Start-ups need to invest in building brands, not just products

One of the biggest opportunities I see in the world of start-ups and entrepreneurs is a greater focus on Brand Building. I don’t mean a bigger focus on advertising or PR. And I don’t even mean a bigger focus on the broader term “marketing.” I mean a bigger focus on putting the time, money and sweat into taking a systematic approach to…

…treat your company like the brand it really is.

Now the entrepreneurs among you might scoff at this statement. You might even be thinking that the guy writing this hasn’t lived the life of a start-up so what does he know. After all, a career spent at the world’s largest Consumer Packaged Goods company means a world where there are plenty of resources available to “build the brand.” Start-ups do not have time for this when they are trying to keep the lights on, just trying to survive and thrive.

I’m sorry to say, but if you are thinking that, you are missing the point all together.

My work has thrown me head first marketing, technology and entrepreneurship. On any given day, my meetings are as likely to be with an entrepreneur or Venture Capitalist as they are to be with Brand Manager or Advertising Agency. Ironically my degree from college was in Marketing AND Entrepreneurship so these contrasting interactions are actually comforting.

And it is in these interactions that I have started to form my opinion about the need for start-ups to invest in building brands, not just products.

First a definition: what exactly do I mean by “building brands?” Keep in mind that brands really came to prominence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, where brands were a way for people to tell the consistency of a product. So by one definition, a brand is…

a set of perceptions and images that represent a company, product or service. While many people refer to a brand as a logo, tag line or audio jingle, a brand is actually much larger. A brand is the essence or promise of what will be delivered or experienced.

Think about that for a second. You and a colleague have an amazing idea for a company. You figured out the name and your co-founder created what you think is a pretty cool logo. And you even came up with a tagline that you just love the sound of.

But have you really thought about your start-up, your idea as if it was a brand?

Have you thought about how your “brand” will be a promise to consumers? Have you crafted the Brand Visual Identity? Have you outlined the Brand Equity that you want? These things aren’t just buzzwords that keep Brand Managers and Agency Executives employed. They are the tools that a great Brand Builder uses to create and sustain iconic brands like Nike, Coca-Cola and Tide.

With this in mind, I think there is a need in our industry for translators, people that can apply the principles and discipline of Brand Building to the world of entrepreneurship. Examples are out there for sure. Pete Blackshaw was one when he left P&G to start Planet Feedback (and now is back in the brand world at Nestle). And Bessemer Ventures hired a translator (whether they realize it or not) when they brought on-board Jason Putorti to be a Designer in Residence and help portfolio companies build “simple, intuitive, and engaging web sites.” And Dave McClure was calling for the need for translators in his self-proclaimed rant that “More than half of all startups, and easily 9 out of 10 investors have no clue regarding 1.) user experience or 2.) internet marketing.”

Brand Marketers realize that a brand is more than a name, fancy logo or marketing plan. A brand is about the product AND the user experience AND the marketing AND many, many other things.

Simply put, when Brand Building really works the way it is suppose to, the sum is greater than the parts.

So if you are a start-up, I would encourage you to start thinking about your brand today, not tomorrow. If you are VC, I would push you to sit down with your portfolio and ask how they are thinking about their brand. The opportunity is ripe for the leaders out there to embrace brand building in the start-up world.

And in full admission, traditional Brand Builders can learn plenty from start-ups as well. We need our own set of Translators to help us in the journey. But that is a subject for another post all together.


Originally published at www.hardknoxlife.com on February 11, 2010.

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