Start Ups, Start with Your Brand
When is the right time for entrepreneurs to invest a little in brand in order to get ahead.
by James Byrne, Executive Director Marketing & Reputation, Dragon Rouge London
Some of the most successful, exciting and most relevant brands that come to mind have been created from scratch in the last twenty years. Think Spotify, Uber, Whattsapp. They didn’t exist in 2005. Yet they’re up there in the minds of consumers like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Boots, brands three to ten times as old as them, in terms of consumer awareness.
Growth and scaling up is the ultimate goal for all entrepreneurs starting out. But to get there, come the pitches to investors, at seed funding round, Series A, Series B and beyond. In many cases angel investors are getting involved from the offset and are looking out for solid brand expression and communications, and they will all be asking ‘are the brand’s audiences super clear on the proposition and what it stands for?’
To be able to answer that, start-up businesses need two things. A brand strategy and a brand identity.
You need a brand strategy — a tight, coherent way to define your purpose, what you do and the experience you deliver. And you need a brand identity — the design assets that embody that strategy, created to connect with your audience.
By defining your stories in a clear and compelling way, finding the right message and voice to cut through to your audiences, and creating brand identities that bring it all to life with impact, you can rest assured that you’re giving your product/service the best chance of success with investors and all other audiences thereafter.
“Why can’t I do it myself, though?” said the entrepreneur behind the start-up to himself. “I know what I’m all about, and no-one can say it better than me.”
You need a brand strategist who can see your business and proposition versus the competition within the market context from an external perspective, and a writer to finesse the copy to tell your story in the right tone of voice. You need a designer with experience of working across multiple sectors who can deliver a brand design that reflects your newly defined brand strategy and that is relevant for the business you are in.
If start-ups do not have that clear brand identity, their businesses will struggle to connect with customers and secondary audiences, as they will not feel consistent. The message will feel unclear with those that interact with their businesses.
So the question then becomes, when is the right time to invest in brand? Start-ups have limited funds that come in waves following-successful funding rounds. They have other very important things to worry about when planning to grow and scale up. These include, amongst others, hiring the right people at the right time, staggered over time as you go, without over-investing in people. Then there’s expanding — perhaps moving office, and all the logistical challenges that go with it. There’s R&D — perhaps testing a new piece of technology/coding, or creating a new consumer product, with the supply chain around it. There’s manufacturing (for those producing a physical product) and the considerations that go with that. And finally, but importantly, there are the legal considerations — to avoid any potential disasters and being shut down for infringement etc.
So marketing spend is not the only dilemma when weighing up funds and investment timing. The product or service category the business is entering/competing in will be a large determining factor.
Certain categories require a full brand identity for launch. For example, physical stores, restaurants and small service businesses need a fully implemented identity. Consumer packaged goods also need to be well designed in order for investors and potential stockists to be able to visualise the brand being desirable and successful.
When I met Tom Warner of Warner gin for the first time in 2012 (then Warner&Edwards gin), he came to the agency I then worked for with an idea for a product, and a great entrepreneurial drive and passion. He was giving up a safe corporate job and a lot of people he knew thought he was crazy. Even some of my colleagues in the same agency didn’t buy into the idea. But Tom knew that he needed experts to create the brand for him, and that with the help of experts to craft the right story and a compelling brand identity, the venture could be a success. We created the brand for him on a limited budget, with a tight team of a senior strategist and design director with a creative director overseeing the work. Tom took the newly branded Warner & Edwards gin to retailers and top bars with a considered narrative to tell and highly relevant pack design, and together with his passion and a great tasting gin, he was able to make it the success it is today.
Super premium and luxury brands must launch with a decent brand identity. Consumers in this space will simply not take a new product seriously if it does not look the part.
Other sectors, such as high tech start-ups, benefit from a strong visual identity, but do not necessarily need the finalised most beautifully finished end product when pitching to investors. CB Insights’ website https://www.cbinsights.com/research/billion-dollar-startup-pitch-decks/ is a wonderful reference to some early pitch decks of what are now billion dollar companies before they became household names. Many of these brands have an idea of where they were going in terms of visual identity, but have since evolved to a more professional, dynamic look and feel that’s adapted to new digital touchpoints as they have been updated with time on newer hardware.
Solo entrepreneurs can slowly grow their brand identity organically as they progress through the initial stages of maturity of their business. So many businesses evolve after launch, that they often end up taking a slightly different direction to the original business plan.
So then, you might be thinking it’s never too early to develop your brand. However, it’s not worth investing in quality brand strategy and identity work until you’re clear on what your offer is, who your target audience is, or if you think your business model is going to change significantly within the first year or so. That said, those businesses in this situation are probably not in a great place for business success anyway. The main thing to know is that there is a need for your product and service, and that there are customers out there will to spend money on it.
Start-ups should invest in design rather than production. For investor pitch decks, start-ups tend to take 15–20 slide presentations to tell the story of the new business and opportunity, so there is a lot riding on this. The brand strategy definition should enable the core story and how it should be told, as the pitch deck will tend to start with the company overview (including the people behind it) and company mission and vision, before going into the opportunity, with market and competitor analysis backed up by stats. The brand identity needs to be consistent across the whole pitch deck.
At Dragon Rouge, we have developed a package for growth businesses covering the fundamentals of brand strategy and identity, which we have called DR Catalyst. This includes immersion into the business and market, defined brand strategy assets, and core brand identity assets (logo/typeface/graphic assets/character). This provides the basics of what the brand owner needs to apply the new branding for pitch presentations, as well as other key touchpoints — whether it be websites, social media posts, trade show stands and brochures etc.
On some occasions, specific formats might be required. I recently had the pleasure to attend The Founding Network’s pitch evening event, where promising young growth businesses pitched against each other to VC firm reps in a Dragon’s Den style virtual event. The format required for that was a short pitch video, followed by a Q&A and participants voted for the businesses they believed in had the greatest chance of success. Those pitch videos required some production investment, but the basic brand needed to be there first in order to implement to the videos. The most convincing pitches came from those who knew their narrative well, backed up by stats, presented through a slick visual identity.
While some service categories do not need the full brand package for first launch, and although there are many other expenses to bear in mind when splitting initial investment budget, the earlier the brand strategy is defined and brought to life through a dynamic, relevant identity, the greater the start-up’s success from the offset.
Get in touch for more information about our Catalyst brand accelerator.