This guest blog post comes from one of our lovely partners, Robot Mascot. They provide branding and marketing services to businesses of all sizes – from tiny startups to growing global brands. If you want to give your business a boost with a shiny brand makeover, they’re the people to call.
In this article, their marketing director – James Church – shares his branding advice for startups and scaleups. When it comes to creating an impactful brand, one size certainly doesn’t fit all…
Startup and scaleup: what’s the difference?
At Robot Mascot, we’re often asked: “How developed should my brand be as a startup? I’ve not got a huge budget and want to invest what I have in the right way.”
My answer often starts with “It depends”, which I know seems less than helpful. However, there is no easy answer to that question. You see, what stage your brand identity should be at any given point in your startup journey depends largely on the following factors:
- Your main objectives
- Your customers’ expectations
- Your market competitiveness
- The type of product/service you are selling
Each of these factors will be different for each startup at any given time and therefore their approach is likely to be different. For example, an early stage startup in a competitive market is likely to need a stronger brand presence that one in a less competitive space.
So in order to try and provide some clarity, I’m going to tackle this based on the three main objectives that the startups we typically deal with at Robot Mascot have: to raise funding, to launch their product to market, or to grow their customer base.
Objective: Raise funding
If you’re an early stage startup looking for your first round of funding, a slightly more ‘rough around the edges’ look to your brand identity will be perfectly fine for your attracting your first investors. Especially if this is largely going to be used on product development. In fact, you may not have a brand identity at all.
However, if you’re asking for a larger sum of money, or are at a point where your investment will be spent on refining the MVP and building an audience in preparation for the product launch, then you may wish to consider a more professional look. A more professional brand will give inventors confidence in your business, and they’ll be able to see for themselves why your customers would want to buy the product.
We’ve worked with clients on developing their brand from the seed funding stage upwards. Most of the time, the reason for investing in a brand at this stage was to help them better explain their idea and to give them a competitive edge against a large number of startups all vying for the same pot of cash.
A brand at this stage is likely to consist of a logo, some simple brand language that quickly and effectively explains your idea, ethos and vision, and perhaps a few graphics that explain your awesome idea visually.
Objective: To launch your product and begin generating revenue
If you’ve moved into the stage of turning your initial MVP into a market-ready product, then you may need to start giving your brand a little more consideration. It’s likely you’ve just received Seed or Series A funding – in which case you’ve probably put aside a budget for branding.
However, you’re probably still in the learning phase when it comes to your marketing and customers’ behaviours. From your research and feasibility studies, you have a good idea of who your audience is, but you may not have concrete proof that they will see the value in your product.
At this stage, you’re going to need to invest in a brand attractive enough to get those early adopters excited, while not overdoing it (your investors will want to see you’re being sensible with their cash).
What “attractive enough” means to you will very much depend on your customers and the type of product you are selling. For example, a fashion brand is probably going to need to look the dog’s wotsits. However, a brand selling B2B risk analysis software probably won’t need to look all that great at this stage – so long as the value proposition is clear. If you’ve defined the right customer segments to target at this stage, then they will perhaps be slightly more forgiving of a simpler brand look and feel, knowing that they’re getting their hands on something new and really exciting.
At this stage, the startups we work with tend to want a new, or slightly smartened up, version of their original logo, and a simple (but great looking) customer-facing website that captures the ethos and vision of their startup. It’s your brand communication that is most important at this point. Your marketing materials must have the right messaging, tone of voice and call to actions in order to start converting early adopters.
You’ll want to make sure you’re willing to be flexible at this stage, and reserve some budget to make changes to the look, feel and sound of your brand as you learn more about your audience. You may even need to revisit your value proposition – which will have a knock-on effect on your brand communication. So make sure you have some cash reserved for the odd pivot here and there.
Objective: To grow your customer base and scale
Once you’ve snapped up all the early adaptors you can muster, you’re going to need to start scaling your company. By this point, you’ll have perhaps refined the foundations of your brand and have a really clear idea on the tone, messages and look that best attract your audience. To begin with, it’s likely that you’ll target the same or similar audience, but at a much larger scale. Your marketing budgets will increase and you’ll get your brand message out there in a number of different ways. When this happens, it’s likely that a number of different agencies or staff members will be using your brand assets.
In the previous stages, you may have had a slightly more ‘roll with the punches’ approach – quickly changing and adapting things as you went. You’ll probably have been using stock photography, stock illustrations and simple graphics in order to get your message across. You may even have a slightly ununiformed look as you’ve added and changed things based on your research and feedback. Now you’re going to want to start investing in a more unique and consistent brand look and feel, developing a range of approved brand assets that can be used by all the different staff members and agencies you have working for you, without them destroying everything you’ve built.
It’s at this stage that our clients want unique brand photography, video, illustration, iconography and language that they own and is protected by copyright. As you scale, you’ll need to start owning the communication – there needs to be no mistaking who the visual language belongs to and your audience needs to recognise elements of your brand without seeing your name or logo.
In order to achieve consistency, most startups at this stage will have a brand guidelines document created for staff and agencies to follow. This is when things get serious: the time for experimentation is over. You need to be absolutely sure of your market and brand strategy – or it becomes a very expensive and time-consuming exercise. If you get it wrong, not only will you need to re-create all your brand assets, you’ll need a new guidelines document and have to re-train the staff on the new version of the brand.
To confuse matters further, it’s likely you’ll need to tap into new customer segments or even new markets, in order to scale – especially once you saturate one particular area of the market. These new customer segments and markets will most probably have different wants and needs. And this is where we start to move into the difference between brand and advertising. If you’ve built your brand in the correct way, you should be able to apply the same tone and visual style to a new customer segment. It’s just the message that changes. Your ethos and personality stay the same. For example, Facebook has done a great job at evolving their brand to move from a social network for students, to one that’s used by people of all ages, while still retaining their original ethos and values.
However, that’s not always the case. In order to protect the integrity of the Aviva brand, but take advantage of the boom in price comparison websites, Aviva launched their Quote Me Happy brand. This allows them to keep delivering the same level of cover and service their customers are accustomed to, while also time offering a budget alternative for cash-strapped millennials.
So what have we learnt? Well, in order to be successful, the main difference between a startup and scale up brand is that a startup can be anything from slightly rubbish to astonishingly good, while a scale up brand can be anything from astonishingly good to slightly rubbish. I hope that clears things up…
In all seriousness, my advice would be to do the very minimum you can get away with in the early stages, while you’re testing your idea. At the very least try to look professional in front of investors, and make sure your brand clearly communicates your idea – you’ll be amazed how susceptible inventors are to great design, just like anyone else. As you begin to scale, make sure you invest in developing a unique brand identity with a visual style and language that you own.
James Church is marketing director of design and branding agency Robot Mascot. Specialising in working with startups and scales-ups, Robot Mascot helps businesses to pitch their idea, launch their brand and grow their customer base.