Is it really important to be strategic about your startup brand?
You bet it is!
Guest blog from Mate Kovacs, branding consultant, founder of Water Lily Pond and co-founder of TLA CEE
You know your startup inside out. But have you ever wondered how your brand is related to your startup, product and customers?
When you found a startup and start to interact with people (your users, customers, employees, contractors, suppliers, investors, partners, etc.), you also plant the seeds of your brand – no matter what industry you are in and what stage of product development you are at.
The great thing about your brand is that it can help you forge relationships with people as you progress, and it will ultimately enhance your business. The results are going to be deeper relationships across the board, more and happier customers and better sales.
But without strategic management your brand may not unfold in the direction of its purpose and it never unlocks the bulk of its potential. So it’s up to you to decide whether you want to consciously manage this process. Because it’s your choice how much control you want to take over your brand, or more precisely, over the portion of your brand that your actions can directly (or indirectly) influence.
In this article, we focus on the basics and keep it simple by providing you some inspiration to help you become more conscious of your brand. We are going to briefly discuss the role of branding and what it can do for your startup and product when interacting with your users or customers.
It doesn’t matter whether you have launched your product or you are just about to become an entrepreneur. You may be toying with the idea of founding a startup or you are a startup founder/co-founder with a ready-to-go business plan, developing your MVP to validate your idea for investors. It’s never too late or early to start working on your brand strategically, it will always benefit your startup.
Offer: if you like what Mate has to say, why not head over to our startup products page and book a free consultation with him at Startup Branding essentials
Full article on strategic branding for startups
We are living in incredibly complex and fast-changing times.
These are complex and fast-changing times with myriads of market players, disciplines, tools and media options. In all industries and in every marketplace there is a huge information overload. In this increasingly saturated environment when the noise and the number of touch-points between products and people are soaring dramatically, it’s more and more difficult to connect with customers.
Market players can tap into the power of branding to help them succeed.
In order to increase their chances to connect with customers and generate sales, now, more than ever, startups must be aware of the power of branding and learn to use it to their advantage.
So, what’s the role of a brand, how does it work and how does it relate to your startup and product? Why differentiating the product itself doesn’t guarantee success? What’s branding, when can you start doing it and what can it do for you?
[Note: all references to ‘product’ include both goods and services.]
Beyond differentiation: A quick recap on the basic definition of the ‘brand’.
What are brands and what do they do in relation to your startup and product?
In the process of getting a closer look at your brand, let’s explore first what a brand is in general, based on this terminology: ‘A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other seller’s’.
Yes, the most common understanding about brands is that they can certainly differentiate the products through naming, visual identity, colours, design or a slogan. And differentiation is an essential role of brands, but is that all they do?
Here is a list of some well-known companies. There are some established and mature companies first, which are some of the biggest global corporations. Then there are some growing and younger companies, followed by a few breakthrough startups, some of which are unicorns.
- > Google, Nike, Cola-Cola, Apple, Samsung
- > Amazon, eBay, Salesforce, PayPal, Tesla, Xiaomi, Netflix, Skype, GoDaddy
- > Uber, Spotify, Airbnb, Snapchat, Dropbox, Vice, SpaceX, Slack, Pinterest, Buzzfeed
- > Waze, Lemonade, Stripe, Deliveroo, Flipkart, Github, SkyScanner, WeWork
I have selected these companies because they also make great (and valuable) brands.
Everybody is pretty familiar with the names and logos of the biggest brands here. Most of you could probably mention quite a few products that belong to these brands (company brands and/or product brands) and describe what typical physical attributes or features, such as colours, shapes or design elements, are associated with them. Then you could notice that you have your own thoughts (and probably opinions) regarding them. And if you look a bit deeper, you can realise that beyond those thoughts and opinions, some products may even evoke some feelings in you.
It doesn’t really matter whether there is a chance to use the products, but obviously those feelings and thoughts are more complex and more likely to arise, once one actually tries the products or owns them.
Manage your brand space in the customers’ minds.
So how does this all work? Can your startup somehow manage these feelings and thoughts in your customers’ minds about your brand?
