In the startup marketing series, Nathan Monk will address some of the key brand and marketing challenges that startups face as they discover a scalable and repeatable business model. The purpose of the series is to help startups with customer development by demonstrating how integral brand and marketing are to the business model. Follow the entire series on MaRS Commons.

Building a brand identity for a startup is one of the most challenging strategic initiatives to undertake. However, many startups ignore the significance of brand identity as the glue that bonds customers to their product or service and as the fuse that ignites the passion within the founding team and customers. Brand identity is more critical today then ever. As consumers, we are bombarded with messages: we are exposed to 6,000 advertisements on an average day and to more than 25,000 new products each year. According to Alina Wheeler in Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team, brands help consumers break through the choices available in every product and service category.

“Brand will become the single most important tool since the spreadsheet.” – Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

At MaRS, I’m familiar with the importance of brand-building, having worked with over 200 web-mobile startups in the information technology, communications and entertainment practice here in the MaRS Commons. These are the common mis-steps I see.

  • Assuming a brand is a logo.
  • Not testing a brand with customers as part of customer development.
  • Purchasing a URL and igniting the marcom engine before defining your brand.
  • Obliviousness toward brand touch-points and killing brand trust in the process.

First, a brand is not a logo. The word “logo” is short for “logotype” (“logos” is Greek for “word”) and really refers to a trademark. Emblems, monograms and other symbols are also called trademarks. Startups sometimes refer to their logo as their brand, when what they really mean is that it is their trademark. So what, then, is a brand? According to leading brand expert Marty Neumeier:

“A brand is really a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or company.”

This is a big idea for the startup community. It means that startups need to test and validate their brand hypotheses as part of customer development efforts. Remember, your brand is never what you say it is, it’s what they (your customers) say it is. This is important as you create trust with users, a critical aspect of brand identity. I often see startups rush to buy a URL, build a “coming soon” LaunchRock or KickoffLabs page and turn on the marketing engines to promote themselves without having a thorough understanding of their brand and how it adapts to brand touch-points. Brand touch-points represent opportunities to increase awareness and brand customer loyalty for startups. If the message is not consistent across all touch-points, the brand begins to dilute, confuse customers and eventually erode trust. So what can you do as a startup? You can start by answering these three questions and then listening to what your customers say.

  1. Who are you?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Why does it matter?

Here are a couple of great examples of how some companies have answered these questions.

John Deere “We’re John Deere. We make farm tractors and related equipment. It matters because generations of farmers have trusted our equipment.” From this comes the John Deere brand tagline: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” John Fluevog

Good brand-building consists of answering and aligning your team to those three questions, then bridging the gap between strategy, research and creativity. This helps to develop a charismatic brand. A charismatic brand has, according to Marty Neumeier, a “clear competitive stance, a sense of integrity and dedication to aesthetics.” I recommend adapting Marty Neumeier’s five disciplines shown below and aligning them to customer development efforts. Marty Neumeier’s five disciplines

  1. Differentiate: Break through the noise.
  2. Collaborate: Involve employees, partners and customer segments in testing brand hypotheses.
  3. Innovate: It’s a mix of magic and creativity that ignites passion in customers, not logic.
  4. Validate: Test, observe, test some more and, finally, validate all brand hypotheses through MVPs.
  5. Cultivate: Let the brand live and breathe. Make mistakes and be human. Brands that don’t project depth and humanity tend to create suspicion among customers.

Next, and only after you have completed all of the above, are you ready to pick a name and URL for your startup and ignite the brand-building to create identity. Here are some suggestions when going through the process of determining your brand.

  1. Differentiate: Stand out from the crowd.
  2. Brevity: Keep it short and memorable.
  3. Appropriateness: Align with your startup product or service.
  4. Easy spelling and pronunciation: Fhtyeleiowgontheic.com is not good!
  5. Likeability: Would I share it with my friends? Does it evoke passion and likeability?
  6. Protectability: Can it be easily trademarked and live cross-border?

Naturally, we don’t have all of the answers, but following the above steps will greatly increase your chance of successful brand-building and give you the leg up on the competition. Every “big” decision you make as a startup, from attracting to retaining and growing users, should also consider this one critical question: Will it help or hurt my startup’s brand? Enjoy the journey!

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Nathan Monk

Nathan is a Sr. Strategist, Customer Development and Mentor within the Info. technology, Communications and Entertainment (ICE) practice here at MaRS. He is a Champion of Customer Development helping startups navigate the forest for the trees and reduce the risk of failure. Follow him @cowboytweets. See more…