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Branding for startups: What to do so you are not in the 90% that fail

90% is an A-star rating for most things. And that’s good, right? We all want to be in that top bracket.

Unless it’s 90% failure rate. And unfortunately, that’s the fate of over 90% of startup businesses.

There are many reasons why a startup doesn’t make it past the first three years. Sometimes there’s no market need. New businesses can be out-competed. And many startups simply run out of cash.

But another key reason for a new business not gaining traction quick enough is its failure to invest in a meaningful brand strategy to effectively capture their market segment. It can be hard to make noise in an already crowded market. And even if your offer is an innovative one, there’s no guarantee that innovation alone will attract enough traffic.

Branding for startups is important, so let’s talk about how you prevent your new business from being one of the 90% that lose and one of the 10% that wins with the help of a brand development agency.

Note: If your start-up needs help crafting a unique brand identity to attract your target customers, speak with Alex Colley. Alex Colley has over a decade of experience helping global brands create a brand that will resonate and attract their audience.

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So how does your startup stand out?

A startup branding agency will give you a great chance to establish a strong foothold in the market and to stand out from your competition. As Leonard Sherman in Entrepreneur magazine writes: “Product used to be king, but in today's fast-moving, copycat-filled world of business, a strong identity can be the key to success.”

In his article, Sherman outlines how many CEOs can reel off an impressive list of features and benefits for their product, but fail to distil these down to a single compelling, one sentence concept. This elevator pitch is vital, and from it springs myriad decisions on product design, business policies, marketing communications and the consumer experience itself.

“Think about established brands like Nike, JetBlue and Apple. Yes, they all have great products. But their lasting success derives from their commitment to a corporate purpose that guides their market-facing activities. From the outset, each of these companies clearly identified their target customers’ unmet needs, committed to a core idea that speaks to that need and made sure every single consumer touchpoint reinforced their brand promise.”

startup strategy brand promise
Huel are clear on what they offer 'Nutritionally complete food' ©Huel

However, many startup owners will put off developing their communication strategy and concentrate on building their business. They’ll retroactively undertake their strategy work once they have reached a comfortable level of revenue.

This all sounds very familiar to ikon Creative Director Alex Colley. “At ikon, we know very well the years it takes to build a business and we did so with minimal marketing and forged a great reputation. In the startup world, slow growth tends not to be an option for most as investors don’t want to wait a lifetime to see a return.”

Startups need to get their brand story straight

It’s not just in the marketplace that a brand strategy gets results. It’s also a sure-fire way of focusing the attention of the company leaders and their teams so everyone is on the same page right from the start.

That means every decision, large or small, is made in accordance with the direction and values that have been set. This focuses everyone’s efforts and it also means saying no to anything that doesn’t square with the business’s objectives.

It’s always tempting to focus on day to day business and production only, hoping that strategy and vision will take care of themselves. But this is a false economy.

Creating a brand strategy before you’ve properly launched your business may feel a little like putting the cart before the horse, but Alex Colley believes it’s always more worthwhile in the long run. The cost to build a brand strategy, in the beginning, could save you thousands or even millions of dollars in the future.

“You really do need to believe in your product or service to commit. There will be a period when developing your strategy that feels like you should just be getting on with the promotion but this is short term thinking. More than anything, your strategy allows you to get really focused on how you differentiate and gives you the confidence in your business and your brand - so when you do finally go out and talk to potential clients, you speak with confidence and clarity.”

ikon is a branding & creative agency for startups so we relish the challenge to position businesses and create identities to help them rise above the abundance of startup noise.

Note: Every company has a brand story. If you need help telling your brand story to attract your target customers, work with ikon. ikon has helped global brands tell their unique brand story and messaging to attract your target audience. Sign up for a free brand discovery call today.

The key to any strong brand identity is a strong strategy

As with most businesses, it’s not about being the first, it’s about being the best - and the best know that they need a strong brand to stick in the minds of potential customers.

Leonard Sherman again: “Having a great concept will always be a requirement for a successful venture. But in today’s dynamic and intensely competitive environment, entrepreneurs need to recognize branding as a critical asset - not only in its own right, but to help guide the hundreds of decisions founders will make on their way to profitable scale. Crafting a meaningful message early on will lead to enduring rewards, long after launch.”

