Think Like a Brand, Act Like a Startup

If you’re building a startup, let me introduce you to a golden rule: act like a startup, but think like a brand. From the very first day. Why? All will be revealed. But first, you’ll need to wrap your head around what a brand really is. That’s the perfect place to start.

So, what’s a brand?

As Jeff Bezos famously said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” And a somewhat less famous, but no less true, way of putting it is: “A brand is a set of thoughts and feelings that people have about a company, product or service.”

To be a brand means developing an attitude, values, and character all your own. It immediately identifies you and can be spotted a mile away. Your brand is felt in every ad, every email, everything you say or do. It encapsulates the unique story that people tell themselves (and their friends) about your product or service. And all this comes with a very clear tone and style that’s yours, and yours alone. So if you can step back, look at what you are doing, and honestly say that’s how people feel about your company, then congratulations! You’re a brand.

Why think like a brand from the very first day

Now you know what a brand is and how a brand behaves. As a startup, that’s how you need to behave too, right from the start. There are several reasons why, but I’m going to focus on two that I believe are the most important: one reason is emotion-based and hard to measure, and the other is functional and highly measurable. Here they are:

(1) A good brand is a great insurance

On good days, your brand will be secure and confident enough to express itself and interact with the world. In times like this, you are free to take risks. On rainy days, however, when business is not going so smoothly, a strong brand will give you a much-needed buffer — not just among your competitors, but also among clients, investors, and employees.

A highly successful entrepreneur (and also a good friend) once told me about a period when his company was in a rough patch. Fortunately, they had a strong brand, and it held up much stronger than the company itself. The brand enabled them to maintain a solid footing with investors and new customers, even on the shakiest of ground.

At the end of the day, a brand is what people “think” is happening at your company, not what’s actually going on behind the scenes. So a good brand is like having great insurance. When all is well, you can bask in the sense of security it provides. And when all is not well, it will keep you going. Plus, people are more forgiving of brands that they love. That’s another important insurance you will definitely need.

(2) A good brand is like a sales agent

People believe in and connect with good brands. Brands build confidence and help remove obstacles to purchase. Having a good brand supports the consumer buying decision, so — ultimately — you make more sales.

People talk about brands they love, so having a solid brand drives people organically to your company or product. Those same people love to buy from reputable brand names, because it says something about them and who they are. They search for great brands on Google, land directly on your site, and are more primed to buy what you are selling. A good brand is like a skilled salesperson. It attracts new customers without having to beg and grovel, it washes away consumer wariness and accelerates the sale, all by itself. Invest in a brand, and like your best sales rep, it will pay you back with revenue (and love).

How a startup can become a brand

Now to the bottom line: how to build a brand as the big guns, but within the time and budget constraints of a startup? It might seem impossible but it’s really not. Follow these tips and you’ll take your startup brand far.

  1. First, think like a brand. Make room for it in the company’s collective mindset. Make sure your brand radiates from every marketing activity and customer interaction. Approach each campaign as if you were producing a Super Bowl ad, no less. Make sure your brand is reflected in your language, tone, style, and sense of humor. Don’t hold back — when it comes to branding, you’ve got to totally go for it, in every way. Facebook ads, marketing emails, videos, everything. A good brand is always built on repetition and consistency.
  2. Define your audience with complete precision. I call this the “micro-target audience”. Call it what you want, but make sure you define your audience as finely and accurately as possible. Connect with your audience, understand what drives them, what annoys them, what makes them happy. Talk to them and with them about all these so you can become them in your brand’s mind.
  3. Build a story around your brand. This is the most interesting and fun part of branding, but it’s also the hardest. In marketing, they say “Don’t sell me a lamp, sell me light”. So find your light — what you are selling besides your product — and talk about it. Incessantly. Nike built a brand around being a winner. McDonald built a brand around family time. The Starbucks brand is about getting together and sharing quality time, Robin Hood’s brand is about democratizing Wall Street, Airbnb about belonging, TED, about neverending ideas, and on and on. You get the picture. If your product or service is the engine of your company, then think of your brand story as the turbo button.
  4. After you’ve come to grips with your story (your raison d’etre, so to speak), quantify it as a goal for your sales team. Create discussion and debate around your goal, actualize it, lift it up, create content around it, be creative about it. Connect with those who connect with the brand goal; they will become your advocates and ambassadors. If you are marketing to small businesses, find ways to support them and make that your goal. If you develop eco-friendly cosmetics, do your part for the environment, and make that a brand goal. If you are building a product for developers, advance their agenda, and include that as a brand goal. And so on and so forth.
  5. Remember that every brand has 2 stories: the functional (product) story and the emotional (brand) story. And each has its proper time and place. Functional stories go well with PPC ads; deeper, emotion-driven stories are better suited to emails, blogs, videos, and product packaging. In an ideal world, these stories work together in sync, in one language that the customer fully understands.
  6. Grab a content arena and take full ownership of it. If you get there first and make your mark, you can achieve first place in the category you are building. People are simple creatures. Our minds are organized like Tupperware containers. Think hard about what box your brand should occupy. And make sure you get in there — fast. If you can do this alongside a great product, you’ll definitely increase sales.

Never forget, you’re a brand too

A strong brand does a lot of things. It enhances your startup’s perceived value in the marketplace. It creates buzz and gets people talking. It puts you top-of-mind and makes your offer desirable. At the end of the day, all this will increase sales. If you can be the brand that everyone is talking about in your category, it’s a sure sign that your startup has succeeded. In a big way.