Invest in your future

If you're a startup with a viable product or service, and data to prove there’s market fit, then you need brand strategy. And it’s going to cost you about 2-4% of what you’ve raised.

Before you click away in horror, let’s be rational about the issue.

Why does anyone invest in anything? A company? Retirement? College for the kids?

We invest because we want a return. That can come in different forms, but the essence of investing is putting your hard-earned money to work so that you have something greater waiting for you in the future.

For early stage startups, brand strategy is an investment in building something great. Specifically, brand strategy helps you with three important imperatives for all companies—culture, competitive advantage and customer loyalty. 

Brand strategy is business strategy

First, let’s be clear on what brand strategy is. If your brand is the impression your company makes (through all of your actions), then brand strategy is the action plan for creating or deepening that impression over time.

Like learning to cook, parenting or getting rid of belly fat, anything worthwhile requires discipline. Brand strategy is a discipline. You have to do it, and stick to it over time, to see results.

The fundamentals of brand strategy are easy to remember as the Four Ps:

  • Purpose: This is your brand’s promise, or the grand challenge you’re solving. It aligns with your core values.
  • Personality: This is your brand’s defining characteristics that make your company uniquely you and different from competitors.
  • People: These are your brand’s believers, the stakeholders who will follow you anywhere, including your employees.
  • Positioning: This is your brand’s unique value, the one thing only you can offer to the market and your people.

Brand agencies and consultants all have different verbiage for the above, but those are the core components you should look for as you buy the service.

When you have clarity on these four key areas, then it makes prioritization of your precious time, resources and money easier. You are on the path to building a brand that will stand out in the market and make a deep impression on stakeholders.

With those fundamentals in place, brand strategy will impact your company in the following ways.

Brand strategy is like learning to cook, parenting or getting rid of belly fat—you have to commit to see results."

Brand strategy shapes your culture 

Go to any startup conference and the “C” world is invariably among the trending topics.

Culture is what sees you through the dark days of fundraising. Culture attracts employees and investors to your cause. And culture is incredibly fickle. You have to prioritize the actions that impact your culture positively and continually nurture them, or you’ll become just another startup grinder that chews up talent.

Most startup founders and leaders default to creating a culture based on their values or personality type, or the activities they enjoy doing or think they are expected to celebrate. Because that’s easy. 

Effective brand strategy demands that you dig deeper by answering:

  • Who are you?
  • What does your company stand for?
  • What drives you to greatness? 

Answer those three questions and you’ve got your mission, values and vision. That’s your culture.

Moz is example of a brand that's answered those questions and instilled it in their culture. While not a startup anymore, this popular analytics software company built their culture early on based on transparency around business operations and the SEO industry, incredible customer service, stellar employee benefits and fun parties.

Creative Branding and Design - Tagfee

Rand Fishkin, their cofounder and CEO, built an international reputation through blogging and speaking about the company. He was the face of the brand until they unveiled their TAGFEE code. 

Moz is on a mission to be as Transparent, Authentic, Generous, Fun, Empathetic and Exceptional as possible.

The orbiting components of the brand—the name, visual identity, voice, UX and customer service—support and extend the personality and power of the TAGFEE code.

B Startupstrategy Moz Screens

Glassdoor ratings are an effective way to measure cultural value because they factor in CEO ratings and employee reviews. Moz has a 4-star Glassdoor rating (out of 5 stars) and 78% of reviews would recommend the company to a friend. Current employee reviews rave about the culture. 

Moz committed early to identifying and living their values. That adds up to over a decade of growth, including the ability to attract $19.25 million in funding and three acquisitions.

Brand strategy differentiates you 

Once you know what you’re going to stand for, brand strategy requires you to analyze the marketplace beyond your pitch deck.

To complement market opportunity info, brand strategy delves into competitor actions and words, in all of the channels. This includes substantive competitive audits of visual design, messaging, user experience, partnerships and values. As well as identification of the technical, social and cultural trends that can propel your innovation and growth.

