7 Branding Tips for Startups from 2 Startup Branding Experts

Last night, I had a dream that I found out my local public library branch was closing and I wept bitterly at the news. Upon waking, I described the dream to my husband as being “very on-brand” – and, reader, it was.


“Partying,” IMO

But because I’ve had more than 30 years to develop my distinct, extremely pro-book brand, I have a major advantage over startups, which often have just a few weeks (or less!) to make important brand decisions that will affect how their potential clients see them for years to come.

If you’ve been struggling with your startup’s brand, you’re in the right place. For this week’s blog post, I interviewed two startup branding experts, David Gardner, Founder and CEO of branding agency ColorJar, and Patty Lindstrom, CEO of branding agency Creative Logic and founder and CEO of Living the Brand® Academy.

Read on to get their insight into how startups can make excellent brand decisions with whatever time and budget they have.

Tip 1: Start Thinking About Brand Early

When you’re hustling to launch a product or service, brand may be the last thing you think about. But both Lindstrom and Gardner emphasized the importance of considering your brand early on.

“In some situations,” acknowledged Gardner, “You might determine that brand just isn’t that important at the moment.” He gave the example of a consultant who has just left the corporate world and whose biggest client is their former employer. “In that case,” he said, “It doesn't make sense to invest much.”

But that situation is an outlier, he emphasized.

And regardless of your startup’s size or growth plans, you should definitely plan to claim your web assets.

“Register the web domain with your business and brand,” recommended Lindstrom. “Do the same with your social media profiles. Ideally, you should check if they are available even before you decide the final name.”

The point is, every startup should at least consider their brand from the outset. And when you hear what Gardner and Lindstrom have to say about the ways a brand can impact a startup’s bottom line, you might want to spend more time on it than you planned.

Tip 2: Think of Brand as Your North Star, Not a Coat of Paint

Whatever you do, Lindstrom cautioned, “Don’t limit brand to marketing.”

She explained that most startups – and most companies, for that matter – don’t understand this. Apple, she said, is a notable exception: “Steve Jobs got this more than anyone.”

Gardner agreed. “Think of brand as your north star,” he said. “Not a coat of paint.”

These recommendations intrigued the heck out of me, so I probed further. Gardner explained it to me like this:

“People tend to think about brand as something external-facing, but it can be really powerful as an internal asset, too. When you have a clearly defined brand, you ensure that everyone’s rowing in the same direction. Micro-decisions in every part of the company are easier and more aligned when you’ve established your brand.”

Fascinating, right?

He also mentioned that having a clearly defined brand can help bolster founders and attract top-tier team members even early on.

“Think of how [brand] can help with recruiting,” he said. “With startups, people take a leap of faith to join. The right brand and a lived brand can make that transition easier.”

The value of brand can go far beyond what it does for your employees, though, and that’s key to understanding how much to invest in developing it, especially for early stage startups.

Tip 3: Know the Value of Your Brand

Maybe you understand that brand is important but don’t really know how to develop a brand yourself. In those situations, Lindstrom recommends bringing in an expert.

“If you or your team do not have the proper talent, hire someone who can help you,” she said. But she also acknowledged that knowing when to invest in outside help – that is, when to hire a consultant or branding agency – is different for every startup.

Gardner agreed.

“From a startup point of view, I get it,” he said. “What you can afford on day one is different to what you can afford in year ten.”

To know what you can afford, he recommended calculating the potential value the right brand could bring to your business.

For example, if you can see a meaningful brand making an incremental difference – say, a 10 percent increase in engagement on social and a five percent increase in website conversions, then your marketing spend is going to be more efficient. If that incremental upside comes to $1 million over three years, it might make sense to spend $100,000 to get your brand right.

On the other side, if you only see brand making $10,000 in incremental difference, your investment should be much smaller.

Or maybe the right brand could help you recruit one or two 10x employees, and make every employee 10 percent more efficient. Again, a substantial investment in brand might be well worth what you spend.

