Branding isn’t just your logo and website design, it’s your experience, product, partners, and more. Branding a new venture takes work — you have to really know what your business stands for and ensure that people Inside and outside of your company know, too. In the modern age, a brand is increasingly shaped by how you act, not only what you say.
Think of branding as the interface between your business and customers. It helps you connect more meaningfully with them, tells your story, conveys your values, and should prompt certain feelings or responses from people. A brand distinguishes you from the crowd and can give you a competitive edge to go up against big players in your market.
For instance, the rideshare platform Lyft started at a time when Uber had already dominated the industry. Yet, through intelligent branding, Lyft created a persona that was the opposite of its competitor — it took on a “nice guy” image and is now valued at more than $24 billion.
Here, we ask experts about the essential building blocks in creating a unique brand for your new business:
1. Always start with the ‘why’.
Founders often think that branding means coming up with a name and visual theme. But before you put your brand down on paper, you first need to look inward. Understand your mission, your values, the story behind your business, the benefits and attributes of your company, and what consumers should feel when they think of you. Paul Charney, CEO and co-founder of FunWorks, says that “the biggest thing for any company is everyone understanding why it exists.”
Once you’ve explored those core concepts of your company and product, “decide which are most important to your business and your customers — make these few critical ideas the foundation of your brand,” says Grant Polachek, head of branding at Squadhelp. “For example, GIECO built their brand around this very pragmatic statement: ‘15 minutes could save you 15 percent.’ While Red Bull has built a very successful brand based on excitement and emotional appeal.”
Be honest and authentic when considering your purpose. Make sure you can back up everything about your branding with real deliverables (it’ll soon become obvious if you can’t). It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than to break trust with consumers, especially early on in your business journey.
At the same time, take a look at your competitors to identify how you fit into a niche. Study what they’re doing and saying, and how you’re different from them. Techniques like perceptual maps and spreadsheets are useful for this, as they’ll help you visualize where you are in the market compared to other players.
2. Really know your audience.
To present yourself as the solution to a specific problem in your target audience, and you’ll need to get into the nitty gritty of your typical client: what drives them, what repulses them, what values they’ll never compromise, and what they can’t live without.
Build ideal buyer personas to step into their perspectives. These highly detailed profiles are more than basic background information; they should define your personas’ ambitions, motivations, problems, and opinions on issues relevant to your product. Take the time to carry out the relevant market research, surveys and those all-important interviews. These should be in person, or over Zoom if possible, and ask open-ended questions. Charney recommends prompts like: “what’s keeping you up at night?” or “what was your worst versus best experience of X?”
Initially, consider a range of persona types so that you can narrow down your messaging later. Reva McPollom, CEO of Lessonbee, suggests that “by considering different target audiences early, you learn which audience feels the pain enough to take action on it by buying your product or service.” For example, our product deals with the problem of inadequate health education, but if we only considered the problem for health educational staff, we wouldn’t be reaching all the stakeholders impacted by the problem. What about students, parents, and employers? “Real problems are rarely one-sided or one-dimensional,” McPollom says.
Tapping into your audience’s mindset means sharing the same values as they do. Whether you’re passionate about education, sustainability, equality or simply improving a time-old issue, values make you relatable and empathetic. Having the same values as your audience and committing to act on those values is what prompts people to buy into your brand — not just your product.
3. Involve your entire team in the branding process.
It takes a lot of energy to get people who know nothing about your business to become excited about your product. Don’t rely only on what you know and feel about your company, which may well go over the heads of most consumers, or you’ll be at risk of portraying your brand as too exclusive.
Your branding process needs to be a constant dialogue between the business leadership and your team members, which are some of the most important stakeholders in your company. Convince them with your message first. Whether they’re sales reps, developers, or board members, they need to buy into your mission as much as any consumer if they’re going to drive it towards its goals.
To get the feedback loop with your team working effectively, Anna Milaeva, CMO at Coro Global Inc., advises “first, engage your team with the process by creating learning materials on your company and product, scheduling motivational calls, and sending inspiring memos.” Then, organize forums where your team can offer examples of brands they admire and explain their choices. In these interactive spaces your team will know that they are nurturing a growing project — meaning they’ll have a greater sense of loyalty to it.
Even if you don’t have an extensive company team yet, as a founder and business leader, you should have an intimate “team” of trusted mentors, personal advisors, friends and family you can consult. Even before you start feeding your brand out to the public for review, getting valuable insight from people who know you and have followed your business journey from the start will help focus your perspective, try out your messaging and truly convey your thoughts.
4. Get external feedback ASAP.
Once you’ve done your research and put some initial concepts together, you should be running your brand and messaging ideas by potential consumers as often as possible. Bring your target audience on board the creative process to ensure your branding it’s going in the right direction.
At this point, it’s possible to discover that your branding was seriously out of touch with your consumer’s current needs, or at odds with the cultural realities of the moment. Don’t wait too long to figure this out, even if your branding is not all there yet, it still needs to be tested.
As Charney puts it: “Why not get more points of view in the beginning? It means less guesswork. Ultimately, your whole branding process needs to involve consumers from step one, otherwise, you risk creating an echo chamber.”
Presenting your brand to the public will also force you to present your ideas clearly and start visualizing your concepts, accelerating the creative process and weeding out unviable options. Talk to your audience directly about your brand, seek constructive comments, but also experiment with rating systems and other competition-style feedback processes. Another important test is to begin pitching the company to small investors to get their reactions and advice on your brand.
As you’re gathering feedback, start trying to “distill your idea or concept down to six words, focusing on ‘why’ and not ‘what,'” Charney says. This deck will probably become more refined as your brand evolves, and it’s as much a mental process for consolidating your concepts, as it is a marketing tool.
5. Start constructing your brand.
This testing phase should be happening simultaneously to the actual process of putting together the different elements of your brand. But don’t start on this before you’ve done the legwork. “People often start the branding journey with the name and logo, spending a lot of effort at an early stage, but this is a bad idea,” Charney says. “The name will only be important once you’ve figured out ‘who’ and ‘why’ you are.”
The main components include your name and imagery/logo, but also your color scheme, tone and style (will your messaging be formal or humourous?), social media presence, and website. Remember that a professional brand will be integrated across all your business platforms and staff. So work through these step by step, branding the details like your email signature, uniform, vehicles, social media posts, etc.
Polachek suggests several free resources for creative inspiration, such as Moat, where you can access Google Display network ads for different companies; the Facebook Ad Library, where you can see the ads other companies are running on Facebook services; and other company statements (for example, the examples on Sequoia’s website).
When it comes to the name, Polachek believes there are several steps to creating a great one: first, brainstorm a lot of ideas. “Your name doesn’t need to be descriptive and direct, like ‘Dollar Shave Club’ or ‘Science Comics.’ But it should align with your core brand ideas.”
“For example, red is the color of passion and bull a symbol of strength, which aligns perfectly with Red Bull’s exciting brand,” he adds.
After lining up the options, check to see if the URL is available, test your top names with your targeting audience, and work with a professional to avoid trademark issues.
Founders tend to jump the gun and dive straight into brand formatting, but while your name and logo can be changed, the reason why your company exists cannot. This is the foundation for any business and is what sets apart a brilliant brand from one struggling to connect with its uniqueness.