Put a Brand on It: a simple startup branding framework
Creating a “Brand” for a startup is complicated. Every article I’ve read about it seems to start the same way: “brand isn’t just your company colors and your logo… it’s other stuff, too. But this other stuff is fluffy and intangible, and hard to get right.”
So… as you’re building your pitch decks, your landing pages, and your product, where do you start creating a brand?
This is the simple framework my team used for an early-stage company.
What is Brand?
After reading just about every brand listicle out there… We think brand = a combination of six basic elements: an underlying voice, company purpose, story, value proposition, emotions (that you want your brand to invoke in users), and creative elements (logo, colors, typography, imagery, etc.).
There are two major categories in this framework: the micro-brand (stories and notions unique to your company and how you were founded) and the macro-brand (the emotions and visual style that companies with your same brand goals tend to use).
To build the micro-brand, look inward on your team and think about your unique culture and approach. To build the macro-brand, you might find it helpful to first look at companies you want to emulate from a brand perspective. Use some of their emotions or creative elements as jumping-off points.
So… how do we get started?
We used those six elements above as a jumping off point. For each element, create a response that fits your company — within an hour or two, you’ll have the first version of your brand! We outlined the easiest order (and our favorite examples) here:
Our favorite example is the Clif Bar founding story, “The Epiphany.”
Clif Bar is named after my father, Clifford, my childhood hero and companion throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1990, I lived in a garage with my dog, skis, climbing gear, bicycle and two trumpets…
We wrote our company story in a similar style, and then asked ourselves:
- Is it short / succinct?
- Does it have enough genuine detail to make it feel real (like living in a garage with two trumpets)?
- Does it communicate our genuine passion and enthusiasm for our product (like “The Epiphany”)?
For a model of purpose, we loved IKEA’s vision statement:
We asked ourselves:
- What is our long-term vision (grand, like “a better everyday life for many people”)?
- Beyond our current small product, how do we foresee fulfilling that vision (not just selling a chair, but a line of furniture)? What is the ultimate goal (so that… “as many people as possible will be able to afford them”)?
Some of the emotions we wanted to evoke were obvious after writing our story and purpose — we thought about how we wanted people to feel when learning about us. We also browsed a few lists of emotions, to see if they had any ideas that we might have missed. At the end, we asked ourselves:
- What are the most important feelings we think people will go to our company or products to feel?
- What are the most important feelings that our product will create in its ideal use case?
- What are emotional ‘traps’ we might fall into? (For example, if we go too far into evoking nostalgia, our brand might come across as old-fashioned or kitschy.)
…And using those questions, we picked the top three emotions that we wanted to guide our branding and marketing efforts.
4. Voice / Tone
Given that we had already written a story and a purpose, and had already chosen the emotions we wanted to evoke, we found that creating a voice for our brand came much more easily.
We made a “voice document” — we pulled our favorite lines out of the story and purpose we had written, and wrote more statements that we felt our brand would make (on our website, or in a marketing campaign, or to celebrate a holiday). Now, whenever we’re writing new copy, we hold it up against the voice document:
- Does this copy sound like it’s written by the same ‘character’?
- How does this copy make me feel — does it match the company or product’s emotional goals?
5. Value Proposition
Especially for a startup making its first pitches or landing pages, we thought SumoMe had some of the best examples (Mailchimp, Trello, Airbnb…)
They suggest a powerful formula for making a clear value proposition that we found helpful — we modified that slightly here:
Value proposition =
- Headline: a short statement around <=10 words that captures a core part of what you do (emotionally or tactically).
- Sub-headline: a ~one sentence description of how you deliver what you promised in your headline, specifically.
- List of key benefits: what are the best parts of your product, your key differentiators, your star features? Should be <=3 or 4 items.
6. Creative Elements
Creative elements, by our definition, are everything visual: the company logo, colors, typography, imagery, etc. Since we are not expert visual designers, we felt it was best for this part to come last: now that we robustly understand our story, our purpose, and our tone, it’s much easier for us to pick creative elements that match our brand goals.
For the colors, typography, and imagery, we made collages (we think fancy designers call them “moodboards”) of other products, brands, advertisements, Dribbble doodles, and anything else that represented our goals. Here’s one we made that was focused on color:
These collages helped us understand basic trends in our desired descriptors (for example, it looks like ‘family-friendly’ products tend to use a lot of light blue with orange/yellow accents) — from these basic guidelines, we added our own twist.
Obviously this is a bit general — for the visual identity/style part of branding, we found that there were many robust guidelines available online already. Here are a couple of our favorites:
- How to Create a Visual Style Guide for Your Brand (Canva)
- How to Create Your Own Brand Guidelines (Envato)
How does this all tie together?
With an answer for each of these six elements, we now have a Brand “checklist” we can use as we roll out each new piece of marketing material, new landing page, or new UI design.
- Is the copy written in the right voice/tone for our company?
- Does our message feel a natural and genuine extension of our company purpose and our origin story?
- Have we communicated our value proposition clearly?
- Are we evoking the emotions we want people to feel when interacting with our company and our products?
- Have we been consistent with our creative elements, making this piece of work quickly identifiable as ours?
If we can answer “yes” to all of these questions, we’re pretty sure we’re on-brand… even if we’re just a startup that’s still learning what our brand is.
We’d love to get your feedback on this framework (what are we missing in our concept of Brand?) and to hear about how your team went from an idea to a truly marketable product.