When You're Ready, It's Too Late: Brand Strategy for Startups


Ah, startups. The land where branding is everything, yet most companies ignore it. For a branding geek like me, startups are incredibly fun and rewarding to work with. In addition to Sol Marketing, I also run another business called, where we work with early stage companies to help them tell their stories effectively.

In my work with startups, the same theme comes up over and over again:

  • Is it too early to start branding?
  • Is branding a worthwhile investment at this phase?
  • Can’t we just focus on having a great product?

Of course, having a great product is important. But it’s not a trade-off where you can choose one or the other. For an early stage company nobody has heard of, branding is absolutely essential.

It’s Never Too Early

I always say, “Brand early, often, and always.”

Startups often fall into the trap of thinking they need to grow and be established players before branding matters. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The truth is, whether you work on it or not, you will have a brand. There will be a set of emotions, expectations, and feelings around your brand in the minds of customers. And if you don’t intentionally decide what that brand should be, your customers will decide it for you.

For an unfunded startup, it may be too early to invest significantly in ad spend and building a visual brand. But it’s never too early to understand your brand strategy from your customers’ point of view.

Minimum Viable Brand

Branding doesn’t need to be a big ordeal. New companies without much money to spend don’t need to hire expensive outside consultants, or run costly research studies, in order to understand their brand. But they do need to think about it.

At the very least, I encourage startups in their very early phase to understand the answers to the three fundamental questions of branding:

1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?

2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?

3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

These questions are simple, but they aren’t always easy to answer. Don’t think of this as a one-time, thirty-minute exercise. Instead, think of the process of answering of these questions as an ongoing discussion that unfolds as you find product-market fit.

I spend three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, explaining how best to understand and answer these questions. If you implement this process early, your branding is well taken care of. Like I said, branding doesn’t need to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. The book only costs $8.99!

As a start-up, if you do nothing else, dedicate time each month to discussing these three questions. This process gives you your brand’s North Star, which gives you direction and points you toward where you’re going.

Benefits Beyond Branding

The best thing about branding at the early stage isn’t just that it will impact how customers see you. It’ll also impact how you see yourself.

By going through this exercise, you’ll identify not only what you’re going to do but also, and more importantly, what you’re not going to do. It’s really easy as a startup to be opportunistic and to try to be all things to all customers.

But we all know that doesn’t work long term.

When you start to understand your branding and know directionally where you’re going, you can make more strategic, thoughtful, and deliberate decisions about your business.

Content is kale

Remember how a few years ago you’d occasionally encounter a kale Caesar salad or roasted kale dish on a restaurant menu, then all of a sudden it was as though kale was the new black? It became the trendiest vegetable on the plate.  It ventured off the plate and into places it was never meant to be. Now, pundits are saying it’s on its way out as the green darling of the foodie scene. However, kale is still delicious and good for you as part of a healthy diet, just as it was before it became the popular girl in school. It never was anything you should consider a complete diet. It definitely wasn’t a strategy you built your entire life around.

As I was enjoying some homemade kale chips the other day (that’s two food trends in one—DIY and kale, for those keeping track), it occurred to me that content is like kale. It’s always been an important part of any marketing mix, and there are more ways to leverage great content for marketing than ever before. And it became the buzziest marketing topic in a year full of buzz, in possibly the buzziest industry next to fashion and entertainment.

But it’s not the only thing you should include in a balanced marketing strategy. And it’s not even a marketing strategy with a small “s.”

Once it’s no longer the subject of a daily barrage of webinars, email posts, and other, uh CONTENT, and the marketing spotlight has turned to the next Next Big Thing You Must Do, content will go back to being like kale, or Brussels sprouts before it.

Looking back on marketing tactics du jour of the recent past—marketing metrics, mobile, social, interactive, gamification, whatever your CMO said last quarter was “a game changer” that needed to be implemented right now— content is something that is important to executing an overall strategy, but isn’t in and of itself a strategy. It’s also something, like these other marketing trends, that you shouldn’t STOP doing once the trend watchers move on to the next shiny object.


By the way, have you heard that the ice cream sandwich is the new cupcake?