When customers interact with products, they perceive them through the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch) and, as a result, various feelings and thoughts appear in their minds about the products. These feelings and thoughts are based on the tangible and intangible attributes or features of the particular products.
All products have tangible qualities (physical, practical and concrete) that define their functionality, role and value to the customers. There are more substantial tangible qualities (in relation to the product itself) such as a legal firm specialised in agricultural law, an electric car or portable speakers. And there are smaller, more specific qualities such as parking sensors or Bluetooth in cars, gluten-free options in food items or waterproof technology in hiking shoes. From the customer’s perspective, these tangible qualities appear as functional benefits as they formulate their own thoughts, ideas or concepts about the products.
But are these tangible benefits the only reason why customers prefer and choose one product over the other?
Closely related to the tangible qualities, all products have intangible qualities (emotional, experiential and abstract) that define how the products make the customers feel. They can feel the car is beautiful, the delivery service is reliable, the hotel room is comfortable, the wardrobe is spacious and the beverage is tasty. These intangible qualities are translated into experiential benefits for the customers, such as tasting of the soup can make them feel like a child again, using the skincare product can make them feel beautiful and better in their skin, owning the latest mobile phone can make them feel tech-savvy and versatile, and sleeping on the new bed mattress can make them feel supported. These feelings are rooted in instinctive emotions that are the same in all customers, as all humans experience the same basic emotions such as fear, happiness and others. Of course, the feelings are still subjective as they are mixed with the customers’ previous life experiences and ultimately are affected by their thoughts, ideas, concepts or beliefs.
And it’s important to briefly mention symbolic benefits that can appear for the customers alongside functional and experiential benefits. These are centred around prestige, pride and trendiness, which are related to social conditioning, social expectations and acceptance, or self-expression and self-esteem.
To conclude, due to the tangible and intangible attributes or features and the resulting benefits, a unique ‘space’ is created in the customers’ minds for the products via the feelings and thoughts generated by the perceptions through the five senses.
Branding is the process of managing this ‘space’ in your customers’ minds (therefore, let’s call this the ‘brand space’). Thanks to your brand space, your startup and product will not only occupy a significant and differentiated presence in your customers’ minds, but also in the marketplace.
It’s important to mention though, that branding is a complex and adaptive workstream in the lives of companies, especially these days, and it’s filtered through every bit of the company and its product(s). Branding efforts are mainly used in relation to the startup brand, the product brand and marketing communications, but it also flows through the whole marketing mix, via the 4Ps (product, place, price and promotion). It’s involved in everything, including, but not limited to, the creation and selection process of brand name and logo, distribution channels, product features, price and offer strategy, social media strategy, customer relationship management, team members’ personal profiles and company HR.
Product differentiation in itself is simply not enough to stand out in the marketplace and make a lasting effect.
Why is it not enough to simply differentiate your product itself? Wouldn’t that automatically create your unique and differentiated brand space in the customers’ minds?
Product differentiation in the increasingly saturated local and global marketplace is more important than ever. However, as everything changes constantly and so fast, it’s more and more difficult (and in fact, it’s increasingly unlikely) for any companies to come up with unique products. It’s much easier and more prevalent to differentiate the products based on the tangible and intangible qualities, and come up with better, cheaper or more innovative product alternatives.
It’s true that we can see some lucky startups or companies that manage to become true disruptors in their marketplace. But is that enough?
And in all of these cases, the question is how long will the differentiated status last?
- > Having a one-of-a-kind product, even if it happens momentarily, it’s very uncertain and unstable. If there is a source of business there, many others are onto it, whether the creators behind the product know about the competitors or not.
- > Having a better or cheaper alternative to products that are already available in the market may or may not be enough to stand out in the crowd. And even if it is enough, the customers may be looking for something more than just lower prices or something else than just more functional benefits or better experiential benefits. And this is a vulnerable position anyway, as it will not last long until the competitors catch up.
- > Being an innovator is great, but the advantage probably won’t last long based on the exponential growth and speed of innovation adoption in the market. The innovative tangible qualities and symbolic benefits are going to draw innovator and early-adopter customers but the technology (patented or not) will be available and used by others sooner or later in some kind of shape and form.
