Startup Advice: What the hell is a brand and why is it important?

I think it’s important for a start-up to be thinking about their brand from the outset. You may not have the budget to promote your brand in the market but the internal elements such as your vision, your core messaging and your values can be established early on. These things can be sharpened as you bring on more people, and receive feedback from inside and outside the company, but I would say they should be pretty much locked down within a year or two.

I often talk to startups about the strength or weakness of their brands. I think it is a very important part of evaluating not just a company or a product but also an investment. A strong brand counts for a lot. A weak brand will hold a business back.

But my sense is that many people either don’t believe me or just don’t understand me when I’m talking about this stuff. It’s also challenging for early stage startups to spend the time and resources to get their brand right from the outset.

So I thought I’d try to clarify.

First, a brand is not a logo! A logo is simply the visual representation of the company’s name and really doesn’t have much to do with the brand.

A brand is a perception or emotional response that someone has to a company or its products. A brand is created by consistently and clearly standing for something in the market. By making promises and delivering on them. By building trust. A good brand will be trusted by its market and will stand out from its competitors.

As Marty Neumeir says in his excellent book “The Brand Gap” – ‘A charismatic brand can be defined as any product, service or company for which people believe there is no substitute.’

It starts with being certain about who you are, what you stand for, where you’re going and why you’re different. It seems simple but it’s amazing how many companies completely fail to do this.

At MessageLabs (where I was the co-founder and CMO) we could always answer these questions, which would have come out as something like this:

1. We are MessageLabs, the email security company.

2. You can trust us with protecting your most important communication channel and be certain that it is free of viruses and other damaging threats.

3. We are making email a more secure and productive communication channel for businesses around the world.

4. We are different because we can identify threats in a predictive way using our algorithm based technology and our service operates in the cloud thus stopping threats long before they reach you.

I believe a good brand can always answer these questions. With answers that are clear (not too wordy), consistent (experience the same thing again and again), credible (back it up with evidence and what others are saying) and compelling (be arresting and memorable) in the way they communicate them.

A great brand will also communicate these things in a way that reflects the characteristics or values of the business. For example Apple’s marketing will always be beautifully designed because that is such an important part of their business. Or Nike will often make reference to achievement and pushing yourself as this is a value that they hold close to their hearts.

A brand is built and projected in every interaction that a business has with the market. People often think about advertising when they think about brand awareness. But, although this is a really important touch point that can potentially reach a huge audience, a great brand delivers the same message or experience across every touch point.

This will include the way your staff talk about the business, the contents of a marketing email or a sales presentation, the design of your offices and the look and feel of your product. It’s often the smaller details that people really notice both positively and negatively.

A strong brand can give you a real edge in your market. And it also doesn’t need to cost a huge amount to build. Ultimately a strong brand comes from the ‘inside out’ and it’s down to how you manage that process.

So in summary:

1.    Establish the core elements of your brand early on such as vision, high level messaging and what you really care about as a business. This provides the foundation for everything else.

2.    When it comes to promoting your brand use the 4 c’s – be consistent, credible, clear and compelling.

This is the first in a series of Notion ‘Startup Advice’ posts, next up we’ll talk about PR. If you have specific questions or need advice about branding for your startup, let me know in the comments below. I'll do my best to answer.