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Crack the Branding Code: How to Build Your Message and Value Proposition Right the First Time

Just over a decade ago, vintage clothing empress Nasty Gal was sitting pretty as a top notch startup with over $65 million in venture capital funding.

Ten years later, a filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would send the brand into a tailspin that won’t be righted anytime soon -- even if the company manages to stay afloat.

The reason?

Well, there were many, actually, but one key driver boils down to brand disruption. Namely, when newly named CEO Sheree Waterson introduced higher-priced brands to boost margins, but ended up diminishing its customer base and extinguishing sales.

As a startup, you should realize your brand represents the most valuable asset your company will ever own. Your brand provides the foundation for your entire reputation. And for startups who have yet to establish many successes in their industry, a little reputation can go a long way in putting you in the green.

Yet many startups neglect to see the value in building a solid branding vehicle from the very beginning. Rather, business leaders believe that branding evolves as a natural progression of the company and only exists to provide marketing departments with direction and content.

And both of these notions prime you for failure before you ever launch.

Branding Mistakes Startups Are Most Likely to Make

Startups typically don’t have massive capital to invest in much beyond the bare necessities, but all too often branding is overlooked as one of those much-needed components.

And those startups who do invest in a solid brand in the beginning don’t always understand the importance or requirements of maintaining the brand after early successes.

Whether you commit the former or the latter, each presents a serious branding crime that could ultimately lead to other common startup branding mistakes:

Ignoring the employee role in building your brand

When you can’t splurge on a publicist or outside marketing agency, your employees will sometimes pull double duty as your company evangelists. But first, they need to know how to spread your message, what the message should say, and to whom to deliver it. 


Creating a modge-podge conglomerate of communications

Whether you have one or five or fifty channels in your company, each one should reflect the same company image regardless of the department’s role.

Following a me-too strategy that mimics your competition

If two companies provide the exact same service to the exact same people at the exact same price, one of them is not needed. And typically it will be the one who hasn’t invested in a strong branding strategy.

Failing to provide memorable experiences

How do you plan to become your customer’s first choice if you can’t establish top-of-mind awareness? Branding goes beyond logo recognition. You should take advantage of every touchpoint to create a memorable experience that your prospects won’t soon forget.


In a stark contrast to the hundreds of brands that have outlived the past century or longer, one comparison shows that of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955, only 12% remain on the list in 2014. Which proves you can’t expect your brand to autopilot your company into repeat success; rather, your brand should continue to represent your company consistently, intentionally, and unceasingly.

Considering how many brands of the past century continue to prosper despite numerous recessions, the Great Depression, and other market instability, you’d think cultivating a strong brand would be an obvious must for startups vying for longevity. Yet branding remains somewhat of a mystery in how it’s supposed to look and function that it represents one of the most underutilized assets of companies new and old.

What does good branding look like?

To peel away some of the vagueness shrouding the concept, let’s first take a closer look at what branding is not:

  • Your company name
  • A well-designed logo
  • A slogan or tagline
  • The products or services you sell
  • Social media presence
  • Advertisements and marketing campaigns

Truthfully, all of these things can contribute to your brand strategy in some capacity. But branding at its core lies in how you connect with your target audience and the resulting perceptions from your customer’s experience.

It’s far easier to recognize good branding practices than putting those actions into practice for your own brand. Generally speaking, good branding always includes the following:

A target audience

The strongest brands remain strong because they know who their best customers are. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, they limit their mass appeal and focus only on what they do best. 

A commitment from your team

A thoughtful brand depends on participation and cooperation from your employees. It’s important to hire only those who present a cultural fit that can help propel your brand goals. Hiring for cultural fit? 


A well-defined lexicon and content palette

Visuals are worth a thousand words, but the lingo you use still matters. Establishing a brand voice, color scheme, and visual elements can help direct other aspects of your branding strategy, such as advertisements, marketing, social media, and customer support. Here are 50 meticulous style guides from Canva that every startup should see before launching.

A backstory

Every brand has a story, but first you must define the best way to present yours. Well-crafted stories serve three key purposes: they position you as leaders in your industry; they fuel the conversation about your company; and most importantly, they connect with customers on a personal level to “humanize” your brand.


With the growing online competition for visibility, it’s imperative to remind customers what makes you the better choice. This is your chance to define your competitive advantages and let people know what they can get from you that they can’t get anywhere else.

If you look at companies like Ritual, Harry’s razors, and charity: water​ (a non-profit), you’ll see each of the above branding cues featured prominently on their website and throughout their communications.

Wrap Up

Being a startup, you’re in a prime position to avoid the two major branding mistakes that could have potentially salvaged many companies: Not investing in brand building from the start, and failing to maintain the brand after it’s been well established.

Branding can be a tricky process, given the time, effort, and resources it takes to fuel your strategy. But it’s also too valuable to forgo, and too reputation-sensitive not to get the formula right the first time.

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