IV. Brand Building for Start-Ups

Part IV of an extended exploration of nature and value of “Branding” and practical discussion of how to create, strengthen and extract greater value from your ‘Brand’

The foundation of successful branding – whether you’re a start-up entrepreneur or leader of a corporate marketing department – is a solid business strategy, solidly executed:

– An offering that promises to satisfy the needs and expectations of your customers

– An organization that consistently delivers the values and experiences you promise 

While branding plays an important role in business strategy, no fancy logo or advertising campaign can overcome the drag of a poorly conceived product, poorly presented. 

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As a start-up, your hands are probably more than full juggling all the details of getting your business up and running.  Fortunately, getting those details right is the first step in building your successful brand.  There are 3 fundamental elements:  Defining your identity, communicating the performance and values you promise to deliver, and execution that fulfills your promise.

Define Your Identity

Your start-up’s first brand building requirement is to clearly define your identify – the character of the company you aspire to be and the nature of the markets you intend to serve.  For example:

– Want to be known as the luxury brand (and earn the right to charge luxury prices)?  Then everything you do – from the way your phone is answered, to your employees’ demeanor and dress, to the appearance of your store, website, signage and advertising, to the way you pay your suppliers – should whisper elegance and respectability.

– If you elect to be a bargain-basement supplier, your customers may tolerate bare-bones facilities and less than attentive staffing, but the bargain hunting customers who flock to you today can just as easily fly off to the new-discounter-in-town tomorrow.

-Aiming to serve mass-market tastes and sensibilities?  Better not plan to switch gears and become the next hot spot for the artistic and avant garde.

Pretty elementary stuff, I know, but a lack of clarity and focus around your identity and the purpose of your business – and the dilution of effort that results – is the Achilles’ Heel of too many start-ups.

Communicate Your Promise

As a start-up, your first imperative is to quickly establish your visibility, credibility and recognition in a noisy, crowded marketplace.  Communications is the start-up’s key branding task, and your goal:

Shape all your formal and informal communications to create a memorable image of the attractiveness of your product and company, and an enthusiasm within your potential customers to spend their $$$ with you.

                The array of communications vehicles available to you is both seductive and confusing:  internet presence and SEO, e-mail and social media, print and TV advertising, seminars and customer meetings, or host of other vehicles for getting your message before the public.  It’s tempting to jump in – and spend tons of money – before you have a well planned communications strategy.  Build yours around fact-based, objective answers to these priorities:

1.  The Audience:  Which groups of people are most likely to buy your product?  Why would a product like yours appeal to them?  Where are they most likely to learn about products like yours?  Who else might influence their decision to buy from you?

2.  The Content of Your Message:  What information (and what emotional appeals) would motivate people in your targeted market segments to try your products?  What do they need to know to find you and complete their purchase?

3.  The ‘Look-and-Feel’ of Your Message:  What will appeal to the sensibilities of the people you need to influence?  How can you create the proper image of your company and product?

4.  The Communications Media:  What mix of communications vehicles is most likely to capture the ‘eyeballs’ of the people you need to influence

Armed with this sort of insight, you’re in position to create a communication strategy that uniquely suits your company, your product and the markets your aim to serve, providing: 

1.  Education:   “Yes, I see what your product will do for me.”

                                “That’s something that would be really valuable to me.”

                                “Now I know where to get one.”

2.  Recognition:  “I remember hearing about your product.”

3.  Motivation:    “Oh, yes!  I want to go get one now.”

If your communications can elicit answers like these, you’re well on the way to success.       

                “More details, more specifics” you ask?  Well, I wish I could, but your business, your product, your customers, and the market environment you’re in are like no others.  A big part of the success of your branding effort will be your creativity and skill in crafting a message uniquely suited to your situation and goals.  Here are some thought-starters to point you down productive communications pathways …

An animated, slapstick TV commercial may be a fine way to sell beer to an audience of couch potato athletes, but it’s not likely to appeal to the well-healed retiree looking for discrete wealth management advice.

Selling a new synthetic lubricant for jet engines demands facts, figures and no-nonsense data, but an ethereal vision of fantasy and hope sells more cosmetics. 

Your grandmother probably won’t learn about new osteoporosis drugs on TWITTER, and it’s not likely that the high school video gamer will see your ad in the local newspaper.

Internet marketing is probably not the most effective way to enroll a high end life insurance prospect, but you can’t afford to rely on 1-on-1 customer visits to promote your fancy cupcakes.

Remember – Effective communications begins with a clear sense of the message you need to convey, molded by your understanding of the needs, preferences and expectations of your intended audience.               

Execute Your Promise

Respect for your brand comes from delivering performance and experiences that satisfy your customers.

Make sure that, from the beginning, your execution is right.  Delivering what you promise is the key to building a strong and valuable brand.

Customers, casual lookers and third party busy-bodies continually balance what they experience against what you promise.  A mis-match between what you promise and what you deliver can quickly become a brand killer. 

– You promise low prices but customers find you’re scooped by the discounter on the corner

– You promise excellent service, but phones and emails go unanswered

– You promise confident professionalism, but show up late for your appointments   

No amount of advertising or fancy logos can overcome the disappointment of a product that doesn’t work, missed delivery dates, unanswered telephone calls, or rude and unresponsive service people.  News of poor products and service spread far and fast, and repairing a bad reputation is no easier for your start-up than it is for a high school outcast.

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