mom, aunt, or friend who may or may not work in tech. This should be easy to remember.
How to define each of these is an entirely different blog post, but these are the key buckets for startups to fill in.
Benefits of Documenting Your Brand
Now let’s dive into how documenting these categories benefits the entire company.
1. A clear brand aligns your entire team
Your team might be small, but that doesn’t mean silos don’t exist. Your brand should extend to every part of your company, touching product, marketing, sales, customer success, leadership, and more. Without a defined brand, you’re setting the company up for failure. In best case scenarios, your team might simply confuse the market by talking about what you do, the value you provide, and who you serve inconsistently. In worst case scenarios, you’ll burn resources with product or leadership heading in a different direction than sales and marketing.
Ultimately, having a document that the entire team can look to for guidance helps align the team towards a single vision. Even if you, as a CEO and founder, know the vision in your head, you’ll never gain real traction without putting those thoughts to digital paper, no matter how scary that may feel.
2. It helps you see the big picture
When you lay key brand elements out on a single slide (or a few slides), you can start to see how everything works together — how the values relate to the differentiators, which relate to competitors and who you serve in the market. You can also see where some decisions don’t make sense, or distract from an otherwise streamlined and strategic vision.
In short, everything should work together, and if you can’t see all the pieces, you’ll wind up with a disjointed brand that doesn’t just confuse the market, but your people, too.
3. It serves as a gut check
In Startup World, veering off course can be detrimental to the business’s success. If you don’t have something to measure a team or individual’s efforts against, it’s almost impossible to make any real progress.
Documenting your brand is a good starting point in flexing that muscle across a lot of different disciplines. Whether it’s product, customer success, or marketing, a clearly defined brand serves as a gut check that the work every team is executing against aligns with the brand vision.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the brand can never change — quite the opposite. But without clearly defining who you are, it’s nearly impossible to recognize that something might be off. To sum it up, documenting your brand allows you to recognize if it needs to be updated, adjusted, refined, or totally thrown out the window while giving every team something tangible to measure whether or not their efforts live up to the brand itself.
4. It helps onboard new employees
As an employee working in the trenches of a startup every day, it can be easy to take the knowledge of the product, industry, and competitive landscape for granted. Keeping something like brand documentation up to date isn’t just helpful in aligning different silos, but it’s also gold for new hires joining the team.
This isn’t rocket science per say, but it is an exercise in consistency. Which is really the foundation of marketing, anyway.
5. It informs what you say “no” to
Finally, documenting your brand helps you, as a founder, CEO, C-Suite executive, or marketer, know what to say “no” to. In other words, it helps prevent companies from falling into what we call “shiny object syndrome”, which Wikipedia defines as a concept where “people focus on a shiny, new object, in other words whatever is most current, trendy, or the latest concept, regardless of how valuable or helpful it may ultimately be.”
The issue with this is that it typically results in distracting teams from where they should be focusing their time and energy — a resource that’s incredibly important in every business but especially so at a startup. Documenting and defining your brand allows the team to view any new initiative, campaign, sponsorship, or product feature through the lens of the brand strategy. Does the campaign focus on an audience you serve? Does the sponsorship align with the mission of the company? When you make the hard decision to define your brand, other decisions actually become much easier.
A caveat to this last point — I’m not recommending that startups shouldn’t experiment, or that every campaign needs to perfectly align with the brand. Testing new audiences or messaging that pushes at the edges of the brand is great if it’s part of a larger growth strategy. But if every campaign or initiative falls outside the brand…then that’s an issue.
Choosing to build a brand with limited data points can be scary, especially when you’re forced to operate off of assumptions. My advice — make the best decisions you can with the inputs you have, put those decisions to paper, and be open to tweaking things along the way. You won’t regret it.