A brand guide for startups

A brand guide for startups

I’ve been doing a bit of advisory work with startups recently as they consider what brand looks like in their early stages of development.

And the question that kicks off those conversations begins the same way:


“What do we need to do to create our brand?”


And sure, there are plenty of people who will happily tell you that they CAN create a brand for you that will launch your new business into the marketplace with a sizzle and a bang.

But don’t be fooled. What you are buying is NOT a brand because the simple fact is you can’t buy one. What they are talking about creating is the basic identity elements of name and logo and marketing communications applications – useful and necessary but a long way from being a brand.

Only YOU can build a brand. Action by action. Decision by decision. One promise at a time. Read any book by entrepreneurs-made-good and the story they tell about their brands is remarkably consistent.

As a startup you start by being deliberate about what you are building. Be clear about your intent and put in place the foundation elements that will over time deliver you a brand. 

First foundation element: Figure out what your core beliefs are.

What is important to you and why – are you like Apple and put design and user experience above all else? What will you trade on and what is a non-negotiable – are you like clothing company Patagonia and protecting the environment is the most important thing even if it means your products will be a bit more expensive?

Whatever your beliefs are, enact them, embed them in your decision-making processes. Hire people who share the same beliefs. Contrary to what many say, I don’t believe you can teach or convince people to share your beliefs, they either get it or they don’t.

Shared beliefs from the outset lead to strong core values downstream and that is the foundation of the kind of “cult-like cultures” that are the hallmark of great brands. That starts on day one.

Second foundation element: Spend time asking yourself what is the motivation behind starting the business – what is your why?

Too many times when I ask that question the answer is “to make money” – well that’s a bit of a given. Even if you are starting a social enterprise or non-profit, being profitable is a condition of staying in business. However, it is the result of everything else you do, not the reason why you do it.

To quote startup guru Guy Kawasaki: “If you make meaning you will probably make money; but if you set out to make money you will probably not make meaning and you will not make money.”

Getting a handle on your why is probably the single most important foundation for your brand. Without it you will struggle to position what you’re doing in your marketplace. You will find it hard to hire the right people. You will continually be pushed around from hype to spin and back again. Taking the time to understand your why will be the single most important time you will spend – and no one can do it for you. Don’t outsource it, don’t even be tempted to.

Last foundation element: Answer these questions,

  • What are we doing?
  • Why are we doing it?
  • How are we doing it?

They will help you to understand and position yourself in your marketplace.

What are you jumping into? Know what else is out there, not so you can copy it, nor so you can “differentiate” against it, but so you can be deliberate (there’s that word again) about what you are doing.

Whether you want to disrupt the status quo, slot into a niche no one else has noticed, or just provide a legitimate option to something already out there, you can’t begin to build your brand if you don’t know your environment.

And that’s how startup businesses build a brand. No magic creative elixir, just understand the foundations of what you believe, why you are starting the business and your positioning in the marketplace you plan to enter. Align everything you are doing to support those things and in a few years you will have something that could begin to be called a brand.

Good luck!

See you next week.


Don’t miss the opportunity to get your brand questions answered by posting them on twitter @michelhogan or emailing me at michel@brandology.com.au.

See you next week with (your question here). 

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. Follow her on Twitter.


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