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Branding For Startups - Step-by-Step Guide + Case Study [2020]

Throughout this article, you'll learn a framework that will enable you to create meaningful branding for startups while watching how we do it for a real business.

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If you’ve had an idea for a promising business, chances are, you’ve probably resorted to some sort of freelance site or had a friend with Illustrator draft up a couple of concepts for you.

This would’ve been your first mistake. I want you to think of startup branding like going on a first date. If you’re desperate to make a good first impression (as you should be) then you’ve probably put your best outfit on your bed and swapped out your articles of clothing 10 different times to find the best combination.

Aha! You’ve found the perfect one! But it doesn’t stop there. You still have to be friendly, have good manners, LISTEN TO YOUR DATE, and tell a great story yourself!

A logo is only as good as the shirt you decided to wear.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to walk you through how to build a startup brand from scratch by actually building one myself throughout the post. The company I’m starting today is an all-natural, vegan, organic, CBD dog treat that is made in the USA.

CBD pet products are popping up everywhere, becoming a highly competitive space, and that means branding is everything.

Let’s go ahead and get started to understanding what does branding refers to.


What’s Branding?

Branding is a marketing strategy aimed to make people quickly identify and experience an organization’s brand and products and select them over competitors’ products.

The strategy involves the practice of creating a name, a logo, and other design assets that are easily identifiable as belonging to the organization.

An organization’s brand has to be the true representation of who they are as a business, the missions you have and how you want potential customers to perceive and think about you.

Note that an organization’s brand affect all of its stakeholders, including consumers, helping them to distinguish a business’ products and select them over competitor’s ones, team members, defining the values and mission of the company, and shareholders, helping them decide to which company do they feel connected.

Branding for Startups Elements

Okay, I get it. But…


Why is Branding Important for Startups?

Many startups prefer not to spend their time and money on their branding and simply copy their competitor’s identity or the current internet trends.

That doesn’t work.

In the long term, you won’t be able to market a product or service successfully if you don’t define a solid brand identity system.

Gerald Zaltman is a Harvard professor who has written the book “How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market”. On it, he claims that 95% of customer purchasing decisions are subconscious.

That’s why the rational reasons why you think customers would decide to purchase your product over competitor’s one (such as pricing, features, convenience, etc), will work only in 5% of the cases. On the other 95%, the customers will be driven by other factors that are mainly created by your branding and how the customers feel about your company.

This also means that even if the competitors have a wider range of features, better pricing models, more experience in the market, etc., a great startup branding can motivate a customer’s subconscious to go with your business’ products and services over competitor’s ones.

Note that this is particularly important for startups, as they tend to have 1-3 bigger competitors (usually larger corporations) which have more resources, employees, and market knowledge to beat the startup if only rational factors are considered.

However, startups that do a great branding work that transmits their missions and objectives and connect well with their buyer personas, will definitely win in terms of emotional motivations over corporates competing in the same niche.

Still not sure about the importance of branding for startups? Here’re some more stats that will probably convince you.

Branding for Startups Stats


Quotes about Startup Branding

Many startup and business founders have talked about what’s branding and why it is so powerful.

One of the most famous quotes is from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

The Internet has made it possible for you to be in that room 24/7, so make use of that ability, listen to stakeholders talking about your brand and tweak it so that it transmits what you want your company to transmit.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has another famous quote around company’s brands and culture: “If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”

This is exactly what I explained above about customer’s emotional behavior when carrying out purchases and how competitors may have stronger rational reasons why customers should buy their products, but don’t offer that level of synergy that your startup branding can offer and that captures customer’s subconscious.

A third quote comes from Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group: “Too many companies want their brands to reflect an idealized & perfected image of themselves. As a consequence, their brands acquire no texture, no character, and no public trust.”

This reflects one of the worst mistakes startups can do that’s copying other businesses or internet trends’ values and images. Startups naturally have something that’s unique and connect them super strongly with target audience. Creating a fake brand that doesn’t represent them would mean to waste one of the strongest emotional factors why customers may choose their products and services over corporations’ ones.

Finally, Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corporation, has also spoken about the subject: “For better or for worse, our company is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values.”

This shows the importance of the founding team’s personality, values, and beliefs on the business branding and culture. You, as a founder, can make a huge difference.

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Okay, I get it… working on the branding for my startup is essential. But how’s the process of building a startup brand?


Branding for Startups: A 10-Step Process

1. Go Back to Your Story

When you first thought about building a brand around your venture, your first ideation session was likely focused around what you offer as a product or service. For example, if you’ve started a landscaping business, you’ve probably thought of a minimal grass logo with a green color palette. This is a really good way of blending in with every other landscaper in your area. Not exactly what I want to do here.

