Starting a Brand from Scratch

In the early stages of building a business, the ‘brand’ is often overlooked. This isn’t surprising, as most founders have a tech or business background. The truth is, brand and marketing can often be perceived as fluffy and superficial, and with pressing issues like fundraising, product development and customer acquisition, developing your brand can feel like a low priority. It’s my strong belief that focusing on your brand upfront will add immense commercial and behavioural value to your business in the short and long term. Additionally, developing your brand will make early critical decisions more clear — from ensuring your new hire is a cultural fit, to designing your website and even developing your product. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a workshop during the Pi Labs pre-seed accelerator programme, where we explored what a brand is and how to get started. I thought it would be helpful to capture some of the key themes and ideas in a blog post. Needless to say, it takes more than a 5 minute read to cover how to build a brand, but I’ve started with some fundamentals which I’ll build on in future posts.

Who are you and why should I care?

Starting with the basics, what is a brand? A common misconception people can have about a brand is that it is limited to the obvious branding elements — logo, colours and fonts, but it is so much more than that and is very powerful. Your branding is indeed significant, however, the outside look and feel should be a reflection of your company on the inside. Your brand is everything you say, think, feel and do, and it affects all aspects of your business. Succinctly summarised by Jeff Bezos as “Your brand is what other people say about you when you leave the room.” Another way of thinking about a brand is this simple equation:

Why do you exist? (purpose) + Where do you sit in the market? (positioning) + How do you express yourself? (tone)

Brand precedes all marketing activity

Brand and performance marketing go hand in hand but are very different functions. Typically, brand marketing’s goal is to build brand equity, whereas performance marketing has an immediate correlation to sales. Brand is what you’re showing to the world (art), while performance marketing is how efficient and clever you are at reaching your target (science). Brand marketing is notoriously tricky to measure and typically has higher CAC and LTV, while performance marketing often has low CAC and LTV. They need to work together to garner the best results. You can be the best performance marketer in the world, playing your keyboard flawlessly, however, if your message does not resonate, it’s a complete waste of time and money.

Delicately balancing function and emotion

The first step to building your brand is to consider your purpose — why do you exist and why should I care? An oldie but a goodie — Simon Sinek identified a concept he called ‘The Golden Circle,’ which essentially explains that the majority of companies and leaders focus on what they do, vs. why they do it. However, the most successful companies and leaders start with why they do it. The reason emotion is such a powerful tool to tap into is that it is connected to behaviour and a far greater motivator than rational thought. Have you ever heard someone say ‘I know it makes sense on paper, but it doesn’t feel right in my gut?”

I half agree with this theory for start-ups — your ‘why’ is incredibly powerful as it evokes emotion and thus behaviour, however, if you’re like most start-ups, the world doesn’t know what you do, so balancing the function and emotion is critical. Plus, the world doesn’t yet trust you & chances are you are trying to change inherent behaviour, so combining the rational and functional is going to be crucial to success.

Remember that identifying your brand purpose isn’t about positioning your brand from a marketing point of view, it’s about your wider business strategy. What you offer has to sync with what you say, which must be aligned with what consumers are looking for. There’s a lot of hype around purpose-driven companies, so it’s key that your purpose is authentic, flexible and stands out from the crowd.

A UK company that is nailing this is energy provider, Bulb, also the UK’s fastest growing startup. In a typically dull market, they’ve created a positioning around positive and sustainable energy, enrolling their target consumer with their mission. Purpose/ mission alone isn’t enough, Bulb also has a referral scheme which gives consumers and their friends £50 off if they switch energy providers. They have captured who they are talking to (Gen X, Millennials), what they care about (sustainability) and have finished it off with a completely rational proposition (£50 discount). Anecdotally, I am in several WhatsApp groups, and I still receive a Bulb referral code every few weeks, I finally switched last week.

Do you know who you are speaking to? Clue: it’s often not who you think

Knowing who you are talking to sounds very simple, but is often neglected or misjudged. Become obsessed with your target customer — hang out with them, talk to them, do your homework and listen. There is often a gap between who we want to speak to, and who is actually listening. There are several, highly regarded and valuable professional research groups out there and if you are a big corporate company, why not invest in this area? However, if you’re like most start-ups, I’ve found that openly talking to customers or potential customers is the best way to understand them. Use common sense — who is their community, what are shared common beliefs, demographics, values etc — after a while, you’ll pick up the patterns and pain points. Try not to be too hung up on your product or idea that you’re not willing to flex to what your customer wants. That is unless you’re the next Steve Jobs, who famously didn’t believe in conducting research “Customers don’t know what they want, we tell them.”

If you’re further along your journey and have a customer base, segmentation and cohort analysis can effectively help you target and segregate consumers so you can then craft messages and strategies to the different segments. Cohort analysis is a subset of behavioural analytics that uses the data from a given set and breaks the users into different groups. It can help you determine pretty swiftly which customers are valuable and where to spend your £ and effort. Customers today have high expectations and expect a personalised experience, so the old ‘one size fits all’ model doesn’t cut it.

What’s the story you’re going to tell & how will you tell it?

‘Storytelling’ has become a marketing buzzword over the past few years and for good reason. Storytelling is the process of using fact and narrative to communicate your essential message to your target audience. You have probably read the frightening statistics about the human attention span decreasing, which on average is now apparently less than 8 seconds. Fun (albeit depressing) fact, that’s less than a goldfish! Additionally, the human brain processes images 60X faster than text.

Your brand tone is a direct reflection of your brand personality — it’s not what you say but how you say it. In line with their transparency values, Monzo has published their tone of voice guidelines online, which can be a good starting point for start-ups looking to develop their own. Determining how to communicate your message & brand could fill its own book, let alone blog post so I won’t try and delve into the nuances involved, but spending time carefully constructing messaging and stories will be well worth it in the short and long term.

Creating a brand is closely linked to developing a business and is at the intersection of insights, consumer behaviour, business goals and product development. It’s a delicate balance of art and science and can have a real meaningful impact on your business. It’s less about investing money in the beginning, so much as time and commitment. Without a strong brand, you might have an amazing product or service, but when it comes to go-to market-strategy, you could be speaking to the wrong person with the wrong message.

About the author: Isobel is the Head of Marketing at Pi Labs, where she manages Pi Labs’ brand and marketing and acts as a marketing support to Pi Labs’ portfolio companies.