As a startup owner, you might think you don’t need to consider branding. Or, perhaps you aren’t totally clear on what the term even means. Branding is one of the things you should plan out before you launch your business; it should be part of your marketing strategy. But, before I tell you why, let’s talk about what “brands” and “branding” really mean.

What is a brand?

What adjectives come to mind when you think of the following companies?: Apple, Target, Jeep, Subway. Perhaps you thought of words like innovative, quirky, rugged, and healthy. Whatever words you came up with, think about why they came to mind. THAT’s a brand.

A brand is not just a company’s logo, website, or product offerings; it’s much more than that. Your brand is how people, including your potential customers, perceive you. A brand is not the tangible products or services you provide; it’s intangible. It’s your personality. It’s your story. It’s your image. It’s how people view you and what value they believe they’ll obtain from you.

What is branding and why is it important?

If a brand is essentially based on customer and public perceptions, then branding is the process of shaping those perceptions; it’s a combination of the actions you perform to get your existing or potential customers to view you a certain way. Think about the companies I mentioned above—you came up with specific words for a reason. Perhaps you came up with those words based on an advertisement you saw, purchases you made, positive or negative experiences you’ve had with those companies, or the opinions of people you know and trust.

Branding includes a number of factors that companies just can’t control. Wait a minute—factors you can’t control? It’s true. This is precisely the reason branding is so important to your overall marketing strategy. You can try your hardest to shape an image and tell your story, but ultimately, your brand is what your customers and the public decide it is; it is perceived value and worth. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to shape how your startup is perceived—it just means you need to seriously consider what message you want to convey when you launch, and you need to accept that many things outside of the marketing you do will shape how people view you.

One important thing to remember is that your brand is not, nor will it ever be, exactly what you say it is. You may work your tail off to get people to see your startup as one that provides superior customer service, but if you regularly ignore customer concerns or take other actions that cause you not to uphold the bar you’ve set, people won’t pay attention to how you’ve tried to market your business; they’ll just remember your startup as one that fails to deliver on its promises.

Keep this in mind: once a negative perception is out there, it’s very difficult to change. That’s why it’s important to plan a branding strategy before launching your startup and make sure it is cohesive with all other marketing and communication efforts you have planned. In addition to that, you’ve got to live up to the expectations you’re setting for existing and potential customers.

How do you plan out a branding strategy?

Now that you understand what brands are and why branding is important, it’s time to think about how to develop a strategy that conveys your personality and story. You need to think about your startegy as you’re building your startup because telling your story involves conveying your unique selling point, which is the basis for all marketing activities and outward communications.

Do your research

As with any business undertaking, you need to do your research before you begin. Research the market you’re about to enter and know your competition. You need to know your company and products and/or services inside and out. This may involve conducting primary research or culling it from secondary sources. However you decide to go about this, make sure you know all there is to know. This will only help you prepare.

Develop your message and differentiate

If you can’t explain what your startup does and why it’s different from the thousands of other startups created each year, you’re likely to fail. At the heart of every successful business is a unique way of solving someone’s problem or providing a service in a way that no one else can. That is what branding is about: making sure you set yourself apart from everything else that’s out there—and making sure people know who you are, what you do, and why they should care.

One of the first steps in the process is to figure out what your message is. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out document; it can be one sentence if you’d like. What is the one thing you continually want to convey? How are you different? You also have to decide how you want to position your business, products, and services, as well as how your startup fits into the existing market space. Be sure to really think about this—it is the foundation for all other branding activities. Whatever you do, make sure your message is genuine. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Invent your visual identity

A lot of people equate branding solely with a company’s visual presence. Though that’s not entirely accurate, your startup’s visual identity is a big part of the branding process. It’s also one of the trickiest parts to master.

Think about all the opportunities and places a customer or potential customer could see your startup. You need to create cohesiveness among all of those elements. A few things to consider: logo, tag line, color scheme, fonts, graphics, website, e-blasts, business cards, and this list goes on. All of these choices matter and can instantly communicate—or fail to communicate—your message.

Once you’ve developed these materials, your work isn’t done. You may have heard the phrases: “branding guidelines,” or “style guidelines.” This refers to a document that outlines how your visual elements can be used, and in which manner. A few things you should include:

  • Mission/core message
  • Logos and appropriate uses of your logos (including examples of what not to do)
  • Colors (CMYK, Pantones, RGB, etc.) and fonts
  • Associated images or icons
  • Writing style/voice

This is a brief list. Branding guidelines could (and should) include much more. If you are able to hand this document over to someone who is totally unfamiliar with your startup and they understand your message and visual identity after reading it, that’s how you’ll know you’ve included the right information.

Consistency is crucial

We’ve talked about steps to take in order to plan out your branding strategy. Though not a step in the branding process, consistency is (or should be) one of the outcomes of all your work. Everything you’ve done to position your brand, including your core messaging and visual identity, is to create a unified and consistent brand experience. When a customer comes to you, they should know what to expect every time. Your message and visual identity should be repeated everywhere.

It’s not enough to decide what you want your message to be—you have to live it. Make sure you’re delivering what you’ve promised to existing and potential customers. If you’re not doing this, evaluate your strategy and figure out how to get back on track. Don’t send out mixed messages or stray from the strategy you created; this will only confuse people. Think about how many options people have when it comes to purchasing. You want your message to be simple, direct, and different so it rises above your competition. Stick to your strategy and provide a consistent experience. This is how you’re going to build trust—and ultimately, equity—among your target audience.

Another thing to consider at this stage is getting your employees involved in your branding. You may be the sole person in charge of making business decisions, but you must include your employees or partners in on what you’re doing. They need to know what your startup’s core message is and how your business is unique. Cohesiveness cannot be achieved if your employees aren’t included. Fortunately, the smaller your business is, the less complicated it will be to engage employees and maintain consistency.

Part of branding also involves protection and proper use of what you’ve created. It’s critical to adhere to your own plan internally, but make sure others are respecting it too. If you’ve struck a promotional deal and given someone permission to use your logo on their website and they use it in a manner not indicated in your visual identity guidelines, do something about it. Situations like this are never pretty, but you’ve got to protect the work you’ve done. Don’t go through all the trouble of building your brand only to let someone else break it down.

Updating and future considerations

Since developing a branding strategy involves consistency, don’t change a thing if what you’ve done is working. But, be prepared to review and update if necessary. As with any marketing effort, you should periodically revisit the branding efforts you’ve set in place to ensure everything you’re doing is still relevant to your startup. In addition to that, if your startup undergoes any kind of major change, you’ll need to adjust your branding strategy. Here are a few situations that warrant rethinking your strategy:

  • Addition of new products or services
  • Expansion to a new market
  • Purchases or mergers

You don’t have to wait for a big change in your startup to update your branding strategy, either. As time goes on, you’ll want to update your website and designs to stay with the times. Go for it—make sure you’re updating everything and making it cohesive. One thing you shouldn’t change, however, is your core message.

Where can you find out more?

Branding has become such a hot topic in the past decade, and this article has only given you a primer on the subject. There are great thought leaders out there who have dedicated themselves to perfecting the art of branding and written some really great stuff. If you’re serious about branding and want to learn more, I recommend picking up a copy of The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. It’s a quick read (I promise!) and written in a way that will click with you, even if you’re totally new to this.