6 Important Things to Consider When Branding Your Startup

A lot of startup founders believe, or have been told, that they need to invest a lot of money in their branding. Yes, you absolutely do need to invest, but you need to invest the right amount of money and effort at the right time. This article will give you a method to follow if you’re thinking about starting a company and know you need a logo and brand identity.

 

Brand ≠ Branding

Brand is reputation.

Let’s get a couple of definitions out of the way so we’re on the same page. Your brand is everything your customer interacts with. That not only includes the name of your company and product, your logo and graphics, but also how your product functions, and even customer support.

“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”

—Jeff Bezos, Founder Amazon

As a point of reference, Uber’s branding is fine, if a little generic. But their brand has suffered immensely because of controversy after controversy. Meanwhile Apple’s branding is also very simple, yet its brand has incredible value because of the beauty of its products and their simplicity, as well as their customer support in the form of “geniuses” in their retail stores.

For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on brand identity, which means a logo and the graphic design surrounding that logo which can include colors, fonts, patterns, icon styles, photo styles, and more. We will also shorthand it to branding.

Fun fact: Did you know that “branding” comes from the tradition of using hot iron to sear a mark onto livestock? (A bit cruel these days, but that is the history.) Those marks were symbols so that cattle and other livestock could be identified by their owners. In other words ranchers applied their logos on their products.

 

Branding Is Important

Bevel effects and drop shadows!

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a handful of startups recently, and a couple specifically on their branding. One of those clients—I’ll share a case study in a future post—came to me because potential investors and business partners were telling him that his business card, slide deck, and marketing materials were amateurish. They did not take him and his business seriously because his branding was awful. He confessed to me he paid $50 for it on a crowdsourcing site.

A good, professionally-designed brand identity can open doors for you and your company, can help customers be accepting of your offering, and can certainly help you appear larger and more established than you really are.

 

Branding Can Be Expensive

Comparing the redesigned Pepsi logo to the sun.

The one thing that startups and bootstrapped companies don’t have a lot of is money. As with anyone with expertise in a field, really good brand identity design firms and designers can charge a lot in fees. Back in 2008, Pepsi infamously paid $1 million for a rebrand. To be fair a corporate rebranding effort is actually incredibly extensive. One million dollars was not just for the logo. Anyway, a decent branding project for a new company could range anywhere from $3,000–$25,000 depending on a lot of factors. Early-stage startups rarely have that kind of cash.

When I was at my former tech startup, we agonized over financial decisions all the time. Strategically investing our money was critical to our success.

 

Start Small

Volkswagen “Think Small” print ad, 1959
First ad for the VW Beetle, by DDB’s Julian Koenig (copywriter) and Helmut Krone (art director), 1959

When you buy your first car or your first house, you start small, don’t you? You don’t immediately purchase a $400,000 Lamborghini or a $6 million five-bedroom villa. Instead you might start with a sensible Honda Civic, and a small fixer-upper.

You can actually do the same with your startup’s logo and brand identity. Until you find product-market fit and gain traction (and thus get more funding), don’t waste your precious money on expensive designers. Instead go ahead and use 99designs, Upwork, or any other crowdsourcing platform. But do choose carefully.

When looking for the right designer on those platforms, consider the following:

  • Look at their portfolio. Have they done similar work for other companies in your industry?
  • Are they asking you the right questions about your business? A logo should embody both the spirit of your company’s core mission, as well as be attractive to your target audience.
  • Commission an entire brand identity, not just the logo. As a starting company, you will need more than just a logo. Make sure you’re also getting a style guide that will detail out the fonts to use, colors, patterns and textures, and any additional guidelines on how to use your new branding.
  • Get business cards designed.
  • Make sure you get scalable vector versions of your final logo and branding assets for future use in marketing materials for conferences, etc.
  • Don’t pay under $500. Don’t pay over $1,000.

When you work with your designer, try your best not to art direct. Just as you know your own skills for your business and industry, this designer—if you chose wisely—knows design. Instead, frame your feedback in terms of how the work is representing your company or how your customers might feel about it. Get this done quickly and don’t overthink it so you can get back to growing your business.

 

Don’t Fall in Love With Your Logo

As with any first car or first home, you’ll eventually move on. Therefore unless your first logo and brand identity were exquisite, be OK with rebranding as soon as you can afford to. You’ll want to rebrand for a few reasons that may include:

  • New understanding of your business. Your startup might have pivoted a dozen times since your first logo. If your business has changed, if you understand it better, a new identity will help clarify that to new customers and investors.
  • New understanding of your customer. Similarly, you might have thought you were targeting young men under age 30, but you found that your customers were married middle-aged women over 40. Maybe redesigning your branding will help you expand your market even further.
  • Better craft. This sounds entitled and like a waste of money, but actually it’s not. Consumers these days understand and can distinguish between great design and cheap design. Upgrade your brand identity when you can afford to, because you can’t afford not to.

If you think your brand has equity in the market, don’t kid yourself. Don’t be afraid to evolve your branding. The truth is your potential market is many times larger than your established customers. Keep laser-focused on growing your customer base.

 

Business Class

Dropbox, Airbnb, and Pandora all evolved their brand identities.

Startups like Dropbox, Airbnb, and Pandora have all redesigned their logos and branding as soon as they were able. They understood the importance of how a great brand identity can actually solidify their place in the market, help them grow even more, and finally add a lot of brand value. You can do the same when the time is right. I can assure you that you won’t have to pay $1 million.

Reach out to a trusted friend who works at another company in your industry and get a referral. Maybe they’ll send you to a local branding firm. Again, investigate the agency’s portfolio to confirm their work is great. Did they rebrand similarly-sized companies or companies in similar stages? Have they worked on any national or global household brand names? A great agency will become one of your most trusted partners. Invest in their work and that relationship.

Also remember that branding should extend to your product experience as well. Your new design agency should also give you guidance on how to revamp your product to best match the new branding.

 

Conclusion

As a startup, don’t invest too early in an expensive branding project. Instead, be strategic about your resources and pony up when the time is right.

Use these three rules if you’re just starting out and bootstrapping your company:

  • Commission a brand identity from 99designs or Upwork. Expect to pay between $500–1,000.
  • Don’t fall in love with it.
  • At your next significant round of funding, invest in a redesign. Commission a well-regarded design agency to evolve your branding so you can grow exponentially.

Good luck!


If you’re ready for a rebrand or UX/UI support, we can help. Contact us for a free consultation.

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