Branding is a prominent topic amongst startups, and yet we struggle to understand what it means. Voima Ventures’ Marketing Manager Julia has been part of various branding projects with our portfolio companies and is now sharing her valuable insights on this often confusing but important success factor in startups’ value creation.

One of the best known branding examples in the world is the competition between Coca Cola and Pepsi. For Voima Ventures many remember Solar Foods and their brilliant “food out of thin air” tagline. Your brand makes you easy to remember and builds trust, but no startup (or a company whatsoever) is about to just magically start with a brand like that. It has to be built up.

Close collaboration with deep tech startups across industries combined with my Master’s thesis on startup branding, have quickly shown me recurring questions about branding and marketing. “How to start branding a startup”, is amongst the most if not the most commonly asked question I get to discuss. It’s a good question but to be able to answer I’ll need to explain some easily misunderstood fundamentals of the nature of brands.

This is not a set-by-step guide. Google is already full of those and you can easily find the one that fits your purposes and industry. This post is what you should understand prior to executing any of those step-by-step guides.

You have had a brand all along – building it further takes time

At first your brand is simple and easy to manage and it may consist of only a few of its early building blocks – e.g. name, your story and the mission. Over time you add up to that and slowly keep building your brand into a bigger whole. No matter how small steps you take in the beginning they will help you later on. The complexity of the brand will continuously grow together with the company.

Branding isn’t just something that starts once you decide to start it. Your brand is born once you form your company and start interacting with your stakeholders – team members, investors and customers. It’s up to you to take advantage of it. 

Establishing a powerful brand doesn’t happen overnight either. If you one day wake up and decide you need a strong brand, you are going to face trouble trying to take over the brand that your company has spontaneously evolved with. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.

Brand is supposed to change

The pressure of having the perfectly polished brand right from the beginning can lead to startups not doing any intentional branding at all. As already mentioned, brand’s grow and evolve over time. You don’t need to and cannot have the final version of your brand right from the beginning. Start with something, refresh and change it over time together with your growing and changing company. Try to focus on learning what are those parts of your brand that you like and iterate on its future direction. 

We have been happy to witness this as our portfolio companies are growing. For example Infinited Fiber Company and Betolar who have just refreshed their brands. You can still see the elements that worked but now in a new and refreshed way that represents them better.

Don’t let perfection freeze you into avoiding branding altogether. If it feels right for your company now, go with it. Fine-tune later. Even changing your name afterwards isn’t out of the question. They do it even in the later stages as for example TransferWise’s rebranding into Wise.

Branding stems from within

During my thesis interviews, one interviewee described startups’ brands as “focusing tools” and it cuts into the core of the benefits of great brands. Great brand guides your internal decision making, goal setting and employee motivation. Your business goals, mission and vision are all part of your brand, and taking the time to gain a shared understanding of them within your team makes it easier to move forward consistently. 

Marketing and branding are often easily confused. The difference between them is that branding is looking at who you are (inward) and marketing is looking at who you want as your customers (outward). If marketing is what gets your customers interested in the beginning, a brand is what keeps them coming back.

But it’s important to remember that a brand is not just for your customers. It’s also an important way for you to help your employees and other internal stakeholders understand what you are trying to do.

So, how to start branding a startup? You have most likely already started, keep it simple and grow your brand over time, and start from within.

I mentioned that you can find many step-by-step online guides and other tools to get started with your branding. Here are some of my favourites to check:

1. Branding For Startups – Step-by-Step Guide + Case Study [2021]
Especially the “Branding for Startups: A 10-Step Process” -section is worth a read.

2. I’m a branding expert—and I think most startups spend way too much on branding
This article is a great cut-throat view into what startups should and should not do with regards to branding in the beginning.

3. Branding for startups: build a brand before it’s too late
Step-by-step introduction to a branding process.

4. Storybrand – BrandScript
Based on Donald Miller’s research, Storybrand is a framework that helps you identify and realize your story. It’s a free online tool (requires registration).

Written by Julia Ehrnrooth.