$78 billion. With a “B.” That’s how much Coca-Cola, the 2nd most valuable brand in the world, is worth. That’s the value of the brand alone. It doesn’t account for their factories and bottling plants. No fleet of trucks. No inventory. Only the brand.
We know definitively that strong brands enjoy higher profit margins. They also get more repeat business, tend to attract the best employees, and are more resistant to competition. This is just as true for small enterprises as it is for large corporate behemoths.
Why then, do so many early stage businesses focus almost entirely on product development and neglect to nurture their brands?
In the early stages of a startup, 80% of business owners focus on the product, while only 20% focus on the brand and marketing.
This is a mistake. Business founders must deeply understand the value of a solid brand foundation. Even in Silicon Valley, where branding, positioning and storytelling tend to be overlooked, these disciplines are becoming more widely embraced for their critical strategic value. This trend is underway as the barrier to entry for early stage businesses continues to fall, while the competition among these startups increases. Those who have the best stories to tell and build the most engaging brands will find success.
For entrepreneurs and business owners, here are some key fundamentals to consider when building the foundation of your early stage brand:
Understand that your brand is not a logo.
In my early years of business I had a client who spent an extraordinary amount of effort (and dollars) developing a logo and an inventory of promotional items, long before he had landed his first client. As an early-stage business leader, avoid getting caught up in the identity hype. Recognize that a logo is only one element of many that reflect your brand. It’s a unique claim of distinction, delivered consistently by your people and the company behind the logo that influence the brand most.
Go deep to go big.
Talk to any architect and they’ll confirm that the most essential aspect of designing a building is the foundation. While the structure above the surface gets the most attention, it’s the foundation that must support the weight and ever changing conditions. The taller the building the deeper the foundation must be. For example, Chicago’s Sears Tower is one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers at 1,454 feet tall, 110 stories high. Its foundation is 100 feet below the ground.
Like any of the world’s tallest structures, a foundation is critical to the stability and future success of your early stage brand. A well defined brand foundation is a fundamental element of your strategic infrastructure. It’s the foundation on which your company’s unique values and beliefs are built. It’s the foundation that will define why a prospect should consider your brand over others, and sets an expectation of value in their minds. The brand foundation is designed to unify the actions of your organization, from decisions and behaviors, to communications and problem solving. Aligning with a core idea behind your brand will provide clarity, context and meaning.
Focus on building a brand that matters.
You should have compelling answers to each of these questions: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter?
The answer to the third question is the most critical, as it’s what forms the emotional connection that you should strive to build with every stakeholder, be it an employee, investor, prospect or client. It’s not the product or service, but the story that forms this connection. It’s where brands gain value and loyalty. Without a clear, articulate understanding of why your brand matters, your business is at risk of being undervalued or disregarded. Realize that brands exist in people’s heads, and take the steps to ensure that yours is human and engaging. Focus less on product or service attributes and more on the real problems they solve for your audiences.
Top down. Inside out.
Your brand is an extension of your company, whether you’re a team of 1 or 100. It reflects your values, beliefs and culture. It’s why you exist. So make sure it’s the leadership team guiding the brand initiative. Delegating the role to anyone else or simply “signing off” on a direction won’t cut it. Only with the proper leadership and guidance can a brand reach its potential, both within your business and to the outside world.
Seek external guidance.
Given the aforementioned, recognize that the discipline of developing a brand foundation and strategy is highly specialized. It requires the right team with the experience and insight to lead in the proper direction. Your internal marketing support is most likely not that team. A fledgling brand can’t afford to take shortcuts. If you think the cost of building a strong brand is too high, consider the cost of building a weak brand.
Stand for one thing.
The strongest, most engaging brands stand for a single, potent idea that resonates with their audiences. Now is the ideal opportunity to transform message into meaning. Create a powerful, evocative idea that effectively tells your story and engages.
Live the brand.
Successful brands foster a culture where employees — the most influential brand ambassadors — believe in, celebrate and are passionate about delivering the brand promise. Make sure each and every person understands their role in fulfilling that promise. Be authentic, and walk the walk.
The sad reality is most brands are boring, especially in categories that have become commoditized. But you have the opportunity to be different — to build from a solid foundation, to be new, distinctive and compelling. When done well, your brand can be your greatest differentiator — and your strongest business asset.
Now go build something great.