It’s worth reiterating here Lindstrom’s recommendation to get an expert’s help to develop your brand if you need it. “People who don’t know what they’re doing [when it comes to brand] are often partway down the road and doing themselves no favors,” she said.

That takes care of a lot of the “how” of branding. Now it’s time to look at the “what” – what should go into the brand itself?

Tip 4: Look Inward

When it comes time to develop the brand itself, whether with an expert or on your own, Gardner recommends asking what you’re all about as an organization.

“You want to understand your brand’s DNA,” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of “knowing your lane,” by which he meant knowing which conversations you’ve earned a voice in.

“Brands that do well understand who they are, what they’re about, what lane they should run in,” he said.

When I asked for an example of a brand that wasn’t doing this well, he brought up the Pepsi fiasco of 2017, in which the brand ran a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a cop during a protest and… causing unity, I guess?

The piece didn’t work, Garnder explained (and explains further here), because Pepsi hadn’t earned a voice in the conversation it was trying to participate in. That caused its well-intentioned ad to backfire in a big way.

As for an example of a brand doing this well, Gardner mentioned Propel.

The brand started as a “fitness water,” he explained, but then Pepsi started to manage it like a lifestyle beverage, competing with Vitamin Water. The brand tanked.

“They were looking outward to see what was going on,” explained Gardner. “Instead, they needed to look inward: what are we about?” And they did, ne noted. Now Propel is back to its “fitness water” positioning, with the tagline, “How Gatorade does water.” Gatorade, the branding goes, is for athletes, and Propel is for active people.

Tip 5: Ask What Value You Can Add to Your Community

One common mistake Gardner sees, he said, is startups that over-complicate their brand messaging.

“Everyone’s brain is suffering from information overload,” he said. “Simple brands are compelling brands. Simple brands win.”

While your startup may offer seven amazing benefits, Gardner suggested focusing on your “gold-medal capability” – i.e., on what you can do better than anyone else.

“Don’t over-message,” he said. “Simplify.”

Lindstrom echoed this advice.

“What exactly do you want to offer to customers?” she suggested asking. “What sets you apart from your competitors? What’s your ideal buyer profile, target audience? Who does your brand appeal to? Get focused first – otherwise you spend money targeting the wrong prospects with the wrong message.”

Tip 6: Define the 3 Ps: Positioning, Purpose, Personality

Gardner explained that startups can figure out a lot about their brand by defining the “three Ps” of branding:

  • Positioning: How your startup fits into the world.
  • Purpose: Why your startup exists, what mission it’s on, what vision it has, how it’s making the world a better place, etc.
  • Personality: How your startup expresses itself, both visually (colors, images, logos, etc.) and through words (tone, voice, attitude, etc.).

“Even without an expert,” Gardner said, “Most startups can do more in a long weekend by thinking about the three Ps than they give themselves credit for.”

That’s encouraging for startups on a shoestring budget. And I have one more tip from Lindstrom before I let you go.

Tip 7: Avoid Vagueness

“There’s no point in being ‘generally vague,’” Lindstrom said. “You need to send a clear message. The target audience should immediately understand what you offer and the kind of value can you provide to them.”

In other words, if you’re not sure what you’re trying to say, your target audience will pick up on it.

(Note: this is also great advice for writing.)

When in Doubt, Try

I tried to capture the most salient parts of my conversations here, but there was a lot I had to leave out. Branding is complex because it touches literally everything a business does.

This can make it seem overwhelming for startups to attempt to get their brand right, but Garnder offered one piece of advice that I found helpful. He invoked the truism in the startup world that if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’re moving too slow.

Whether or not you agree with that attitude, Gardner recommended thinking of your brand in similar terms. 

“If you’re doing V1 of your UX,” he said, “Take a proper swing at V1 of your brand.”

It’s natural that every part of your business will evolve as you grow, including brand. And it’s perfectly fine to rebrand down the road.

“Pay attention and focus on [brand] from day one,” agreed Lindstrom. “Over the long run it will pay off.”

Want to hear how other startups are tackling their branding challenges? Check these video presentations from past Propllr Here’s How conferences: