7th October 2021

From Seed to Unicorn: Brand strategy for the tech startup.

Rob Williams

For tech start-ups setting out on their journey to launch a revolutionary new product or service to the market, the first hurdle is to get investors interested enough to stake you in the game. But going from passion-project to million-pound start-up isn’t the end goal, nor an indicator of success. In fact, 70% of upstart tech companies will fail at around 20 months after first raising investment [1].

How do you ensure that your newly formed company thrives, gains further investment, and becomes a household name? After all, if you want to reach that coveted unicorn status (£1billion+ valuation), you'll need to scale at speed, excite the investors, stay disruptive, be a category leader, and of course fight off new competition. All done so that you’re able to map your route to becoming profitable or create enough disruption to one day IPO or sell up to the bigger players.

Search Google today for 'branding for startups' and you're hit with a barrage of articles, thought leadership and some questionable insight on the right approach for creating a brand for your new venture.

A lot of this advice is centred around getting out into the world quickly. Select a name, throw a logo together, build a website and get on social media. And that could work, especially if you have a killer product that can attract and excite an audience. Haste may also show your commitment to your investors as you launch your minimum viable product (MVP) out into the world. However, a speedy approach may cause more harm than good as you find that further down the road you must make obvious U-turns, pivots, or realise that people have little resonance with you as a company because of a distinct lack of consistency.

While branding may not be up there on your list of priorities – when you have a million different workstreams to contend with – you should reconsider prioritising it.

Your brand and business strategies should exist in parallel, which is why it makes sense to develop them together. You’ll likely be surrounded by angel investors and VC-fund managers who will happily advise on business and market strategies. What may be lacking, however, is how a well-curated brand strategy should be used to create a consistent experience to excite and delight your audience. This will contribute to creating long-term success.

Increasingly the boundaries between brand and business strategies are becoming blurred as we delve even deeper into the digital age. Brands exist in the minds of your audience as one ecosystem, no longer separate entities between product/service and identity. A brand is every interaction and touchpoint, from your product interface to how your customer service makes someone feel, from the perception of internal culture to how your brand is portrayed across different channels.

Your brand is the mouthpiece of your business strategy and should be there to create a unified and consistent experience for your audiences.

Consider your position

Considering your competitors is one of the first tasks someone will undertake when thinking up an idea; who else is serving this market, satisfying this need, or solving the problem? How are we going to do it better (or if you’re lucky, be the first company to do it at all)?

Unlike more traditional businesses, a tech start-up may be able to make clear differentiation versus the competition. Many will be disrupting an industry through a radical new approach with tech as the catalyst, versus incumbents and traditional providers. It’s important to map out all the players that operate in the space, as well as considering those adjacent too.

Let’s look at Wise (formally TransferWise) as an example. In the past, transferring money abroad was limited to a few expensive routes, such as traditional banks who would add a hefty markup fee as well as setting their own exchange rates. There were also wire transfer companies in shops across the country, again setting their own rates/fees. Both would take a long time to transact.

Wise looked at a different way to do this, using technology as the enabler. It was able to offer a simple, small fee and a near-perfect exchange rate, relying on a network of accounts across the globe that would hold money and pay locally when someone requested a transfer via their website, and later, smartphones. The speed and cost reduction were game-changers.

Take the time to understand your position in the market – ask yourself who you are serving, why they need you, how your product/service is better and why they should believe you.

Are you the disruptor within the mainstream, or are you revolutionising by creating a new category entirely? Knowing which space you occupy will make it easier to communicate to your audiences and for them to connect with your brand on a deeper level.

Focus on the ‘why’

It may come as no surprise, but companies that succeed in creating a standout brand all have one thing in common. They start with a ‘purpose’. Simply put, your purpose is your reason for doing what you do. It’s what you stand for, and what your customers can expect of you.

This may sound obvious but being clear on what your purpose is from the outset enables you to make strategic business and brand decisions. It acts as the central lens through which all decisions can be viewed.

Create a clear and authentic purpose to act as your foundation on which your entire brand ecosystem can be built – what you set out to do, why you’re doing it and how you will benefit all of those who interact with your brand. In turn, this will allow you to understand which values are fundamental to your brand.

Aligned values

Belonging is innately human. Being a part of something, a community, a tribe. It makes sense then that as consumers, we buy into brands that we feel mirror our values and beliefs and shun those that don’t.

In the age of hyper-transparency where there is nowhere to hide, poor brand behaviour can be exposed with a tweet. Therefore, a company’s values are the driving force in creating resonance. Baking your values (which should be authentic, meaningful, and born out of your purpose) into your business strategy means that customers and prospects can see your authentic self. They can then decide whether theirs align with yours – making a conscious decision to engage with your brand or not. Over time, this will continue to strengthen (or not, if values aren’t lived up to), to create loyalty with your audience.

Starting out, it may be hard to decide who you want to be as a company and a brand. And that’s ok. Your values will evolve and grow with you. For now, set realistic but truthful values - a set of guiding principles that your brand stands for and everyone can aspire to.

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[1] www.cbinsights.com/research/startup-failure-post-mortem

In part 2, we will cover visual and verbal identity (including naming), and how we continue to build our brand ecosystem.

About Author:

Rob Williams is a Senior Strategist at Design by Structure.

This article was first published in Brands Journal.

Published by: Fara Darvill in News

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