The unique importance of brand to startups

March 17, 2020

Brand is often misunderstood by startup founders, particularly by those who don’t have a branding and marketing background. They often think of branding as something not core to their business plan, something to be done later, after they are successful. 

Or they brand early on but make a critical mistake by branding too specifically. Then when they have to pivot they have to start their brand strategy all over again.

So how can startup founders develop a brand strategy on day one when they have both very limited resources and an unclear roadmap that may require pivoting in the future?

Challenge the insanity of the norm

For answers to these questions I spoke with Ernest Stabek, CEO of SIP Management Consultants, who helps people translate and adapt business strategy into realistically achievable and positively-driven action.

Ernest works with startups, scale-ups, small businesses that are seeking to improve themselves, and sometimes divisions of large businesses. He says he encourages people to be themselves and challenge the insanity of the norm. Getting people to see beyond their own vision.

‘For me, brand is often confused as simply a logo or piece of paper. But brand is a mechanism for which you can create value and differentiate yourself. Most of the C-suite that I talk to struggle to understand the value of brand. I don’t think people realise the impact it can have on reputation. The flow-through effect on intellectual property and strategy.’


Brand is a building block

‘For startups and scale-ups I think brand is critical because it’s one of the building blocks required to establish any real business. Startups are often formulated from a simple idea or concept, or some form of technology. Founders identify a problem and look to address that, and often that can be quite disruptive. Brand, as a building block, is no different from setting up a bank account or establishing a corporate identity.

‘Most startup founders have a great passion for what I call the efficiency side of the equation. So they’re really good at building and creating something, but the value side gets lost. Do they understand who their customers are and are they able to articulate in simple layman’s English their value proposition? 

‘Sometimes you get founders who have a brand and marketing association, but they’re rare to find.

‘For startups to survive they need funding, and to attract that funding they need to have something unique and they need to protect it. So I think brand is a critical element in the protection of the initial idea they are creating. How you differentiate yourself from what’s already in the marketplace.

Brand = clarity

‘A brand strategy provides clarity of thinking to the founders. That’s the number one takeaway.

‘Branding gives startups an opportunity to associate with those whom they might want to partner with in the future, and helps them create a unique reputation for the business. And sometimes it’s just purely for alignment for a potential exit they are seeking for the business, which might be through trade acquisition or an IPO.

‘Patent and trademark, that’s where brands kick in. So what do you have, what’s your unique descriptive character and how do we lock that down so that we don’t have copycats coming along?

‘It’s almost like a QA checklist that you go through when you work with startups to ensure that they have the minimum available, particularly for anyone seeking to attract funds. Making sure their story is articulated well, and the complexities are visible, because anyone handing over money wants to understand the risk they’re taking. And they know the risks are huge in startups. They like to see there’s been a level of what I would call “professionalisation” in the initial stages of forming the framework for the startup business.’


Some brands get it right

When I asked Ernest to name some startups that have got their brand strategy right, he said Fine Defender, a website where you can appeal unfair fines, and Aplas, a software mapping platform that has recently invested in brand and gone through the rebranding branding process, positioning itself for growth into the US.

Ernest emphasises the brand strategy needs to be reviewed at different points in the journey.

‘Brand is like any other asset that you’re building. If you do it early, then it’s something that you refine, refresh on a regular basis to ensure that it’s in check with the market. I think it’s a critical step, an essential element to be developed and nurtured throughout the journey. It’s no different to any other regular half-yearly, or quarterly review item that should be on the agenda.’


Learn, remember, engage

And what three tips would Ernest give startups regarding their brand strategy?

1. ‘Educate yourself about the fundamentals of branding.’

2. ‘Don’t forget brand when you’re setting up the organisational structures.’

3. ‘Engage with brand early. Dig deeply because the reality is not always what you read. There are lots of lessons to be learned.’

Ernest Stabek can be contacted via LinkedIn

This blog post was inspired by an interview between Darren Taylor and Ernest Stabek on Rebranding Branding: The Podcast – Discover your brand mojo. If you would like to hear the interview, listen or subscribe here.

Picture of Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor

MD & Head of Strategy and Research

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