When should a startup focus on branding? Right now is good

All of us know Airbnb — it’s now an iconic brand that lets you find a temporary home anywhere in the world. In fact, today, the brand is almost synonymous with vacations! However, this wasn’t always the case. When the startup was launched way back in 2008, it was purely a way for the founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk to make some extra cash. To this end, their branding was strictly functional. Initially called AirBed&Breakfast, the tagline was ‘Forget Hotels’ — driving home the point that the brand was just a cheaper alternative to hotels.

Now, over a decade later, the brand focus is a whole lot more meaningful. It’s on the experience. It’s on belonging. This pivot in positioning came about in 2016, and I think I can safely say, their business is booming.

This is just one example of a startup that, perhaps, didn’t focus on branding right from the get-go.

It’s an understandable impulse, of course. When launching your own company, you’re knee-deep in pitches, meetings, and product prototyping. Your single-minded focus is on creating a world-class product, and winning business on the strength of that product alone.

Now, I’m going to say something a little controversial.

I don’t think this is the best approach. Why? Because people don’t simply buy products, they buy brands. It’s the brand that tells them a story, that tells them why they should care. After all, any business with a great product can be successful — but it’s the ones that great branding that stay imprinted in the minds of the TG.

Here’s what focusing on branding from Day 1 can do for your startup:

Build trust

Once you have established your identity, you can go about building trust in the consumer — provided you don’t change your branding often. There are three aspects to this. Firstly, your message should consistently reflect your intentions and actions, while tying back to how you want to position yourself. Next, ensure there’s uniformity of look and feel across your logo, website, social networks, and print collateral. Finally, think about how you’ll communicate with your TG, and through what channels — and stick to what works. Simply put — consistency translates to trust. So the sooner you hit on the right branding, the sooner you can work on consumer trust.

Connect with the customer

Branding is a lot about how you speak to your customers — not only when they’re having problems but all through their engagement. And in today’s social media age, it all the more important. Now, one badly worded tweet or response could damage your brand forever. On the other hand, the customer perception creation can start much before a customer comes to you. It’s how you introduce the product, talk about yourself, make an offer, present a benefit, and just about every touchpoint is a way to influence or impact customer perception. So where does that bring me? To your brand tonality. Creating a memorable brand is very much about ensuring you get your tone. Again, this brings me back to what I wrote in my earlier columns — first figure who your target group is. And then talk to those customers like they want to be spoken to, while keeping your brand ethos in mind. Today, most brands (especially those appealing to the youth) are seen as friendly and approachable, while those appealing to a pre-retirement generation may want to present themselves as trust-inspiring and informed.

Save marketing dollars

Nothing tells it better than as story, so let me explain this with an example. Recently my branding agency had the chance to rebrand a new-age, co-living brand based in Bangalore. While the brand had been around for a while, and had multiple properties to its name, recall among the millennial TG was low — they didn’t have a personality to relate to. With this problem in mind, we conducted a brand positioning exercise that included multiple interviews with stakeholders like residents and employees. What emerged was a brand new style — both in terms of communication and aesthetics — that would definitely appeal to avocado toast-eating, Netflix-bingeing millennials! The company quickly took this forward and branded some of the new properties — right from logo introduction to room decor and ambience was changed in the way it was presented. The response has been phenomenal and conversions have increased. Of course, given that the startup already had multiple older properties, this now means that capex needs to go into transforming the older properties to this feel. Without which the brand experience is not consistent. Alas!

As Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon once saidyour brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room. At no point in my journey would I take a risk on that one. Would you? 

Tina Garg
Founder and CEO at Pink Lemonade, an Integrated Marketing & Communications agency in Bangalore.
Tina launched the company in 2011, and today, it is known for its award-winning work in creative & business communications, and digital services. She comes with extensive experience in the creative industry, and is passionate about empowering women entrepreneurs.

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