A brilliant idea is not enough

4 brand lessons for startups

Chiara Aliotta
Dec 3, 2019 · 12 min read

Throughout my career, I have worked for many established companies. Mostly, this work has involved redesigning their brand through a detailed analysis of their current strategies, or tracking their products and users to formulate a better approach to reach a bigger and/or more suitable market.

However, the imagination and consistency needed to develop start-up branding projects require a set of experience, knowledge, flexibility and understanding not comparable to the work I do for established companies.

I have noted that start-ups are usually restricted in both funding and time. Some of them confuse their mission for their vision, while others are unsure about where to find their target. Many don’t have a story to share.
But there is one crucial aspect that they all have in common: brilliant ideas!

I have seen very few startup CEOs getting their branding right, before they spend all their money on marketing bells and whistles.

That’s why I’m going to share the priceless lessons I learned through developing brand strategies for young companies. Specifically, I will share my recent involvement in the development of the start-up baby clothing company, Hola Baby.


Lesson 01: market focus.

Find your market, then prepare it to receive you.

The Hola Baby’s founders had involved a community of young mothers in their adventure.

An important step in a startup project is to first understand what you are offering, then which market is willing to buy.
This step is crucial, because all the visuals, marketing strategies and stories you create for your brand need to connect back to your target.

There are a few ways to discover who your target is.

Husband-and-wife founders of Hola Baby, Jose and Angela Fernandez, were already experienced in startup projects, so they had done their initial research.

We tapped into our community’s stories to determine the Hola Baby personas.

Both believed that only by touching the material, people could understand why their clothes are so unique, and of premium quality.

In fact, at the moment of our first meeting, they had already produced a few samples of clothing.

Meanwhile, Angela, being a mum, had slowly and steadily involved a community of young mothers in her adventure. It was a great way to see their enthusiasm first-hand, let them try and touch the products, and influence the opinion of other mothers through their little shop on Etsy.

They also sent me a few samples, so I could check and test their products myself.

Hola Baby Pima Cotton Blankets

This was a great opportunity for me to understand the feeling of seeing and touching the clothes for the first time.

It also made me wonder about a very substantial problem: how we could communicate these emotions to parents who were only going to experience the products online.


Lesson 02: Brand strategy.

A brand is not a logo.

A brand brief was used during the development of the Hola Baby brand.

Many startups make a very common mistake: they spend their funding on the design of tangible assets (logotype, brandmark, illustrations, etc..), because this is what they believe a brand is.

But astonishingly, established companies make a very similar mistake.

While they often have a great logo, and maybe even a great vision, they lack consistency, stories and strategies that could glue all their elements together.

So, after a few years of successfully running their business, they find themselves stuck. They either can’t grow any more, or they can’t control very exponential growth.

If this has been your company’s approach until now, I can assure you that it won’t bring that so-wanted results and success, especially if you are aiming for long-term growth.

In the case of Hola Baby, the company had a logotype, a mascot, and a very simple name, but no actual brand asset.

Their communication strategy was based on the effort to promote the use of Pima cotton for their clothes, but competitor research brought up the fact that many other companies used the same material. This, therefore, was not a strong point of differentiation for the brand.

The material, Pima cotton, was not a strong point of differentiation for the brand.

There was also no story in place, that could help them deliver their brilliant idea and explain why it matters to the world.

So, in a few words, we went back to stage one.

I have seen terrified faces when I suggest we should start from the beginning. I understand why. Money and time are not always abundant in startups, and any spare funds that do exist are usually spent on refining the product, rather than the brand.

However, what many don’t understand is that by defining a strong and solid brand strategy, you don’t only save money and time, but you can avoid many of the causes that lead startup companies to fail.

I asked Angela and Jose to do an introspective and retrospective analysis of their brand using Marty Neumeier’s 17 checkpoints.
I use this amazing tool very often, to develop brand strategies that have “differentiation” at their heart.

The Hola Baby’s Onliness Statement

Based on their answers, we identified some core values (high quality, creative, multicultural, human, respectful, passionate, fun, honest, reliable, youthful), individualised the Online Statement, analysed a few direct competitors, and condensed all the information into a brief that we used as a compass during the development of the brand.


Lesson 03: Talking strategy.

Find a compelling story that communicates your beliefs, both outside and inside the company.

To be memorable and effective, stories require concrete language, specific protagonists, world settings, and in some cases, some good teachings.

