Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

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Startup Branding: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs


The following is a guest post by Mike Troiano. Mike is a former New York ad man turned venture-funded entrepreneur, now a Principal at Boston-based Holland-Mark. You can follow him on Twitter at @miketrap, and connect with him elsewhere through About Me.

1. What does startup branding really mean for an early-stage company? Is it just picking a name and a logo?

"Brand" is one of those words everybody uses and nobody really understands, so I'll start with a definition.

It's important for entrepreneurs to understand that their "Brand" is the collective emotional response to their product or service. A brand is not a logo, and it's certainly not a URL. Those things are the stimulus, while the brand is the response. It's something out there, in the hearts and minds of the people you hope to sell to.brand

So... Do I think it's important for startups to be thoughtful about the nature of the emotional response that might serve their interests, and try to build a graphic identity designed to elicit that response? Abso-freaking-lutely.

2. Any favorite startup examples that they think are particularly clueful about brand and drawing out the right emotional response?

Sure, a few come time mind right away:

Zipcar a brand we've played a role in since the beginning - isn't about urban lifetstyle, or being green, or collective commerce, really. From day one it's been about Freedom, from both the hassles of car ownership and car rental (Wheels when you want them.) Focus on that emotional value proposition has guided everything from brand identity to vehicle selection at the company, and Zipsters around the world have responded with not just loyalty, but advocacy.

Path 1.0 was a decent execution of an interesting idea, that you could derive more value from a smaller social graph of actual friends than you could from Facebook's comparatively industrial-sized cohort. Problem was, there wasn't anything in the original UI to inspire an emotional response, and the service foundered. While much has been made of the radical turnaround in user experience for v 2.0, for me the result of those improvements is a kind of easy intimacy on the mobile device, something that distinguishes Path from other networks, and is the root of user's newfound enthusiasm for the product.

Instagram is interesting because they got it so right in the product, and so wrong in the messaging. Does anybody really love Instagram because it offers Fast, beautiful photo sharing on the iPhone? Really? I think Instagram helps us notice and share more of what we find beautiful in the world. And I know that promoting it that way would help them grow faster.

3. Speaking of names, how do I pick a great name for my startup? Does it really matter all that much?

I've always thought it matters less than people think.

10% of names are great and that helps a business at the margin, and 10% of names are crap and that hurts a business at the margin. The implication is that 80% of names are not a material driver of brand impact or business success, so sometimes it's just best to get on with it.

For proof of this, there's a great story George Lois once told me, about the first time he heard about a client called "Xerox," in the 60's.

"It sounds like a Chinese laxative," he said. I bet it did to most people, and they did OK.

The point is you can make just about any name mean something to people with great product execution over time. Spend some time getting the tactical fundamentals right - url-friendly, sticky, distinctive, that kind of thing then pick something 3 of your cooler friends think is decent, and move on.

4. What about logos? Can I just hack something together? Use a crowdsourcing service like 99Designs? Or is that a waste of time?

I think logos and the graphical identities of which they are a part matter a lot. They're something the West coast and NY-based guys seem to care about and do way better than Boston-based startups, and that's always bugged me.

Look... in the early going perception is reality for a startup. So is it worth investing a little dough to encourage the perception that you're professionals; that this is a serious and professional undertaking; that you care about design and brand response? I guess there are a few businesses where it isn't. But for the vast majority I'd say it absolutely is, that it's worth investing in a professional identity.

If you're among this vast majority, you want to work toward something smart, not just something pretty. What I mean by that is you want to start by being thoughtful about your brand meaning the emotional response you want your product to elicit as well as any practical ideas or metaphors that will help people understand what you do. Armed with that you should sit down with a reasonably-priced freelance designer to brainstorm some treatments, and keep at it until you hit on something you and others seem to like.

In my experience great design comes from the collaboration between someone with a clear vision for a problem (a thoughtful entrepreneur,) and a professional with the talent and craft to create something great (a real designer.) You just don't get that interaction using the crowdsourcing guys, which is why I think you get what you pay for there.

5. Any tips on where to find a great freelance designer for a startup logo? And, what would you consider reasonably priced?

Try checking the portfolio sites, like Carbonmade. Find someone whose work you admire, then call them to talk about your project. Look for someone with whom you have chemistry, who can bring ideas to the table and not just pictures. And take theiry're advice when they offer it they do this for a living.

