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Startup branding begins on day one

September 28th, 2015
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I asked a promising entrepreneur if she had started thinking about how to brand the new high tech product her company was planning to introduce later this year. She answered: “Well kind of. I have been preoccupied with product development, raising funds and hundreds of other details.”

She like so many other startup founders are juggling multiple responsibilities and pressing deadlines to develop their products or services, and to get their companies up and running.

In reality, though, the discussion on branding should start in the early stages of product development. All new products or services are designed to meet a unique consumer need or desire. If the targeted customer audiences think this new product/service fulfills this requirement, product sales and the probability of success for this startup will rise. To realize this, brand recognition will be critical.

Branding is a multifaceted and ongoing process to build customer awareness and loyalty. The founders of startup companies already knowledgeable about branding, or who have co-founders that are, have a head start. For those that don’t, they can help themselves by taking into consideration some basic but important branding fundamentals early on in their strategies. Here are a few to consider:

Understand that brands are more than just trademarks and logos.  A company’s intellectual property is highly valuable, but is only one part of the branding process. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers” (http://www.marketing-dictionary.org/ama). But it’s really more than that. It’s also about how the brand is perceived by its look, feel, and performance. Customers often have emotional connections to some brands. For example, Apple loyalists cite high quality, superb design and cutting edge technologies. The look of their retail stores or website and the quality of service will also influence a customer’s perception of the Apple brand.

The branding process of your startup’s product/service begins on Day One. Those initial conversations with potential partners, investors and employees play important roles in developing a brand for your company and products/services. Your vision, the uniqueness of the product/service and its value proposition for customers, investors or strategic partners are integral to the brand building process. The ability to effectively communicate these elements will play a critical role in building your brand (More on this point later).

Create brand ambassadors out of your partners, employees and other key stakeholders. You have won over converts to your vision of the product/service. These stakeholders have internalized the qualities and features of the brand. Let them become brand ambassadors and act as advocates to mobilize a word-of-mouth brand building campaign with their networks, which will be extremely valuable later on.

Do you know which stakeholders are critical to the success of your startup? The logical response would be investors and employees, which is correct. A lot of time needs to be dedicated to transforming these key stakeholders into brand ambassadors. But don’t forget about other important stakeholders, such as product developers, startup incubators, family and friends. They too can be an important part of the early word-of-mouth campaign. Building a brand requires constant attention and so do your key stakeholders.

Find out what potential customers like and dislike about your product/service. It’s never too early in the life of a product or service to ask potential customers what they like or dislike. That information is critical to building a brand. Focus groups provide valuable qualitative findings, but the expense might be too much for early stage startups. A less costly alternative would be to invite a group of friends and family to participate in a moderated group discussion about the product/service to surface pluses and minuses about the product/service. Although the findings will be less rigorous, the feedback will still be valuable.

Be a good communicator. Brand building is about communicating the value and distinctiveness of a company and its products to key stakeholders. Some startup founders are born communicators. Others are not. If you are in the latter category, don’t fret. There are several things you can do to improve your communication skills. There’s a lot of on-line advice on public speaking and presentation skills. While informative, they don’t give you a real-life training experience. Becoming a good public speaker means giving speeches and receiving constructive criticism, and then trying again. If your budget allows, sign up for professional hands-on training seminars or hire a communications consultant. The R.O.I. will become evident, especially when you start making venture capital funding presentations.

Align your startup company’s mission and vision statements, core values and your products/services. That sounds like a no brainer. However, a lot of companies, large and small, often get it wrong. A misalignment creates confusion among the audiences that matter most to the success of your company. If this happens, find out what the problem is and fix it. Using a sports metaphor, don’t let an unforced error undermine the value of your brand.

All established companies think about branding on a 24/7 basis, because they understand the paramount value of a well-known and respected brand to succeed in a highly competitive marketplace. Start thinking about your brand now. Look what it has done for other startups like Apple, Google, and Tesla, to name just a few.

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