(Or how to simplify branding for founders)
Over the many years of helping founders and entrepreneurs develop brands for their startups, I’ve noticed it's universally difficult for them to describe their brand in that first year, without pulling out their shiny set of new brand guidelines.
This is a frustrating place to find yourself in as a founder, especially if you've invested heavily in branding and understand the financial opportunities of true brand equity. Shouldn't you be able to describe your brand with ease? It's yours after all…
So why is it so hard for the proud founder of a start-up or young business to articulate their brand is to an interested party? Perhaps because the brand is fluid in the first 12 months, it keeps evolving? Maybe the founder is just too busy to care about brand…or perhaps it’s because us brand ‘experts’ tie our founders up in knots with ridiculously complex methodologies and tsunamis of information.
I’m worried it’s the latter - let me explain….
Since starting out as a graduate on the brand strategy team at the Partners in the mid 90’s, to reading and executing huge corporate guidelines for the likes of Mazda and Samsung in the naughties, then writing brand guidelines for startups and small businesses through my own consultancy, I have seen many trends come and go, and with every new founder I get asked for different ways to help them describe and develop their brand.
To name a few, we’ve had positioning, mission and visions statements, brand values, brand promises and customer pillars. More recently its been about brand behaviours or purpose, and floating over all of this is the brand personality, style or tone of voice and you may refer to it all as the brand DNA. If a designer is involved it may be illustrated in a brand house, a brand cross, or in some other novel infographic designed to make it easy to understand.
All of these these concepts mean well, some of them are essential; they are there to help the founder, so why don’t they?
Because each one of these gems can contain dozens of adjectives, lists of words, or pithy sentences designed to entice the target customer into bed, if they haven’t fallen asleep by then of course. We end up with hundreds of concepts and variations on the theme of the brand, it becomes impossible to recall them all, to remember what was a value and what was a personality trait. To know whether to put the mission statement on the homepage, or print the vision statement as a motivational wall vinyl in the office (that is now shut due to COVID).
I believe that in the first 12 months, the brand strategy should be delivered out on a need to know basis only - what is helpful to the designer may not be useful for the HR manager, and in totality could overwhelm an already overwhelmed founder.
We need to remind ourselves that the fundamental goal of branding is to make the commodity memorable. Appealing too, but primarily memorable. To build awareness through repetition, and this works internally as much as externally. I.e. the founder needs to be able to say what the brand is, with ease.
For things to be memorable they need to be simple, distinctive and repeatable.
This is where us brand experts go wrong, we get caught in the weeds of our own expertise, ignoring the fundamental truth of our own practice. Unless we are particularly fond of the Marie Kondo method of tidying, we hang onto these concepts like mismatched socks, pulling them out at random in the hope that we might create a new and interesting pairing (and maybe ma
Faced with this barrage of branding, the founder feels bamboozled, forgets the lot and goes off on their own track, ignoring all that good work done in the ‘ideation’ phase which in turn leads to poor feedback and ultimately inconsistent forgettable branding.
Having simple to remember, repeatable branding is especially key during the startup phase. It is a time of exploration and evolution with the high influx of consultants, endless meetings and pitches, new team members and product development that mark this phase in the birth of a business. As a founder during this phase you need to make sure people ‘get’ your brand quickly.
You also need to have branding that is flexible enough for interpretation to allow for growth and development in those early years. Nothing engraved in stone that will require major backtracking further down the line. Having complex branding will make it harder to flex as your will have too many things to change and update.
So how do we tidy up the branding sock drawer and make sure our founders are always wearing matching socks? Empty the draw and place back just 3 things. The 3 things that define your brand. The 3 things you would love your customers to ‘get’ when they hear your name. And don’t worry about the word, or you’ll get caught back up in semantics (we had one client who spent weeks of internal debate on whether bold or brave was more appropriate). Think more broadly about themes.
Marketing Week describe these fundamentals as brand attributes - whatever you call it, it boils down to narrowing your focus to just 3 themes. 3 is quite enough to start building something distinctive and most importantly most people can remember 3 things! For example...
minimal, advanced, serious
Wholesome, rustic, comforting
relaxed, opulent, experienced
Try this out on the world’s most favourite brands, and see if you can describe them in 3 words. You will, because they are doing their branding right, which is why they are famous.
Once you have 3 themes, make sure they infuse every piece of communication both internal and out, in your design and language, in the way products and services are conceived and executed. These 3 memorable themes will embed into your business, and your customers and people will start to experience the consistency and security of good branding.
And as broad themes these will allow for flexibility and movement within your early branding to accommodate the inevitable contraction and expansion of a young business finding its feet.
As your brand consultant, I may in those first 12 months, slip a few extra socks back in the draw (despite being too old to be a millennial, I am still quite keen on brand purpose) but I won't ask you as founder to recall them, as long as you have those 3 things down, I will, I promise, leave you alone!
Creative Director at TwoBird | Formerly of Moving Brands | Formerly of Imagination | Formerly of The Partners | And sometime animation director for global British Brand Icon Elton John (fabulous, bold, opulent)