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GrowthShift: Tech startups need a brand as much as Fortune 500s

GUEST BLOG: By Tim Manning

Your tech startup’s brand equals your market position and value proposition. It’s your entire strategy in a single package that is as important to your customers as it is to your success. Read on for a practical perspective on branding for early-stage technology.

When a company, no matter its size, makes branding a second thought, it is giving itself an unnecessary handicap. Unfortunately, this is common in tech startups who need a brand for growth, unlike the behemoths that already have decades of run time.

In my experience, a lot of start-up founders, CEOs, operations and finance executives hear brand and may tune out because we marketers have not done the job of connecting brand with position, value proposition and message. These same CEOs are legitimately chasing a market, a first sale, or a VC-funding round and think that they can address branding later.

If you’re unsure of what the brand conversation means, I can help.

The big problem with avoiding the brand discussion is that you miss your opportunity to be seen as unique, disruptive and meaningful. When your brand is vague, dull, or unremarkable, customers think of you as yet another company that does X.

If you don’t intentionally anchor your brand, prospective customers will frame your value in terms of your competition, potentially meaning a steep uphill battle to show how you’re different and why they should buy from you. So, don’t leave it to your customers.

What Is Brand?
As one of my favorite authors, Marty Neumeier, puts it, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, and company.” It’s that simple. From your perspective, your brand is who you want to be in the eyes of the customer and the market in general. Your brand is how they view and value you. Your brand is your market positioning and unique value proposition: they are often mistakenly considered separable. Ask Coca-Cola if their brand position — the real thing — was separable from the product’s value proposition.

To establish your brand, you’ve got to create a position and message that both resonate with customers, and are believable, relevant and defensible. Think of company branding as your current ability to make potential customers believe your marketing. Successful companies know their brand confers trust, relevancy, meaning, and a solution for a specific known and important need. The strategy behind creating and sharing their brand is used to define company positioning and differentiation. They’ve got to believe you first before they’ll see your competitive advantage as true.

Here’s what your brand should answer in the customer’s mind:
• Who are you?
• Why should I care?

Answers should relate everything back to the customer. Success with these two questions requires addressing what they need in a way they understand. How do you get there? By targeting emotion and solving their problem with a unique solution.

Emotion and Solution
The best brands work on two levels: they solve a problem and they establish an emotional connection with the audience. You accomplish these through messaging.

For Apple, the tagline Think different was how it demonstrated the quality of its brand and approach to the market. That simple message told its audience that Apple, as a brand, understood and delivered quality on a unique personal level — it was a direct counter to IBM’s corporate focused Think slogan. Apple showed that it powered the people and creativity its users were inspired by, from Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra to Hitchcock, Edison, and Gandhi. The emotional connection was the element we loved we believed we could achieve just like them.

Your brand needs to find its path for accomplishing this too. It’s all about creating an emotional connection with customers based on a clearly defined message that tackles a known problem. It can be a chicken-or-the-egg problem if you try to focus solely on one side of that concern. In the best situations, companies solve the problem and make an emotional connection as close together as possible.

The Clock Has Already Started
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for companies and leaders now thinking about brand is they need to invest the effort thoughtfully and early. You can’t afford to wait. Your clock is running. What will people know you for when the seed money or your Series A runs out? What can you point to that defines you in the mind of the customer when you make your pitch?

If you don’t have a quick, direct answer, you need to do some more foundational thought-work. That’s often the best time to bring in some outside help to guide and provoke a fresh perspective on your company and what it means to be your specific brand.

 


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