So what should you focus on instead of your product/service? Go back to the very beginning! Your personal story as a startup founder.

Where were you born?

How did your parents raise you and how did that impact your reason behind starting this venture?

Are you starting right out of school or have you been working at a corporate job for the past 25 years? How does that affect your reason behind starting this venture?

As you dig deeper to understand your personal life story, you will recognize the truth behind your motivation to start this business.

As much as I’d love to take a deep dive into my personal story behind starting a CBD dog treat company, it would take this article way over the word limit I’ve planned, so I’m going to leave this part up to you.

2. Set Your Brand Voice

Hopefully you’ve thought a lot about your personal story because now I need to take that story and highlight some keywords that will act as your brand voice. For my CBD dog treat company, I’ve come to the words: Loyal, Warm, and Confident.

CBD is still a pretty regulated industry, so using CBD in pet products has stirred up a bit of controversy. For these reasons, the brand needed to convey a warm homeyness in order to have consumers feel relaxed when interacting with the brand. The brand also needs to focus on doggy confidence as the end result, rather than the state of relaxation, in order to differentiate. Finally, loyalty leads our brand voice because I want the company to convey the reason that I have such an immense love for dogs in the first place: loyalty. I want our company to be loyal to our customers, I want our customers to be loyal to our company, and I want the dogs that I help to be loyal to their owners.

The easiest way to choose your brand voice is to just pull out a piece of scrap paper and write down every single word that comes to mind when thinking about your story and your business. Honesty. Quality. Loyalty. Money. People. Family. Respect. Growth. Nothing is wrong here, but think about how those words are going to make your end consumers feel.

Once you have a solid list of words, go through them and pick three that best describe the vibe that you want your business to have.

3. Decide on a Company Name

The 5 biggest factors to consider when deciding on a name for your new company are how easy your name is to spell, how easy it is to remember, if it has room for expansion, if it’s available, and how it fits in with your brand voice.

Pick a name that is easy to spell. There are about a million stories of founders that chose names for their business and struggled to get traffic because their consumers didn’t remember how to spell it, let alone the effect it has on search engine rankings.

Pick a name that is easy to remember. Similarly to spelling, you don’t want to lose out on customers because they can’t remember what your name was. Make your name short and sweet, but unique.

Don’t limit your business from day one by picking a name that is limiting. Naming your business “Lug Nuts of Athens, Ohio” might be the perfect descriptor for your business now, but what happens when you realize that there is an opportunity for you to change brake pads? Or changing break pads in Cleveland, Ohio? Imagine if Jeff Bezos named his business “BooksOnline” instead of “Amazon”.

Is your name even available? The easiest way to do this is a quick google search followed by a domain name search. If you can’t get the “.com” domain for the name you have in mind, you should think about going back to the drawing board.

Based on my brand voice: Loyal, Warm, and Confident, a name that immediately came to mind was “Feel”. I thought it matched my brand voice pretty well and thought that there could be some clever brand marketing designed around pups that were “in their feels”.

Upon further research, there was already a CBD company called “Feals”, and I surely wasn’t going to get the domain name “feel.com” without reaching deep into my own pockets.

After going back to the drawing board, I realized I was missing out on a huge opportunity. People love puppies. Having my name involve the word “pup” would be easy to build a strong brand around and still evokes warm, friendly, and inviting emotions. Since we’re playing in a cannabis industry, I came up with the name “PupLeaf”. Unfortunately, the .com domain was already taken, so I tried “LeafPup”.

It was available! And I liked the sound of it better anyway.

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4. Write Your Mission Statement

A mission statement is a staple for building internal culture and driving your future marketing materials. Having your brand voice in place should make the process of coming up with the perfect mission statement a lot easier.

My favorite mission statement example is “We believe in a world where people belong anywhere”. Can you guess the company behind it?

Airbnb.

Traveling can be intimidating, especially when traveling to places with radically different cultures. Airbnb wants to make us feel like I belong anywhere. It’s a powerful message that will appeal to many people and the statement doubles as a backbone for their brand.

Airbnb's startup brand

Everything you create for your business should tie into your mission statement and communicate your brand voice. Here are some other examples of world famous mission statements used to build powerful brands.

Amazon - “Our vision is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

Facebook - “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Google - “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Sony - “To be a company that inspires and fulfills your curiosity.”

Notice how every mission statement is reduced down to the bare minimum required to describe the impact of the business. Your statement should follow this as well.

