Branding Your Start-Up: How Soon Is Now?

Lori Kozlowski

To get off the ground, early stage companies need a lot of help. We often hear the word “lean” passed around the lexicon. One CEO, two engineers — and voila! A company.

But there may be more to launching a start-up than a killer app or product. Many public relations, branding, and marketing professionals say start-ups need to think about their message to the public from the jump.

Even if your business is genius and sublime in every way, it could have little impact if it can’t make its way into the marketplace and stand out from similar enterprises (hint: you likely have competitors).

“Start-ups need to think about branding from the start.  Start-ups are actually positioning and branding themselves from the first time they ask a friend or family member to support their idea,” said Eric Pinckert, Managing Director of BrandCulture, a Los Angeles-based brand-building firm.

“The problem is that as start-ups assess their priorities, branding is often thought of as something that comes later when they are ready to launch,” he added. Pinckert also emphasized that the personal branding of individuals that comprise the start-up can be a focus, since investors are looking for credibility in a team.

At global brand strategy agency Huge, CEO Aaron Shapiro helps companies re-imagine how they interact with customers in the digital economy.

From his perspective, nothing trumps a great product.

“In the technology space, the most important thing is the product.  If you have a great product that meets real user needs the product will sell itself; if you have a bad product that nobody likes, then no amount of marketing and branding can fix the problem,” said Shapiro. “Product first, marketing second.”

“Assuming you have checked the ‘I have a good product that people use’ box, branding is really about a simple way to communicate to the world what your product does and who it is for.  Find a way to easily communicate this message so everyone gets it, then start spreading the word with PR and viral marketing tactics. They’re both things that can be extremely effective with little or no money.”

“Don’t forget: Amazon, Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram and virtually every tech company you can think of became successful with no traditional marketing — just good PR, viral marketing, and word-of-mouth.”

Whatever side of the branding argument you fall on (to start early or wait), here are a few more things to think about:

  • Reaching your target audience. Who is your target audience?
  • What your social media push (or lack thereof) says about your company early on.
  • Are your CEOs and other thought leaders using social media? How do they use it?
  • If potential customers/users had to walk away and re-describe what you do (i.e. word-of-mouth) to someone else, what would they say about you? What would you want them to say?
  • Think about larger companies you may want to emulate. What is the message they send to their customers? What tools are they using?
  • If you were to be interviewed by publications and media outlets, how would you answer the interviewer’s questions? What’s your sound bite message to the public?
  • What does your website — often the first interaction point users will have with your brand — say about your business?

All of these questions and more have probably already crossed your mind, if you’re a start-up. (Right?)

Shapiro said, “In the tech world, there are no truly original ideas; everything is somewhat similar to what someone else is doing.  So, you need a way to communicate what your start-up does with a special twist.”

We all know businesses can pivot, scrap ideas, and go back to the drawing board. But really? You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Especially on potential customers.

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