I have two passions in life: technology and building brands. This is why it hurts me so much when I see so many promising startups who don’t care about developing their brand. Usually branding is seen as an afterthought. First we build it, then they come, then we make it look pretty. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. By building the right foundation for a brand you can get better results and most importantly better engagement, promotion and user retention.

With New Year resolutions in full swing, I believe improving your brand should be at the top of your startup’s list. In this article I will give you an introduction to branding and how it can benefit your startup, and in the weeks to come I’ll drill down on various elements of branding to help you improve further.

What is branding?

First things first, let’s define branding. According to Wikipedia, 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 sellers.” This is a rather simplistic definition of branding since a brand is much more than just a differentiator. A brand is the association that your product, service or company has with people. A successful brand creates a strong association with a certain idea, word or feeling in people’s minds.

Branding started as a way for ranchers to tell their cattle apart (by of course branding cattle with a hot iron) and through the centuries has developed in what it is now, a way to engage people and create a strong connection between what you offer and what they desire. A successful brand clearly communicates what the company stands for and helps people engage with its purpose.

What isn’t branding?

Because of all the talk around branding, there is a lot of misinformation flying around. When you mention the word branding to someone, the first thing in their mind is the visual identity and communications (including logo, colours, name, website etc.). Although the visual identity is an important part of a brand, there is much more to it than just good design.

The best way I’ve found to describe the difference is that good design is what gets people “through the door” and good branding is what “keeps them coming”.

Why does it matter?

The best example I’ve seen about the importance of branding comes from a guide the Design Council has put together. In this guide is an enlightening quote from a Coca-Cola executive:

“If Coca-Cola were to lose all of its production-related assets in a disaster, the company would survive. By contrast, if all consumers were to have a sudden lapse of memory and forget everything related to Coca-Cola, the company would go out of business.”

Big retailers, manufacturers and FMCGs have been using branding as a way to get us to buy more stuff for decades. When it comes to technology companies and especially startups we tend to always reinvent the wheel and not follow in the footsteps of these mammoths.

The important elements of a brand

Every brand is constituted of two important elements: one is its identity and the other is its image. The brand identity is how we as the brand owner see our brand. This is basically the part we develop. The brand image is how people perceive our brand. Although we can work on influencing how people perceive our brand, we are not in direct control of this outcome. We are all intelligent and emotional beings and your customers will decide what your brand means to them.

Since the image is not something we can control, we should focus on building a strong brand identity. By identity I’m not talking about just the logo or your stationery, I’m talking about all the elements that your brand consists of: from mission to presentation and from strategy to communication.

A strong identity has one very important element. Focus. When building your brand you need to focus on who you are, what you do and why it matters. The reality is that there are too many options and you will be competing against companies with similar characteristics, qualities and features. By being focused you will be able to engage with your customers and start creating a tribe. This tribe is comprised of people that love you for who you are and what you stand for. They will do all the hard work for you and talk to their networks about you. They will trust you and they will disseminate this trust to others.

When should you start working on your brand?

Now! There is no reason to wait, there are no excuses. No ifs, ands or buts. You might say that your product is not ready. You are still doing your A/B testing. It doesn’t matter! Your brand is not your product. Your brand connects on an emotional level. It’s what you stand for, it’s your purpose. It’s not your features.

Once you know what you stand for you can use this as the basis for everything else that you do. Since we are working on an emotional level, the brand can be built to reflect and reinforce that. Your goal is to create trust with your users and customers. Once they trust you, they will talk about you. The only way to build this trust is by delivering on your promises and continuously meeting and exceeding their expectations.

The one thing you need to start working on

I know that on New Year’s Day you will have a list of resolutions as long as the piece of paper that you wrote them on. Just writing “Improve Our Brand” is a recipe for abandonment so I will make things simpler. I want you to focus on one thing: your brand’s focus.

Gather your co-founders and your team, remove all distractions and dedicate a session on identifying your true focus. What is your purpose? Why does it matter? The result should be as minimal as possible: your core value. If you can make it a single word, then even better. If not, then try to keep it clear, specific and relevant.

Once you have this core association you can start building your brand around it. Here are some examples to get you in the right mood:

  • Amazon: Customer Obsession
  • Harley Davidson: Freedom
  • Apple: Changing the World
  • Michelin: Getting to Places
  • Google: Discovery
  • BMW: Ultimate Driving Machine
  • TED: Ideas Worth Spreading
  • Zappos: Deliver WOW Through Service
  • IBM: Tech Giant
  • Toyota: Reliability (despite all the recalls back in 2009 and 2010!)

That’s all you have to do for now. In the next weeks I will guide you through building other elements of your brand. Is there something specific you want to learn about? Let us know in the comments.