To create a mission statement for LeafPup, I went back to the word “confidence” from my brand voice. I wanted LeafPup to help dogs of all ages manage anxiety, discomfort, and fear in order to see more confident pups at the end of the day.

And so it became, LeafPup - “to help dogs of all ages manage anxiety, fear, and discomfort in order to see more confident pups at the end of the day”


5. Put Together a Mood Board

Here’s where you get to see your brand start coming together and it’s probably the easiest part to do. Pinterest is your best friend here if you aren’t design savvy.

All you have to do is create a Pinterest board for your brand and start searching for images using the keywords you chose for your brand voice. For LeafPup: loyal, warm, and confident images become the filter for “pins” that fit the brand.

After pinning about 50 different images to our company board, I had a pretty good idea what our brand was going to look like!

We picked a few of our favorite images and made a collage to narrow down the overall “vibe”. Here’s what it looks like.

Branding Board


6. Find Your Colors

It might be tempting to just pick your favorite color as your primary brand color, but it surely isn’t the most logical thing to do. I had you make a mood board for a reason!

Your mood board should tell you exactly what colors you are going to add to your palette! If you found a lot of images for your mood board that have a similar color blue, then it makes a lot of sense for that shade of blue to be in your color palette.

To really speed up the process of finding a color palette, I use Adobe Color. Don’t worry, it’s free! You can upload or browse through images that fit the vibe of your brand and Adobe Color will automatically create a color palette for you!

Brand's colors

For LeafPup, most of our images had an early-autumn color palette: browns, oranges, reds, and subtle greens. Rather than using the color green, I’m opting to use actual images of house plants and trees to convey our branding. Then, I’m taking a khaki color to use as a background against a dark brown type color. This will help create the warm, homey vibe that I’m looking for. I pulled these colors from various images in my mood board and picked a few colors that would soften everything up. Finally, I picked a soft teal accent color to bring out the “confidence” that LeafPup is coming to stand for.


7. Design Your Logo

We realize this is where it gets kind of tricky if you don’t happen to be a graphic design wiz. More than likely you’ll have to outsource to a designer or design team, but at least now you have a solid brand direction to hand off.

You can find quality designers on popular freelance platforms like Fiverr, but it’s really important that you provide them with everything you’ve worked on up until this point. You don’t want to miscommunicate.

Your logo should incorporate your brand voice keywords and be able to blend well with the rest of your mood board. Let’s take a look at how Airbnb used their keywords to craft their logo icon!

Airbnb's Visual Identity

Don’t get too caught up with trying to make a logo that describes what you do. You’ll have a million chances to tell consumers what your business does. At the end of the day, your logo is an identity that needs to meet 3 criteria. It has to be simple, appropriate, and unique. Somebody should be able to look at your logo for 5 seconds, turn around, and then draw a logo that could only resemble your logo on a blank piece of paper.

If your logo can pass that test, you probably have something you can move forward with as long as it’s appropriate. By that, I mean that it is appropriate for the rest of your brand. Remember, it has to fit in with the rest of your mood board.

Being a graphic designer with experience in building brands, I wanted to take the image of the puppy holding a leaf that I used in my mood board to create a minimal mascot icon for the LeafPup brand. The cuteness of the mascot would attract attention while the warm, natural color palette tell our brand story of loyalty and warmth.

Leafpup's Logo

With our products being CBD infused, the leaf was made to slightly resemble a cannabis leaf without screaming “cannabis company”. Most importantly, the logo is simple, memorable, and entirely unique. It passes the test.


8. Choose Your Typography

There are thousands of fonts for you to choose from, but you can’t rely on a gut feeling. Making the right decision depends on function, context, and a whole set of other factors.

Think about personality. Think back to your brand voice. If your brand voice is friendly, you might look for rounded fonts that are really easy to read. If your brand voice is confident, you might look for bold, condensed fonts. Maybe all caps? When you look through all your font options, think about the way they make you feel. Do they match your brand voice to the tee or could it be better communicated?

Think about function. What font are you using for what purpose? At the bare minimum you will want to find a font for your headings and a font for paragraphs. A lot of brands choose a 3rd font that acts as a brand element on it’s own.

Brand's Typography

In the above example, you can see how fonts are used functionally. There are 2 fonts at play here: Franklin Gothic URW Medium as the font in charge of getting your attention (main headings and buttons) and Adobe Garamond Pro Regular as the secondary fonts for body content and subheadings. You should take a similar approach when picking the fonts for your brand.

