Don’t Start your Start-up Without A Brand

Some thoughtful early work on your brand will save you gobs of time and energy down the road


Here at Sequitur we’ve seen it more times than we can count. We meet a lot of start-ups that need to rebrand. In fact, they never really branded themselves in the first place. Sure they have a logo, some nifty business cards, and a website to match, but what they’ve belatedly discovered is that they never took the time to develop a meaningful, purposeful brand. As a consequence they find themselves rudderless in a sea of marketing and communication choices.


What is a Brand?

There are myriad definitions for what constitutes a brand and most of them actually seem pretty accurate. We have our own notion that we think is a bit more precise. In order to say you have a solid brand, you need to be able to define and align the following things:

Intention

Why do you exist? What is your single-minded purpose? This isn’t one of those overly crafted mission statements that sounds lofty and aspirational but that nobody ever reads twice. This is the thing the founder says to herself in the morning when she looks in the mirror. This is the thing that every person in the company can chant at the rallying pep talk. It might not be the first thing that pops into your customer’s minds when they think of you, but when you mention it they will nod their heads in agreement. It’ll sound right because it’s actually true.

Voice

We humans are very good at discerning very subtle (and not so subtle) inflections of voice. People with an erratic voice are at best eccentric and at worst schizophrenic. If you haven’t nailed your voice, that’s exactly how you’ll come off to your customers, investors, and even to your employees. Your voice is how you talk—everything from Twitter to YouTube to your packaging and customer support lines. It’s how you signal your intention and your personality.

Identity

Not in the typical branding sense (logo, etc) but in the human sense. Who are you? What do you love? What tribe do you belong to? What stokes you enough to share it? Who do look up to? Who are your peers? Your brand identity is all the stuff that adds up to your personality. It’s the reason people will love you or hate you. Your identity will be the most powerful bridge between you and consumers. It will be the thing that lets them identify with you and think, “wow, they get me.”

Countenance

This is your book cover. It’s your first impression and the lasting badge of your identity. What do you look like when you present yourself? Are you put together or are you raw? Are you slick or transparent? Human or mechanical? Your countenance defines all the visual cues you present that will project who you are to consumers before you actually meet. It’s where your voice and identity converge—to visually embody your intent.

Action

Bookending intention is action. How do you follow through? Do your actions support your rhetoric and reinforce your identity? Your actions are everything from the products you produce to the media you generate to the way you interact with your customers. Your actions should be driven by your intention, voice, identity and countenance, not the other way around. Your actions will show the consumers that identify with you that you are a the real thing and that you are one of them.


Why Brand Early

Whew, I’m finally getting to the point. First of all, it’s rare that we ever meet a client, start-up or otherwise, that has the above five things defined and aligned. Otherwise they wouldn’t need us. And it’s not like those five things are completely absent. In fact they are usually there in abundance. Every manager and employee seems to have their own distinct set.

With start-ups this lack of cohesion can be particularly acute because everyone thinks they’re on the same page. They don’t feel like they need to formalize it because everyone just gets it in their gut. But if you go around the table to see if there is consensus, disharmony quickly reveals itself: “We’re fun!” “Yeah, but not, like, immature.” “Right, more like studious.” “Studious fun?” “Well, maybe not fun per say, but like, interesting.” And four hours later you’ve got a lame-ass mission statement. If that’s how you talk about yourself to yourself, imagine how indecipherable you appear to outsiders.

If you brand yourself properly from the get go you’ll never have a conversation like that. And you’ll reap the following benefits:


Be Intentional

If your intention is simple and distinct, your team will learn it and learn to share it without feeling the need to make up their own versions. An aligned team working together with a common intent is a powerful thing.

For an oft-quoted example, check out Zappos. They have aligned their team around their intention (aka, their values) to an almost cultish extent. Too complicated? Look no further than Medium’s about page: Medium is a place for ideas and stories to thrive.

Have a Voice

We believe that brands should have a confident, human voice. It’s actually a core tenet of how we work. Being human means being approachable, empathetic, unique, and relatable. Many start-ups neglect to develop a distinct voice entirely. Which makes it even weirder later on when a voice suddenly arrives.

Simple, the online bank, has a great voice. Besides their friendly demeanor in social, they aren’t afraid to step out from behind the marketing blather on their site and talk like a human. Here’s a quote from their about page:

“A lot of banks have friendly faces, nice couches, and free pens. But at the end of the day, they still make money when you make mistakes, like overdrafting or going below some arbitrary minimum balance.”

Lines like that make me feel like the people behind Simple are actually, well, people.

Know Your Identity

Every company grows and changes. Naturally, how you signal your identity will mature in step. That’s different from having something entirely different to say every three weeks. Consistent messaging (and a consistent personality) telegraphs to your customers that you are the same company they were excited to sign up for. The same company whose intentions you trust and whose values you share.

Since its launch, Virgin America has found ways to express its identity in ways that make other companies look like amateurs. From their LEED certified, nightclub style lounges and purple mood lighting to their groundbreaking safety videos, nobody does it better. These aren’t just a series of clever one-offs. Virgin is very intentional and consistent in how they express themselves. In their approach, every action is an opportunity to express their unique identity and nothing is taken for granted.

A sophisticated countenance

Taking a little time up front to create a comprehensive look for your start up will save loads of time and energy down the road. The problem we often see is that start ups cover the basics, and then start adding pieces pell mell. It’s like building a ranch style home, then adding a tuscon villa on the second floor with an spanish style garage. Each piece might look nice individually, but together they make Frankenstein’s monster.

Looking good isn’t terribly hard. Looking good consistently can be a challenge—one best met by spending time up-front curating the cues that will signal what you stand for. The design team at MailChimp take their jobs very seriously as their envy-inducing patterns library and resource guide work shows.

A meaningful history of action

If everything comes together then your actions will match your words. If your team believes in your intent, your voice, your identity, and your countenance, then it might just happen automatically. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of thing that everyone needs to frequently check. Are we doing what we’re saying? Are we acting according to our intent? Do we look like who we are? Where you show up and what you do when you get there tells people almost all they need to know about what you stand for and why they should join your tribe.

I often think about meaningful action as basically just putting your money where your mouth is. Obvious examples of this are Tom’s shoes and Warby Parker whose charitable missions are embedded in their businesses. But my favorite (albeit less do-good) example is AirBnB. First, when you list your house on the site, they send a professional photographer to shoot the listing pics. They know what works and they’re going to help you be your best. Secondly, they’ve put a ton of effort into creating neighborhood guides to help travelers figure out where they want to stay when AirBnB-ing. These guides are public and free, and frankly, amazing. Reading them, you get a clear sense that AirBnB “gets” travel. They are helping you because they understand you.


Your branding effort need not be elaborate. If you have the talent in-house, set aside a day and make some simple decisions around intent, identity and voice. Then use those as benchmarks or touchstones to check that you’re living up to your own ideals. Don’t make the mistake of codifying them into a bible. Rather, spray paint them on the walls. Build your culture around them. This is the agar that will nurture your company into more than just an idea. And that’s why you started your start-up in the first place, right?