Branding for startups: How to build trust before product

Philip Seifi
The Startup
Published in
7 min readApr 15, 2020

Branding case studies often read as somewhere between obvious and grandiose. You’re either looking at established companies with a 20/20 hindsight, or reading a digital agency portfolio sales pitch.

Just as business strategy, real-world branding is in fact neither superfluous, nor inaccessible to mere mortals.

Below, I’ll explain why every founder should consider their brand from day one, and share some of the thinking that went into the identity of Pona, my home-cooked food marketplace startup.

What is a brand and why does it matter?

Branding is all the ways you convey to current and prospective customers what they can expect from your company. It is a promise made through consistent visuals, sounds, language, and actions.

The objective of any brand is to create a trusted relationship with the customer.

This means a successful brand must be:

  1. Reliable Even the most rebellious companies send their customers a consistent message: You can trust us to remain rebels.
  2. Differentiated — As in personal life, the best way to get into and stay in a relationship is to make clear how you’re different from all the others.

Some suggest startups ignore branding until they reach the legendary product-market-fit.

This advice strikes me bizarre. After all, building trusted relationships with early adopters is crucial for any new business, and the brand is often all you’ve got while you’re still patching up your Minimum Viable Product.

Moreover, reliability is often the first concern among users considering a little-known product, and Differentiation is the only reason they might actually bother to give it a try.

Unless you’re in D2C or Fast-Moving Consumer Goods, you probably shouldn’t spend money on a marketing agency to develop a fancy identity for your project. But thinking about what you stand for, and how you communicate this to your customers, should form part of your every decision.

How startup branding is different

Remember how a brand is made of visuals, sounds, language, and actions?

Well, turns out the importance each of these plays in the perception of the brand is radically different between an established business and a new startup.

You can read all the case studies in the world about the meaning of the McDonald’s logo, the psychology of its colour choices, and how its taglines have changed over the years.

The truth is — 90% of their brand value today comes from the consistent, quality experiences people have had with Maccy D’s over the years.

Your startup’s brand, on the other hand, consists almost entirely of the story you tell — not your past actions. You simply haven’t sold enough burgers for the world to notice, or kept making them long enough for your existing customers to trust you won’t pivot into a fried chicken shop tomorrow.

1. Words and visuals are all you’ve got

When Apple launches a new product, the reason people line up in front of their stores are not the witty headlines set in Myriad Pro, or the geometry of their logo.

They line up because they trust Apple will yet again deliver on their expectations, as it has done every year since Jobs revived the company in ‘97.

As a small startup, you don’t yet have the luxury of such strong trust and expectations. Instead, you have to use storytelling to persuade your audience of who you are, or will be one day.

Buy Me A Coffee built trust through a design and microcopy that spoke to its target audience

2. You can piggyback off a bigger company’s brand

If red paint were sold out that day when the McDonald brothers moved their first restaurant to San Bernardino, copycat fast food chains around the world would all be coloured in blue, or green, or turquoise today.

Successful founders treat their ventures as machines, and aim to only reinvent one or two cogs at a time. Most early stage startups will do best with a traditional org structure, and most MVPs are better off if they rely on Google’s Material Design.

Similarly, for many startups, it makes sense to base their branding on established industry players, or like-minded disruptors in other fields. Humans are conditioned to look for patterns, and will gladly give a new entrant the benefit of the doubt if it reminds them of another beloved brand.

Tesla revolutionized the car industry without veering off too far from the existing design language

3. You can afford to take much bigger risks

With great value comes great responsibility.

Established companies are stewards of brands built over generations. A few missteps could wipe out billions in consumer trust.

As a startup, you don’t have the benefit of such expectations, but this also allows you to make much bigger bets.

Take Lyft and its pink moustache, for example. It caused a lot of controversy, and possibly even physical damage to cars, but it also attracted attention like nothing could in the competitive ride-hailing space.

Lyft’s iconic pink moustache certainly got people talking

Case study: Branding home-cooked food

At Pona, we coach home cooks into entrepreneurs, then market their one-of-a-kind cuisine.

Buyers have instinctive concerns about the safety of home-cooked food, so it was crucial for us to establish trust early on. As a new entrant in a crowded food-delivery market, we also had to differentiate ourselves clearly from other platforms.

Here’s how we went about it:

We focused on one overarching story

A good brand should remind people of the vision behind your project through every word, sound, image, and action.

Of course, this means you first must gain clarity of that vision.

At Pona, we explored several angles, such as authentic ethnic cuisine, and the promise of re-experiencing your favourite childhood meals.

Based on the market feedback, we finally focused on the connection between buyers and sellers, the care with which home cooks prepare their one-of-a-kind cuisine, and our quest to always find ways to make both sides feel special.

This message permeates not just our visuals, but also marketing copy…

…and of course, the product itself.

Whereas other delivery platforms play down the provenance of the food, we focus on the person and story behind each meal as a core part of the experience.

You can learn what goes into the food through interviews on My Signature Dish, video episodes of Home Cooks of the World, and Instagram stories direct from our home kitchens.

Every package is signed personally by our home cooks, and when you leave a review, you know it’ll be read by a real human, and often lead to immediate tweaks based on your feedback.

Left: Pona home cook signing personal stickers. Right: Stories of the process behind her signature dish.

We considered our strategy, and every stakeholder

Whether you like this, or not, your branding will colour your every message and interaction.

You also shouldn’t forget that the brand does not exist in a vacuum, but rather forms an integral part of your overall business strategy.

At Pona, our brand directly impacts relationships with:

  • Buyers (demand side of the marketplace)
  • Home cooks (supply side)
  • Catering clients (corporates, co-working spaces)
  • Local government (legislators, food safety officials)

Each group forms an integral part of our business model, so it was crucial to develop a brand that would speak to all four.

For example, there’s certainly a category of foodies who would appreciate a more rebellious brand. But, such positioning may not fit the typical profile of a micro-food entrepreneur, or set us off on the right foot when we push for new food safety legislation.

A brazen Pona brand iteration which worked with buyers but failed us with other stakeholders.

We iterated until we found the right balance

Early on, we did not have the resources to take professional photos of the meals prepared by our home cooks, and commissioned cute little food icons for use in the app instead.

In an industry where government relations are crucial, we quickly realized we’ll have to tone down on the cuteness a little bit, which also helped reassure our corporate catering clients.

As we ran more experiments, and better understand our buyers, home cooks, and other stakeholders, we found a similar balance in all other aspects of our brand.

For example, we started to take more pride in the social impact our project is having on our underprivileged sellers, and admitted against our original expectations that extra revenue is the central reason home cooks apply to sell on the platform.

Take control of your brand

I hope I managed to convince you to take branding seriously from the earliest days of your startup, and the story of Pona gave you some ideas on how to think about your own brand.

Whether you want it or not, your customers, suppliers, potential hires, and even investors will perceive your company in a certain way.

You now have a choice — Tell a story that fits and reinforces your business, or let someone else write one for you, and hope for the best.



Philip Seifi
The Startup

Founder | Cross-pollinating between industries and cultures. | Nomad entrepreneur 🌎 designer 🌸 hacker 💻 |