Although everybody today seems to be a storyteller, you may be surprised to know how underrated stories really are at the C-level of both young and established companies.
This is because these people are victims of a very common phenomenon, the “Curse of Knowledge” (you can find more on Dan and Chip Heath’s bestseller book “Made to Stick”).

I recently was invited to analyse the brand strategy of an existing tech company. They are currently facing a big growth period, and they felt their brand strategy was not ready to contain it.
During my analysis, I immediately noticed that although they had a powerful and recognisable logo, a very inspiring mission and clear values, all packed into a great product, they didn’t know how to talk about themselves.

The company had grown hugely over the previous few years. If they could only find a good story to tell, they could use that to replace the technical jargon, align all their clueless illustrations, and avoid comparisons with one of their major competitors.

In short, they could face their growth with more confidence.

The company seemed to agree with me. Then, they decided to redesign the only strong brand asset they had: their logo.

I guess that was easier, because let me tell you something: good stories are difficult to build.

To be memorable and effective, stories require concrete language, specific protagonists, world settings, and in some cases, some good teachings (morale).

In the case of Hola Baby, we decided to tell the story of a multicultural family, for whom travelling is their passion. Having children had not stopped them cultivating this love for further adventures.
Travelling around the world, they were not afraid to try different tastes, sounds, sights, and smells. Hosted by other families, they explored and learned various folk traditions handed down from one generation to another. Every time they returned from one of their journeys, they experienced a deeper appreciation for how rich and surprisingly beautiful the world can be.

This is why “Hola” couldn’t be a better name for this company.

A greeting is multicultural: it overcomes nationalities, cultures and differences. It is usually the first thing (sometimes the only thing) you learn in a new language, when you visit a new country.

But this greeting also represents the mission of the brand: to welcome newborn babies (and their mums) from all around the world, in an open-minded community.

Finally, it aligned with their vision: Hola Baby’s products are the safest place babies can be, after their parents’ hands.


Lesson 04: Define your assets for growth.

Determine your tangible brand asset to create a distinctive presence that can last.

After some few ideas and further discussions, we all agreed that the written typeface no longer fit the story.

A good startup owner is one that finds the courage to abandon bad ideas and review their assets and strategies, no matter how much the business has achieved through using them.

She needs to be a visionary person, to understand that what helped her company reach a certain point has now become stagnant and obsolete.

Signature

The signature, before and after.

Jose and Angela were initially sure they wanted to keep the handwritten typeface for their logotype. After some few ideas and further discussions, we all agreed that the written typeface no longer fit the story.

We both felt that the word “Hola” should be a more striking and sophisticated detail of the brand asset.

I also insisted on balancing the relation between the mascot and the logotype, by imbuing the letterforms with a more recognisable and relevant look that could stand alone, as the mascot already did.

Then I worked on some more ideas, focusing mostly on the logotype.
We finally found a winning solution in a bespoke typeface, where the letter H has some wavy terminals (this was not a coincidence, as when you say “hello” you usually “wave” at people too!)

The logotype now has a more recognisable and relevant look that could stand alone.

The mascot received the same treatment: under the lens of our new brand strategy, I could see many flaws and clueless elements that needed to be either removed or refined.

The old mascot was confusing: picturing something between a baby and an animal, wearing a decorative necklace.

We decided that the mascot would be a baby (the human aspect of the brand), dressed up like a little animal (to look playful, cute and funny).

How we built the new Hola Baby mascot.

The elements hanging on the necklace would also have a purpose.

The inspiration came from a very famous game played by children, the scavenger hunt. So, commonly found items in deciduous forests or other outdoor environments (beaches, gardens, parks, etc.) would be used on the mascot necklace, or as graphic elements of Hola Baby brand.

The idea was to represent the natural urge of children to explore, which resonates with the story we built for the brand (to find and be inspired by new cultures and traditions).

The elements hanging on the necklace represent the natural urge of children to explore.

We still missed one fundamental value to represent, which we identified in our Online Statement as an aspect that could set the Hola Baby apart from other baby clothing brands, but also ensure the brand could grow and be ready for a wider, multicultural market.

This is where the mascot would play a huge role.

In the future, more mascots will join the Hola Baby brand.

The current mascot is a representation of just one country and material, South America (Perù in specific) and Pima cotton.

In the future, more mascots will join the Hola Baby brand, based on the country the new products and materials will be inspired by.

