Recently, I lead a workshop for a VC portfolio, which was focused on supporting their amazing seed-stage companies. I walked through the holy triad of brand marketing: Brand Strategy, Brand Identity, and Brand Channels. We talked about each, how to hire for them, how to approach them on a budget, how to measure them and so much more. It was a fruitful and engaging conversation. Nothing gets me more jazzed than Founders and early startup teams asking how they can deliver on their mission in beautiful, and novel ways.
As we dug in though, the same old questions started to surface:
What really is a brand? When should I invest in it? And what does that actually look like?
I’m always a bit surprised, that with how much brand marketing has evolved over the years that there is still quite a bit of confusion around what it really is and where to start.
But at the same time, I get it. I mean, let’s be honest — it’s not small stuff. I’ve been leading and supporting startups for 15+ years and I still fumble my way through explaining it concisely for all audiences. Over the years the conversation has at least evolved from “should I do it all?” to “how do I do it right?” (cough cough, most of the time), which I consider progress but I’m determined to do my part to help startups understand not just what it is, but understand how critical it is they invest from the earliest of days and in the most economical ways.
Because here's some real talk for you…
Investing in your brand intentionally, from the beginning, doesn’t just make everything easier along the journey, you will absolutely grow faster, demand higher valuations, and most importantly — deliver more value to the world.
That’s the 100% truth, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
A small percentage of startup Founders and CEOs just intrinsically get this, and as intentionally as they made decisions on which products to build, how to organize their software teams, and who to hire to lead data privacy, they carried that same intention over to brand decisions, and it made all the difference. But that’s the minority.
Most Founders and CEOs come from different backgrounds with little previous experience in brand, marketing, design, storytelling, or customer experience. They might know it’s important (or at least we hope), but they don’t know where to start, how to rationalize about investing in it, how to hire for it, or how to sponsor it internally.
Related side note, there is a whole dynamic that often happens when startups take Seed or early funding rounds. They quickly find they are under the gun to deliverable scalable, predictable growth channels. The Board meeting conversations, suddenly, shift from “how will we reinvent a category and build a thriving business?” to “how will we diversify our marketing mix and reduce CAC…and do it as fast as possible.” I have a few good posts brewing in my head on this one, but for now — let’s just acknowledge that it’s not easy. This tension is real but it can be used for good, so stay tuned for more thoughts on me from that one.
But back to the topic at hand — being an early-stage Founder/CEO is hard because you are trying to prove you can ship the product and grow your customer base, and suddenly “building a brand” feels like an out-of-reach luxury that you will hopefully “get back to someday.” It feels optional, compared to everything else on the to-do list.
This is the saddest of pandas, but unfortunately, very common.
So what ends up happening? It’s a constant struggle from then on, and your brand will most likely end up being the output of a bunch of ad hoc campaigns that cost too much, deliver too little, and meet company-wide skepticism the entire way. Your best creatives leave, and your original team hires that believed in your mission are quick to follow. You might do a rebrand and rewrite your mission statement with a new shiny About section on the site, but it didn’t do much. You end up wondering why you have the best product in your category, but no one seems to really know that. Your acquisition costs are going up, your marketing portfolio skews paid, your customer retention metrics are dismal, and at the end of most days, you are left wondering how you ended up here.
Feels like a good time to offer up a hug to anyone who felt that last paragraph hit home just a little too much. ((((hug))))
So let’s talk about solutions. While ideating, creating, delivering, and nurturing a beautiful startup brand takes time, resources, and a lot of work — I always say that you have to start somewhere. And in this case, the best place to start is by creating a Brand Strategy.
A Brand Strategy is a long-term plan for your Brand. It outlines your commitment and approach to development, execution, distribution, and investment plans for your Brand.
Another quick side note: a brand strategy for later stage/more mature companies or companies with a more complicated brand architecture is a little different. I’ll try and tackle that one another day.
But for startups, brand strategy can be as lightweight as a few pages written down for you and your early team members to refer back to. It doesn’t have to be some fancy, interactive site experience for the entire world to see. Keep it simple, because, like most things in startups, it’s less about the actual decisions made and more about the debate and alignment conversations along the way.
As a startup, who is constantly context switching and moving quickly across a spectrum of business decisions, there needs to be alignment across the leadership team on how you will develop, execute, distribute and invest in the brand. Everything will be easier for it. Roadmap allocation, prioritization tradeoffs, partnership decisions, budgeting…you name it, it will be easier if your leaders across Marketing, Sales, Finance, Product, Engineering, and Operations have a universal understanding of what Brand needs to be and do for your business (and the bottom line!).
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you haven’t taken the time to work through your Brand Strategy as a startup or company, you are probably feeling the pain already. It manifests in a multitude of dysfunctions. Everything from underperforming product and feature launches, to less efficient marketing spend, to poor conversion rates, to cultural thrashing between teams.
Here are some examples of what a healthy vs. unhealthy culture could look like based on whether there is clear alignment across a company’s Brand Strategy:
You can see from the table, a misalignment in the importance of brand and how to invest in it permeates every team and every function of your business, and, in my experience, can very often cause death by friendly fire.
What I’m really saying is, if you don’t align your company around a Brand Strategy and sponsor it daily as a leader at your company, you’re at a massive disadvantage.
Hope I didn’t scare you there. Or maybe, it’s okay if I scare you a little bit.
The good news is, this isn’t hard work, it just takes prioritizing. Just like any other early startup commitment you’d make around creating the right culture, building products the world truly needs, or pricing it fairly and transparently — you have to put in the work.
You need to commit to standing for something, and to putting in the time to understand how every team and every initiative will ladder up to that commitment.
And one other key thing to remember is this sort of work can easily be led by an internal hire with experience in brand, or by an outside Advisor or consultant. This shouldn’t be an extremely expensive, time-intensive investment — if done right it can be created in a few days with focus and intention.
So to wrap this Brand Strategy party up, I’ll just say this. I get asked about a dozen times a week by startups across a variety of models, a plethora of categories, and across the globe the same question: When should I invest in Brand?
And my answer is always the same: Now. Immediately. As quickly as you can.
It doesn’t mean you’re next step is to create a Superbowl commercial and stand up econometrics so you can reverse engineer brand value. Instead, take a small step in the right direction and as a leader decide that the brand of your company will be a differentiating asset.
It actually just means — create an intentional Brand Strategy. Spend as much time making these decisions as you did across the rest of your stack (Product, Engineering, Growth, Finance, Ops). And then sponsor it internally.
Make sure the key leaders and your teams know that standing for something meaningful, building a brand around it, and bringing it to life across every touchpoint at your company is a non-negotiable.
Because that’s the real work. I promise you’ll be stronger for it.