The Deadly Seven sins of branding

Here are the troublesome errors start-ups are guilty of and how to avoid them
Beth Pope

WHEN IT COMES to brand development, start-up logic goes something like this: ‘If the product is strong enough – and we know ours is – the brand will take care of itself.’ Unfortunately, that’s flawed thinking. When founders understand the fact that building a brand is crucial in order to grow at scale, it’s usually a little late: sales have already plateaued.

Here are the top seven brand development trip hazards and how to avoid them.

1. Brand is basically a name, a logo and a snappy tagline, right?

Wrong. Those are your brand assets. Establishing your brand fundamentals is all about identifying the purpose of your business, and communicating it effectively. What’s the core ideology that drives your company? What problem are you solving? Get that message out there and you’re on the way.

A good example is ActionFunder, a new platform bringing businesses and community groups together to make change happen faster. Starting by defining their core purpose allowed us to devise a much more distinctive and emotionally powerful name and logo. Not least because it's geared around the problem the business solves. That’s then played out consistently across assets right from the launch; meaning they're creating memory structures that will accelerate brand recognition and attribution [].

2. If it ain’t broke. . .

There’s a natural tendency for young companies to stick with the model that attracted their early adopters and drove initial sales. The trouble is, you reach a point when that first target audience is exhausted. Now you need to tap into a more mainstream audience who are more risk-averse and less engaged. Instead of highlighting product features, the emphasis should be on making a brand synonymous with solving problems. And because you never know when those problems will arise, it’s a good idea to spend your marketing budget lightly targeting the whole category.

3. The existing customer is always right

When scaling up, firms tend to lavish attention on existing customers who ‘get’ the product. The secret to exponential brand growth is acquiring new customers, not driving repeat purchases. Growth is a numbers game; it means connecting with as many potential new customers as possible.

4. We solve one problem brilliantly

Humans are solution finders. If your brand becomes associated with solving multiple problems, it will spring to mind in multiple scenarios. The more ‘entry points’ you create, the more your firm will grow. It comes back to the idea of defining your purpose early.

Byrd is a running coach app I really admire founded by a passionate bunch of runners. All ex-Dyson, it would have been easy for them to get drawn into a rabbit hole of product features. They’ve (post-seed) launched a trial version of the app to a limited audience. But they've known from the off that scale will need to come from more mainstream running audiences, and so they tell their brand story very much in the context of benefits. That’s going to give them the flexibility they need to adapt and innovate as they grow.

5. We’re all for brand communications, just not yet

Some experts will tell you that spending on brand advertising too soon suggests a weak business idea. Please don’t listen. With a good business idea, investing in brand communications early will help you grow faster. As IPA research tells us, good brand advertising creates recognition and works emotionally: it primes customers to choose your product over someone else’s. That’s why scale-ups should, as a rule, stick to a tried and tested 60/40 split (roughly) between brand communication and sales activation.

6. What competition?

‘We’ve spent years honing an innovative product and making it the best it can be. No one else is doing this.’ That may well be true, but creating a stand-apart product isn’t the same as creating a completely new category. Firms compete on problems, not products. Your competition is therefore any company that solves the same problem.

7. We don’t do brand in the office

Communicate and live your core ideology internally and it will power your business from the inside. The beliefs and values that launched your company can also energise, focus and bind team members. It can seem counterintuitive, but a phase of rapid growth is precisely the right time to talk about your foundations which can quickly become nebulous as the team grows.

Our new client Company Shop Group is a good case in point. Post-investment by Biffa, the business is looking to scale significantly, playing an important role in how the UK achieves its zero waste targets. This new era for the business started exactly where it needed to - with a focus on articulating the future vision and ambition of the business to its 900 employees and industry partners.

This newly defined purpose (developed through Charlie Dawson at The Foundation) is critical to helping that audience see the potential they each had to effect change s. We're now picking up the baton and looking at what that means for end customers. But without first understanding and articulating what the brand means authentically to those party to its internal workings, we'd be risking disconnection.

Written by
Beth Pope
Written by
November 26, 2021