Colours and Materials

Hola Baby uses earthy colours to visually suggest that the brand respects the environment.

We had some back-and-forth discussions about the colour palette, that lasted right up until the end of the project.

At the beginning, we opted for using very bright colours that could reflect Hola Baby’s happy and youthful personality.

Then, something changed. Angela and Jose conducted some more research, to ensure their products could fulfil the “respectful” core value for the production. This meant relying on companies that are certified for respecting nature and labour (in general, cotton is a largely exploited material).

It would have been easy to use earthy colours to visually suggest that the brand respects the environment, and that the product is natural. However, this may not have been so “honest” after all.

Why take all this trouble?

Because a brand needs to be true to its core values, in order to grow.

The colours are inspired by visual elements I associate with some of the keywords Angela shared with me: the leaves in autumn/winter, the light of the dawn in some winter mornings, the soft and sweet marshmallows, the tender and flawless skin of a little baby, the soft touch and delicate white of the cotton flower, the curious shape of the clouds in an autumn sunset, the pale golden colour of the sun during a hot summer afternoon.

I aimed to create a palette that could work both for a baby boy or a baby girl (multicultural means also that we overcome silly and illogical gender differentiation, right?).

Finally, thinking about the evolution of the brand, I opted for a very small colour palette because through experience, when a brand grows, and more people are involved in taking care of the visual language, colours are the most difficult aspects to manage and get right.

We stretched the “respectful” value to also include the choice of materials for packaging and wrapping tissues.
We all agreed to use as little plastic as possible, and to opt for recycled paper.

Personality

Choose a typeface that reinforces your brand personality.

I believe that typefaces are at the core of any brand personality, followed by the tone of voice, the illustrations, and the photographic style.

Having your own company’s typeface could be a very expensive wish. But don’t despair. There are many beautifully and professionally designed typefaces available. Some of these are free, or affordable with a very flexible licence.

However, my advice is to carefully choose a typeface that reinforces your brand personality, and ensures clarity and harmony in all your company’s communications.

Hola Baby’s primary typeface is the sans serif family, Lato, designed by Warsaw-based designer Łukasz Dziedzic.
I love the semi-rounded details of the letters that give Lato a feeling of warmth, but also a kind look. Meanwhile, the strong structure and geometric shapes provide a sense of stability, reliability, and seriousness.

Hola Baby’s secondary typeface is Scope One designed by Dalton Maag.
It is a slab serif typeface with elegant expressions.
I felt that any message written using Scope One brought with it the refined typographic details of the uppercase letters (I loved the S, R and E mostly) and the fresh and transparent expression of the lowercase.

The personality of Hola Baby is mostly carried by the mascot, whose role is still the subject of much discussion. I also developed a series of other graphic elements, to represent the spontaneous and friendly attitude of Hola Baby.
Undoubtedly, each little hand-drawn element represents an innate love for nature and diversity.

Each little hand-drawn element represents an innate love for nature and diversity.

Along with these graphic elements, Hola Baby also uses different-sized circles with an imperfect shape. They could be used to create patterns across a wide range of promotional materials and packaging, but also on the wall of their offices and warehouses.

The circles can be used to add depth to the picture and to bring the brand colours into the set.

With social media advancing and playing a starring role in many companies’ marketing strategies, it is also crucial to define the brand’s personality through a photographic style that reinforces values and increases the product’s visibility.

A brand such as Hola Baby, which approaches its clients online, but believes that only touching the product you could understand the quality, needed to have a photographic style that does more than simply sell. It needs to inspire emotions and differentiate.

Photo composition based on the brand colours.

For this reason, I defined a photographic style that is not only clean and natural, but also expresses the pure excitement of joy and discovery.


Conclusions

Never underestimate the power of a well-executed brand strategy, especially if you are starting a company and you want it to last for the long run.

It may be an expensive asset to add to your already tight budget, but the value it adds to your company really could turn out to be priceless.

The Hola Baby brand is slowly unrolling online.
The first part of the brand asset was concluded in summer 2019.
Both Angela and Jose were amazing partners and collaborators, whose company now has all it needs to thrive and grow.


Do you want to know if your startup needs a better brand strategy?
Contact me for a preliminary analysis.

The Startup

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Chiara Aliotta

Written by

Founder and Art Director of Until Sunday. She has many years of experience in brand development. In 2016 she launched her new adventure, The Pattern Tales.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +582K people. Follow to join our community.

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