With LeafPup being an all-natural company with a natural color palette, I needed a font that would function perfectly while communicating our brand voice proudly. A mix of serif and sans-serif font in neutral colors tell our consumers that we’re not going anywhere. We’re loyal. Using a larger font size for headings will communicate confidence, and using a softer font for body paragraphs will make our customers feel the warmth and homeyness I need to convey as well. Here’s what this looks like.

LeafPup's Fonts


9. Put Everything Together

Now that you have everything that meets the bare minimum to build a solid brand, it’s important that you take the time to present everything that you’ve worked on. Some call this a style guide, some call it brand guidelines, and some call it your brand book. Regardless, it’s a necessary step in building a brand.

Your style guide will be your bible in everything you do from here on out. You should look to it for advice on the best direction to go. Not just with design, but internal culture as well. If your brand voice and mission statement involves the word “peaceful”, you should prioritize making your working environment peaceful, making your customers at peace when they interact with you, and having a tone of voice that is soft and relaxing.

Leafpup's Mission Statement
Leafpup's Moodboard
Leafpup's Primary Logo
Leafpup's Color Palette

In the above example, everything I talked about in this guide is strategically laid out to clearly communicate all brand elements. When you look at LeafPup’s style guide, you know exactly who they are, what they stand for, and the design elements that help them stand out.

An easy way to make a style guide is to make a Powerpoint or Google Slide deck. Each slide explains and depicts the different elements of your brand.


10. Be Consistent

Your brand doesn’t stop developing here. It never ends. Fortunately, you’ve set yourself up for success by creating your style guide. The next time you need a flyer designed for an event your hosting, you can send your style guide to your designer and they will have everything they need to make sure your brand stays cohesive throughout every design project.

Everything that involves your business should fit perfectly into your style guide as an example of your design elements. Your company t-shirts, business cards, website, packaging, investor slide deck, and everything else you can think of should follow suit with your style guide.

For LeafPup, the first design project that I tackled was packaging. Since CBD has turned into such a competitive market, conveying LeafPup’s brand identity through well-designed packaging was vital for standing out in the industry. Rather than simply hopping on the CBD train, I needed to create a brand that focused on educating consumers while having an empowering message to connect with and support.

After I finalized our packaging, I was able to move forward with our next project: the LeafPup e-commerce site. As mentioned earlier in this article, although the CBD industry is expected to reach $40 billion within the next 5 years, it is still heavily regulated.

Leafpup's Package

Currently the largest retailers and advertising platforms, like Amazon, Facebook, and Google don’t even support CBD sales. This means one thing: LeafPup’s direct-to-consumer platform (the e-commerce site) has to function beautifully while still communicating all of LeafPup’s creatively designed brand elements.

Here’s the e-commerce site I was able to design within 24 hours of finishing the LeafPup brand style guide.

Leafpup's Website
Leafpup's Products

You can see the full site prototype here undefined.

Focusing your attention on building a style guide will make all future design projects a breeze. The next time you need to design a business card, website, or flyer, you will have your logo, color palette, fonts, and usage examples on hand for you to simply plug-in and go to market.

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Now it’s your turn!

You now know what’s branding, why it is so important and the whole process of building it. It’s now the turn to work on your startup’s brand.

There are different paths you can follow to get such a branding set up (although it will then need to be constantly worked in). It’s not one path or the other, but you can follow a combination of them to get a successful startup brand.


1. Working yourself

There necessarily is a part of the branding process that you, as the founder, will have to work in.

The branding of your company has to include your values, beliefs, objectives, missions, etc. That’s the best way to keep it unique and with a strong character. It’s super easy to identify those businesses with a fake “perfect and ideal” image from those who build one that really represents the reasons why that company exists & the values of the team.

On the side, even if you outsource your startup branding process, you need to be the one with the final decision over the brand created. Remember Rupert Murdoch’s quote at the beginning fo the article: “our company is a reflection of my thinking”. The branding values can’t be really different from the founder’s and team members’.


2. Hire a startup branding agency

There’s an existing debate on whether hiring an agency to work on your branding has any sense or not. Those against it claim branding consists of a lot of items and constant work that can’t be done by people outside the business.

However, lots of startup branding agencies have born in the last decade and the practice has become more frequent than ever before. While some startups prefer to outsource parts of their branding (call it the logo, their website, their social media look), others encharge these services the whole process listed above.

Google “startup branding agency” to come with 10M results. Pretty sure you’ll find one that fits well. You may also want to search according to your location, or maybe your startup niche. Those branding agencies that have worked/generally work with businesses in your industry will be a much better fit.


How much does it cost?

TechCrunch has a detailed article on the costs of branding packages for startups. They divide them into two categories.


