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Branding Fundamentals for Successful Startups

by David Laufer

Eureka: So, you’ve got a brilliant, disruptive, innovative business concept, and you’re ready to start building an exceptional organization around it. In a perfect world, you would have the cash to hire a blue-blood legal team and a red-hot branding firm, and roll out your identity out, fully media-ready, from day one.

Make clean code: Creating a solid brand is analogous to creating code: Clean, well-conceived code runs great; sloppy code, nothing but trouble later on. Same with branding: It’s much harder to fix a poorly crafted brand after it is out in the public consciousness, yet it is surprising how many companies do just that. So often we hear some variant of this lame refrain: “We know our brand isn’t right. Nobody here likes it. But it’s out there, and if we change it, we’ll lose our brand equity–nobody will know who we are.” It’s faulty reasoning, yet it holds down the growth of too many otherwise worthy companies. Please sidestep that mess!

Foundations: What if the funding isn’t in place yet, and you still need to get your brand going? Until you can get a professional branding relationship going, here are some tried and true fundamentals that will help you make good choices early:

  • Revenue vs. Equity: Your business idea is how you make revenue and profit. Your brand, on the other hand, is how you get paid for the risk, the hard work, and the personal sacrifice of starting your own show. There is no reason to invest in building a brand unless you can a return of at least 100 times your investment. You won’t have customers without a good product and pricing; similarly, you won’t be able to sell your equity stake for full value, without a strong brand portfolio. Understanding this relationship is the basis for all the other steps.
  • Branding is a long game. It’s not a matter of ‘one, and you’re done.’ You build, adapt, refine, and update it over multiple market cycles. In the same way you create a financial pro forma for your business model, I encourage you to create an outline that explains, in very simple terms how you would like your company to be perceived. Different branding gurus have different names for this step, some call it “discovery,” others “the platform;” at Brandbook, we call this a “Branding Brief”—the basic idea is to distill down to its essence what makes your outfit unique, state persuasively its driving convictions and passions, explain how it transforms lives. Out of this come all the other choices.

A sample of a specific type of branding brief we use in positioning expertise-based enterprises. This one is from the recent rebranding of the Oral History Association, an academic organization with international membership.

  • Branding is a tool: Branding isn’t only what your company looks like; it is a tool for monetizing the value in every aspect of your new organization—including some that might not be obvious at the outset. Let me give you an example: I did a startup branding package in 1997 for a solo entrepreneur- one person, a laptop, and a visionary idea to transform the process of building. In doing the exploratory interviews, we realized that, even though there was only one revenue model, he had a unique analytical method worth promoting and protecting. We created a master brand for his company, with a separate but related trademark for his proprietary process. Within 5 years, he had productized this process as SAAS and sold it to a larger company; this helped him capitalize the expansion of his core business.
  • Basic Components: In start-up mode, keep your public image simple and consistent. To stand the best chance of success, a startup brand needs to look stable and sure-footed. That means controlling the things you can control, making them consistent but not rigid. For example:
  • Typography: Pick a typeface family and stay with it for your startup stage. The easy thing is to pick one that is standard; Arial, Times, etc. If you go this route, you will have no trouble matching fonts regardless of the communications channel you need, so you will get consistency–but not much recognition. If you’re in a market space where recognition is important, using one of the everyday standard fonts probably won’t get you there; so consider adopting one that is less commonly used so you get some uniqueness to your communications. It should have at least 8 fonts in its family—light, medium, bold and black with a roman and an italic for each weight- this will give you enough of a visual vocabulary to cover most of the things you will need. I recommend a clear, simple sans serif. Avoid a typeface with funky personality. Especially avoid using a multiplicity of fonts.

An example—by no means the only one— I like currently is SignaPro, a very simple, legible font family that has both serif and sans serif versions in the same family, and a variety of weights. It’s also available in type-kit and open-type formats, which provide a pathway to professional results as you grow. It takes a professional eye to pick an ensemble of type faces that really expresses your company’s ethos, so in startup mode, keep it simple, strong, legible, with just a breath of uniqueness, and strive for consistency. This is one of the easiest things—and most powerful—you can do to create a visual identity for your brand—yet one of most often missed. Keep to this discipline and succeed!

type2The Path of Least Resistance- Standardize on one of the everyday fonts that load on every computer. This makes consistency easy, albeit at the sacrifice of personality or uniqueness. If you’re self-administering, better to start with a consistent but bland image than one that’s scattered.


type 3Understand—I’m not saying these are bad fonts, or that they are never appropriate. Just that, in start-up mode, especially if you ‘self-admin’ your brand, avoid fonts that are too extraverted, or that have fewer than 4 weights.


type1SignaPro is just one of a number of recent sans-serif families that strike a good balance of uniqueness and legibility; also have a large enough family of weights and special characters to go global easily. You’ll have to pay a few hundred bucks for the font license, but it’s possibly the best initial investment in your brand you can make.

