Every day, we meet founders who are ready to invest in their brand. They are engaged, passionate, and, with rare exception, impatient. In many cases, these founders are building their first brand, so this is their moment of truth. The clock is ticking, and although they want the best, they need to optimize their investment.
For us, these conversations arrive with a personal sense of déjà vu. Before co-founding Grammar, we worked inside start-ups, leading teams to deliver great experiences and results. From experience, we know the pace is frenetic. The stakes are high. And often, leaders feel like they are venturing into the unknown. However, through experience, we have come to recognize some common themes. And while every start-up is different, they can all benefit from learning these hard-won lessons.
The Tomorrow Paradox
As a founder, you are always juggling the urgent and the important — putting out fires while advancing a larger vision of the future. Your brand falls into both categories.
On launch, you urgently need answers to questions. And then, over time, those answers need to contribute to the bigger picture. When your work is successful, you can — and will — reap the rewards for years, benefiting from its value in every interaction. When your work falls short, however, the deficit it creates can be costly to address.
In the start-up world, “branding” needs to be rebranded. Too often, brand investment is separated from business and growth strategy. Newer companies believe that it is an “expense” or a ploy to do “cool shit.” In truth, it’s critical work, which lays the foundation for your growth strategy — who you sell to, what you deliver, and how it all goes to market. Smart brands get that the work should fuel growth and early adoption.
— Lorna Sommerville, CMO at Function of Beauty
In short, you cannot underinvest in your brand — and it’s about more than money. To reach its potential, your brand needs to be a priority. Focus, time, and — yes — money will contribute to your brand’s success. You may find yourself tempted to minimize your up-front investment, but as a founder, you should always be thinking about the long term.
The Brand Clock
We often look at projects and ask, “Is it too early, too late, or just right?” If you are still validating your business idea, or are likely to pivot, it’s too early. If you already went to market with an under-realized brand experience, it might be time to hit RESET. But pivoting is hard! If you are not careful, you will end up alienating loyalists and losing important momentum.
Investing in your brand is not about the here and now. It can and should pay short term dividends, but it’s all about the long game. When customers are faced with choice, your answer should be reflected in your brand. If you are leading a business, you can’t wait five years to become the brand your customers want. It has to start now.
— Nick Schubert, Vice President of Marketing at Lendly
Brands can and should evolve, but at the same time, you only get one chance to make a great first impression. If you’ve stress-tested your value proposition with your audience and investors, gotten positive results, and have a go-to-market date, it’s time to invest.
The Price of Indecision
Your brand will continue to exist — with or without you. A missed opportunity is still a brand experience people will remember — even if you do not always recognize it yourself. As a founder, you face an overwhelming number of brand choices — from everyday design questions to decisions regarding large marketing investments. A smart, beautiful, and clearly defined brand helps you step into those moments with clarity and confidence—delivering great results.
Competition within the startup environment has never been more fierce — big companies striving to compete, small companies with hyperfocus, an abundance of capital, and access to information. One of the scarcest resources within that landscape is truly authentic, defined brand position and strategy to create lasting value. Having a fantastic product, connected investors, or a compelling founding vision is not enough to break through. It is only the companies that can use the power of their brand to fully express the intent and purpose of their company in the marketplace that will break through and stand out for their customers.
— Mike Messersmith, General Manager at Oatly
When designing your customer journey, you need to think about the moments that matter most to your customers. You must consider every interaction your brand has with them — from your website to an Instagram post — when shaping the experiences that define your brand. And if you fail to properly define and align on your brand, these decisions will become time-consuming, agonizing, and costly — and often, the results won’t add up.
Go Slow to Run Fast
Ideally, prior to launch, you will set aside three to six months to fully develop your brand — from framing the opportunity to creating the experiences that will define it. Unfortunately, however — and we’ve seen this storyline many times — in the name of speed, most businesses launch with only a compromised brand. Before they even realize it, they’ve spent twelve months investing in a brand and experience that comes nowhere close to creating lasting loyalty and love.
Getting the founding team to align on the brand’s core beliefs is essential to a successful brand. That process takes time and can’t be fully outsourced, but is invaluable as the brand grows.
— Andrew Wanliss-Orlebar, Co-Founder and Head of Product at Grow
For founders, this is a moment of truth, when they align their vision with the vision of their audience. Do not underestimate the power and importance of this moment! Founders need to define a cogent brand strategy based on consumer and market insights, develop their brand’s unique voice, create content that engages their audience, explore and refine an amazing brand identity, and pay all of it forward — delivering exceptional experiences.
Can it be done in four weeks? Perhaps — but in our experience, the work suffers.
The MVB Myth
For start-ups, testing and validating ideas is a way of life. But when it comes to emotion, there is no such thing as a Minimum Viable Brand (MVB). A brand either hits the right notes or it doesn’t. Brands will and should evolve as they learn about their audience and the marketplace. But if you want to make a lasting impression, “minimum” and “viable” should not be your ultimate targets.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Your product can and should improve over time, but if you want to build a loyal community, your brand needs to communicate your purpose and vision in every interaction.
— Jonathan Cedar, Co-Founder and CEO of Biolite
Great brand work anticipates opportunities and challenges. Your investment should be in a vision that can work at scale across products, channels, and mediums. Your brand should not be the result of compromise. It should be the bridge between your product or service and the people you want to serve — a beacon that stands out in a sea of sameness.
A great brand will never replace the need for a satisfying product or service. But in crowded and competitive markets, it is essential. A great brand needs to be cultivated—given the time and energy necessary to make it great. It should be innovative — a platform for unique interactions and communications. And above all, it must be magnetic — a light that guides people to you.
Invest in your brand, and move forward with confidence.
Special thanks to the founders and leaders who contributed thoughts and quotes to this article—Jonathan Cedar, Mike Messersmith, Nick Schubert, Lorna Sommerville, and Andrew Wanliss-Orlebar.