Now! In a perfect world, creating a killer brand strategy is among the first things any new business would do.
Along with determining your mission and values, identifying your brand strategy creates the foundation that your business is built on. Brand positioning is about making your business’s offering easier for your customer to buy. And that is vital no matter where a business is in its lifespan. Even brand-new businesses reap rewards from creating a solid positioning.
For a seed-stage startup, it’s always tempting to skip this step. But don’t give in to that temptation. Instead, build an 80/20-rule brand strategy. Create your strategy based on the knowledge and insights you already have, and plan to revisit it more comprehensively once you have more market feedback, and more wherewithal to do it right. As your business grows, scaling the rigor of your brand strategy will make everything you do easier, more powerful, and more enduring.
3 Must-Haves Before You Create a Brand Strategy
Whether you’re building an 80/20-rule brand strategy or something more rigorous, get started early. There are only three elements you must have in order to get traction:
1. Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
If you’re still not sure what your product is, then it may be unclear who is your target customer, and correspondingly, what is your core promise to that customer. Having an MVP allows you to begin receiving market input, and the success of your MVP will shed light on the heart of your brand.
The MVP for AirBnB was the co-founders’ San Francisco apartment, which they opened up as cheap accommodation for a conference coming to their town. They set up a simple website with photos of their apartment. By hosting these first AirBnB customers, the founders were able to gain nuanced customer insight, as well as validate that strangers would be willing to pay to stay in another person’s home.
2. Defined Business Model
Are you a low-volume, high-margin business (e.g. a brick and mortar jewelry store)? Are you a high-volume, low-margin business (e.g. an online retailer)? Determining your business model will create the foundation for your brand strategy. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen shares that when it comes to disruption, in some ways, the technical solution is the easy part. The hard part is the business model disruption.
Kodak offers a helpful example of this dilemma. Even though Kodak invented the digital camera, and even though Kodak’s photo-sharing app (Ofoto) long predated Facebook, their business model ultimately could not survive consumers’ departure from print photos.
3. Marketing Person or People
Whether your resources are in-house or out, you need marketers who can deploy your brand strategy.
I’ve seen the initial building of marketing presence work well with an inside team, and in some cases even a single marketing person. It’s ideal for these early marketing people to be present for the creation of your brand strategy – both to help develop it, and then to execute it. This first person will need to be highly adaptable, sometimes wearing the hat of CMO, sometimes wearing the hat of marketing tactician.
I’ve also seen the outside agency route work, particularly if the founder of a startup hasn’t been able to find a candidate who’s a good fit with the seed-stage culture. An agency can be a flexible way to turn on (and later possibly turn off) marketing prowess so that you can begin deploying your strategy right away.
Brand Strategy Is Essential for Businesses at Any Stage
No matter where your business is in its growth trajectory, devoting resources to brand strategy is critical. I work with a wide range of businesses, from start-ups with small teams to corporations with thousands of employees and nationally known brands. At every stage, a business with a brand strategy is more efficient and effective. For example:
- Seed-Stage Startups: When businesses are in the beginning stages (and therefore may only have a few co-founders running things), a brand strategy can help focus their precious time and money on a singular brand promise.
- Series-A Startups: These businesses tend to have a tiny marketing staff, so leaders need to use this lean resource judiciously. A brand strategy is the filter for activating the brand in a focused, consistent way, so that the marketing team is not going in multiple directions, and is not second-guessing whether they have the right angle.
- Established Businesses: When there are multiple teams involved, a brand strategy will ensure that teams are unified and ultimately singing from the same sheet of music.
- Corporations: National brands like Starbucks and T-Mobile need highly refined marketing strategies to set them apart from their competitors. These large businesses have huge marketing budgets, and they use their brand strategies to focus their marketing spend strategically.
The more your business has at stake (i.e. the more money you are spending), the more rigor you should put into your brand strategy. A large business should be doing both qualitative and quantitative primary research and involving multiple teams in the creation of the brand strategy, whereas a startup should begin with a basic brand strategy that they can refine over time.
The Takeaway? It’s Never Too Early (or Too Late!)
As a leader, you are always looking for ways to make it easier for your customer to buy your product. A solid brand strategy tells you how to do this: by positioning your brand in a precise way, you know precisely how to market it, making it easier for your precise target audience to buy. This is true no matter what stage your business is in.
So as you consider when to create your brand strategy, remember that the answer is pretty much always “now” – and reframe the question to how much rigor to apply, based on your stage, and adjust accordingly as you grow.