Startup branding checklist: 10 things to do before you launch

officeroomphotoAre you in full-on startup mode? Maybe a little overwhelmed by everything you need to do to before your company greets the world? Is “company branding” one item on your checklist that you aren’t sure how to tackle?

We feel you. And we have a good sense for the things that really matter when it comes to ensuring your startup has the proper branding foundation for a successful launch.

So sharpen your pencils, open up your spreadsheet, or click on your project management app…here’s a list of 10 critical tasks to make sure you accomplish before launch day arrives.

1. Articulate the vision

The first item goes beyond branding to the very heart of why you decided to start a business in the first place. You know why your company exists—but have you articulated the vision for organization clearly and concisely and written it down?

There are a lot of places you can learn how to articulate a company vision, but the gold standard is the work of Jim Collins.

For a quick primer, start with the classic Harvard Business Review article Building Your Company’s Vision (written with Jerry Porras). Then if you want to go deeper and learn more, read their book Built to Last.

Finally, if you’d like a series of exercises to help you and your team develop the vision, Jim Collins has a great vision framework you can download from his website for free that guides you step by step through the process.

2. Crystalize the product or offering

Chances are you’ve spent most of your time to date developing your product or designing your service. So it is important to take a step back before you go deeper into building the brand to ensure you have concise answers to the following basic questions (that may be harder to answer well than you think).

  1. What is this product / service?
  2. What does it do / what do we provide?
  3. Who should care?
  4. Why should they care?

Try to answer each of those questions in a paragraph or less. Once you’ve completed that task, distill each answer to one sentence.

Then once you’ve simplified your answers, use them to explain what your company is to a few real people. Not work people who speak your language, but regular folks, like your mom, or your grandfather, or that weird guy from the gym.

How did you do? Blank stares? Go back to drawing board and simplify further. Got them interested? Move on to #3, but keep your answers handy, because you’ll be building on them more later.

3. Research the competition

One of the critical places many startups get stung is that they don’t spend enough time understanding the competitive landscape before they launch. If you already know your competition, spend some time visiting their websites, social media properties, and their greater web footprint (and even visit physical stores if they have them). In particular, look at the following things:

  1. How do they talk about their products and offerings? Are there particular words that stand out or that several different competitors also use?
  2. How do they look? Are there any tired visual metaphors that multiple competitors are using that you should try to avoid? Any colors or visual elements that appear often? Any open visual space your brand might be able to claim?
  3. How do customers and employees talk about them? Any reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Glassdoor or other review sites that can give you insight into how customers and employees see these competitors?

If you don’t know the competitors in your space very well, the best way to find them is to do a few Google searches for terms you’d expect people would use to find your company. Visit the websites of the companies that pop up in those searches.

Bonus tip: if you want to see where your competitors are appearing in organic search or paid search, check out SpyFu. Be careful, it’s addictive.

4. Develop personas

Now that you understand your competition, the next step is to ensure you have a clear picture of your potential customers and other key people you’d like to introduce to your company.

Personas help you get into the heads of the people you want your brand to resonate with so you can really understand more about who they are and what they care about most.

There are plenty of great guides for how to create personas (just search for how to create personas in Google and you’ll find a bunch of them). But I found Kevan Lee’s Marketing Personas: The Complete Beginner’s Guide a particularly useful reference.

5. Formalize your brand positioning platform

Brand positioning is the art of creating meaning for your brand in the minds of your target personas. Using the data above, you’ll want to develop a brand positioning platform that includes the following elements:

  1. Competitive Frame of Reference: the definition of the category or categories in which your brand will be competing
  2. Points of Difference: the key characteristics of your brand that make it stand out from competing brands
  3. Points of Parity: places where your competitors are strongest and your brand is weakest that you will need to counteract
  4. The Brand Mantra: a short phrase that captures the entire positioning platform in one simple thought.

New Kind has written extensively on how to build a brand positioning platform. Start with this overview of brand positioning to learn more about what it is and why it matters, then click on the links above to learn more about the individual positioning elements. New Kind also recently hosted a full week devoted entirely to brand positioning, where we published a series of posts with step-by-step exercises you can use to develop a positioning platform for your brand. Finally, for a complete overview of brand positioning, download our Brand Positioning Adventure Guide.

