Brand Day One — the importance of brand to early stage companies

I feel like the importance of brand in early stage startups is becoming one of the longest running debates around. There are compelling arguments both for and against investing in your brand from day one, but in all those arguments against, I still believe too many people dismiss brand as simply a logo and a color swatch.

Brand is something so ingrained in almost every aspect of your product that I’m really not sure how anyone can build a product (or a company for that matter) without establishing one up front. It doesn’t need to be anything of dramatic depth and complexity, but the foundations are indicative of the thing you are actually trying to build.

I’m not going to try delve into the history of brand, and tell you how to go about creating your own brand, but here are a few of my own thoughts on why you should invest in building your brand from day one — that goes above and beyond the usual argument of ‘to look professional’ angle.

  • Tone of Voice — I’m gobsmacked by how little people think about the voice of their brand nowadays. It feels like everyone is utilizing the ‘Hey, we’re a super friendly human startup brand’ approach, which let’s be honest, is actually becoming not just mind-numbing, but in itself means little to no distinction from company to company. Your tone of voice effects everything from your marketing copy to your product call to actions; customer service scripts to your social media. The best example of this I’ve seen recently is that of Shyp, whose original brand was devaluing the fact they are a serious company revolutionizing an archaic industry. The cute logo and calling couriers ‘heroes’ was in direct conflict with their ambitions to be bigger than Fedex. So they rid themselves of the cute tone of voice, and are now building their brand as a serious logistics company. Read more on that and the changes they made here.
  • Resonance — A lot of people don’t truly consider how their product makes its users feel. The best advertising in the world isn’t the one with the witty strap line, but the one that evokes emotions and stirs people in ways very personal to them. This absolutely applies to the world of products too. I was a huge advocate for Airbnb, way before they got a fancy pants rebrand. Their aesthetic was crappy, but from day one, the idea of finding your home anywhere on the planet has been such a fundamental component of their DNA, that you feel that in a genuine way. The way they rally at SXSW has always inspired me. Welcome presents and notes on the doorstep of rented houses, to rushing everything from towels to tea bags to distressed guests — they care about people feeling at home and that shows in the way they operate. A lot of people will tell you to focus in the early stages on building something 1000 people will love, rather than something 1m people will like. And I promise you, it’s hard to make someone love you without knowing how you want to make them feel.
  • Stand Out — I don’t think anything is more obvious when it comes to brand than creating a product or company that stands out. However, for me, the concept of “stand out” has evolved significantly in recent years, especially in the context of mobile. The real estate on a device home screen has become the pinnacle of achievement for a mobile application, but you must earn that spot. Not many early stage startups find themselves on a home screen until they’ve become an indispensable utility. That said, that icon means way more than being the face of your application. It’s a small but powerful piece of advertising that constantly keeps your product front of mind, regardless of whether someone is using it. I’d be interested to see the impact the Uber rebrand has had on my use of the Uber app. That Uber U hit me in the face every time I looked at my phone, but its successor blends into the noise. Sure the rebrand was intended to show its new sense of identity, but did they do so at the detriment of recall and repeat use? Maybe an anecdotal choice but would be interesting nonetheless.
  • Raising Rounds — Any investor worth his salt won’t invest in ‘just a brand’. But you need to remember investors are human beings too. They want to see a water tight business plan, innovative technology and stunning design, but they want to be moved! Your brand will radiate an energy which is testament to your attention to detail, your passion for your work and your ambition. A strong brand will give them a glimpse at how your product might influence society and culture in the future — and that my friends, is a very powerful tool in your raising round’s arsenal.
  • Orient your team — Regardless of whether you are 2 people or 200, a brand is a powerful tool to align individuals towards a mission and a purpose. Your brand is a guiding light, and an effective way to communicate who you are and what you stand for in a way that transcends traditional communication. And most importantly, as your business and team scales, you have a tool that scales with it. Better still, you should create your brand values in collaboration with your first employees. Instilling that sense of investment in the first real pillars of your business will ensure they represent and advocate your brand not just to the outside world, but internally too.

This isn’t intended to be a definitive list, but it is intended to provoke conversation within an organization challenging the need to explore brand early on. Now not to say technical founders don’t appreciate brand, but as more technical founders launch products and businesses, I can sense that brand is taking a back seat.

Bitcoin is a fascinating example. Something inherently led and developed by technical folks with so much potential at scale, yet its so far from having a brand of mass market appeal. This isn’t just about communications — which is a huge challenge in itself. How does bitcoin evolve the product to build the same level of trust (if you can say trust…) a regular Joe has with a bank? Intimidating digital wallet websites, complex bitcoin purchase processes and no real brand personality means Bitcoin is unsafe, mysterious and not even front of mind for your average consumer. The first bitcoin company to create a truly mass market bitcoin ‘brand’ will be the one that wins.

But as companies like Uber, ZocDoc and Shyp who have changed their brand in time have shown, it’s ok for a brand to evolve. A brand isn’t a static device. The world isn’t static, so why should your brand be?

That said, whatever your brand values are right now, it’s important to document them and utilize them today. A brand isn’t and should never be just a polish for your product. It’s the very soul of your company.