Building a strong brand is critical when launching your startup. Throughout this article, you'll learn a framework that will enable you to create a meaningful brand for your early-stage 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 concepts for you.
This would’ve been your first mistake. I want you to think of building a brand 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 lean startup brand from scratch by actually building a lean startup brand from scratch. 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.
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 we 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.
Hopefully you’ve thought a lot about your personal story because now we 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 we 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 we 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 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.
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 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 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.
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?
Traveling can be intimidating, especially when traveling to places with radically different cultures. Airbnb wants to make us feel like we belong anywhere. It’s a powerful message that will appeal to a lot of people and the statement doubles as a backbone for their 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”
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, we 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.
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. We 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, we 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!
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 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.
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!
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 story of loyalty and warmth.
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.
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.
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, we 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 we need to convey as well. Here’s what this looks like.
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.
In the above example, everything we 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.
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.
Of course, I can’t help but to promote my real startup here. I started Pence Branding because something felt wrong about hiring a big branding agency (that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars) to create a beautiful brand around your startup idea only to send you on your way to hold up those brand standards yourself when you need a small flyer designed in the future.
At Pence Branding, we go through this process of designing your brand style guide and then roll into an unlimited graphic design/web design subscription with 48 hour turnaround times to ensure your brand elements are always used to the tee. It’s like having your very own in-house design team.
For LeafPup, the first design project that we 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, we needed to create a brand that focused on educating consumers while having an empowering message to connect with and support.
After we finalized our packaging, we were 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.
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 we were able to design within 24 hours of finishing the LeafPup brand style guide.
You can see the full site prototype hereundefined.
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.
After all, time is of the essence.
We hope you enjoyed reading about our process of building a lean startup brand from scratch. All-in-all, the process took us 72 hours from idea to e-commerce platform. For those of you who are wondering, we are actually planning on launching the company 2 months from today (after funding is secured for our initial inventory purchase).
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.
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