Branding for Startups

Written by Mary Lieu on the 23rd of February, 2017

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Why Branding Is Critical for Startup Success

Brett Geoghegan


We asked Brett Geoghegan, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at BlueChilli, to explain why a brand is one of the most important assets a business can develop. Here’s what he had to say.


Have you ever considered why customers are choosing a competitor’s product over yours? I bet you have. I see startups time and time again say “Oh, we just need X feature” or “We just need to spend more on marketing.” But have you ever considered it might be a branding problem?

There are over 1.3M new startups started each year, and over 4M apps on the Apple and Google App Stores – all vying for your customer’s attention. One hairdresser I spoke to in San Francisco said he is approached by founders sprouting a new app to solve ‘this problem or that’ every single day.

The fact is, as a tech startup, standing out in all that noise is really, really, really freaking hard. And if you’re trying to compete on product features or benefits alone, touting the same “saves you time and money” or “easy to use” like every other startup, you will spend an absolute fortune building feature after feature, and end up with product too complex to use.

Branding is about stepping above this feature/benefit shitfight, giving your startup an emotive reason why a specific audience would choose your product over viable alternatives

Even though yours may have less functionality. Sounds good, right? It is.


So, what is a brand?

Hint, your brand is not your logo.

When I mention the brand ‘Apple’, what comes to mind? A specific product? Expensive? Their logo? Nice design? Creativity? A sense of joy (or frustration)? Microsoft? Whatever you think, chances are they’ll be different thoughts to the person next to you.

Your brand lives in the minds of your audience.

It’s what a person thinks about your product or business. This notion is formed and altered with every interaction, every experience, and every exposure an individual has to your business over time.

So, if your brand is what people think about you, what is branding?

Branding is firstly about determining what you want people to think and feel about your brand – your competitive differentiation – to give you an advantage in the marketplace. Secondly, it’s about how you communicate and deliver this brand to your audience through the interactions they’re likely to have with your business.

Nicola Hazell


Differentiate, Differentiate, Differentiate.

When people choose a Volvo over a Mercedes, are they choosing the Volvo because it’s a luxury sedan? No. Mercedes is also a luxury sedan. So is BMW. So is Lexus. Are they choosing the Volvo because of the price or styling. Again, no. Chances are, when people choose a Volvo they are choosing ‘safety’ over ‘performance’ (BMW) or ‘elegance’ (Mercedes). This is the Volvo brand positioning – ‘making the roads a safer place’.

To find your meaningful differentiation, you need to look at four core elements:

  • WHO are you talking to (your audience).
  • WHO or WHAT you are wanting to beat (your competition).
  • HOW you are going to beat them (your functional difference or benefit).
  • WHY this is important to your audience (your emotive differentiation).


Step 1: Know WHO you are talking to.

If you’ve done some homework as a founder, you should know who your core target market is. That’s a great starting point, but we need to take this a step further.

Just like humans used to align themselves to particular Tribes via skin markings, brands that succeed today act as a symbol for the modern Tribe your audience wishes to belong to.

For example, Volvo’s WHO isn’t simply parents. It’s ‘Parents who take pride in protecting their families’. Apple’s WHO isn’t simply computer users. It’s ‘Creatives who want to do their best work.’ 


Step 2: Know WHO or WHAT you want to beat.

Basically, this is the competitive arena you will be competing in. For example, Volvo is wanting to beat other ‘luxury car manufacturers’. Slack is wanting to beat other ‘messaging platforms’.

Here is where you can actually define an arch nemesis – a competitive muse – to really help articulate where you stand in your competitive arena.

In the early days, as computers were only just becoming mainstream, Apple’s competitive arena was ‘computers’ and they chose IBM as their competitive muse. IBM was the big, clunky, corporate computer company. Apple was the small, nimble, friendly personal computer company. The IBM muse helped Apple define who it was and how it made itself different, by being the opposite of IBM.


Step 3: Know HOW you are going to beat them.

Now, while I say you don’t want to be competing on functions and benefits alone, you need to identify a core feature/benefit that you can use as the foundation for your brand.

Something unique that you can deliver time-and-time again, better than anyone else – your competitive advantage.

Volvo’s competitive advantage is building safer cars. Slack’s competitive advantage is their integration of messaging into one interface. 


Step 4: Identify WHY your audience should care.

Your WHY builds on your HOW from the previous step.

It’s about taking that cold, functional competitive advantage, and turning it into WHY your customer should care.

Slack’s HOW is ‘integration of workplace messaging into the one interface’. Their WHY is ‘to make workplace communication fun again.’ Volvo’s HOW is ‘building safer cars’. Volvo’s WHY is ‘to keep your family safe’. 


Your brand is one of the most important assets your business can develop.

It defines who you are in the market, and why people should care.

It can help you win customers, scale your growth, and even beat your competition with less features. And it can entice key employees, investors, and partners to come on board.

But don’t worry about getting it perfect right off the bat. The important thing as a startup founder is to have an awareness of branding and what your brand might be early on, so it has the chance to evolve alongside your product and business as you grow.


Photography: TheStoryBoxes & Ernita Siregar