You Can Build a Viable Brand Yourself — 7 Powerful Lessons to Keep in Mind
Understanding these concepts will make your business more successful long term.
We gathered around a circular table in a Northern California bungalow. In the middle sat an empty bottle with a hand-pressed label on it. This wasn’t just any bottle. It was our bottle. It was our first ever product.
We hadn’t launched yet, so we were going back and forth on the label design. It was minimalist, but the side panel featured a jarring “Meet Your Edge” slogan. The founder wanted to keep it, but the rest of us weren’t so sure.
Eventually, he decided to scrap the idea, and we came up with an alternative idea to fill the space.
This meeting was one of many that we had before going to market with our beverage. We liked doing this. We gathered a group of friends and talked about the brand. It was almost like leveraging our friends as small test groups. We needed all the ideas we could get.
These talks were just the beginning of what we would learn about brand building.
During the time I spent launching and scaling my startup, I learned some less-than-obvious aspects of brand building. Here, some of the most valuable insights.
Your brand is an iceberg
According to the USGS, only 10% of an iceberg is actually above the water’s surface. The other 90% stays below the surface because ice is less dense than the water.
A brand is like an iceberg.
I didn’t realize this until I jumped into the entrepreneurial lifestyle. More work goes down behind the scenes than one might expect. Even the slightest brand change takes an immense amount of time to make.
Marketers coined this phrase a while ago. Berry Burgress, a writer for Marketing Donut, wrote in 2011:
“The visible brand messaging accounts for what we see above sea level. The invisible brand — the company culture, the customer experience — is the mass below the surface.”
I was frustrated by this when I first started out. The fact is, customers don’t think about the work that goes down behind the scenes.
For example, when setting up for sample demos, I was responsible for making sure all our materials were ready. This meant ordering signage, preparing documents to hand out, and ordering business cards. Not to mention, our table setups were always changing.
The preparation often took hours of time. I’d spend days making sure our table was ready to go. I’d do all this work just for somebody to walk up to our booth, try a sample, and go on their merry way in a matter of seconds.
Consumers only see the final product. On the store shelf, your product has seconds to grab their attention. If only they knew how hard you worked to get it there. But they don’t, and the sooner you accept that, the better.
Every brand needs a brand bible
Consistency is the keyword. As a consumer, you don’t think much about a brand’s behind-the-scenes efforts.
Think of your favorite beverage or snack brand. They have a specific design on their packaging. Additionally, you feel a certain way when you look at the packaging, read what’s on the label, and eat or drink the product.
Now, your interaction with the brand doesn’t stop there. Companies share news on social media accounts, commercials, online ads, fliers, and websites. The company pays special attention to everything they put out there.
Being cohesive is difficult, so you need a brand bible to maintain brand awareness. It’s vital to be “on-brand” at all times. This means designers must use the same fonts across platforms and all social media posts should sound similar.
This is where the brand bible comes in. It’s a company’s go-to for actionable demonstrations. Founders need to create a brand bible to show others on their team. It serves as an educating guide for all the members of the startup. The brand bible is essentially a set of guidelines.
Well-known design and development company, Mayven Studios, says this about the brand bible:
“A brand bible or book is a document that establishes distinct guidelines on how all aspects of a company’s brand will be handled. It should establish rules for creating a unified and identifiable presence for your brand. This includes everything from the design of a logo and how it can be used, to letterhead, the look of a website, personal communications and how it all looks.”
I made a brand bible with my other co-founder. We spent months on it. We knit-picked our exact color schemes, all the way down to the top three words that describe the brand.
The brand bible is incredibly insightful. It needs to be one of the first documents you create for your business. It helps set the tone for future endeavors.
Some companies exist solely to help other companies
It’s tough for startups to, well, start up. Young founders, especially, are prone to making mistakes. If they don’t know their industry, it’s easy to get stomped on by competitors.
That’s where incubators come in. These accelerator-type companies create a tailored approach for all sorts of brands. Critical Mass Group, for example, is one that helps brands with their go-to-market strategies, supply chain, and sales.