- > Being a true disruptor of the whole marketplace, industry or product category is a fantastic opportunity that may last for a while, but it has a lot of challenges due to the many unknowns and, eventually, things always change – that’s inevitable.
Managing the tangible and intangible product qualities may not be enough to stand out in the fierce competition and succeed as a business in the medium and long term. Your startup can use branding to influence your brand space in the customers’ minds and achieve a more lasting differentiation for your products. It will also help you attract new customers, generate sales, and grow and retain the loyal customer base by creating an engaging relationship with them.
Branding must be done continually and with consistency. It takes time, commitment and investment from everyone involved, and it must be constantly adapted to the fast-changing market conditions.
It’s always time to start managing your brand strategically.
So you made a decision that you want to take as much control as possible over your brand.
But which is the ideal time point in the lifecycle of your startup and product when you can start being more conscious of your brand?
You can do it whenever you want, but the earlier you start, the easier it becomes for your startup from a time and cost-efficiency perspective.
However, there is some necessary information that you must have in order to start working on your brand strategically. Here is a quick list of the questions you need to answer before starting the thought process about your brand. Hopefully, those who already have a written business plan can easily answer these questions. And for others, it can serve as a brief guideline to help the ideation process.
- > What’s the name of your product and how does it work?
- > What’s unique about your product?
- > What’s the competition like?
- > Who are your customers?
- > What value will your product add to your customers’ lives?
These are just the key points that any startup needs to think about at the start of the branding process. Here is a downloadable checklist for startups that provides an even wider perspective, anticipating what other questions need to be answered later on during the process. Request download by clicking here: Checklist for Startups
Branding can help you create mutually rewarding relationships with your customers, based on true value exchange.
And what can branding do for your startup and product?
Ultimately, branding is there to promote awareness, recognition, trust, reliance and identification with the startup and its product in the customers’ minds. At the same time, it will help generate customer acquisition, engagement, loyalty and endorsement.
Assuming it’s managed properly, continually and with consistency, your unique brand space will help connect your product with your customers, keep it in the top of their mind and help them know what to expect from your brand. Customers will be ready to interact with your brand again and again, make purchases, stay loyal, recommend it to other customers via word-of-mouth and sharing, and advocate for it.
But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the relationship between brands and customers is only in one direction. In order to function properly, it must be a mutually rewarding relationship adding value to the startups and their customers’ lives as well.
The ultimate potential of branding is to maximise tangible brand value, share of life and customer advocacy over time.
Finally, what is the ultimate and long-term potential of brands? Just how much further can branding take your product in your customers’ minds?
A consistent and differentiated brand that is present and available across touch-points and devices, accessible quickly and helpful to the customers at the various points of their journey in decision making will make more acquisitions.
And once acquired, customers want to enjoy personalised recommendations and interactions, and exceptional customer service across their entire journey and relationship with the brand in order to stay loyal. That is why Amazon and Apple are in the top 20 brands in both the US and UK in terms of customer experience.
Then, here are a few examples of everyday products showing how brands can make a substantial difference in preference and price, even when compared with generic or other brand competitors that sell pretty much the same products.
It’s widely known that customers are happy to pay so much for Apple and Nike products despite the high margins that these companies make and the similar or better products that are available cheaper. They are also ready to pay more for branded drugs than generic ones despite the fact that they have exactly the same ingredients. And there is a substantial difference in supermarkets as well, where identical products of generic brands can cost 20-30% less than branded versions.
A cola drink taste test may help explain why this happens: cheaper, generic cola drinks performed worse in taste tests than more expensive brand-name ones (Coca-Cola and Pepsi), even when the actual soft drinks were almost identical. It’s about less fear in the minds of customers, reliance on the familiar product and more rewards thanks to the rewarding process in the amygdala.
Before we finish, let’s look at how deeply brands can be embedded in people’s lives, and in culture and language.
The phenomenon of strong customer loyalty is well known – just look at Apple, Amazon or Google topping the loyalty list – but there are brand fans who even advocate for their brands passionately, believe in their products, actively use them and are highly likely to recommend them to their peers just to help them. Their long-lasting love for the brands is authentic, so no wonder that 92% of consumers trust brand advocates. Both Netflix and Airbnb appear in the top 10 of the most recommended brands in Australia.
