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How to Build a Startup Brand

Your brand is the feeling a customer has with any interaction with your company and its products or services. It’s present when a prospect visits your website, when on a sales call, and is an integral part of the way your customer success team supports existing customers.

November 18, 2022

“Every interaction in any form, is branding.” — Seth Godin

Branding is one of the most underappreciated and misunderstood parts of building a startup. Many founders often mistake a brand for marketing assets such as logos, taglines, and color pallets. While those are tangible parts of a brand, what’s more important are the intangibles.

Your brand is the feeling a customer has with any interaction with your company and its products or services. It’s present when a prospect visits your website, when on a sales call, and is an integral part of the way your customer success team supports existing customers.

Start building your brand on day one

So when is the right time to start thinking about your brand? Our Marketing and Communications mentor Ellyn Winters-Robinson says most startup founders wait too long or make excuses for why a brand isn’t a priority.

“Many startups think a brand is something that’s only available to the biggest of companies. So if they’re not an Apple, they don’t have to worry about their brand. Or they’ll say that’s way off and they’re focused on trying to get the product to market.”

Instead, Ellyn said startup founders need to start thinking about their brand from day one.

“To me, a brand is an extension of product market fit. When you prove product market fit, it means you have something that solves a pain or delights somebody to the point where they actually pull out their wallet and go buy it. That’s the first signal that you’re on to something as a startup — it’s also one of the first steps in building a brand.”

Brands are about building trust

Great brands create an emotional connection with your audience. They turn a need for your product into a want.

“Branding starts with understanding of the emotional connection you are trying to create,” said Ellyn. “It’s about making promises to your customer that you actually stand and deliver against.”

Ellyn said that founders can often mistake their value proposition for their brand, and while they are related, the two are very different.

“Building a value prop that resonates with someone, yes, that’s part of it. But if you just stick with words and you don’t back those words up with action, you’re going to break trust with that customer. And you’ve undermined your brand before you’ve even begun to build it.”

Building your startup brand with AC:Incubate

Startups in AC:Incubate work with our mentors through a progression of activities that help founders build a brand that connects emotionally, represents their values, and supports all functions from sales to marketing to customer success.

Meeting with mentors through AC:Incubate helps founders see how the different parts of their startups work together to create a business that can scale and a brand that can connect.

“I had a conversation with one of our founders and it was the shoe dropped for them,” said Ellyn. “He was very into speeds and feeds in the way he was describing his product. We started talking about creating an emotional connection and he realized that his brand is like another person and he needed to start thinking about it that way — it completely reframed his thinking.”

Mission and core values

Getting started with your brand begins with your mission and vision — guided by fellow leadership and culture mentor Jackie Lauer. That work defines where you’re headed and why your business exists. Mission and vision flow directly into uncovering and defining the core values of your startup. These are the ideals that founders and employees use when making decisions, building products, and interacting with colleagues, customers, and partners.

“Businesses are made up of human beings, so culture – the way your business behaves – is deeply connected to your brand. It’s the actions of those human beings that shape trust and shape your brand,” said Ellyn.

Value proposition

Having your mission statement and core values defined, the next step is to start working on your messaging and value proposition. Your founding team works with our mentors to understand your ideal target customer and that customer’s why to build messaging to answer that question.

Delivering customer success with a brand

Our customer experience mentor Bob Mathers said it best —

“Customer experience is how you deliver on your brand’s value proposition.”

Great brands deliver for their customers from sales to support and provide value during every interaction. It’s your brand promise. When thinking about brand and customer experience, Ellyn asks founders to think about how they can honor that brand promise on a day-to-day basis.

The window dressing

From these discussions on mission, core values, and brand promise, you reach a point where you can discuss the window dressing — logos, taglines, colors, and more.

“Once we’ve determined what the personality of the business is, then you sit down with a graphic designer and say, okay I want a brand look and feel that is joyful, energetic, and a little irreverent, or whatever your brand personality is."

It’s only after you do the work that the designer can get an accurate picture in their head for the kind of look and feel and the colors that you would use in the logo and the typography that you would use. Defining your brand also drives your content strategy. Knowing your brand personality and your audience helps you find your voice and tell the stories that resonate and create an emotional connection. It also helps that we’ve got an expert SEO mentor to help you with your content planning and execution.

Avoiding common brand mistakes

It’s all too easy for founders to get caught up in the look of their brand rather than the heart of their brand. Ellyn points to three common mistakes founders make with their brand.

Not talking to customers

Just as founders shouldn’t build products in a vacuum, they shouldn’t build their brands in one either. Talking to your customers and prospects on an ongoing basis about their business and their problems will help you refine (and re-define) your product offering, value proposition, and messaging and build a resonant brand.

Not focusing on customer experience

Ellyn said that founders need to recognize that the service they wrap their product in is as important as the product itself. This stimulates word of mouth – the most effective and powerful marketing tactic in your toolbox.

Focusing too much on the window dressing

Your brand is a promise, and it takes time to develop it and the messaging behind it. Great brands connect because there is a heart and soul behind the business. It’s more than a great logo or catchy tagline.

Changing messaging too quickly or too often

Test, measure, repeat may be the startup mantra for product design — but that doesn’t work for your brand.

“If you’re going to change your messaging or tagline, know why you’re changing it . It takes eight to 12 touch points before somebody even starts hearing your message. There’s a lot of iterating in the beginning, a lot of testing in the beginning, then you need to be consistent so you break through the competing noise. The mantra of marketing is repetition, repetition, repetition,” said Ellyn.

Brand and your customers

Building your startup brand with the Accelerator Program team is a journey.

“It’s not any one thing. We’re not going to sit down and solve the brand story in a day,” said Ellyn. “Building a brand is like constructing a human. A human has a soul. And a human has core values that, no matter what, steer you through life and help you make decisions and choices. And as humans, we build relationships with people.”

Join AC:Incubate today

Joining AC:Incubate provides you access to mentors like Winters-Robinson, Lauer, and Mathers and a community of founders on the journey of scaling their businesses. Accelerating you through that journey means test things, failing, learning, getting up, and doing it all over again. We help you learn as quickly as possible, change as soon as possible, and grow your business.

The proof is in our network. The AC clients and alumni represent some of Canada and the world’s biggest startup brands – we’re ready to help you. Apply today!