rocketship launching

A few years ago, the CEO of a Europe-based technology startup came to us with a dilemma. His company had a great, first-of-its-kind product – an interactive presentation system that combined dazzling graphics, great flexibility and centralized control. But after some initial success among global pharmaceutical companies, the company hit a wall: revenue growth had stalled, and new markets seemed impenetrable. Fortunately, the CEO sensed what was wrong: not the product itself, and not even the marketing strategy, which was supported by an ample budget. The problem was the brand. Or rather, the lack of one. His company had never defined a compelling and differentiated value proposition for its core product. Absent that, the marketplace didn’t know what to make of the product: what challenge was it addressing? How did it differ from existing (and less expensive) solutions? What was its central benefit – flexibility or control?

No Matter How Great, Your Product Won’t Sell Itself

This client faced a situation common among startups. Entrepreneurs tend to be so enamored of the product or service they’ve created, they assume it will “sell itself.” Get the word out – through advertising, social media, events – and people will line up to buy it.

But “unique” and “first-of-its kind” are not reasons to buy. Even a seven-figure marketing budget won’t be effective without a compelling, underlying value proposition that tells the marketplace what your offering does, how it’s different – and better – than other available solutions, and why it benefits them. In other words, even startups with a hot new offering need a brand.

Look Outward for Answers

Effective brands convey the one thing that only you can do that your customers will miss out on without your product or service. Defining what this is involves soul searching – asking yourself and your team tough questions. It also involves looking outward, at the marketplace, and asking your prospects what they’re looking for and how your offering meets their needs. There is very often a misalignment between what the company thinks the marketplace is looking for and what the marketplace in fact desires. Tech startups are particularly vulnerable to this sort of inside-out thinking; though they may be seasoned executives, they haven’t had much experience “out there” in the marketplace with their new offering, talking to prospects, gathering intelligence on competitors, gauging market dynamics.

The founder of the tech startup mentioned earlier was convinced that the exceptional graphic capabilities and flexibility of his product was the key selling point. But when we talked to sales directors of global companies – who were the buyers, if not the users, of the product – they told us what excited them was centralized control. That became the basis of the brand, which led to a significant uptick in revenue.

Does Your Brand Personality Appeal to Your Audience?

An effective brand also determines the company’s personality, which is critical to establishing a close and sustained relationship with prospects. Are you an aggressive company … or a caring one? Collaborative or authoritative? A lot of startups come out of the gate projecting a disruptive, cutting-edge, smartest-kid-in-the-class personality. And they may well be disruptors in their category. But an aggressive disruptor may not be what the marketplace is looking for. Consider Airbnb. It certainly disrupted the hospitality industry, but its brand is about reassurance and caring; it signals that you can stay in a stranger’s home without fear.

A Logo is Not a Brand

Brand strategy and personality are reflected in, and communicated by, the startup’s visual brand, including its logo. Unfortunately, a lot of startups conflate brand with logo. They rush to create an eye-catching logo before they’ve determined what that logo is meant to communicate. Having a logo seems to convey a sense of legitimacy on a company, particularly a newly-hatched one. But a logo rushed out before the brand strategy is established too often reflects where a company is, not where it wants to go. Young companies that come to us for a new brand often have visual identities, including logos, that all but scream “startup.” Through the process of developing brand strategy, a startup will clarify where it wants the company to go, how it wants to evolve and grow. This vision forms the basis of the visual brand.

Define Brand at the Beginning

When should a startup begin creating a brand? In a sense, the brand should develop organically with the company itself. The questions an entrepreneur asks when developing a new product or service are similar to those a brand strategist asks. What is the unmet need this product or service addresses? Who is the target buyer? Realistically, however, the branding process typically comes after the offering is ready for market but just before the offering is launched.

A Great Start, a Solid Future

There is an old saying that is quite relevant to startup branding: you only have one chance to make a great first impression. A fresh offering that truly addresses an urgent, unmet need may attract a lot of attention in the short run. But only identifying and communicating a deeper, often emotional value proposition or benefit will make a profound and sustained connection with the marketplace.

To learn more about creating compelling messaging for a startup brand, contact us.

About the author

Seth Margolis

Seth Margolis is a Senior Strategy Director who has spearheaded branding efforts for financial services, professional services and technology companies, as well as for not-for-profit organizations.

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