  • Naming: Most of the really cool names, and a lot of lesser names that you will think of for your company, are already owned. Get over it! Be prepared to dream up a long list of 100-200 candidates in order to get 2-3 that are unowned. When you get your long list, use one of the global databases of trademarks to check availability. I like Thomson Reuters Compuscan to cull the list and verify that what you want is not already in use. Using such a database can cost you a thousand dollars, but that’s a lot cheaper than a costly fight with another firm that claims primacy over the name you have already invested in! Fewer letters is better than more, words with interesting aural rhythms are good. Pick a name you can own as a URL and trademark—even if it is a nonsense word—you must have something you can own and defend.
  • Cooler color: Black and white are a de facto part of your brand’s visual appearance—for some startups, B&W is the only color scheme needed. If you do need color, choose a dark neutral and a bright color. Think of it like a dark dress outfit with a bright scarf or tie. A branding professional is likely to pick a more nuanced group of colors for your brand when you get there, but for now, we’re talking one nice interview outfit, keep it simple.

Study your universe: here’s a simple exercise: Search the brands marks of several dozen firms that are in the general industry you’re in. Even if you’re completely disrupting an industry, your potential customer base is still seeing you as being part of that industry. (To their customers, Tesla is an automobile company; Uber is in the same business as the legacy taxi companies.) Make a grid of these brands. What you then have is a rough consensus of the brand universe for your industry- the backdrop against which you will be seen. So if you’re a total renegade, pick a color that falls outside the consensus. If you want to use the color to make customers feel comfortable choosing your brand, pick a color scheme that’s squarely within the consensus universe.

Here’s a portion of a consensus universe I assembled for a customer in the data network space. You can see blue, red, and black are well accepted and trusted. No purple, no yellow, orange, brown. Because your future customers already have ideas about who’s trustworthy, their consensus opinion is more important than your taste. This exercise is crucial in making an informed choice and staking out a solid position for your new brand.

Symbols: Until you’re working with a professional branding firm, we recommend you skip doing a picture or symbol for you brand. Even if you can do something great on your own—which is harder than it looks—someone else probably already owns it. The world is crowded with brand images. Trying to find a symbol that is both appropriate to your mission and available is a costly process that will bog you down if you try to do it yourself—the greater peril is that you have to withdraw or pay royalties for your new symbol because someone has a prior claim on something “confusingly similar.”

SUMMARY: So to stay focused on your core mission, Get a good name, vet it to ensure you can own it, pick a strong simple color scheme, and a bold typographic treatment of it. This will get you out of the gate quickly. You can always add symbols, patterns, tertiary colors, and winged monkeys as needed later, as part of your professionally generated branding program.

Sanity Check: Time-to-market is everything; startups can’t always do everything in the ideal sequence. I do emphasize the importance of having an outside branding relationship for two reasons: First, it is very hard to see yourself objectively, even harder to express the essence of your idea in a media-friendly way. Second, your new venture’s management will be drinking from the fire hose. Branding is complex, and offloading it to a professional frees up your time for mission critical tasks that you alone can do. Your angel or VC team can advise you on timing for this step. The good news is, Atlanta is a global center of excellence for branding—there are many outstanding firms at all skill levels and price points to help you succeed.

Wrap: Your brand is a picture of the promise you make to the world. To make the picture, you have to articulate the promise as clearly as you can. Stay with these foundational guidelines to keep your startup brand simple, clear, and consistent. Balance consistency with flexibility. Review and manage it as you would any major asset. The payoff, over the lifecycle of the brand, can be enormous.

About the Author: David Laufer is Managing Partner of BrandBook LLC, an Atlanta based design firm specializing in branding for expertise-based enterprises. He’s a past president of the National Investor Relations Institute, and a founding trustee of AIGA-Atlanta, the professional association for design. He currently serves as a design consultant to the government of Indonesia and has more than 100 branding programs to his credit. His book Dialogues with Creative Legends, published in English by Pearson in 2013, also debuted in a Chinese edition in spring 2015.

[Photo Credit: Photo of the Author]

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