To Thine Own Brand Be True

In order for people to buy into your brand, you have to know who you are. You must convey to them that you truly understand the problem you are trying to solve and that you care about their experience. But, unfortunately, startups don’t always think about this from a consumer perspective. And for this reason, they often miss key opportunities for growth or fail.

An exercise in self-reflection can help any startup founder achieve better insights into their consumer’s point of view. At some point in your life, I am sure you have taken time to reflect: you’ve thought on what you want out of life, what your personal virtues and flaws are, what you have accomplished to date, and what you would like to contribute to the world. Such contemplation is crucial to your personal growth and development—and to that of your brand.

Small and large companies can lose sight of themselves because they are chasing something that isn’t core to who they are. So it is just as important for companies and brands to undertake the same exercise of reflection and understanding. It takes a small time investment, and very little money, to avoid three basic branding mistakes your company is probably already making.

1. Choose Your Company Name Wisely:

Companies and products evolve, so when choosing a name for your company or product (which may be different) think about the experience, not the action. Your name doesn’t have to be obvious either—one need not know exactly what your company does from its name. Did you know what Google did the first time you heard its name? The search company recast the spelling of a 101-digit number. Try not to pick a name that is too deep in English vernacular—you’ll end up spending more money on SEO than necessary.

Foursquare didn’t call itself “CheckInHere.” Its founder, Dennis Crowley, knew he wanted to create an experience. Heck, he knew this when he developed the precursor to Foursquare, Dodgeball, before the full experience was even possible! He named both after the experience he was trying to create (and a mild obsession with schoolyard games). But that is why it worked. It was true to the experience he was creating.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If you are building a simple experience, a simple name works. But, understand the limitations of that name. “TextsFromLastNight” (a site I highly recommend) has a simple function and a simple experience. And over the years, they haven’t tried to push it into something it’s not. This is why their brand name works.

Don’t choose a name that pigeonholes you to just one product. Instead, choose a name that speaks to the experience you are trying to build. Choose a name that conveys an evocative emotion, not simply lays out what your company does.

2. Know Thyself

The ability to define your core values as a company, not as a product, is critical. And if you’re doing it right it should affect the way you do business. This is where that self-reflection comes into play. (e.g. Why does this business exist?) I almost don’t need to give you examples here because there are so many familiar ones out there. You can instinctively feel when companies do this right: Nike, Zappos, and Instagram. And you can also feel it when they lack an identity: Reebok, Yahoo!, and Color.

Create a checklist of what you stand for and the experience you are trying to create. If any action your company (and the people in your company) takes doesn’t match up to one of those values, you shouldn’t do it. This goes for partnerships, new hires, marketing, product innovation, an office move—everything.

3. Create Room to Pivot:

If you’re doing the first two correctly, this last one should come easily. There is a 100% chance something you set out to do will change in the life of your startup. It may even change drastically. Just as we evolve and grow as people, so do our brands and companies.

LocalResponse started as a local merchant listening and response tool, and pivoted into a full on advertising platform and SAAS dashboard for national brands. Their company is more successful because of this pivot. They welcomed the pivot because they could see how the change aligned with the building blocks they created—and could see the benefit to the overall experience they were trying to create. The experience, to their consumers, still feels local. A great example of a good name and pivot!

The product you set out to build may pivot into something else completely. Know that this is going to happen. Don’t resist it. Welcome it. This isn’t a failure—this is growth. As long as you don’t abandon your core principles, you are heading the right direction. (And you’ve already chosen a broad enough name to allow for this pivot—so you don’t have to start from square one and re-brand!)

Branding is about storytelling. Take the time to define these core elements of your brand to ensure that you understand them from your consumer’s perspective. Don’t be afraid to change your name to help your consumers understand your story better. Define your core values and pursue a roadmap based on those values. This will help you know what’s wrong with your model, and you’ll get clearer perspective when you need to evolve, re-brand, or even re-launch.

And, in the long run, you’ll spend a lot less money trying to explain who you are.

Megha Desai is founder of Marketing. Strategy. Dharma., a brand development and branded entertainment firm based in New York City. When not telling brands how to be better, you can find her singing classical Indian songs, cheering the New England Patriots, or tweeting @Meghatron5.

[Image: Flickr user Toxicboy]

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