An Open Letter to Startups: Your Brand Sucks

March 8, 2016

12:30 pm

Dear Startup,

Please don’t be offended, I know you tried. I know you’ve likely poured everything you’ve got into getting your venture off the ground. You’ve missed birthdays, lost friends, and probably haven’t slept more than five hours in as long as you can remember. No one said that you haven’t worked hard, but are you seeing the forest for the trees?

Sure, you have a product – it may even be a really standout product. But, in highly commoditized segments like the app market (there are more than 1.5 million in Apple’s App Store alone), how will you stand out? Competition among startups is only going to continue to increase, and those who reach customers through effective storytelling will win. This is particularly true for those of you operating in the highly commoditized tech space.

Before I invest my time and hard-earned dollars in your product or service, I want to know you. Why does your company matter more to me than the endless sea of others out there? Why does your company exist?

Your brand hasn’t communicated any of that to me.

But, alas…you are not alone. There are a lot of great products out there that have little to no brand awareness (or equity) because they’ve put all of their energy behind selling products, not their story.

All too often startups create brands that look and feel like an afterthought. And please, stop mimicking the successful brands who’ve come before you. Seriously. This is your identity. Why a customer will choose to allocate that very special piece of real estate in their mind just for you.

If you remember any of my advice, remember this: your brand is your promise to your customers. Break it and you’ll lose them. Uphold it, and their love will persist.

I know you’re constantly pulled in 100 different directions, and defining your brand sounds like something that can be worked on as you scale. But, this rationale can be the short route to failure. And please don’t tell me you don’t have the budget or that you’re too busy raising money. The truth is it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg and it can actually help you raise money. Honestly, you can’t afford not to think about it now. So are you ready to step up your brand game? Ok, great! Then here are some insights you can take to improve your brand, or create one that will engage your audience – and if done right, generate some revenue along the way.

Imagine Your Favorite Bedtime Story

We’ve all got at least one favorite story from our childhood. Maybe it made you laugh, or aspire to do something brave. Regardless, you remember it because you felt something. Your brand should do the same.

We can’t all be the Patagonias, or TOMS, or Harry’s of the world, but your story doesn’t have to be altruistic or the most moving one ever told – it just has to be authentic. Tap into the why behind your company or product. First tell people why you exist. Then tell them why they should care. Give them something to stand behind.

Warby Parker is a perfect example of taking something boring (eyewear) and making it cool. Their mission statement reads: “Warby Parker was founded with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.” The use of language like “rebellious spirit” and “lofty objective” makes you feel like they are taking a stand for all lens-wearing people out there. They’re helping us fight the fight against unnecessarily expensive eyewear. Oh, and there’s a socially conscious element to it? Where’s the “Buy Now” button? They have my money and likely a return visit the next time I need glasses.

Promises, Promises

Another great brand is Hubspot. As a marketing and sales software provider, they are in a very crowded market. There are some giants in the space alongside Hubspot providing similar solutions. But what Hubspot has promised is to “make the world more inbound, one business transformation after another.” A statement like this is hard to prove. After all, there is only so much you can do post onboarding to ensure a customer’s success.

To support their story, Hubspot puts out some of the best educational content out there. They provide instructional e-books and whitepapers that guide marketers and sales individuals to success. Did I mention all of these resources are for free?

They’ve even gone as far as creating fun, interactive tools like a blog topic generator (a major pain point for those in the space). This shows they get their audience and working to help them over their toughest obstacles. Hubspot’s brand works because they’ve promised to make me better with their software. I may not be ready to sign on the dotted line just yet, but when I am, who do you think I’ll turn to first? The company that understood my challenges and had my back through them all.

Establish Guidelines and Make the Hard Decisions

A later-stage mistake I see often is when companies have created a simple and effective brand, but failed to set guidelines for employees as they scale. You may very well have your brand style guide complete with font styles, and CMYK and Hex codes, and that’s great. You should. But what I’m talking about is your messaging and the actions your company takes to support that messaging.

Take Harry’s for example. This brand is all about bringing quality and craftsmanship back to the razor, but make it more affordable. Everything they do is around respecting the art of shaving. Their blades are made by German engineers and their shaving creams use high-end ingredients. Every element of the brand shouts quality. If at any point they were to partner with say a towel or badger brush manufacturer to bundle with their shave kits, and those manufacturers didn’t uphold the same level of craft, it would make Harry’s customers seriously question their stance on quality.

This is where the rubber meets the road. There may be a time when you have to turn down business opportunities because you’ve made a promise to your customers. The worst mistake you can make is thinking that they won’t care, or that they will see the value right away. You’ve made a stance, now stick to it.

The same goes for things like social media. Oh how I wish more businesses would get advisement on social media. So much can be misconstrued over text. It’s more than deciding that you won’t comment on politics or use swear words – it’s making sure your voice and tone is authentic across the board. Create a system of checks and balances. You might create a reservoir of words that describe your voice. This becomes a guide for the language and type of tone you will take in your communications. Prior to posting it for the world to see, stop to ask if it will align with your brand.

I hope you understand that I’m trying to help. I want you to succeed. You’ve worked hard to create something, to make an impact. But please know that your brand is part of your product. They go hand in hand. If woven together correctly, your customers will be drawn to your story and more like to become loyal advocates.


Mindful Consumers Everywhere

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Robert Wallace is Executive Vice President of Marketing at Tallwave, where he leverages his entrepreneurial and strategic marketing expertise to develop and implement Lean Startup strategies for Tallwave early-stage ventures. He has more than a decade of startup and client-side experience developing growth strategies, positioning companies, and bringing products to market. Follow him at @robertawallace.

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