Branding for Startups Made Simple

Downloadable branding exercises at the end of the article

6 min readJun 10, 2020


In my experience with startups, I noticed that branding is often neglected from the start while the founder’s attention goes fully into the business model, accounting, logistics, team etc. And that’s not a surprise, it makes total sense. The decision-makers (unless they include a brand-savvy person) often confuse branding with the logo and think that with the help of the web-designer all that nonsense is covered. But not taking branding seriously right from the start is definitely a missed opportunity.

So what is branding anyway? Let’s start with what it isn’t:

  • The brand is not the logo
  • The brand is not the printed materials
  • The brand is not the style guide

These elements are brand touchpoints. They are a superficial part of the brand. If we reach deeper, we find that the brand is a mix of Personality(your nature) and Reputation(your customer’s perspective).

The brand Personality should be authentic and connect deeply with the culture and personality of the owner(s). Why? because it’s hard to sustain a business that doesn’t motivate you and doesn’t resonate with you. Authenticity is amplified by a sense of purpose that goes beyond money and fuels the whole team towards a common vision.

Reputation is in the hands of the customer. It’s about what they think of you, what they talk about you, what they gossip about you. It’s hard to control or predict a brand’s reputation. All you can do is find ways and strategies to influence people’s perspective about you by association with certain trends and/or adopting a cause.

Brand as a Person

Most of us want to steer people’s impressions of us by dressing a certain way, having a certain posture, speaking a certain way, associating with a certain type of culture, and so on. In this sense, most of us are unconsciously using Branding Strategy in our lives. Celebrities are experts in doing it to become popular and often do it deliberately.

With Brand Strategy we realize that not everyone is impressed in the same way. And our effort to influence people doesn’t work the same for everybody. For example, while some prospective clients might be positively influenced by my new expensive suit, a hippie would see it as a bad choice. That’s why Brands are targeted to a certain well-picked niche of people which we call personas.

Brand VS Business Model

By definition, while the business model is about the mechanics of the business, branding is about the looks, the voice and tone, the personality, back story, and how all these elements influence people to make commercial and transformative choices.

Branding and business model development have common elements but they are complementary. One is more creative and intuitive while the other is more cerebral and grounded. I think both are needed to create a balance, a more holistic business strategy that generates not practical value in people’s lives but also emotional value. With brands, you create experiences, not just products.

No matter how much customers claim that they prefer the cheaper product they will always gladly pay extra for a delightful experience that brings them joy, makes them feel understood and part of a tribe of people like them.

Branding Exercises

For startups that don’t afford or don’t have access to a brand specialist, what would be a simple process to get started with a solid brand platform?

I use a few simple steps with my clients that any team can follow to get them going. These steps will help you bring clarity into your branding ideas and also serve as inspiration and briefing for the designer, marketer and just about anyone from your team that has direct contact with your customers.

1 | Strategic Pyramid

The Strategic Pyramid is a great way to create the motivation boosters that will keep the business going indefinitely. The secret is to work on these as a team with everybody pitching in. The mission and vision shouldn’t be dry one-liners created by the founders while they drink their champagne and smoke their cigars. These statements should come from the heart and soul of the whole team in a way that will grow a genuine drive to make positive changes in the lives of your customers.

2 | Personas

Defining personas is a way to make sure your team focuses and empathizes with the same buyer. Even if you (as a founder) might think it’s obvious what the target customer is like, everyone else might have a slightly different view. Make sure to work on this with team members that might have insights into your customer’s daily life. Someone like a receptionist or delivery person might be a gold mine of information.

3 | Positioning: The “Onliness” Statement

The “Onliness” Statement is developed by Marty Neumeier and it helps define your position in the marketplace through a simple statement. As simple as it looks, it’s not that easy to fill in. Don’t be in a hurry on this one. team up with your colleagues and take your time.

4 | Brandscript

Between these exercises, Brandscript is my favourite one to work with. It uses the power of storytelling to help you communicate your message effective and engaging way. Its purpose is to drive the best possible inspiration for your copy and will also help you structure your content for websites, emails, print etc. Don’t forget — “If you confuse, you lose!”

Obviously, I did not invent this. This amazing tool was created by Donald Miller and you can find more in his book “Building a Story Brand”.

5 | Brand Attributes

The final step is to define in detail all the attributes that will help your team design, write and market your products and services. This exercise needs at least 2 co-creators and 1 facilitator. Try to go as fast as possible and don’t get stuck on the attributes. It’s more of a gut feeling exercise.

Thank you for reading!

I’m Virgil Horghidan, a full-stack designer based in Barcelona. I work with tech startups around the world to help them reach their highest potential through strategic design and branding.

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