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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  • John Amy

    I always find that startups have a 'possessive' problem with their business. They see it as something they 'own' and therefore want it to look how they think it should look. The idea of a designer or branding expert telling them what to do just doesn't sit well. I try to explain that the business is something organic, that a design-led business will be more successful, that their brand will need nurturing and that they should be targeting their market with a keen eye on their competitors.

  • Ripe, Inc.

    Good article. Most of which I agree with wholeheartedly. But... we've worked with many companies who've been around for 10-50 years without doing any branding whatsoever. But the one thing they all had in common was that their brand already existed, it was just hidden. Underutilized. 

    In each case, work was done with the company executives, board members and general staff to uncover the very attributes that made them valuable and successful. Then we create a system (face, voice, message & personality) to express them to their current audience and prospective audiences. All of the established companies we've worked with have taken on the branding systems we created, from the top down, and all, without exception, have benefitted tremendously. 

    The problem we've encountered on occasion with start-ups is that there is no existing brand. It's too early. The creative firm is then in the position of creating a system based on how the new company sees itself and where it wants to go, without any knowledge of how it really will be perceived in the marketplace. True, if the brand concept, execution and commitment is strong the company will probably benefit. But we've seen companies who've completely misjudged their audience and have been speaking to the wrong crowd. Once changes were made to the branding system they've caught on like wild-fire but those changes could have only been made once the brand itself had organically evolved somewhat. This is especially relevant with B2C companies. 

    Putting this stuff under the microscope may be pointless, I know, but as branding professionals we think about this kind of thing all day long. So, rather than bore my mates with it at the pub, we can all bore each other here in safe anonymity.

  • Carroll Ray

    Good points. I like your examples, though would question the choice of an iPhone as an example of people choosing brand over substance. The iPhone IS the game-changer and just because another company can build upon what they created and add some bells and whistles does not mean the choice of an iPhone is irrational. To the contrary, Apple has earned that consumer trust, not just because they have a great logo or great tagline, but because they consistently deliver products that live up to their brand promise.

    I've also written on this topic as it applies to medical device startups in my newseltter

  • Daniel Precel

    Emily - great points. THE issue is communicating to customers what a good branding process can do for them, and their customers.
    Obviously, as established brands that approach consultancies do so because there is something that needs to be fixed/changed, the ones we have more problems with are the inexperienced companies. It's like trying to convince a kid that fire burns. What you are trying to avoid is letting him find this out by himself.
    Something that could help with all 3 buckets (and in general) is quantifying what a difference a good brand makes. Not the easiest thing to do, mind you, but when initially meeting with any client, having a rudimentary report about the market and some rough forecasting backed by digits and dollar signs can do wonders.


    Great writing! The problem in general is that the start-ups see everything only from inside, and neglect or underestimate or do not understand the client point of view and experience. And the brand and design is what the client meet first. If there is no energy in this direction the product and the company will achieve the desired market share much slower and more difficult, as there will be no "face", in the manner of clear branding and excellent design, to meet directly and to speak to the customer. No matter how much a product is better than the concurrence, it is only the company that knows it (the view inside) but the client (the experience outside) doesn't, and this should be communicated, so the client finds out about this great product in a fast and clear manner.

  • Kaleb

    Great article.

    "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."

    Do you think what works for the customer will work for employees? I think the internal brand needs to go through just as rigorous an approach as the external one. 

  • Emily Heyward

    Thanks so much Kaleb. I completely agree with you about the internal brand - to that end, when we create a brand strategy it's very important that everyone at the company is not only aware of it, but feels ownership over it. The external brand can serve as a great rallying point for the internal brand, but only if you take the time to bring everyone on board and create a culture of aligned goals.  And without a strong internal brand, I don't think the external brand has nearly as great a chance for success.

  • abhay singh

    A beautiful piece of writing. I feel Branding is being confused with Promotion and Advertisement. Design, promotion and presentation are part of immediate sales process. Branding lives on to tell the tale. the story about RC Cola: the branding mistake was the Suffix Cola. Imagine Samsung Galaxy naming its phone as s-Phone or S-9 Series or similar, that would have been a blunder. Rightly said, branding starts at inception of product or service and should be taken care that it does not get lost in the crowd and refers to qualities in its own way (read Identiy)

  • atimoshenko

    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

    Should this not be the very starting point of everything, even before a business plan is sketched on the back of a napkin? Don't get me wrong – design is obviously an important dimension in this exercise (indeed, taking this approach very quickly makes obvious just how necessary a good visual language is), but companies that consider this as a more peripheral exercise in branding have much bigger problems than cheap or unprofessional visuals.

  • Emily Heyward

    Well said, and totally agree! I think that part of where I'm coming from is that when working with startups, we are getting involved with much more than "visuals": product = brand, brand = product. But you're absolutely right that if the product itself is broken, no amount of branding is going to solve that.

  • BillSKenney

    Great article, we have this same hurdle with some clients. I was able to take away some really good analogies that will help make it easier for potential new leads to see the value. Thanks. 

  • Bette Boomer

    Early on we took time to understand our demographic & how to connect with the baby boomer generation through our brand. We believe we connected & are slowly building our base by staying true to our audience.