6. Name your company

 OK, I know. Some of you probably already chose your company name long ago. After all, naming a company can be one of the most fun parts of the entire branding process. You might even have pages of name ideas scribbled in a notebook from the years you were sitting in boring project weekly checkpoint meetings dreaming of starting your own business.

But if you haven’t yet named your company, you may have an advantage. Now that you have your vision and positioning figured out you can choose a name that becomes a valuable asset in bringing that vision and positioning to life.

As far as resources, here is one good crash course for how to name a company or product from the naming agency Igor. As it turns out, Igor has also made their full naming process available for download and it is a fantastic resource (thanks, Igor!).

Pro tips: Make sure you spend time searching the trademark database in the US or any other country in which you plan to do business to ensure the competitive namespace is relatively clear. Also do some Google searches to see who else has created brand equity around your chosen name. Just because there are no competing trademarks doesn’t mean that the space is free from competition. Which brings us to…

7. Choose a web domain

This task goes hand in hand with #6, especially for brands whose “storefronts” will primarily be on the web. Not only will you want to choose a name that fully activates your vision and positioning, but you’ll want to ensure you have the most accessible, intuitive web domain you can get and one that is not easily confused with other brands.

Checking for available web domains early in the naming process can help you avoid the heartbreak of finding out that the .com domain for your chosen name has already been snagged or is available for sale…for the low, low price of $850,000. Ouch.

8. Write your brand story

A brand story brings the positioning platform to life. It poetically articulates the deepest truths about the brand, answering questions like:

A great brand story becomes a touchstone for the brand, something you can share with every new employee to help them understand what the brand stands for. Or that you can share with customers and partners to fully explain your place in the world.

The brand story is the written culmination of many of the previous items on the list, taking the raw materials developed in previous tasks and shining them to a polished luster. New Kind regularly offers a course on how to develop great brand stories, which you can learn more about here.

9. Design your visual identity and logo

Many companies jump quickly to designing a logo early on in the startup process, but we believe the most powerful visual identities are developed once the vision, positioning, and brand story are all fully realized.

Great visual identities are more than a logo, they are a complete visual system made up of a logo and additional visual brand elements, including colors, typefaces, icon and photography styles, etc.

To give you a sense for how the process of bringing the vision, positioning, and story of a brand together into a brand identity can work, watch this visual podcast of how New Kind developed the visual identity and logo for Jubala Coffee.

10. Articulate your brand voice

And the final item to check off your checklist? Decide how you want your brand to sound.

As a good starting point, often we take our clients through an exercise where we ask them the following question:

If you could choose anyone to represent your brand (real person or fictional character, historical or current), and money was no object, whom would you pick?

Brainstorm as many potential spokespeople as you can think of and the characteristics that made you choose them. Then work with your team to narrow the list to a few favorites that you really feel capture the voice you’d like the brand to have. By identifying and clearly articulating these characteristics, you’ll have the starting elements for your brand voice.

You may even want to formalize one or more of these faux “spokespeople” as the voice of your brand. Especially if you’ve chosen real people who are alive today, you can research how they speak, write, tweet, etc., and use those examples as inspiration for your brand voice.

While many brands pick one person to be their behind-the-scenes voice inspiration, you might consider picking multiple spokespeople from your list of ideas. The benefit is that you’ll have a wider range to work from when creating content.

You probably talk differently when you are talking to your parents or grandparents than when you are talking to your friends. Brands also have more flexibility when they can channel different voices in different circumstances.

As an example, let’s say you thought Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres were perfect voices for your brand. It might be better to channel Oprah when you need to be more serious and caring for customer service reasons. Meanwhile, you might want to channel Ellen Degeneres for more lighthearted posts. They both exhibit characteristics appropriate for your brand voice and prevent you from pigeonholing yourself. Make sense?

Final thoughts

Developing a new brand strategy for a startup can be exciting, but it is also a lot of work to do it right. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the things you will need to do over time to build your startup brand, it hopefully gives you a list of “must do” tasks to ensure you are ready for launch.

If you found this post useful, be sure to check out the New Kind blog or subscribe to our newsletter for more advice on brand strategy, naming, positioning, storytelling, and visual identity design.

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