5 Steps to Building a Brand for Early-Stage Startups

We unpack both challenges and benefits of developing a brand as a startup along with actionable steps to get started.

7.13.21
Article by
Mollie Kuramoto

Most startups understand the value of a great brand. They’re recognizable, actively sought after, and a true competitive advantage when executed well. In fact, pretty much all founders, entrepreneurs, and startup CEOs know that a strategic, genuine, well-defined, and bold brand only adds momentum and long-term value (e.g., loyalty, awareness, fangirls, and boys) to the companies they lead.

Building a brand as a startup, though, is tricky. Creating something great takes time, consistency, research, and a lot of iteration. Startups, on the other hand, have no time, not a lot of consistency, little research, and are still figuring out their sprint cadences. 

So, I’ll start there — with the challenges startups face when developing their brand positioning, messaging, and identity along with the benefits (yes, there are some!), and then end with actionable steps to creating a brand for those just getting started.

The Challenges of Brand Development at a Startup

The biggest, most obvious challenge for startups developing their brand is that they’re operating off of a lot of assumptions. Brand strategists use research, audience data, internal and external surveys, and more as the foundation for defining a strategic brand. Because startups are new (obviously), it’s both difficult to gather these critical assets and trust that the research is good, since things change all the time. 

To sum a few challenges up:

  • Brand development relies heavily on research, and many startups don’t have the amount of research that established companies do
  • Operating off of assumptions and gut is both tricky and entirely subjective
  • If launched through an accelerator or venture studio, moving fast and generating momentum is critical. On the other hand, traditional brand development can take years

The Benefits of Brand Development at a Startup

Contrary to all the above, there are some inherent benefits to developing a brand as a startup. First, you get to create something entirely new. No need to worry about what happens to brand equity you’ve built in the past, how your audience (internal and external) will react to a refreshed brand, or the cost of changing every single asset you’ve ever created. 

That’s freeing. It’s also exciting because the world is truly your oyster. And even though you will operate off of assumptions, you also have a rare opportunity to think as big as you want.

To sum up the benefits:

  • Startups get to create a brand that has never existed before
  • Opportunity to dream big
  • Unhindered by previous brand perceptions, equity, or cost to change all existing brand assets

Now that we’re on the same page about how developing a brand for a startup is a little different than developing a brand for a Fortune 500 giant that has existed for over 100 years, let’s dig into some real steps and advice for building a strong brand when you’re just getting started.

1. Set Your Expectations Early

The first piece of advice? Set your expectations early. I’ve already been doing this for you (see all the above), but it’s critical that you understand not only what’s reasonable to expect from a new brand, but also what a brand needs to accomplish for your startup in year one, year three, and in year ten when you reach unicorn status and all that good stuff. 

In year one, your brand needs to not scare people away. It needs to be clear, consistent, assure prospects that you’re a real company, and showcase that you, at the very least, understand your audience’s biggest pain point or the need in the market (it is why you started the company in the first place, right?). 

In year three, you can add another adjective to the list — compelling. At this point, your brand should start to resonate on a more emotional level with your audience and become a legitimate asset for your company. 

In year ten, you can expect real brand awareness — not just from your competitors but from the industry (your target audience, market analysts, job seekers, media, local press, the Gartners and Forresters of the world) as a whole. You’ve likely been through at least one rebrand or refresh, and may have pulled in a marketing or advertising agency to rethink your strategy, do some research, and share an outside, unbiased opinion. Smart of you, congrats — your brand is probably stronger because of it. 

2. Make Decisions, Then Define It

This is the most difficult part of the process — the moment when you need to make some real decisions. For startups, I empathize with you because this is really hard for reasons we’ve already mentioned: no customers, little data or research, probable pivots in strategy, no real product market fit, and maybe no product at all. 

The easy option would be to make no decision, or wait until the data tells you that you should, without a doubt, run in a specific direction. But things are rarely so black and white, 100% correct or 100% wrong. 

Instead, as painful as it may be, make some foundational brand decisions. Define a mission. Stack rank target audiences (no more than three) along with the value you provide. List your competitive differentiators. Identify and acknowledge the category of the market you play in. And for the love of all who work for you, create a positioning statement and elevator speech.

Lessonly CEO Max Yoder wrote a newsletter a while back where he makes the case for “sharing before you’re ready.” The gist: even if the thought isn’t a completely formed idea, sharing early allows others to weigh in. For startups developing brands, I recommend a similar approach. It will feel scary to reveal something so sacred, but if you’re intentional about learning from others and iterating, the brand will evolve faster. Plus — and going back to a unique benefit of creating a brand that’s never existed before — you don’t have a lot of brand equity to lose. Really.

3. Give the Visual Identity Process Time

If there were a place to slow down during this initial brand process, this is it — visual identity. In this case, I’m referring to things like logo design, typography, color, and more. 

As any of our talented brand designers at High Alpha will tell you, the creative process takes time. Even if you create something compelling in an hour, it’s important to let it sit and see if it’s still great in two days — or how it could be even stronger. 

Additionally, slowing down for the creative process isn’t just a way to play nice with whoever is designing your brand identity, it’s also strategic. As a venture studio that has created many, many visual identities for startups, a less-sexy but often overlooked element is how it scales — across all marketing assets, on the website, in the product, on the app, and more. If you get this part wrong and your logo doesn’t work across all these areas, you may have to rethink your visual identity, which will cost you time, energy, money, headaches, angry team members, etc.

4. Practice Consistency

You’ve set expectations, made some foundational brand decisions, and have a visual identity — now it’s time to put the brand to work.

Candidly, this part is hard for a lot of startups because while all marketers will preach that “everyone owns the brand!”, in the startup-world it rings even more true — everyone does own the brand because everyone is wearing 55 hats at once. As the leader or CEO of a startup, you might also be downloading the logo and placing it *tastefully* in a sales deck for a meeting in 30 minutes. 

The point is, it takes practice to start using — and remembering to use — the new brand. But consistency is, perhaps, the single most important element of marketing (it’s at least top three). From your engineer to your customer success manager, everyone should take the time to learn the basics of the brand and learn how to use it consistently.

5. Evaluate and Evolve

Finally, evaluate and evolve the brand moving forward. As you bring on customers, ask for feedback and listen to what they have to say. I’m not just talking about asking questions around whether or not they like your logo, but rather: 

  • How do they view you? 
  • What do they think you’re good at?
  • What do they think you’re bad at?
  • What value do they get from your product?
  • Who do they compare you to?

Ask your growing team the same questions. See where there’s alignment and where there’s confusion. Then, go back to that pesky brand document with your mission statement, audiences, differentiators, and positioning statement and go to town with a marker.
In my experience, no one has ever gotten anything 100% right the very first time. Brand, like everything in life, is an evolving entity — it should grow as your company grows, and, every once in a while, requires a complete makeover. Don’t view being wrong as a failure — instead, it’s a smart, efficient, and strategic way to make progress against building something truly great.

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