Guide to a Better Startup Brand

There's a simple truth in marketing that often goes unsaid: brands aren't an invention, they're a discovery. In this blog I'll outline the steps startups can take to define the face of their company, so you can begin your journey to a better brand.


What exactly is a brand?

Before I get into it, I should clearly define what I mean by brand. It's everything that lies above the surface of your company iceberg; all that can be seen by consumers, competitors and commentators. That's a big part of your company, but there's an even bigger (and arguably more important) part hidden beneath the waterline. That bit’s comprised of your staff, assets, internal processes and culture, even R&D – in other words, everything that makes your business tick.

A brand isn't just a logo and a tagline. It also informs the way your staff work with customers, your place in the market, your output in comms and your representation in the press. At its widest point, your brand should be nothing less than a culture. This is proven by the best in the business; where brands represent a lifestyle choice for customers and an attitude for employees, think Apple, Audi, Starbucks and Levi's.


Where do you start?

My roots are in branding and marketing, mainly for tech and digital companies. From day one you start to understand two things:

  1. A company's products, leaders and stakeholders are not permanent; neither are brands. 
  2. Good brands don't appear out of thin air, they're the result of hard work and an existing culture.

Those two things being the case, the only place to begin the search for your brand is inside your company. Seems simple, but you'd be amazed how many startups start by saying "we want to be the next Google" when they should really be looking inwards. 

At Oxygen Ventures, we have the luxury of knowing the company prior to brand discussions – we have the kind of access agencies can only dream of. Our investments are the result of deep due diligence research, and that’s great for identity building. But it only serves as a head start, we still go through the same branding processes that you should follow. So what are they?


Step 1: Interviews

Start the branding process with interviews. Come in at the top and work your way down. Leaders are the perfect foundation for a branding process, they understand the vision, the company’s roots, and the proposition better than anyone else. This exercise is great for C-level staff; by digging into the fabric of a company you gift the leadership team an opportunity to take a step back and see their company from a different angle.

Take time to go as deep as you can (but don’t test people’s patience), get to know what sales teams think (and say), what your developers are excited about, what customers feel about their experience. Talk straight, think hard, and head to the heart of the company for the best results. Your output will eventually provide a solid foundation for brand strategists, designers and copywriters to work from. A profile. Transcripts. A report. The form factor isn't the most important thing at this stage, focus on fidelity.


What to ask

  1. Competitive analysis

    What’s your ‘angle’? It’s a question you can only answer if you understand the market. Take a look around, what’s the industry doing? Where’s it heading? What about your closest competitors? And the rest… is a non-direct competitor looking in your direction?

  2. Differentiation

    Once you know what’s happening around you, identify what marks your company apart. What do you do that no-one else does? Is there something happening behind the scenes that makes the experience special? What’s special for customers?

  3. Proposition

    Now you know what makes you stand out, how do you currently communicate that difference? What’s your promise to consumers? Can you communicate the cogs in motion that make your company great? What could justify your price?


Step 2: Products and services

Your company is also defined by the future of its products and services. Get hold of the product roadmap and probe it for departures from your existing line-up – you can help to keep it under wraps with an NDA. It could prove problematic if your branding doesn't fit. Remember, branding should reflect the internal workings of your company as accurately as possible. If your tagline calls you a wearables company, when you're becoming a health data aggregator, that's a major issue.

This information will give you a good idea of the company's immediate future. Take this information and condense it into a form that reflects your plans in a broader sense. What is your mission statement? What is your vision for the company, and the market in general? All of these things will yet again bring you closer to understanding your startup while making branding that bit easier.


Step 3: Workshops

Once you're happy you've gathered all you can, it's time to confront some demons. And confrontation will be a big part of the next stage. In my experience across agencies and in-house, the biggest barrier to branding is the distance between each individual's understanding of the company. Modern companies are led by a variety of people, from product managers to marketing managers, CFOs to CEOs, everyone has a valid perspective on what the company is or isn't. 

The best way to challenge those (often justified) opinions is to get everyone who matters in one room. Present your findings and highlight any conflicts. Don't be shy, professionals aren't afraid to fight their corner (in fact, most of us love to); name names and use quotes. 

The result will inevitably be some full and frank discussions that lead to a clearer understanding of the company and easier justification of your eventual branding decisions. We find that everyone comes away with something valuable, and often a newfound trust in brands.


Step 4: The brief

Now you're ready to prepare a brief. Define what's up for grabs as part of your branding process: do you need a comprehensive set of guidelines to hand to designers and sales staff? How does the new brand reach customer service representatives? Are you looking for any additional materials such as websites or marcomms?

Construct a document that clearly tells an agency the results of your full brand audit, you should be explicit about the deliverables, your background and your future. With this kind of detail, you give agencies the kind of ammunition they need to deliver better results. As with everything, if you put in the groundwork, it pays in the end.


Step 5: Commissioning an agency

Decide on a budget and approach branding agencies to have some conversations about your project. You might want to try your luck asking for pitches, with the work you've done, a good agency will be able to lay the foundations for something that really strikes a chord. Plough through each proposal in detail, even if you don't get the big idea, you might find something you love that can be levered into your eventual brand.

Find an agency whose working processes you agree with, whose logic you understand, and whose portfolio impresses. Set a realistic deadline. Then set the agency a deadline some months before that. If they need more time, or the work isn't what you wanted, then you have the room to give them more time. Better safe than sorry.


Step 6: Implement your brand

When you're happy with the results of your branding, put it into action. Remember there should be an impact on every element of your company. If the job has been done well the brand guidelines should be a great document to hand new recruits on day one: it'll define vision, mission, heritage and culture, so everyone should get something out of it.

Hand it over to developers, designers, copywriters and sales teams, and let them use it to inform everything customer-facing. From POS to websites, sales collateral to product descriptions, your new brand will have a clarifying and unifying effect on everything you produce. Take a step back, and enjoy the fruits of your labour... you've just helped to build a better startup.


At Oxygen Ventures, our in-house brand strategy team takes care of the branding process for startups. But it's not the only part of business we help with. We provide expert consultation on everything from legal to development, marcomms and more. It's part of a holistic approach that sets us apart from traditional VCs to deliver more for those we fund.