ChefSteps is a startup brand with a strong point of difference in a crowded marketplace. More than mouth-watering recipes and food porn, ChefSteps' primary audience is modernist, experimental home cooks—a specific, vocal and affluent slice of the market. 

Chef Steps - Brand Development

Their mission is to help people cook smarter. And they believe that cooking and eating together makes for better humans.

That's not so different from Cooks Illustrated, Food52, Panna Cooking and Epicurious. It’s how ChefSteps expresses that mission that makes them stand out. 

ChefSteps aims to become a lifestyle company, differentiating on both content and product development.

They consistently produce insightful videos with a helpful twist on technique. You can also purchase deep-dive video classes on topics ranging from French macarons to fluid gels. 

All ChefSteps content exudes their mission, with thoughtfully researched, written and produced content the hallmarks. Team members feature in the videos (instead of paying talent), which shows their love for their people.

Branding Examples - Joule

They’ve also moved into product sales with the introduction of the sous-vide appliance, Joule. What I love about Joule is that it’s the physical manifestation of the ChefSteps brand. A handheld device controlled by a smartphone app, Joule is modern, streamlined, functional and what looks to be easy and fun to use.

Chefsteps Oyster - Examples of brand development

Every action ChefSteps takes in the marketplace is true to their brand, and they’re a very young company. I know some of Joule’s team and have seen their brand strategy. It’s fun to nerd out and watch how each new thing they do builds on a solid foundation.

Brand strategy speeds up customer loyalty

Lastly, and most importantly, because you’re nothing without your customers, brand strategy creates loyalty faster by locking in on the values your company shares with your audiences. That approach cuts much deeper than a customer persona with pain points, need states and use cases. What do customers value, functionally and emotionally, and how and where will you deliver that to them? 

I’m loyal to Moz and ChefSteps for very different reasons, but they both appeal to what I value. For Moz, it’s data. I value how they teach me to appreciate it and use it to my advantage in my job. For ChefSteps, it’s the nurturing, connective power of food, and the impact that has on nourishing my family.

In my branding world view, the Grand Poobah of consumer startup branding is the fashion company Everlane.

B Startupstrategy Radicaltransparency
Brand Identity Design - Everlane's Transparency

Everlane is all about the promise of radical transparency. They believe that consumers have a right to know how clothes are made, who made them and how much they cost. Hallelujah. Honestly, I want this level of detail for everything I buy. 

I’ve followed Everlane since their launch in 2010. They took one round of $1.1 million seed funding, which is peanuts for what they've been able to accomplish. From launch, they nailed their positioning around a commitment to radical transparency. It is so rare for an early stage company to be so focused with such a direct and emotional story. 

Everlane's commitment is textbook brand strategy. As someone with a love-hate relationship with mainstream fashion brands like Nordstrom, J.Crew and the Gap, I love knowing that when I buy something from Everlane, my money is going to support the growth of what I value.

I anticipate their emails and open every one of them. I willingly sign up for their waitlists. I send them feedback. I photograph and Instagram their packaging. And a high percentage of my daily uniform has an Everlane label. As long as they continue to create beautiful, luxurious clothing and accessories at a great price, I will be a customer. I believe in what they're doing.

B Startupstrategy Everlane

Plan to spend 2-4% on brand strategy

So, the money part. What does brand strategy cost? 

Prices vary depending on how much quantitative and qualitative research you need. For planning purposes, it’s wise to dedicate 2-4% of your seed round to developing a useful and effective brand strategy.  

A 2-4% investment buys you what Eric Ries calls a Minimal Viable Brand (MVB), with a unique and validated point of view on your core purpose and position in the market, your defining personality and customer segments aligned with your values. 

Be prepared for this work to take about 2-4 months. And expect to iterate often. Just like your product or service, brands evolve, too. They must respond to changes in the marketplace (tech, competitors) and the consumer (behavior, attitudes). 

It's an investment that requires consistent deposits of money, as well as the time and energy of your CEO, product lead and marketing people. It will sting, but it will be money well spent on building great culture, competitive advantage and customer loyalty. Aside from innovating on your actual product or service, what else is more important to the longevity of your business than that?