Brand Early, Not Often

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As a branding and design consultancy, there are few things more exhilarating than being involved with a startup. But I have also seen some recurring challenges. Namely, when a client is starting a business, everything is top priority, and it is often easy to think "logo" and "design" should come later.

Putting aside the fact that a brand is much more than a logo, we acknowledge that there are cases in which the success of a business does not depend at all on its branding. These are typically businesses that have a proprietary offering (usually technology) that’s so strong and so unlike anything that’s come before that people will use it regardless of how it looks and makes them feel. Or, you’re a monopoly.

But both of these cases are rare. In most scenarios, while a business may not need strong branding to get off the ground, its chances of becoming a smash hit are greatly magnified by investing in their brand—in the form of sharp creative strategy and great design—from the beginning.

We’ve heard a wide range of reasons for de-prioritizing branding and design in the early phases of a business, and these justifications tend to fall into one of three buckets. Each of these arguments has some merit, yet I believe in most cases can ultimately be refuted.

1. "We understand the importance of branding, but right now we have to focus on other things."

This one is tough. When you’re a startup, you’re not dealing with an annual marketing budget. You are making huge spending decisions that are all coming out of the same pot. And these choices can be even more difficult for startups with funding, due to the additional set(s) of eyes on the bottom line. That said, doing it right the first time absolutely saves money in the long run. We have had at least three client projects that were "cleanup" jobs—a business that tried to get away with cheap (or free) branding, and realized, usually within the first year, that what they had wasn’t cutting it strategically or creatively.

Branding, done right, is a rigorous process. Shortcuts almost always end up costing more in the end. It’s no different than taking the time and money to set up a proper operating agreement or invest in efficient machinery that won’t break down. Investing in great branding and design from the start establishes a foundation for your business, and pays back tenfold.

One of our clients, Behance, is an online platform that showcases and helps users discover new creative works; it's also a wonderful example of a design-driven startup that has seen incredible success. Although the majority of their products exist online, they have never let technology purely lead the way—the design team plays a major role in every decision. And as a result, they have quickly grown to become the world’s leading network for creative professionals, with over 30 million page views a month.

2. "We just want to get it out there; we’ll see what sticks and make changes as we go."

If you were showing up to a job interview, would you neglect to research the company’s history, dress sloppily, not spell-check your resume, and perhaps not brush your teeth that morning—because as they get to know you, they’ll see what a swell, qualified guy you are? You get one chance (if you are lucky) to make an impression with consumers, to stick in their minds. Yes, you should constantly be improving on your offering, but if you don’t establish a loyal audience from the start, no one will be there to see (and talk about) these changes. And the most surefire way to build loyalty is through a strong brand that connects with people, especially if you are still testing and adjusting features.

Look at the success of personal finance site, purchased by Intuit for $170 million just two years after launching at TechCrunch40. Yes, Mint is an incredibly smart, inventive product idea that turned a stale industry on its head. But the company also understood the importance of clean, intuitive design from the start, as evidenced by this article by their former lead designer Jason Putorti.

3. "Our product speaks for itself. Our [fill in the blank] is simply better than the competition."

When I was in middle school, we had a blind cola taste test (not entirely sure what the intended educational purpose was, but what I learned stuck with me). The contenders were Coke, Pepsi, and RC Cola. Everyone had their bets as to who would win between Coke and Pepsi. And guess what? RC won by a landslide. Everyone in the class preferred the taste of this brand that I don't think you can even find anymore in the U.S. Even in the realm of technology, competitive advantages that you perceive as game-changing are often irrelevant in the minds of consumers. Look at the iPhone compared to, well, any other smartphone with more offerings and better service. The obsession with the "iPhone" brand, at the expense of functionality and features, is so overwhelming and irrational that it inspired this hilarious, very NSFW xtranormal video.

But beyond any of these examples or refutations lies the heart of the matter: my earlier assertion that branding is much more than a logo. Yes, you can get a logo online for $300. But a logo does not a brand make. A brand is much bigger than its executional elements. Building a "brand" means taking the time to figure out what drives your target audience—what they truly care about, deep down, at the most fundamental level—and finding a way to connect with those feelings and needs, through language and design. Establishing this point of connection, beyond rational benefit, requires that you really ask yourself what your audience wants, and craft a creative brand experience around these insights. It’s about putting your consumer first—above your product features, above your personal beliefs or suppositions, and then harnessing the power of design. Can seeking this understanding and connection with your consumer wait?

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[Image: Flickr user Steven Zucker]

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