Brand as Strategy, a Guide for Startups

How brand can be your startup’s most powerful decision-making tool.

What if we told you that developing a startup’s brand helps make game-changing decisions across their products? Or uncover new markets? Or test with more clarity? Or maximize marketing efforts? Or triple user engagement?

When we’ve told this to the hundreds of founders who’ve walk through the doors of 23, we’ve often got back: “Sounds good, but:

  1. “We already have a logo and color palette, what more do we need?” This is a common response from even the most forward-thinking startups. Leaning your brand on these visual elements without a strategy is dangerous. Best case scenario: confusion about where you’re headed. Worst case: decision paralysis — less agility at home and less agility in the market.
  2. Brand’s a nice to have, but we don’t have the time and budget.” Correct. Startups generally ‘move fast and break things.’ They shouldn’t waste money on brand assets for the future when they just want to validate an MVP. But they should make a smart investment in just enough brand to begin tapping its decision-making potential now.

Some designers have called this ‘Lean Brand’ and ‘Minimum Viable Brand.’ Whatever the name, we’re talking about a strategy that you can immediately be put into action and that saves you money by getting you to a certain ‘yes’ or ‘no’ faster.

This is because brand is much more than logo or colors. The strategy of your brand can be the north star for your startup — a light in the dark of assumptions.

This is why we’ve written this guide and the free workbook “Brand Strategy for Startups” to help you define it with your team in just a couple of hours.

So, how does it work? It’s simple, get your team together in a room, download the free workbook and we’ll meet you there.

Activities in the Workbook

We’ve structured the workbook activities around 6 fundamental questions about your company. These questions revolve around your users and their motivations, needs and interactions with your brand.

If you feel stuck, talk to real users of your product/service.

1) What’s our purpose?

Workbook Tool: Golden Circle, page 4.

Defining the purpose of your company is a crucial starting point. Seems obvious right? But, it’s surprising how many startups don’t have this down.

Using Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, define what your company does and how and why you do it. While your ‘what’ and ‘how’ might evolve with the market, your ‘why’ runs deep. It lets you map short and long-term goals and engage your customers in lasting ways.

Decision-making potential: Focus. Stop pivoting at every bump along the road. Finding your purpose means you can easily identify when something new (market, feature, opportunity, product) isn’t worth pursuing because it doesn’t fit with your fundamentals.

2) What do we stand for?

Workbook tool: Values Pyramid, page 9.

Startups fold because everyone’s racing in different directions carrying different flags. Defining your values aligns every person in your team. It empowers your people to make decisions on the company’s behalf based on a shared vision.

The values should align the visuals, voice and experience of your brand. If not, you’ll end up with something that doesn’t click with your users. Like a company that values ‘caring,’ but choses a futuristic typography and cold color palette for their landing page. Or, a product that’s positioned as the ‘affordable option for single mothers,’ but looks expensive.

Values are things you can get behind. “Warm” and “Friendly” aren’t values, for instance. Your company doesn’t stand for warmth and every company wants to be friendly, so it doesn’t differentiate you. Try “simplicity” or “integrity.”

Decision-making potential: Essence. Values help you instantly identify if a new idea is ‘on’ or ‘off’ brand by checking if it fits with or contradicts your values. This has massive implications. At home, it shapes everything from employee benefits to hiring policies. Externally, it helps you prioritize features and guides what you want to communicate to users and the associations they’ll have with your product or service.

3) Who are we trying to reach?

Workbook tool: User Statement, page 14.

It’s a founder’s dream to have everyone using their product. But, truth is, if you try to reach everyone at once, you’ll end up reaching no one. Understanding your main users’ needs maximizes your time and money. It hones your attention like a sniper shot, instead of spraying and praying. And it’s especially crucial in the early stages when you don’t have much quality data to help you make decisions.

Decision-making potential: Empathy. Suddenly, you have concrete answers to the specific questions: “Where and how should I allocate marketing spend?” “Which trade shows should I go to?” “Why am I not selling in this city?” Just work backwards, starting with your users’ needs and preferences. “What are they struggling with?” “Where can we deliver the most value to them?”

4) What makes us different?

Workbook tool: Competition Matrix, page 19.

Your company is one of thousands competing for your customers’ money, attention and time. Why you?

The Competitive Matrix helps us work out what you’re competing on. It’s not about becoming the ‘best’ and ‘cheapest’ option. That’s a losing battle. It’s about plotting your strengths and weaknesses: Is your product easier to use in comparison to your competitors? Is it more reliable? cutting-edge? Find that small spot of earth to call your own.

Decision-making potential: Opportunity. Working out what makes you different shows you how to boost your strengths or counteract your weaknesses. You have new language to answer questions like: “Will this new feature gives us a slice of this untapped section of the market?” “Should we kill an initiative because another company already has that market cornered?” “Should we keep communicating this benefit or should we start developing another angle?”

5) What do we offer?

Workbook tool: Brand Positioning Statement, page 23.

It’s time to take stock. You know who you are, what you want and who you’re competing against. Let’s bring all the heavy lifting together and position your brand. The Brand Positioning Statement is one sentence that encapsulates what you’re selling, who it helps, what it does, how it does it and why it’s different. It’s the mother-of-all elevator pitches. More than this, it’s something you can confidently take to funds to prove you understand your place and are worth their capital.

Decision-making potential: Vision. Your promise is the cheat sheet for everything you’ve just done. It gives you all the decision-making potentials we’ve already looked at at-a-glance: centeredness, essence, focus and perspective. It also lays the groundwork for your users’ experience of your brand, helping you slot seamlessly into their lives.

6) Where should we put our efforts?

Workbook tool: Brand Journey, page 28.

We’re almost done: it’s time to find out where your brand lives.

The Brand Journey tool ensures everything is aligned to your strategy. It charts how and where your users experience your brand across different touchpoints like website, product, marketing collateral and brick-and-mortar stores.

Decision-making potential: Perspective. Getting a bird’s-eye view of your brand means you can fine-tune forces across marketing, product and customer service for maximum impact. You have a roadmap of opportunities to deepen relationships with users. And you’re protected: you can make choices while keeping the brand working cohesively.

Done! Now what?

Congratulations! You’ve pulled ahead of the pack by building your strategy.

Let’s recap. Your new brand strategy helps you make decisions by:

  1. Keeping you and your team centered in your purpose.
  2. Basing your marketing and product decisions around values, not just gut feelings.
  3. Understanding your users’ needs and motivations and focusing your efforts to meet their needs.
  4. Giving you perspective about your strengths and weaknesses in the market.
  5. Becoming aware of how users experience your brand in different moments and mediums.
  6. Giving visual designers clarity and direction on how to communicate the brand.

If you missed the link above, grab your free workbook here, and let us know how it helped you in the comments.