Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

Written By: Dharmesh Shah January 20, 2012

The following is a guest post by Mike Troiano. Mike is a former New York ad man turned venture-funded entrepreneur, now a Principal at Boston-based Holland-Mark. You can follow him on Twitter at @miketrap, and connect with him elsewhere through About Me.

1. What does startup branding really mean for an early-stage company? Is it just picking a name and a logo?

"Brand" is one of those words everybody uses and nobody really understands, so I'll start with a definition.

It's important for entrepreneurs to understand that their "Brand" is the collective emotional response to their product or service. A brand is not a logo, and it's certainly not a URL. Those things are the stimulus, while the brand is the response. It's something out there, in the hearts and minds of the people you hope to sell to.brand

So... Do I think it's important for startups to be thoughtful about the nature of the emotional response that might serve their interests, and try to build a graphic identity designed to elicit that response? Abso-freaking-lutely.

2. Any favorite startup examples that they think are particularly clueful about brand and drawing out the right emotional response?

Sure, a few come time mind right away:

Zipcar a brand we've played a role in since the beginning - isn't about urban lifetstyle, or being green, or collective commerce, really. From day one it's been about Freedom, from both the hassles of car ownership and car rental (Wheels when you want them.) Focus on that emotional value proposition has guided everything from brand identity to vehicle selection at the company, and Zipsters around the world have responded with not just loyalty, but advocacy.

Path 1.0 was a decent execution of an interesting idea, that you could derive more value from a smaller social graph of actual friends than you could from Facebook's comparatively industrial-sized cohort. Problem was, there wasn't anything in the original UI to inspire an emotional response, and the service foundered. While much has been made of the radical turnaround in user experience for v 2.0, for me the result of those improvements is a kind of easy intimacy on the mobile device, something that distinguishes Path from other networks, and is the root of user's newfound enthusiasm for the product.

Instagram is interesting because they got it so right in the product, and so wrong in the messaging. Does anybody really love Instagram because it offers Fast, beautiful photo sharing on the iPhone? Really? I think Instagram helps us notice and share more of what we find beautiful in the world. And I know that promoting it that way would help them grow faster.

3. Speaking of names, how do I pick a great name for my startup? Does it really matter all that much?

I've always thought it matters less than people think.

10% of names are great and that helps a business at the margin, and 10% of names are crap and that hurts a business at the margin. The implication is that 80% of names are not a material driver of brand impact or business success, so sometimes it's just best to get on with it.

For proof of this, there's a great story George Lois once told me, about the first time he heard about a client called "Xerox," in the 60's.

"It sounds like a Chinese laxative," he said. I bet it did to most people, and they did OK.

The point is you can make just about any name mean something to people with great product execution over time. Spend some time getting the tactical fundamentals right - url-friendly, sticky, distinctive, that kind of thing then pick something 3 of your cooler friends think is decent, and move on.

4. What about logos? Can I just hack something together? Use a crowdsourcing service like 99Designs? Or is that a waste of time?

I think logos and the graphical identities of which they are a part matter a lot. They're something the West coast and NY-based guys seem to care about and do way better than Boston-based startups, and that's always bugged me.

Look... in the early going perception is reality for a startup. So is it worth investing a little dough to encourage the perception that you're professionals; that this is a serious and professional undertaking; that you care about design and brand response? I guess there are a few businesses where it isn't. But for the vast majority I'd say it absolutely is, that it's worth investing in a professional identity.

If you're among this vast majority, you want to work toward something smart, not just something pretty. What I mean by that is you want to start by being thoughtful about your brand meaning the emotional response you want your product to elicit as well as any practical ideas or metaphors that will help people understand what you do. Armed with that you should sit down with a reasonably-priced freelance designer to brainstorm some treatments, and keep at it until you hit on something you and others seem to like.

In my experience great design comes from the collaboration between someone with a clear vision for a problem (a thoughtful entrepreneur,) and a professional with the talent and craft to create something great (a real designer.) You just don't get that interaction using the crowdsourcing guys, which is why I think you get what you pay for there.

5. Any tips on where to find a great freelance designer for a startup logo? And, what would you consider reasonably priced?

Try checking the portfolio sites, like Carbonmade. Find someone whose work you admire, then call them to talk about your project. Look for someone with whom you have chemistry, who can bring ideas to the table and not just pictures. And take theiry're advice when they offer it they do this for a living.

Expect to pay $50-75/hour, and to be glad you did.

6. How do I decide what category my startup falls into? Is it better to find an existing category, or blaze the trail of a new one?

The short answer is, it depends, but on balance it's better to pick a category that already exists.

From a marketing communications standpoint, a category is a frame of reference for the buyer. If you think of it that way the value of one becomes clear, as does the time, hassle, and expense of creating your own.

That's not to say that sometimes it doesn't make sense to create a new category, and I've used HubSpot as an example of a company for which it was necessary. For entrepreneurs enamored of that idea, I often follow my HubSpot observation with the question, "So how's your book coming?" That question is usually met by a blank stare, but the truth is that level of commitment to IP is what it's going to take to create a category.

If the opportunity cost of doing that is too much for you, just hold your nose, pick a category, and focus on communicating your distinction within that category in a way that resonates with your target.

7. How much does good branding matter when trying to raise capital? Is smart money really fooled by that kind of this? Will I look foolish for having invested in brandinged in one?

I'll say it again: Perception is reality for an early-stage startup. One can argue  that the world would be a better place if this were not so, if Excel drove more decisions than PowerPoint. But that argument is a waste of time, my friends.

VCs invest in the companies that win over their hearts and their minds, usually in that order. If you're trying to raise money it's important to remember this, and to invest the time and energy you need to court a little loving, and not just a good first look scorecard.

And the same is certainly true for customers, so sooner or later you're going to need to spruce up a bit and look like a brand they want to be a part of. Why not start now?

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