In an age when consumers have more choice than ever, it’s all the more difficult for new products and services to stand out as being truly unique. And even if they do succeed for a moment as being original and market leading, they are mercilessly imitated and copied – and ironically it can be they who seem ultimately unoriginal. One way of fighting off the competition is to create an engaging brand to highlight and fix in the mind of your customers your differences.

Branding with humour

Burrow is a furniture company that sells ingenious self-assembly furniture.

When it came to differentiating their offer, they reached for the clown shoes. Their marketing has been highly original and funny, characterised by their tagline ‘Good for Nothing’ - a witty celebration of leisure time. This line, combined with images of people dozing off in a range of awkward positions, communicated the comfort of Burrows sofas with a cheeky wink. A nice departure from the usual po-faced sofa ad. Even the company naming for their visual identity is very memorable and relevant.

startup branding agency for burrow
Very playful branding from Burrow that gets your attention ©Red Antler

Aside from the comedy, what else makes Burrow a stand-out brand? For one thing, they’ve understood their demographic which they claim to be over half of 25-35 year olds in their market. These are people who have come to expect online ordering and fast shipping along with self-assembly - from go to show in 10 minutes. While these younger consumers want everything as quick as a click they are also discerning and tech-savvy. They will happily spread the word through social channels when a brand resonates with them, as CEO and co-founder of Burrow Stephen Khul says:

“Millennial shoppers are used to researching everything, information is so easily attainable online and people can do research. As a result, a lot of companies that have popped up on the internet provide transparency into what they’re making. People want to know why they are buying something and why what they are buying is the best thing.”

Understand thy customer

Burrow is attracting millennials who have been exposed to millions of marketing messages by being funny and entertaining and identifying the very human experience of relaxing. This kind of insight is difficult to achieve without having done deep research into who their audience is and what they respond to. Burrow clearly has a very well-defined brand strategy, it goes beyond their advertising and marketing and into the Burrow stores themselves. They have understood customers want a richer encounter than the soulless flatpack IKEA experience - but without the price tag and transport costs that come with a traditionally made sofa.

We were talking earlier about the importance for startup entrepreneurs of an engaging elevator pitch. So how does Burrow’s shape up? Judge for yourself:

“Burrow is an eCommerce brand that offers luxury couches and a superior couch-buying experience for half the cost of comparable high-end retailers.”

Challenging antiquated thinking

Just because a business enjoys success over many years doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to succeed in perpetuity. The wants and needs of people change.

Think about Kodak. This huge photographic pioneer’s failure had its roots in its success, which made it resistant to change. As Avi Dan writes: “Kodak did not fail because it missed the digital age. It actually invented the first digital camera in 1975. However, instead of marketing the new technology, the company held back for fear of hurting its lucrative film business, even after digital products were reshaping the market.

Kodak thought that its new digital technology would cannibalize its film business. Sony and Canon saw an opening and charged ahead with their digital cameras. When Kodak decided to get in the game it was too late. The company saw its market share decline, as digital imaging became dominant.”

It’s a story that is replicated over and over in the world of business. Success has no birth-right. One thing is clear, startups are bringing new ideas to market and successfully changing the game – at the cost of older businesses that haven’t learned to adapt. This is why businesses must consider working with a startup branding agency not only to understand how to help position themselves in the marketplace, but also to understand current trends and who the latest disrupters are:

“Newcomers are challenging conventions in antiquated industries historically dominated by a few big players. By democratizing the purchase process in parallel with the supply chain, Burrow – like Bonobos, Warby Parker, and Casper before us – is lifting the curtain on a whole new experience catering to the modern consumer.

startup brand differentiation
Warby Parker noticed consumers liked to order online and try products on at home ©Warby Parker

Today’s consumer, influenced by the fulfillment speed of Amazon and the on-demand satisfaction of Uber, doesn’t want to wait, doesn’t want to pay for inefficiency, has less and less apprehension about buying bigger, more valuable products online and, frankly, doesn’t want a crappy product.” – Ivy Magazine.

Casper and their holistic brand strategy

Developing a compelling brand story for a mattress startup might cause the most swash-buckling branding agency to, well, doze off.

But mattress manufacturer Casper worked with Red Antler who managed to turn sleeping surfaces into an exciting, super king-sized success. The team came up with the tagline “Live a life well-slept,” which gave Casper room to grow beyond mattresses with pillows, bedding and more lifestyle products.