Expect to pay $50-75/hour, and to be glad you did.

6. How do I decide what category my startup falls into? Is it better to find an existing category, or blaze the trail of a new one?

The short answer is, it depends, but on balance it's better to pick a category that already exists.

From a marketing communications standpoint, a category is a frame of reference for the buyer. If you think of it that way the value of one becomes clear, as does the time, hassle, and expense of creating your own.

That's not to say that sometimes it doesn't make sense to create a new category, and I've used HubSpot as an example of a company for which it was necessary. For entrepreneurs enamored of that idea, I often follow my HubSpot observation with the question, "So how's your book coming?" That question is usually met by a blank stare, but the truth is that level of commitment to IP is what it's going to take to create a category.

If the opportunity cost of doing that is too much for you, just hold your nose, pick a category, and focus on communicating your distinction within that category in a way that resonates with your target.

7. How much does good branding matter when trying to raise capital? Is smart money really fooled by that kind of this? Will I look foolish for having invested in brandinged in one?

I'll say it again: Perception is reality for an early-stage startup. One can argue  that the world would be a better place if this were not so, if Excel drove more decisions than PowerPoint. But that argument is a waste of time, my friends.

VCs invest in the companies that win over their hearts and their minds, usually in that order. If you're trying to raise money it's important to remember this, and to invest the time and energy you need to court a little loving, and not just a good first look scorecard.

And the same is certainly true for customers, so sooner or later you're going to need to spruce up a bit and look like a brand they want to be a part of. Why not start now?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Jan 20, 2012


Great article and to the point Dharmesh!! As a branding guy who helps entrepreneurs make more money with their brand and having developed over 150 brand identities myself I can totally agree with this article.  
Follow the step by step program and get your start up - started right 
good luck 

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 11:49 AM by Harish Chauhan

With all do respect and admiration for Mike's work, I think (a) asking your friends what they think is cool is a disastrous idea, watering down your vision when it matters most (b) not worrying about your name in 2012, same (in 1960 you could make Xerox mean something. In 2012, you better have a name like Groupon, Zipcar or HubSpot if you expect to reach any scale) and (c) there are some incredibly talented designers working for 99designs...but they need the guidance of a strong brand steward/brand bible. Unfortunately, founders who ask their friends what's cool and pick any available, pronounceable URL that sounds cool to them are not good stewards of their brand. In that case, I agree, get a seasoned designer who can guide you through the branding process. He may even help you pick a better name.

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 12:06 PM by Thorsten Hoins

This is a great article. Very Helpful. I found item 7 very interesting. I often think of VC's and being completely unemotional decision makers. But it is a sales pitch just like any other; the idea must make sense but they must get emotionally sold on the idea as well.

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 12:13 PM by Don Tarinelli

With all "due" respect... (see above)

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 12:14 PM by Thorsten Hoins

Well done Mike for an experienced and thoughtful article. 
As an innovative start-up ourselves (Creative Barcode it was important to us from the outset to understand the emotional responses to our product/service representing the brand. 
Design was and is very important to us - and 99 Designs was never a service we would have used, not just because of lack of real inter-action with designers (essential you have that) but because we disagree with anyone who does not earn their living as a professional designer touting out the work of designers for $295 including their Intellectual Property rights worldwide and earning their living off of the back of others.  
Oops, sorry got me on a rant there ! 
Overall a brand is not what you think it is, it is what others think it is. what they think it is is drawn from their perceptions of your messaging, product, your interaction with them, tone of voice, professionalism, quality, consistency etc etc.  
If you get that right you have yourself a brand - almost regardless of the name you call yourself - that said I think our name Creative Barcode is perfect of course!! 

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 12:34 PM by Maxine Horn

Thanks for the feedback, folks, I'd like to respond to a few thoughts. 
In terms of whether asking your friends what they think is cool is a reasonable idea or a "disastrous" one, I guess you could say it depends on your friends. Many of my friends are entrepreneurs, but even if that weren't true I believe that the days of brand strategists - or entrepreneurs, for that matter - descending from the mountaintop with fully formed final concepts are over. Now it's about iteration, about opening yourself to feedback. You can admittedly do that badly, in a way that "waters down" your vision, or you can do it intelligently, in a way that corrupts your vision with the external reality. The latter is better. 
As for names... all I can say is SCVNGR, Zite, Thingd, Twillio, Foursquare... All pretty meaningless until they were made to mean something. And I agree that the tactical fundamentals are important, I'm just saying that among names which *ARE* fundamentally sound, a VERY small percentage turn out to actually add material value to the business. 
Thanks for listening, and for the thoughts.

