Branding Does Matter in a Startup

You don't often find the words "branding" and "startup" used in the same sentence - at least not in a positive way. Spending a ton of money/time/effort on branding before product/market fit is achieved is certainly unwise, though I'd argue investing to scale lead-gen programs can be fruitless at that point too. However, as a venture hones in on product/market fit I do think it's critical to establish a branding direction that is well-aligned with the business strategy; not at the expense of lead-gen investments, but in conjunction with them.

Alignment is one of those things that should be ruthlessly pursued and continuously checked at early stage companies. A shared understanding of and consistent execution against target audience, their pains, how you solve those pains, and the values and messages that resonate will add scale and efficiency to the venture's go-to-market activities. Branding and design should also be part of this. The look and feel of the brand should align really well with the people you are trying reach. You wouldn’t expect a developer-focused presentation to work with a senior line of business leader, right? So don't expect your brand to be all things to all people either.

Branding work in early stage ventures is tricky. I’m not talking about overarching branding campaigns or advertising programs to build awareness. Building a brand for today's venture will likely be done with tactics targeting a narrower slice of the market and through delivering an exceptional user experience that compels them to share and spread the word through their relevant channels. What I mean for the startup is forming the initial branding foundation: thoughtful and well-executed design elements, such as logos, color palettes, font choices, website layout and navigation, collateral design, and the like - and how these elements tie together with the overall customer experience you seek to deliver.

Spending like you're P&G isn’t needed to make the branding elements of your company align with your target audience and core messages. But you do need to make every dollar and minute invested count and need to keep it in balance with investments in other marketing levers, such as driving pipeline to the field and channels. There are some great independent creative and design folks out there that are eager to do good work for startups.  In my experience they often invest more time to learn your business than a big agency will and the rates will be a fraction.

Startup branding is also challenging because companies can evolve so quickly. The team needs to be tuned into the brand so they can recognize when it gets out of alignment due to changes in the business. When the startup pivots or makes a notable change in its strategy/target audience/offering/messaging, the branding should be reevaluated. Big companies don't experience this nearly as quickly or frequently as ventures do. Startup marketers need to sense the need for change and not be afraid to challenge -or reconfirm- the branding direction as the business evolves.

It was great to see Tom Tunguz stating that branding will become an essential competency in startups. I agree and think it should be considered one now. Reader comments on Tom’s discussion thread suggest that pouring time into branding “risky startups” is not a good approach. I see it differently. Establishing well-aligned branding elements that resonate with the audience you are trying to reach can help increase the likelihood of success.  With your competitors only a click away I don't think you can afford to not be great at this.

Good branding does take time to establish, but you don’t need to wait or spend a fortune to get started.