Amazon founder Jeff Bezos expressed the notion very neatly: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” How, then, do you go about about strategizing and sharing your startup’s brand narrative?
Start with a detailed business review
Begin by completing a thorough business review. Conduct a competitor audit, taking the time to separate out your true rivals from mindshare competitors. The latter are businesses that aren’t direct competitors, but loom large in your target audience’s minds.
Appropriately enough, the next step is to get a strong handle on the target audience you’re looking to connect with. Who are your customers? Who influences them? How do they make decisions?
Knowing that wealth of information will help deepen relationships and drive conversions when you talk to prospective or existing customers. You should also access publicly available market data, such as industry reports, for broader target audience insight.
Focus on your goals
Next, make sure you’re absolutely certain of your goals. Are they clearly articulated in your business plan or documented elsewhere? It’s hard to develop a brand narrative without this clarity.
In his book, “The Brand Gap,” Marty Neumeier recommends asking yourself three simple questions: Who are you? What do you do? Why does it matter? And unless you have compelling answers to those questions, Neumeier said, you need more focus.
Additionally, in his influential goal-setting strategy book, “The Zigzag Principle,” serial entrepreneur, Rich Christiansen, calls on entrepreneurs to set themselves “a big, audacious goal” which will become their “beacon in the fog.”
Christiansen is on the money in pointing out that for startups, the road to success is never a straight line: when others zig, you must zag, and being clear on your competition is vital in achieving this. Many pivots may be necessary along the way but, Christiansen notes, “With that beacon firmly in mind, we are far better equipped to head into the darkness, knowing we may not always be able to see where we’re going with crystal clarity.”
Get a grip on some important fundamentals
It’s obviously important to have a firm grasp of other fundamentals, such as where you sit in the market in relation to your competitors, how your products compare to others in terms of price, features and performance, as well as your main strengths and weaknesses, and what barriers to sales you need to overcome.
Done right, this business review will highlight the challenges you’ll need to tackle in your brand strategy. This step is vital, so don’t be afraid to get external support if this kind of exercise is not your forte. Also, bearing in mind how close you are to your own startup, having someone from outside the company work on this with you brings a healthy and valuable dose of objectivity to the process.
Develop a brand plan with a three-year horizon
Now that you have your big brand challenge in mind (the gap you are trying to fill), you need to create a brand plan. Some entrepreneurs plan a five-year outlook. I believe three years offers a better brand strategy planning horizon, as goals seem much more tangible in this timeframe.
Set out where you want your brand to be in three years’ time. Then, break your plan down year-by-year. Ideally, you are looking to create a roadmap indicating what you want your brand to achieve each year.
Your brand plan needs to include your vision, mission, values, key positioning and target audience. You can’t afford to be vague on the latter. Define the primary audience you will focus on. What’s your unique value proposition? What’s the single most important thing you need to tell your audience about your brand story?
Marketing plan and branding plan are not the same thing
Among those outside of the marketing and communications field, there is oftentimes confusion between a marketing plan and a branding plan. While you need a strong marketing plan to support your brand strategy, it is not the same as a brand plan. A marketing plan is much more specifically tied to execution. For example, it might involve some concerted thinking around creative ways to extend your brand experience across different touch points.
The brand plan, meanwhile, will ensure focus on raising the awareness of perception of the bigger picture – and must be designed to incorporate the flexibility startups require. You should lay out the things you need to do consistently to communicate change.
Factor in flexibility to support agility
If your startup pivots, you will need to change the language on your website, train your sales team on new brand messaging, revamp your corporate deck for pitching/fundraising purposes and so on. In this sense, it’s as much about getting your internal team to understand and relate to the brand as it is about your external audience.
Getting your brand right requires planning, organization and discipline. It needs dedicated resources, and is an essential part of your startup’s success. Without a brand strategy to help you navigate the rough seas of business, you risk someone else defining your brand.