Creating the foundation for a defensible brand


Seth Matisak, head of design at Forward Partners, discusses the importance of branding and the ways in which technology entrepreneurs can get this right from the onset.

While the opportunity to get your idea funded is easier than ever with capital available from several different sources, it of course doesn’t guarantee your company will be a success.

Competition in the startup ecosystem is fiercer than it ever has been with scores of new startups being founded on a weekly basis.

With a host of incubators, accelerators and value add VCs available, the time it takes to go from an idea to working product is the shortest it’s ever been and competing businesses are stealing ideas at record pace, so having that one killer product feature to differentiate your company is becoming less and less important.

So, how do you get a leg up on the competition?

There’s a well known tool out there to help differentiate your company but for some reason it’s often ignored until Seed funding or later. The tool in question is your brand.

Now, I’m not talking about going out and finding a world-class brand strategy agency on day one. That would be ridiculous and a huge waste of your cash.

I’m talking about setting the foundation for your brand from the beginning so you can start cultivating brand advocates early.

It is after all, those precious advocates that we’re after. They are the most valuable source of brand loyalty and advertising. The best part? You don’t have to be a branding expert to set up these foundations.

What is ‘brand’?

Brand, branding, brand identity, etc. It’s very easy to get some of these buzz words confused these days. What do they actually mean?

We’ll start with brand. This is what people feel about your company after having experienced your product or company. I think Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap says it best, “it’s not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”

Unfortunately, we can’t directly control what people think about our companies but we can try and influence them. So, how do we go about influencing our customers? How do we build connections that hit deeper than a feature list? To understand this better it’s best to think of brands as people.

Have you ever met a stranger and just seem to hit it off? There was something between you both that aligned, whether it was your humour, body language, values, hobby or whatever it may be. Conversations flowed easy and you’re left wanting to hang out more after that. That’s how two strangers become friends.

The fact is you connect with some people better than others. Companies are similar in that they make connections with certain customers through human characteristics and shared views. The tool companies use to gain these human characteristics is called brand identity.

Brand identity is the outward expression of a company. It’s the look and feel. Think colour palette, fonts, typography, art direction, logo, tone of voice, textures – even a smell can be brand identity. All these expressions, when considered, add up to give your brand a certain tone which helps your customers easily identify with you.

It’s when you take that look and feel and apply it to every touchpoint that you have branding. We are deliberately trying to influence your customer’s perception of your company at that point. Every touchpoint needs to work together to bring your company to life and give it a personality customers will love to talk to but something needs to drive your identity. You can’t just throw colours at the wall and hope they stick. The driver will help set the foundation for your brand going forward and that foundation is your values.

The bedrock of defensible brands

Values influence your attitude and behaviour. They direct your colours, type, tone of voice and every other element of your brand identity and way you go about branding. Values help customers connect with your company. They are the bedrock of human connection.

Values give you clarity so you’ll always have something to check against while making decisions. Will changing this colour better reflect ‘X’ value or will it devalue ‘Y’ value?

Brands that are values driven (Innocent, Monzo, Misfit Juicery, Citymapper, Asana, TOMS) can better withstand competition as they have core beliefs that customers can easily identify with and feel good about.

This is the most important thing of all. Once customers buy into those beliefs they become part of that tribe. They become best friends. They become brand advocates and that’s the true power of values. Values are the foundation for creating a defensible brand.