Developing a meaningful brand at an early stage can be a new business’s greatest competitive advantage.

It isn’t any surprise to say that product is the number one concern for early stage startups. Raising money, hiring and business development are a hell of a lot easier when you have something that people love.

So, if you build it right, will they come?

Well, no not necessarily. If potential investors, employees and users don’t notice your product and can’t understand why it’s better than what came before, it might as well still be an idea sketched in a notebook somewhere.

“You can create a business, choose a name,
but unless people know about it,
you’re not going to sell any products.”

– Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group

Yet brand sits somewhere at the bottom of a long list of priorities for many founders. Seen as a fluffy thing, fun to roll out when needed but essentially a massive drain on funds that would be better spent elsewhere. If product is Queen of the startup boardroom, then brand is it’s Princess Eugenie and Beatrice.

Brand should be a bigger conversation – an opportunity for entrepreneurs to stake their claim on the ascent to the top. Because as the market continues to grow crowded and technology to advance, product alone won’t allow you to differentiate or maintain an advantage forever. It’s not to say that a great idea will necessarily die without a great brand but it certainly won’t grow as fast as it could.

‘A company can’t ‘own’ its facts….What a company
can own, however is a personality.’

– Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce

It took Airbnb 6 years to rebrand into the brand we know today and has since then has become the world’s most loved of the startups.

After Transferwise invested in their brand 4 years after launch, they received their $1 Billion evaluation and $58 Million in investment.

WeWork was built with brand in mind and in 6 years has grown into a $16 billion company.

Over the years we have helped some of the largest and most established brand-led organisations in the world, such as GE, Fidelity and WWF,and have seen the impact of getting brand right. But these kinds of projects are complex, take time and when done properly don’t come cheap.

We’ve also had the privilege of working with a number of start-ups, from those transforming how children learn to those disrupting the hotel industry in Asia. And what we have seen is that the brand needs of big corporations are far beyond what emerging startups need to hit the ground running. We believe that bootstrapped, bright young things should have the same opportunities to place brand at the heart of their business, as the big guns.

Avoiding the minimum viable brand bland

Your product may be a masterpiece but by adopting a generic ‘place-holder’ brand, you risk blending into a vast sea of sameness.

There has been a lot written about creating a minimum viable brand, but perhaps in the frantic energy of creating a business, many have taken this as a licence to reduce brand right down. Seeing it as something to pass onto your friend’s cousin, accompanied by a hitlist of your favourite brands and a brief to knock something up in a week.

And template tools like Squarespace and Canva have made it easy for anyone to do this. A grow your own Frankenstein brand, made up of the miss matched parts of our best-loved brands. Big carousel image followed by 3 benefit icons. On first glance reassuringly recognisable as a successful brand, but on closer inspection devoid of any real life behind the eyes.

The good news is that as these design norms become increasingly common, simply stepping away from them, even just a little, can be enough to capture the attention of customers hungry for difference. In 2012 Tinder introduced the swipe feature and in the process became the defining brand for a time poor, millennial generation. In the four years since we’ve already seen this become the new standard. Swipe to find a job. Swipe to pick a pooch. Swipe to acquire art.

Minimum viable brand is not a logo and it’s not a website template and it’s definitely not describing yourself as “the Tinder of [insert relevant industry]”. It is a core idea that drives every aspect of your business, both internally and externally. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of taking on a ‘place-holder’ brand, perhaps seeing it as a quick fix at a time when all you need to do is move faster, launch, learn and grow. And anyhow brand is something you can always patch it up later on, right? Wrong. With 9 out of 10 startups failing, by the time you get to it you may no longer have a business to brand.

Brand is an enduring symbol in times of change

Getting to the heart of what a business is about, takes time but it also can pay great dividends, equipping companies not only with a great brand that speaks to customers but also a great way to connect internally.

The process alone of testing and pulling apart your core proposition can strengthen teams by building consensus amongst co-founders, and offering the relief of a far-sighted view in a world build on short-term actions. At best a brand can hold an organisation together when times get tricky- a constant force in a hectic world of pivots, products changes, audience shifts and teams transitions.

Though conversations about brand can be had internally and they should, when it comes to creating a brand, the passion and lack of objectivity of founders often clouds judgment. This far too often results in bland, committee-created work that’s totally detached from its end user. Uber’s recent internally created rebrand inspired by ‘bits & atoms’, ended up as a confusing and disjointed idea that spoke more to the internal technical capabilities of the company than to the great human things the product enables. An external agency partner when working closely with teams can provide objectivity, insight and honesty, all within the context of an in-depth understanding of what the audience is looking for.

Build a brand that scores big

Making it happen requires a commitment to truly understanding what lies at the heart of your organisation.

This is particularly true today, with things now possible that even 3 or 4 years ago would have been entirely unthinkable. Things that customers have very little frame of reference for or understanding of. Staying in a stranger’s house. Easy affordable legal support. Booking a five-star hotel on a two-star budget. And often companies struggle to express the relevance and benefit of these new propositions in a way that means anything to customers, instead falling back on design cliches and confusing marketing jargon. Before jumping to a name, tagline, logo, and visual identity it is key to understand who you are and what you mean to your consumers.

Answering the following questions will help
you to achieve the clarity required to tell your
organisation’s story with impact:

1. Why should people care?

Every good story needs someone to root against, so define the problem that your brand seeks to defeat. This should be a common frustration felt by you and your target audience. For HotelQuickly, a last-minute discount hotel booking site, it was pre-planned holidays and expensive holiday accommodation.

2. What are you here to do?

Emphasis the bigger picture, the world that your brand hopes to be part of and the impact you hope to make on it. This should be an idea big enough for you to grow into or flex around but not so implausible that it feels completely out of reach. For HotelQuickly, it was to help hotel guests to get more value by being spontaneous – to Live more now. E.g. unique & authentic experiences.

3. How do you make it happen?

Design an experience that constantly seeks to deliver your brand promise in ways that delight and surprise at the moments that matter most. For HotelQuickly this means celebrating spontaneity through extra perks like late-check out and easy to use integration with complementary services like Uber.

4. How does it make users feel?

Highlight how your product makes customers feel to do more, better. Focusing on human needs and interactions allows you to create a defendable brand that is about people, not about products. For HotelQuickly this emotional core was about the exhilaration of living in the moment and this comes to life across the use of active photography and inspirational messaging.


You can usually tell when a business has built on a solid foundation and have thought their brand through–they are focusing on an emotional connection vs. a solely functional one–and proving it in many ways, every day.