Actively listening to the market, identifying customer advocates and collaborating with them is essential for brands in building the much-desired community around them, just like how GoDaddy collaborates with its tribe. Airbnb wants to become the world’s first community-driven brand and it uses customer stories to promote itself, just like Skype or Salesforce do.
Brands participate in local and cross-country culture for a long time, some of them becoming icons that resonate with the dynamics of the society in many countries across the globe. A recent example shows how an iconic brand like Nike can actively influence culture by promoting diversity, not just in marketing communications but also via its products. Yes, today’s customers do expect social commitment and active involvement in the society from brands.
It has a somewhat controversial impact on brand value, but the brand name can even be used as the product name so it acquires a life on its own, also in the language. Usually this happens when the brand is an industry/category disruptor that changes the face of its marketplace forever, so it’s embedded in the society and used widely for several years. ‘Do you have a Kleenex?’ – as many of the US customers refer to paper tissue. ‘Let’s just Google it!’ – used as a synonym to ‘search for something online’. ‘Just put a Post-it on the fridge!’ – it’s the universal name of sticky notes across languages. ‘Photoshop!’ – exclaiming many people when noticing the signs of photo manipulations.
To sum up, your brand can add a significant value to your startup and product: the tangible value is presented in market share, customer share, local/global reach, business assets and revenue. While the intangible value is shown as brand equity based on share of life, popularity, preference, engagement, affinity, loyalty and advocacy amongst your customers.
And branding can help you achieve and maintain a high level of both tangible and intangible brand values.
It’s essential to monitor the activities of direct competitors and learn from other startups, but researching and studying the branding and marketing communications of big brands, growing companies and recent unicorns is one of the most important (and free!) tools that any startups can use when developing their own brands.
Tap into the power of branding and increase the chances that your startup and product will succeed – key takeaways
Now let’s answer the question that we started with in the introduction, about how your brand is related to your startup, product and customers.
- > Product and brand are inseparable: From the point your startup or product interacts with people, you plant the seeds of your brand. Your brand belongs to your customers but it’s your challenge, responsibility and opportunity to consciously manage it and strategically shape your brand space in your customers’ minds.
- > Branding efforts are intertwined with everything you do, and it’s more than worth it: Branding must be done with continuity and both consistency and flexibility. It requires some commitment, time and investment, and in order to unlock its benefits, you need to know your startup and product very well. It’s better to start early, as branding flows through everything you build over time… but yes, you will already see some benefits early on.
- > Your brand is there to help you, as well as to help your customers: You never want to have a one-sided connection with your customers – maximise your brand value and aim for a mutually beneficial value exchange and relationship enriching the lives of all participants.
About Mate Kovacs
Founder at Water Lily Pond
Co-founder at TLA CEE
With over 13 years of diverse experience in global brand development and marketing communications, Mate is dedicated to help brands build mutually rewarding relationships with customers and adapt to the fast-changing market environment. As a consultant, he works with early/late-stage startups and SMEs in the US and in Europe, and he is a mentor and contributor to various European and global accelerators and organisations in the startup ecosystem. Mate is the founder of Water Lily Pond, a 100% distributed but tight-knit collective of international experts in branding, creative design, content and tech. He is the co-founder of TLA CEE, a non-profit organisation promoting the London tech scene. Beforehand, he was working with big global brands (such as Pfizer, Heineken, Colgate, Bayer and L’Oreal) at advertising agencies (Publicis, DDB, Grey, Ogilvy, Saatchi & Saatchi, CDM, etc.) in London, Prague and Budapest.
About ‘Simple, Efficiently’
The concept of ‘Simple, Efficiently’ was created to help businesses adapt to the incredibly complex and fast-changing times that we are all living in. With myriads of market players, disciplines, tools and media options being present in all industries and in every marketplace, there is a huge information overload. In this increasingly saturated environment when the noise and the number of touch-points between products and people are soaring dramatically, it’s more and more difficult to connect with customers. Businesses must take a step back, get back to basics and do simple things in order to navigate as efficiently as possible in this fluid and ever-changing market environment.