At what point does a startup need to seriously work on their branding?

The short answer is: after product-market fit, and after acquiring a large number of customers.

So let’s talk about Branding.

Branding is bigger than your product. It’s part of the love affair that your customers, prospects and the market in general, will have with you. It’s what you stand for, the emotions you evoke inside your customers’ hearts, what they will remember from experiencing your product, and it’s also what you stand for in terms of values and causes you may associate with.

Brand power, done well, has infinite value, and it keeps growing almost forever. Whereas market share has a finite limit, mind share doesn’t. The mind welcomes great ideas, makes room for them, and likes to keep them forever as long they bring good feelings, or offer a real benefit.

As a startup, if you begin to worry prematurely about your brand, you are really wasting time.

Airbnb didn’t start working on their brand strategy until their Series B raise of $112 million in 2011. Starbucks only started working on their brand when they already had about 200 stores, and only two of them were in New York.

Startups need to worry first about getting users to use their product. And from a marketing perspective, they need to worry about Messaging and Positioning.

The trilogy of marketing in post product development for startups is: Messaging, Positioning, Branding, in that order. I’ve already written at length on these two topics in The Only 5 Types of Messaging You Need, and Positioning: The Battle for Your Startup.

Messaging must be clear, precise, and targeted. You must speak to your audience and name them inside your message, i.e. for whom you are solving the problem, and then explain the value of your product, service or solution. Don’t delay your Messaging even if your product-market fit isn’t nailed yet. Rather, evolve it every step of the way, as you evolve your product-market fit. Without clarity, you will stumble. Your customers and prospective users will be confused, and they will go somewhere else. Clarity and brevity are necessary attributes to your messaging.

Positioning is everything you say to enter the mind of your prospect. Positioning is not what you do to your product. It is what you do to the mind of people. It’s the position you occupy in it. Positioning is about how you can draw a distinction between you and the competition.

All startups start with low brand recognition, and they grow it initially via increased usage of their product, but there comes a point in time when they have to start putting more wood behind the product usage arrow.

Here’s why Branding needs to be done after you’ve had a lot of traction in the market.

It’s because the initial step in the branding process is to do what is called a “brand assessment”. It consists of asking your customers, prospects and employees some questions in order to get an accurate qualitative picture of what they are thinking. It also includes an assessment of the competitive communications landscape to understand what your competitors are saying. So, you need to have some market footprint in order to extract meaningful data, or your data will not be meaningful enough for your interpretations.

Here are some additional elements of Branding “work”:

  • Brand attributes and strengths
  • Brand visual identity and design
  • Brand communications and propagation
  • Living the brand internally and via touch points alignment

Not taking branding seriously when you have reached a large number of users is a serious sin. My rule of thumb for thresholds are $10 Million if you’re in B2B, and 10 Million users if you’re in B2C, after which you must start official corporate wide brand building efforts. And if your current marketing department doesn’t have the chops to do this, then you’ll need to get outside help for it.

Every company has brand strengths and a brand story. It is your job to find them, harness them, live them, communicate them, and exploit them to your advantage. A great product might get you a few million customers or dollars, but a great brand will let you grow forever even beyond that.