5 Ways Startups Underinvest in Brand Strategy

A brand is like a tree. The bigger and healthier the root system, the bigger and healthier the tree. Brand strategy is that root system. It’s the lifeline. It keeps you anchored, supplies nutrients, and protects from erosion. But if you don’t invest in growing the root system, you can get uprooted by the faintest breeze.

After attending a startup networking event recently, I noticed a pattern. Everyone I spoke with talked about their company in terms of features and benefits and not ‘why’ they do what they do.

Their root system was severely underdeveloped.

This seems to be a common trend within the startup community. They traditionally underinvest in brand strategy from day one.

Here are the top five ways I see startups underinvest in brand strategy.

1. Believe “branding” = marketing

The more conversations I have the more I realize there’s a common belief many founders and their teams have. It’s the idea ‘branding’ is basically an act of marketing. That it’s a tactical game focused on ‘what’ you do. Many believe once the MVP is validated it’s time for logos, taglines, websites, social media, etc. The brand begins to form around features and benefits rather than a higher purpose for the business to embody.

By investing in the development of strategy before the tactical aspects of marketing, you’ll be able to put your product/service in context of how it impacts your customer’s life. Marketing is necessary but works best when supported by clear and focused strategy.

2. Think it’s too soon for brand development

Many early stage startups are focused on securing funding rather than building a foundation or distinct point-of-view they stand for. A solid foundation is rooted in purpose, or a reason for being, which connects emotionally to employees and customers.

It’s something most VCs are looking for as well. They want to know ‘why’ you’re pouring so much into this business. They want to understand the story behind the passion. It’s never too soon to start with ‘why,’ get clear on who you are, and articulate the impact you wish to make.

3. believe it takes too long

We live in a time where society praises those that ‘do.’ The speed of business today demands everything delivered now. However, the over-emphasis on doing has made many brands a collection of people set to autopilot.

This could mean ‘revving up the engines’ on activities that provide a quick fix of accomplishment and scoffing at any attempt to slow down and look deeper.

Or it could be a team who ‘just feels’ what the brand is about but may interpret this ‘feeling’ differently. When opportunities or challenges arise there’s confusion on the best course of action and what that looks like. Eventually, all the energy that propelled the startup during launch begins to fizzle out because of disparate efforts.

Balancing is the key. If you slow down to build a strong foundation, you can then move fast on those activities that produce the best ROI.

4. Have a fear of wasting resources

I get it. Time and finances are tight. Bootstrapping is scary. You must be calculated about every move you make to generate a ROI.

Brand strategy is the long-term commitment you make to shaping your culture, strengthening your competitive advantage and building loyalty among customers. It takes time and discipline to stay on course to see a return. Because of the demand for everything to be delivered now, these long-term investments are often forgotten, abandoned, or never considered at all.

Don’t be afraid to look at the big picture and invest in yourself. You may not see immediate or tangible results from getting clear on who you are and why it matters. But consistently measuring awareness, differentiation, and emotional connection over time can show you where you’re succeeding and where there may be gaps.

5. Decide to do it themselves adhoc

To get around time or budget concerns sometimes teams will put together their best effort at developing what the brand stands for. While they know their company better than anyone, having someone dedicate all their time to thinking about your brand from an objective point-of-view is invaluable. Startup teams live too close to the business daily to see all the nuances and subtleties. That’s why collaborating with an outside agency or consultant can bring a much-needed perspective.

When it comes to building your startup, everything is connected. But if you don’t take the time to connect everything intentionally, it can produce subpar results.

While I whole-heartedly love being a partner to my clients and adjusting around where they are in their journey, I see this trend of underinvesting in brand strategy leading to more disparate outcomes.

What’s your truth?

Founders and startup teams, I want to hear from you. What’s your opinion when it comes to building your brand? Where do you struggle the most? How do you build a strong foundation?