Bootstrapped & pre-seed startups

The article proposes a low-cost and mainly in-house branding process, carried out by the founders and team of the company. This kind of businesses tend to have little resources, which should be spent on the product rather than in the branding.

  • Brand strategy: The brand strategy is something super unique for such businesses that can be outsourced. It depends 100% on the founders’ values, beliefs, and objectives, so the only cost would be the time working on brand strategy-related tasks.
  • Visual identity: Websites like Upwork, 99design, and Fiverr offer low-cost visual identity services. From as little as $5, you can get a (low-quality) logo done. This kind of business may spend $100-$3000 on such services.
  • Website: The article recommends starting with pre-made templates so as to minimize costs. Even with a small investment of $1,000-$5,000, you can get a nice-looking site. 


Early-stage & funded startups

In these stages, TechCrunch recommends investing in design and shares quotes of $100-$150/hour for a design consultant and $150-$600/hour for a firm. Here are some services you might request and their costs:

  • Brand strategy: For $5k-$20k you can expect to get a consultant/small firm to spend a few days within your company and help you identify and articulate your values. For $30k-$80k, you can afford larger firms and expect from them professional training, user research and competitive analysis, among other deliverables.
  • Visual identity: Freelancers and small/local firms may quote these services at $5k-$15k, while bigger firms can charge up to $100k, depending on what’s requested, the variations you need, the versions delivered, etc.
  • Website: This is probably where it varies the most, as it depends a lot on how you get the design done, the number of pages, the features required, the technology it’s built-in, etc. Techcrunch claims you can expect from $2k to even $200k. And if you need an app as well, that can cost you several hundreds of thousands more.

Some startups do a re-branding process as they grow, which can even include a re-naming. Naming firms can quote this from $15k-75k, which I personally think it’s pretty excessive. 

You can always use our naming a startup guide and spend these thousands of $$ on your product, which will be highly appreciated by your users.


3. Hire a freelancer

A cheaper alternative to branding services can be hiring a freelancer to help you with specific items of your branding process.

Branding consultants can help you with your brand positioning, graphic designers with the visual identity part, and web designers & developers with your website & app.

Freelancing networks, such as Upwork, Toptal, PeoplePerHour, Fiverr, and 99designs, among other thousands, can be a great way to find these freelancers, though the most senior and expert freelancers will probably have their own websites and the way to find them is through Dribble, Behance and your network.


4. Hire an unlimited design service

This website (and part of the visual identity) has been created by an unlimited design service, the fourth option to get your startup branding done.

These are services you pay every month (tend to cost $300-$1000) and you get as many design tasks as you want to be done. The unique limit is that they work on one task at a time (if you pay more you can get 2, 4, or even 6 tasks at a time in some cases).

When bootstrapping your startup, these services can be a cheap way to get a logo, website, social media banners, and any other design deliverable.


Startup Branding Resources

If you have decided to take care of your branding process completely on your own, you may want to check some of the following resources:


Branding Books


Branding Courses


Branding Websites

  • Brand New is a website that delivers information around graphic design, organized events, and creates books around the topic.
  • Logo Design Love is a great site to get inspiration about logos and visual identity for your startup.
  • Identity Design is a nice-looking site that shows the visual identities from startups from all over the world.


Conclusion

A marketing campaign is a project. There is a start and end date, specific deliverables, and measurable results. Building a brand isn’t a project and you can’t treat it like one. Building a brand can be more similarly related to growing as a person. You might spend your first 5 years figuring out who you are and adapting your brand elements as you go. Your brand will mature over time, develop more traits, quit bad habits, and might even end up being the opposite of what it was when it first started out.

You have to let the life your business has gone through impact your brand like the life you’ve personally gone through has impacted your current values and personality.

Of course, if you never develop your initial brand identity, there will be nothing to change. Start by looking into your personal story, set your brand voice, put together a mood board, come up with a simple name, write your mission statement, find your colors, design your logo, pick your fonts, and then put everything together into a style guide (a slide deck will work great!). After you get that far, be consistent, but let your brand go through the necessary changes to stay relevant, mature, and last a lifetime.

The best brands mature at the same time as their customers. While design might matter to their customers now, maybe comfort will matter 10 years from now. Let your brand adapt. Let your brand have its own personality and experiences. At the end of the day, your customers and employees will end up developing the bulk of your brand anyways. Your job is to communicate the values that your customers/employees develop through beautiful design.

I hope you enjoyed the whole article and particularly reading about the process of building a lean startup brand from scratch. All-in-all, the process took 72 hours from idea to e-commerce platform.

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