The role that branding plays in the startup/scaleup space is an interesting one.

On the one hand, you have the simple truth that — if you’re building a tech product of any kind — if you don’t have a compelling and functional product with decent support, your hopes are toast. Akin to opening a store without any inventory, the core of the business needs to be in place before significant downloads or sales can follow.

But much like a store without a distinctive, ownable interior design, signage or sense of customer service, playing down the role of branding and the “softer” side of marketing can quickly lead the early-stage startup astray.

From a pure tech perspective, the path to launch and scale a tech-driven company has never been easier. Yes, engineers and developers are highly-skilled specialists, and the amount of labour involved is still significant, but the access to software, cloud tech, open-source platforms, and generally available knowledge has provided companies and teams a much more direct path from initial concept to initial sales.

While “development” will likely always be a highly-skilled discipline, this availability and relative affordability of the core technology that can underpin an infinite number of different startups is a hell of an equalizer. So much so, that I’d argue that core design and UX patterns and principles should rarely be re-engineered from scratch for the sake of it. That specialized time, energy and money would be better spent solving bigger problems than reinventing ways to animate a menu.

A great product idea remains as valuable as ever, and getting that product successfully to market also remains just as crucial as it ever was. Which leads me directly to the crucial role that a clarified sense of mission, benefits (not features) and perceived value to the customer can play in the success of an early-stage company.

The Day One Brand

Depending on tech demos and word-of-mouth alone as the first factor of a product’s success is frankly unrealistic. I can think of no more highly-leveraged a way to effectively present a brand-new product from a never-heard-before company in a way that potential customers care about than defining your brand from Day One.

Investing in your brand from the start allows you to tell your story on your terms, separates yourself from the competition in the eyes of those who matter most (potential customers), and gives your team the ability to turn strangers into converts from the outset. People’s attention is ridiculously divided at the best of times, let alone when there’s a new product, service, or company they’ve never encountered before asking for a moment of their time.

As the relative importance of the core technology itself in defining a company’s competitive moat decreases, the separating factor quickly becomes more about how you use that tech in a novel way — and how you tell people about it. This increases not just the clarity of your mission and message, but raises the perceived value of your company in a more controllable, ownable way than just what a tech advantage would allow.

Tangible Intangibles

It can sometimes be difficult for us humans to fully articulate the value of a “brand,” especially compared to the more tangible aspects of features and benefits. But what a more valuable brand buys you is not just visibility or consumer attachment — but the bandwidth to fuck up a little without cratering your business.

As an extreme example, take three of the most valuable, society-shaping companies on earth: Facebook, Amazon, and Apple.

Facebook’s value as a company might currently be through the roof as defined by its share price or market cap. But if a new social network emerged that offered a more compelling alternative on a different axis than just scale, the dominant advantage they’ve built up through the power of network effects and algorithms can just as easily be taken away through these same factors.

Ditto for Amazon, where revolutionizing customers’ ease of purchase for an endless number of things led to massive, multiple-industry changing disruptions that made Jeff Bezos the richest man on earth. But it’s hard to disregard the notion that, if another marketplace (whether centralized or decentralized) were to bubble up with different benefits that outweigh the pure cost/convenience concerns, the potential for Amazon itself to get disrupted (crazy as it may seem now) is there. I’m not saying it will happen, but no company is unassailable.

In contrast, take Apple. They absolutely do need to continuously develop their existing or new products, and you could easily make the argument (as Ben Thompson has done) that they’ve lost steam in recent years in terms of product creativity and development. But the values and size of the market who appreciate what Apple brings to the table gives Apple more of a buffer to waver than the wiggle room allowed to those who focus purely on the cost/convenience/tactical benefits. There will always be a cheaper version than an Apple product, but above a certain threshold, cost or convenience is rarely the sole driving factor.

How to Look At A Minimum Viable Brand

So where does this leave the startup founder who’s being pulled in a million different directions at once, with limited runway to experiment?

Quite simply, I’d recommending adopting the same thinking that got you to where you are today — but to shift your perspective of branding and marketing away from seeing it as an expense on the balance sheet, to a highly-leveraged discipline that can dramatically grow your company’s prospects for success.

The branding process allows you to truly figure out what you stand for, what you’re aiming to achieve, and who your target market is. Research and assumptions are great starting points (and great habits to continue), but a well-done brand strategy goes beyond the inward-facing vision and rephrases what you do in a way that will actually resonate with people outside your walls — not to mention make your own people believe the words up on the wall itself.

There’s no doubt that the core of any company is driven by the leaders’ vision. But if you’ve ever thought about why Nike’s spent almost 40 years defining what it means to be an athlete, and every related company hasn’t been able to approximate the same impact in the same area, it’s because the mission that drove Phil Knight and co to start the company is the core of what’s being said, but it’s being said in a way that truly resonates with people. Advertising’s a sunk cost, until you realize how wide the impact it can have in shaping how people look at your products and services.

The concept of creating a “Minimum Viable Brand” is not a new one. I also recognize that — particularly in the early days — available capital is more precious than gold.

But I would like to leave you with a few practical steps that I believe can shift your mindset away from trying to reduce the cost as much as possible, to instead view All Postsmarketing and branding as a high-impact way to grow your business, no matter what phase you’re in:

  1. Invest in exploring and defining your mission, vision, and values from Day One. Even if you pivot 60 times in 6 months, this core should remain true.
  2. As you’re getting ready to share your product, work with an external partner to take that core vision, compare it to the competition, and redefine it in a way that’s true to you andmeaningfully different from what else is out there and clarifies the benefits for an audience previously oblivious to your existence
  3. Start with the most crucial outputs, which will largely be unique to you, although there are certain universal needs: A logo, some key copywriting language, a defined visual style, and a website. In the early days, a website is the most high-impact, high-value thing you can focus your energies on, as all outbound, inbound, search, and direct sales efforts will lead to it.
  4. As your message hits the market and you start to receive feedback, take it all in and periodically review what you’re saying. It’s perfectly okay for a message to shift over the course of time, but with this foundation in place, it’ll likely be more a matter of tweaking certain aspects, instead of shifting your core message in too many different directions.

The fields of branding and marketing are not a set of silver bullets, but they’re also not the most complicated fields either, when approached in the right way. If you can get those fundamentals down and look at communications as a strategic part of your moat, you’ll be far better positioned to grow your company with more speed and effectiveness than those who didn’t focus on brand from Day One.

Related Links

Startups Need a Minimum Viable Brand (HBR)

Minimum Viable Brand (Lisa Kennelly)

The Minimum Viable Brand Canvas (Lean Brandbook)

The Startup Brand Fallacy: Why brand marketing is mostly useless for startups (Andrew Chen)