From there, its purpose and desired image guided decisions on product design, business policies, marketing communications and the consumer experience. With Instagrammable packaging, thoughtful user manuals designed to look like a bedtime storybook and customer-friendly policies, Casper started to win over consumers.

As with every business success, it’s wasn’t long before the imitators set up shop and tried to snatch market share from Casper. But true branding innovators will keep changing to stay ahead of the game. Your business’s brand can be the only strong leverage you have left to keep your competitive edge in the market. Competitors can copy a product, but they can’t copy branding. Consumers are usually wise to this:

Leonard Sherman again: “Have brands copied elements of Casper’s playbook? You bet. But copycat tactics lack cohesion and authenticity. Casper stands out thanks to its holistic strategy and earned consumer trust.”

casper branding illustration
Casper created a entertaining tone of voice to engage their audience ©Casper

Less is more, more than ever before

The mantra is and will always be, know your audience. When Leadership Development startup Rejuvi approached ikon to build its new website, it was clear that this would require a deep understanding of a very niche audience. This core audience for their main offering was C-Suite executives - a cerebral collection of strategy obsessed business decision makers. Can a branding agency in London teach business strategists in the USA to up their game? Absolutely.

A key element of ikon’s creative approach was simplicity. A one-page website was all that was required. However, more concentration and focus went into this single page than the effort that goes into many of ikon’s multi-page websites. ikon took a reductionist approach whereby every design and element of text was carefully weighed and considered. If it didn’t flow or was superfluous, it was removed. As the legendary Dieter Rams has said: “Nothing is an accident in good design. Everything is accounted for, thought of, carefully chosen, selected, chiselled, mulled over, redone, redrawn, recut, redesigned, again and again.”

From startup to serious business

Gareth Hoyle, managing director at Marketing Signals, states: “It’s clear to see that having an online presence and being visible on search engines is a key area e-commerce startups need to focus on to ensure they succeed.

“As nine in ten online startups fail within their first 120 days of businesses, it’s incredibly important that business owners put provisions firmly in place well before launching – this must include a bulletproof search visibility and online marketing strategy, as well as ensuring there is a market for their product offering.

A targeted, strategic approach to digital marketing is vital to the success of any online business in this day and age, only more so for small businesses who are just starting out. Many tools can be used to increase their brand awareness and search visibility in their first few days and weeks, where consumer trust and loyalty hasn’t yet been established.”

So hopefully now you’ll have a few ideas about how to give your startup ‘baby’ a fighting chance in the big bad business world. It’s not an impossible task, and the success stories are not flukes - they are startups that not only did their due diligence but were also brave and adventurous, saw the gap in the market and went for it. And of course most of them understood the value of a sound brand strategy well executed.

And that’s the vital point. Businesses must trust their branding agencies and execute in full their strategic plans, because half measures will surely only garner half a success. So search for a startup branding agency with experience to help guide you through this crucial period in the lifespan of your business and you’ll stand the best of chances of not being one of the 90% of also rans…

Thoughts from two startup co-founders

Regina Hepp & Vidytham Reddi, co-founders of Rejuvi discuss the impact our branding & creative agency had on their business:

“Shortly after our ikon designed website debuted, an executive board member sent a note, “I am on a plane enroute to Phoenix and internet speeds are slow but your website can’t resist jumping off the page at me. It looks really good and is strong and dense with meaning, insight and actionable pathways to leadership excellence.” For Rejuvi, the note represented an aspirational accomplishment achieved.

“We recall ikon being tremendously curious about our industry space. He listened for facts and figures, and more importantly, emotion. He insightfully synthesized the facts, figures and emotions into a meaningful plan for pushing forth.

Rejuvi is the culmination of our life’s work; It is a beautiful vision of how leadership development can look in leaders, businesses and communities throughout the world. And, Rejuvi is better because its path crossed with that of ikon and Alex Colley."

ikon gave Rejuvi the brand and website voice it deserved.”

This article is written by Alex, James & Anwar of ikon | We are a boutique branding & creative agency – but not in the traditional sense. We hand-pick a team from our experienced creatives to suit each project, delivering a personal and bespoke service. Our Creative Director, Alex Colley is always the lead contact every step of the way and our clients include the likes of Cartier, Westfield, Porsche, & F1.

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