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 1:39 PM by Mike Troiano

Thanks for a great article mike. I wish i'd had this about a year ago to show to a client I had at the time, who after 25 iterations of various logo options still couldn't come to a decision. I think that having that clear entrepreneurial vision is important but so to is not getting stuck on minutia details before you've even launched.  
As you say, brand is a collective of all experiences that a customer will have of your business, not just name or logo in isolation. I'm pretty sure we'd all still be using Google or Facebook, drinking Coke, eating MacDonalds etc if they'd had different names, just as much as we'd still be tweeting if the twitter bird faced the other direction or was parrot. 

posted on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 7:05 PM by Tim Hyde

Hi - If you don't already know this stuff cold you should not be an entrepreneur or in a startup. You should not be reading 'practical guides' to anything. Rather, if you are a startup entrepreneur, just focus on creating insanely great customer experiences. Everything else, including brand, will take care of itself, guaranteed. -j

posted on Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 5:24 AM by John Maloney

Excellent post. Very good insight. Yes,you must carry the uniformity in all your communication whether it's external with your customers or internal between your employees. You must take care of even the smallest thing starting from forming email responses to serving coffee to your clients. And brands are not built in one day. Patience, continuity, love and sincerity are very important factors as well :). Thanks for such nice post.

posted on Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 2:30 PM by Debajyoti Banerjee

A great article that I'm sure would be useful to many startup entrepreneurs. A well-rounded collection of conclusive, actionable information and answers to issues that would be nagging many. 
Keep up the great work. :)

posted on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 11:37 AM by Vikram Pandya

Is this automatically transcribed? It's good advice, but it would be great to have some of it fixed before I pass it along to startups I know. Especially when some of the core advice is that first impressions matter: 
"...need a little lipstick and some decent shoes. spruce up a bitneed to look like a brand they want to be a part of..."

posted on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 12:22 PM by Todd Morey

I happen to disagree about the importance of the name of a product. Having a two syllable name is very important and is essential in boosting the likely that a product / service will be successful. iPhone, Facebook, Apple, Nike, Xerox, PaidPunch, Groupon, iPod, Android, Google, Yahoo, Gmail, Visa. They all have two syllables and sound better and are more retainable in our mind because of the two syllables. It's the same reason we apply names to people with two syllables as they are easy to say and remember. 
You're right though... you need more than a name to be successful. However, it contributes much more than the 10% you're assigning to it.

posted on Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 12:37 PM by Tony Mandarano

Two syllables list is pretty meaningless. Microsoft, amazon, Victoria's secret, Sainsburys, IBM, Adidas, coca-cola, Chevrolet, Toyota, etc etc.  

posted on Monday, January 23, 2012 at 3:01 PM by David Carruthers

Ultimately, branding is being the company your prospects think of first and feel best about when their need for your product or service arises. Your name and your logo/color scheme will not be enough to carry the load, but they must be good enough not to be a deterrent.  
In the early days, it's about getting out there and telling your story in places where your potential customers might be likely to be found.  
In my case, that exactly what I'm doing here. I've got a startup that can help other startups tell their story.  
Face it, blogging is a great way to build a following, but for many people it's a very hard way to create content. Writing doesn't come naturally to many entrepreneurs. My company makes it easy. You know how to talk about your startup, right? That's all you have to Once a month for about an hour. In a year, you'll have about 80,000 words and hours of re-purposable content and it's a fraction of what it would cost to hire an employee or a ghostwriter. Besides, it's YOUR story. So, if I can deliver on this "brand promise" of easy blogging for busy people, does it really matter what my company is named or whether we've got a world-class logo? I didn't think so.

posted on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 6:14 PM by David Young

