Branding Insights from Casper, Allbirds and Red Antler
By Katie Belding, Norwest Venture Partners
Many founders struggle with prioritizing building their brand with dozens of other concerns on their plate. You’ve built a strong product — but that will only get you so far. What keeps customers coming back is a strong consumer brand. It’s hard to build that in the early days because it’s tough to tell what will resonate with consumers. And it’s tough to define and consistently present your brand with a strong, authentic voice.
That’s why we recently hosted a branding fireside chat moderated by Emily Heyward, co-founder of startup branding agency Red Antler in conversation with Philip Krim, the co-founder and CEO of Casper and Tim Brown, the co-founder and CEO of Allbirds. Over the course of the conversation, the three shared insights they’ve learned over the course of building these brands. Here are the highlights.
Your Brand is More Than Just a Logo
When many entrepreneurs initially think about their brand, it’s in the context of needing a name and a logo to market their product. But as our panelists noted, your brand goes a lot farther than that.
“The brand is not always just a physical output it’s not just a poster or a piece of packaging,” said Brown. “It can be the way that someone greets you in a store or it could be just the tone of something as well which has to touch every part of the organization. It can’t just be three guys behind Apple Mac laptops designing pretty pictures. It has to run much, much deeper than that, and that thing therefore has to touch every part of the organization so it’s a complex piece to manage.”
“You’ve got so many competing priorities and you think that you sort of checked the box on brand and you can go about your business,” said Heyward. “’Great, we’ve got our logo now let’s get back to the real stuff.’ I think when you look at these companies that have really transformed the categories that they’re in, and the companies that everybody aspires to be like, the common denominator is executing flawlessly and not having those missteps, and that’s really hard to do. There needs to be a commitment to investing in that not just from a monetary perspective but from a team perspective, from a time perspective and from prioritizing that at a leadership level. You know I think people want the magic without putting in the work.”
What’s in a Compelling Brand Name? Risk
Your brand name becomes your brand’s calling card. Seeing your brand name and logo is often the first experience a customer has with you. This makes finding the right name critical. So how do you start the naming process? Our panelists shared their experiences.
“We had a short list of names, it was the first thing we had to define,” said Brown. “We had a product that we loved. We had a strategy for entering a market that we loved. We didn’t have a name. So we got down to a shortlist of four and one that we were gravitating around — and we ended up choosing — was Allbirds, and not everyone liked it. My wife hated it. But we chose this name.’”
For Brown, the somewhat edgy, unusual name has become core to the Allbirds vision. “The Allbirds name provoked different reactions in different people, but it provoked reaction, and I’m so glad that we went with something that was a little kind of weird,” he said. Because I think that laid the foundation for our larger vision.”
Krim also found that taking a calculated risk with the naming process paid off.
“It was great that we worked with Red Antler and had a process,” he said. “Because it is something that we had never been through before and as emotional as it is you just have to kind of commit to the process. I think a lot of the same things. We took a risk. Everyone was like Casper the ghost — what does that mean? Aren’t you worried that? And it was similar like it always provoked reaction and that was something that we liked.
Brand definition is one of the biggest initial challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Heyward noted that it takes a willingness to be OK with not everyone getting or liking the name.
“I think naming is one of the things that founders struggle with the most,” said Heyward. “I know I get tons of questions from people needing advice around naming. The one thing I always say is don’t shop it around. It’s like if you’re naming a kid everyone’s got an opinion, everyone has an association. You just have to move forward.”
Build the Brand From Day One
When many young companies are starting out, there’s a significant focus on the product. And while that focus is important, without a strong brand behind it, it’s difficult for the brand to really take off. Often, the brand becomes an afterthought, something the company feels they can’t afford to do early on. But our panelists concur that it’s one of the most valuable investments to initially make.
“You have to do it from the beginning,” said Brown. The thing is you can’t afford not to. We certainly couldn’t. But, you get what you pay for. It’s like anything else. This is something you can’t take shortcuts on. You’ve got to go find the best — and I would put Red Antler out there as the best. You have to do that from the beginning and lean into it with everything that you have knowing that it’s pretty important.”
For Casper, branding was one of their first significant investments, even before their funding. Why? Because Krim was disrupting the $16 billion mattress industry and understood the importance of building a new, modern brand that consumers would love and not just focusing on creating a better product.
“The brand has to be one of the first things you think about — and one of the things you always think about — because don’t get a second chance to have that customer love you, and have the brand love, and tell her friends and family about it,” said Krim. “You really have to commit early to making sure you’re going to deliver a perfect experience, an incredible product, and then from there you can build on that.”
Your Brand is Never Finished
Let’s say your logo and brand identity is finished. Your messaging is defined. So now all your branding activities are done and you can move on to other things, right? Not so, according to our panelists. A vibrant brand is something you work on every day, with every customer interaction.
“On the one hand I think you need to deeply understand the DNA of what you’re about,” said Brown. “When you think about Casper, you think about sleep. I think there’s something really powerful about that idea and the consistency of that idea. Then on the other hand, I think it’s constantly changing, and the great brands need to continually reinvent themselves. Nike stands for the athlete and then the storytelling and the product and everything is moving so fast, if you look away for a second it’s gone. I think that tension between those two competing ideas is really what you have to nail. I think you need to sign up for the fact that this thing is never finished.”
Krim agreed and went on to share how brand becomes a touchstone for every aspect of the organization’s activities.
“Brand can’t be siloed,” said Krim. “You can’t say ‘oh that’s the brand department, they’re going to think about it.’ For us, everyone thinks about brand. And everyone thinks about ‘What are the impacts to the brand based on what we’re doing?’ Even when it comes to customer service and supply chain. Lack of consistency on delivery impacts your experience, impacts your brand. So, for us, we’re always talking about how everyone needs to think about the brand.”