Startup Branding – Early Stage Dilemmas

Seeing the forest and not just the trees is analogous to thinking about the high altitude traits of your brand and not just features of your first product

You would expect that branding an early stage startup would be easier than branding an established firm. You have a clean slate. There are no brand architecture or strategy issues to fix. The client is excited and passionate about the work. They are motivated to get it done.

But early stage startups are actually the hardest to brand right. Quality branding is based on a clear understanding of (i) what you are branding, (i) the primary target audience for your brand and (iii) your competition. Even with the best business plan, these three factors will be in flux for most true innovators. The essence of what you are branding can change. The customer you imagined can be displaced. Competitors can change overnight.  Fundamental things about your business that will likely be obvious in hindsight are hard to discern.

Here are three tips to avoid the most common pit-falls for early stage startup branding.

1. Hold the tension.  Don’t rush to lock in on the primary target audience for your brand.

If your business and your offering are going to be in flux, try to delay making a significant branding investment until you are as close to understanding the brand’s primary target customer as possible. Ideally, that means customers are interacting with your marketing and your product in some tangible capacity. Branding suffers when you try and be all things to all people, but also suffers if your try to be the right thing to the wrong people. So do what you can to buy the time for audience clarity to emerge.

2. Favour arbitrary or invented names for your brand

We usually end up renaming startups whose names are too feature-based. Specifically, whose names are too descriptive (Ex. Information Corporation) or too suggestive (Ex. Informa Inc.). As the firm grows, those features are often found to be less important than expected, or, if the business model changes outright, then the name may end up being mis-descriptive. Names that are invented (Ex. Yahoo) or arbitrary (Ex. Apple) can be applied for years to come, even if the business changes shape completely.

3. Focus your startup branding on enduring brand traits

As you develop your brand promise and personality, be sure to get out of the weeds, away from features, and focus on the high altitude attributes that are magnetic to your customer and your team. Big, emotional ideas — not features — are at the heart of the best, most enduring startup branding strategies.