David Young said " So, if I can deliver on this "brand promise" of easy blogging for busy people, does it really matter what my company is named or whether we've got a world-class logo? I didn't think so".  
True to an extent David, although should you really tell me what you believe they thought?  
However, personally, I believe it really does depend on what you are selling and who your audience is. 
Personally I would guess, that as a writer what might be important in your presentation & engagement with potential clients, is your writing style, grammar, spelling etc - if you presented those badly on your web site or other forms of communication with prospective clients, it would have a negative affect - would it not? 
Just as it would if any business claiming to have a professional, high quality service presented their own offering in a low quality way.  
The name of a business doesn't always matter - unless it was a name with a bad meaning but quality of presentation from brand ID throughout all communications, I would personally argue, does have a direct bearing on how a prospective client percieves a business. It can make the difference between achieving a sale or not. 
We can't always pre-judge what is and isn't important to a prospective client / audience but we can ensure that we attend to as much detail as possible from the outset, within the realms of affordability. 
And believe me bad design can cost more than good design. 
I just received an email from someone looking at buying our service/product. Her concerns were that she wanted to be sure she could pick up the phone and talk to someone directly and that we didn't operate out of a call centre (we don't).  
Her concerns had nothing to do with our name or our brand - although I am sure I never would have received an email from her if our presentation was under-par - , but you never know what is important to potential customers  
So why take the risk ?  

posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 10:52 AM by Maxine Horn

I full-heartly agree. Branding is the total package; the colors, the name, the logo, the experience from using the product, etc. 
My original name for my startup was Freelanceful; Thankfully domain was dropped days before launch and I scooped it; rechanged everything and sitting at a way better position for long-term.

posted on Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 2:25 PM by James

This is great advice for startups!  
To add to Mike's point on a clear vision and a real designer.... you'll be happy to know we now exist to serve this purpose... just launched this week:  
We have attracted REAL designers, but we're still VERY affordable.  
With gratitude, 
Andrea Shillington 

posted on Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 6:17 PM by Andrea Shillington

Good points discussed in this articles would help startup entrepreneurs. 

posted on Friday, January 27, 2012 at 9:53 AM by Ninad Avasare

Another factor Mike didn't mention is the budget behind the brand. (No surprise--branding is as complex as the human mind, so he couldn't cover everything in a single article.)  
Truth is, a billion dollars of advertising can endow almost any brand-name with meaning for the public. (It also teaches them how to pronounce an oddball name like "Xerox.")  
A low-budget company, on the other hand, is probably better off with a name that's easy to say (we mentally vocalize when we read), memorable (a couple "hard" consonants--like "k"--are often helpful, because they're sonically as well as visually memorable), and/or that, in some way, evokes the product's target lifestyle, intended emotional payoff, or its benefits.  
But the simple fact remains that a giant budget can make almost any brand-name stand up, while a penny-ante budget has to rely far more on the name itself to communicate its "benefits promise" and plant itself in the target-audience's mind, because the audience won't hear that name very often. 
At least that's my own experience. Your mileage may differ.

posted on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 at 9:51 PM by Gregg Hodgson

crowd sourcing is good platform for small scale entrepreneurs, it can only help when u have some requirements on designs ( flyer,poster, banner etc). But the Logo can't be decided by a crowd sourcing platform. It should be decided by the team members of startup/entrepreneur.

posted on Thursday, February 02, 2012 at 3:59 AM by Subrat Kar

Subrat Kar, 
The problem with most crowdsourcing platforms is that they are not able to attract and retain REAL designers with established careers. Designers feel exploited. We have addressed this concern in our new business model at <a><a> And to your point the logo design should be a decision made by the leader of the business.

posted on Thursday, February 02, 2012 at 4:20 PM by Andrea Shillington sells prebranded domains + logo for $199. 

posted on Sunday, February 05, 2012 at 9:52 PM by Kyle

Great article Mike.. I liked your thoughts on branding and logo.. We did spend a good amount of time for designing our logo brainstorming with the outside designer..

posted on Tuesday, February 14, 2012 at 2:52 AM by Regs

Developing a brand is difficult for small businesses. It takes a lot to get a brand known and even more to get a specific "brand" linked to it. Think about how much Geioco spends so you know its brand?

posted on Monday, February 20, 2012 at 5:50 AM by Pacific Reserve

Excellent article !!! Branding explained wonderfully. Kudos.

posted on Thursday, March 01, 2012 at 4:52 AM by Siddharth Jain

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