7 tips startups need to know to avoid branding pitfalls

What is a brand?

If you would have asked me that 5 years ago, I would have said that a brand is a logo, a name, and it’s associated colours.

Ask me that now, and I’ll say that brand is everything.

Saying that a brand is just a logo, name, and colours, is like telling someone what your name is and what you look like when they ask you who you are. The definition of who you are encompasses a lot more than that. You have a personality, you have strengths and weaknesses, you have recognisable habits and mannerisms, you have different ways of communicating to different people, and you have a unique skill set that nobody else has. That’s your brand.

[Tweet “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room. – Jeff Bezos, Amazon”]

Most startups see branding as a marketing activity, when really they should be seeing it as a collaboration between HR, product development, marketing, PR, design, social, and web.

Here’s an example: Say you had the choice between an Apple Macbook Pro at full price, or an exact rip-off of an Apple Macbook Pro at 2/3 the price.

Even though they both have the same logo, same name, and same colour, 9 out of 10 people will choose the genuine Macbook Pro because part of Apple’s brand is reliability, attention to detail, and a user interface that exceeds customer expectations. We know this because Apple has had that consistent brand message for a long time now. We know that it’s OK to go and browse at the Apple Store, and we know that Apple staff will not pressure us to make sales. That’s all part of the brand.

Here’s some tips on how to craft a long-standing brand.

1. Create first, design later

One of the big buzzwords going around lately is “design-led.” Although this may apply to many elements of startup procedure, brands must be conceived before they’re designed.

Ask yourself these seven questions:

  1. Who are my customers?
  2. What customers do I want to have?
  3. What do they want that I have?
  4. How am I different from my competitors?
  5. What is my value proposition? Is it distinctive? Is it relevant to my customers?
  6. When people think about my company or product, what are the feelings and associations I want them to have? Are they unique? Can we “own” them?
  7. What are the benefits that we deliver to our customers?
  8. What kind of personality will my brand have?
  9. What kind of relationship do I want to have with my customers?

Once you answer those questions, you should see your brand starting to take shape.

2. Visual design is important

A logo is a symbol or other small design adopted by an organisation to identify a brand. That’s it. A logo isn’t a brand; it’s only a part of your brand. 

Make sure that the design of your visual elements is parallel to the brand values that you have. For example, a funeral home wouldn’t have the same logo, colours, and website as a toy manufacturer, because the emotions and values they portray with their brands are completely different.

3. HR and leadership is part of branding

Anyone who travels in New Zealand knows that HR and customer service is an integral part of airline brands. Fly with Air New Zealand, and all of the staff will be well-trained, friendly, and reassuring. Fly with other airlines, and you’ll instantly notice that they see what they do as their job. It’s a burden to them. They’re friendly, but it’s because they have to be that way.

The way your team interacts with your customers is part of your branding, and this starts internally with high level management and works its way out to mid-level management, low-level employees, and finally, to the customer interactions.

Some CEO’s lead their teams to have better customer interactions by teaching them and learning with their employees. Others instruct the people in their companies to follow procedures, policies, and guidelines to achieve the same results. Refer to the infographic below which distinguishes between a boss and a leader.

Who you hire can also be part of your brand. For example, Yahoo’s female CEO, Marissa Mayer, is part of the progressive new brand they’re trying to cultivate. It stands out because not many women are tech CEO’s, and it gives the ancient web giant a forward-thinking and modern aspect to its brand.

Apple’s Steve Jobs was part of the innovative and personable brand that Apple was pushing in the new millennium.

NZE Services has hired employees who have worked at leading tech companies because they’re experienced, well known, innovative, and have strong networks. This is part of the NZE Services brand.

4. Be good online

Celebrity sport stars get sacked all the time (Todd Carney) because they adversely affect the franchise’s brand by publishing inappropriate content online.

Your web presence, such as your websites and social media assets, should be parallel with your brand’s values, and your online interactions, both personal and business, should be appropriately synchronised too.

Some CEO’s, like Rod Drury, are very open-minded in the online and offline worlds, and perusing Rod’s Twitter feed will show you that he uses the occasional minor expletive or witty remark.

When you look at Xero’s brand, you’ll see that this fits in perfectly, because Xero prides itself in being different, open-minded, youthful, innovative, and fresh. Xero was even using the tagline, “Making accounting fun” for a while, and in turn, Xero’s employees are all representative of those values when they go about their personal online interactions.

5. Be consistent

This is a lesson I learned the hard way with NZE. Our current logo, which is here to stay and easily associated with all our other companies, is in its 4th iteration as the brand has changed significantly from when the publication first started.

Originally, we were just providing innovation, information, and inspiration to entrepreneurs. Now we see ourselves as the voice of startup culture in New Zealand, and our target audience has shifted from companies who haven’t started yet or are in their first year, to 1-5 year old companies.

Since we’ve been consistent with this brand for a while now, our visitor statistics are growing significantly. When we have made changes in the past, there was a sharp drop in traffic shortly after.

This goes for any brand, be it for a products or services company, or an online publication like NZE.

However important it is, make sure that your brand is worth being consistent over. There’s no sense in investing heavily in a brand that isn’t parallel with your values.

6. Be swift to change

These days, most brands need to evolve to keep up with changes in technology, customer perception, and company development.

If your current brand isn’t working for you, be sure to execute change quickly and efficiently. A branding expert is highly recommended before you begin altering what you already have, but a simple metric that I’ve found effective is to ask my ideal customer, “Would you recommend my brand to a colleague or friend.”

If the answer is yes, then you’re doing something right. If the answer is no, or there is any sign of hesitation, I know that I need to take a closer look at what we’re doing, what our values are, and how we’re portraying them.

Good brand experts in New Zealand would be:

A more complex metric system can be found in the diagram below.


7. People are everything

At the end of the day, all employees of all companies interact with people in one way or another. Make sure everyone in your team knows your brand well, because every single person, from the CEO to the office temp, is representing your brand.

On the other side of that statement, make sure your brand appeals to people. B2B companies sometimes under-estimate the value of their brands, but in the course of their business interactions, the employees and contractors associated with that B2B company are dealing with real people.


What are your tips on branding? Share your experiences and advice below in the comments.

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