They are a third party that can assist your business. Essentially, they help you help them. It’s a win-win for both parties.
We never got the chance to work with one. But, there’s a reason for it. On one hand, if an incubator decides to work with you, you’re almost guaranteed to sell more products, faster. But, they are extremely pricey and will take a hefty chunk of control away from you.
If you want to work with one, it depends on your position. If you are looking to sell your company to a larger corporation, then working with an incubator might be the right move. If you want full control, you’ll have to figure things out on your own.
Fail often, but fail fast
This is easier said than done. It also depends on your product. Silicon Valley tech companies use this model when working on new software. It’s easier for them because they can run thousands of tests for new software, and it doesn’t cost them a dime to fail.
If you created, say a beverage, you can’t commit to a thousand different runs of product. You have to think about the costs of ingredients, co-packer time, labels, and bottles. You can’t hit the go button and see where things go wrong. You need to test everything beforehand.
It’s okay to fail, but you have to prepare to pivot as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Failure is a lesson learned. Failure allows you to make the tweaks you previously would not have thought about.
Don’t create something just because you’d use it yourself
Dr. James Richardson, the brand guru who’s worked with companies like Whole Foods, Mother Kombucha, and Nestle, said that one’s first innovation shouldn’t necessarily be the one they should attempt to scale.
Your first creation is biased. It’s your baby because you think it’s the greatest idea ever. This sort of thinking is a death sentence for your brand.
You are your own person. You have different pains than other people do.
If you want to, for example, create a charcoal-infused jasmine tea bag, then you better make sure a consumer group will buy it.
The idea sounds cool, in theory. I’d drink that tea every day. My skin could use some charcoal.
But is this what other people want? Is it too niche? Will it scale?
If you like your own product, then by all means use it. But, just because you like it does not mean others will.
Richardson also stated that products shouldn’t be focused on complete uniqueness, but for competitive advantage. This means that even though the charcoal tea is completely unique, it doesn’t necessarily have a place in the market.
Your ideal customer isn’t who you might think
When we created a bottled tea brand, we thought we’d be selling to college students and customers in trendy Los Angeles restaurants.
As it turns out, we found another avenue which became the bedrock of our sales: hospital cafeterias. It all started with one connection, and then business started booming. We expanded from one cafeteria to the next.
You might think you know your customer, but do you? Start selling to the general population, and slowly cut out the fat. Focus on the group that buys your product the most. You just need a small group of true fans.
You might be in the wrong industry
Everything is a lesson, right? We learned the expensive way.
If leveraging connections is ideal, then we only did it half right. We had a golden opportunity on our hands and we missed it. We could’ve created an alcohol beverage instead and immediately had a distributor.
Oh well, there is always next time.
Think about the costs of business. Beverages aren’t the best game to start with a grassroots campaign. It takes millions of investor’s dollars to be successful. Beverage margins are terrible.
Instead, create something that has great margins and eCommerce in mind. You want to attract repeat customers as well.
For example, supplements are a solid product to make. You can sell a $30 product that costs $5 to make. Give your customer’s free shipping and you’ve got yourself an eCommerce business. They’ll use up the product eventually and buy more from you.
You might need a couple of thousand dollars to start this company instead of tens to hundreds of thousands to start another.
One final piece of advice
Create the lowest cost brand you can. If you have a computer and a dream, you can create an extra source of income for yourself.
I’ll admit, I want to do exactly that. After working on a business, I realized that startups rely too heavily on others. We had web designers, co-packers, formulators, sales contacts, and bottle manufacturers to deal with. If any of these people make a mistake, our entire operation goes into chaos mode.
You can create a viable brand on your own, and it can turn into a business.
These days, it doesn’t take much to create something from nothing.
Leverage the Internet for knowledge. We can build businesses with a foundation of positivity. We aren’t chasing profits. The money we make is just the cherry on top of living a life of freedom.
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