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When Should I Start Branding My Startup?

In this hyper-entrepreneurial world, all sorts of businesses are being formed every day. Mostly, we hear about the tech companies. But plenty of service businesses are also being created. New manufacturers are popping up too although, nowadays, those are also likely rely on proprietary, advanced technology. And every entrepreneur, every driving force behind these new enterprises, grapples with the same question: At what point should I invest in branding this new thing? The companion question is, of course: And how much should I invest? My default answer is: Invest as soon as possible because a strong brand will attract investors as well as customers and staff. But that doesn’t mean you should run out and hire a logo designer. The branding process starts long before you get around to designing a logo. It starts way before you should be thinking of a name for your new business or product. Branding starts with knowing your customer. You have to know your customer well enough to understand what purpose they have for your new offering. What role will your widget play in their lives? What do they need you to be for them?

There’s an old adage in business that nobody buys a drill because they want a drill. They buy drills because they want a hole. Whatever it is the new business is selling, that’s the drill. Whatever emotional need the market has for that offering, that’s the hole.

Entrepreneurs tend to fall in love with their own offering. They’re fascinated by their flashy new technology, whatever that may be. They believe their enthusiasm will be shared by the market. That’s what leads them to make horrendous branding mistakes that will hobble the new business for years. They name their business on a whim, often based on the technology or on their own opinion of what they mean to the market.

But a modicum of research would reveal the truth. It would show how their market really feels about this new business. Armed with those insights, entrepreneurs would understand they should probably work with a professional to name their business. But, even if they decided to go it alone, they’d at least know to aim for names that actually mean something to the market. They wouldn’t adopt names that feed their own egos. They’d try to coin names designed to attract customers.

Only once the name is settled should the entrepreneur think about visual identity. Two big no-nos here. Don’t get your girlfriend or your son who is in art school to design your logo. Trust me. As talented as they may be, they don’t know what they’re doing. And don’t get a logo from one of those online logo farms. That’s like getting your legal advice from LegalZoom or diagnosing yourself on WebMD.

Before we move on, let’s take a look at firms that ignore all the above advice. Four or five years down the road they’ll slowly begin to understand that the bad branding decisions they made have cost them dearly. They’ll have nowhere near the market position they expected or deserve. To gain it, they’ll have to rebrand. Only now it will cost them more in terms of capital outlay. And it will cause some confusion in their market. It will take them at least a year to get back on track. But at least, then, they’ll have a strong brand that will drive awareness, demand and revenue. Believe it or not, some management teams will opt to do nothing. They’ll be content to just live with their weak brand. Those are the businesses that may survive but will never thrive. They’ll never be market leaders. They’ll never realize their full potential.

So, when should you start branding your startup? As soon as possible but start at the true beginning: research. Find out what kind of brand relationship your market wants with you and let that drive all your branding decisions.

Next question: How much to invest? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer for this one. It will depend on a lot of factors like how big is the startup’s projected market, how many applications (websites, packaging, retail store design, vehicle livery, trade show exhibits, etc.), how much cash in the coffers, and more. It’s something each startup will have to determine for itself. The research costs. The naming costs. The design costs. What has already been done? What does the startup want to do in-house. Where does it want to bring in professional help?

What if the startup is pre-revenue? What if its still looking for seed money and has only pocket change to invest. Again, don’t go getting one of those cheapo solutions out of your social network or off the web.

Jon Persson, a colleague and really smart brand strategist in Sweden, has a great solution for the unfunded startup that has a name but nothing else.

Step 1 – Pick a professionally designed, tried-and-true, non-decorative typeface. (Not Mistral or Papyrus, etc.) Jon recommends Helvetica.

Step 2 – Select one of the heavier weights. Generally speaking, lighter weight fonts are too weak to serve as logotypes.

Step 3 – Design your logotype. Choose whether it should be all caps or lower case or a combo. Play with the spacing between the letters. Find a look that works for you. Commit to that design.

Step 4 – Choose a color to represent your business. Make sure it’s not already in use by a competitor.

That’s it. You’ve created your own, perfectly respectable, visual identity. And you didn’t spend a dime. Once the VCs start funding you, you can upgrade to something a little more expressive of your brand’s unique personality.

Finally, one last reminder. Start at the true beginning: research.


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