I grew up in Silicon Valley before “startup” was an industry and the only thing that was “lean” was cuisine. Growing up here, I’m sure you can imagine how many ventures I’ve seen come and go and I watch new ventures launch every day. Watching so many startups succeed and fail has given me many opportunities to learn.
One of the chief things I’ve learned is the how important a strong cohesive brand is to the launch of a new venture. In 20-some-odd years I have seen very few products that “sell themselves” and even fewer that succeed in spite of bad branding. No matter how great your product is, it is likely to be the brand that people end up connecting with, so here are a few of the tips I try to pass along to some of the startups I work with.
1. Be Subtle
Subtlety is the art of saying what you think and getting out of the way before it is understood.”
People tend to think that in order to get others to understand something, you have to beat them over the head with it. This is a great tactic if you want to get people’s attention, but it’s also more likely to alienate than convert.
If you want to engage effectively and motivate conversions, you’ll need finesse and the ability to be suggestive as opposed to overt. The comparison has been made – and it’s one I find myself agreeing with more and more – that communicating your brand is a lot like dating: If you are going to be overt, you are less likely to attract customers, and the ones you do get are probably not the ones you’re looking for.
Instead, opt to allow your brand to be understated. Boil it down to the core elements, and then allow it to speak for itself.
2. Be Simple
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Do not underestimate how extraordinarily easy it is to over-complicate things. Humans have a tremendous drive to feel productive, and the more we can add elements which in our own mind add depth and significance, the more we feel we have accomplished.
While the complexity feels as though it adds depth and value, that depth and value is (generally) only valuable to the creator, who has the benefit of knowing intent and context. Without the benefit of intent and context, the audience ends up confused by added complexity.
3. Be Focused
A man who chases two rabbits catches none.
– Old Roman Proverb
New and exciting ideas are often very difficult to describe. When asked to describe their product, most entrepreneurs will give you an answer something to the effect of, “Well… its hard to explain.” (If it’s so early that you have not yet defined your brand, this may be especially true.) So if you feel this way or you find yourself giving this sort of response, you’re not alone.
If you are working on something that is new and exciting, it likely doesn’t yet have a framework to describe it. This is especially so when you caught halfway between where your venture is today, and at the same time completely wrapped up in the vision for where you want the project to go. It may be hard to boil it down when just getting started, but it is vitally important. If you are trying to express too much, too fast, you are likely to confuse the majority of the people you are engaging.
As the old proverb warns, don’t expend so much energy chasing two different things that neither gets the attention it deserves. Focus on defining your message to target your audience specifically based on their needs and interests.
4. Be Customer-centric
Get a design you’ll love — guaranteed
I see some websites guarantee a “design you’ll love.” Rather than looking to please yourself with something you love, remember that “you” are not your target market and instead look to please your consumers. Take the time – the due diligence – to do a little market research, and instead focus on a design your consumer base will love.
Like most things, the more you invest in your market research, the better quality you are likely to get out of it, but if you are operating with strict budgetary constraints, doing some “home-brew” market research is better than none.
Start by thinking about your customers and the types of things they might buy or connect with. Check out your competition and see what tactics they may be employing, and what seems to work. Don’t forget to ask around, get input and feedback from people in your consumer base. Conversations are free! And most people are happy to share their input.
5. Be Beautiful
Design is intelligence made visible.
– Alina Wheeler
Entrepreneurs often work for months and years developing a product, yet they think it is perfectly appropriate to use a logo they sketched on the back of a napkin on their own to represent all that work. Unless you are a designer by trade, designing your own brand elements makes about as much sense as tapping an aerospace engineer to pilot a plane. It happens from time to time, but generally these are just such disparate disciplines, it is highly unlikely that someone can do both with excellence.
Just as you want an expert to develop your product, and you wouldn’t want an amateur to manage your business, the best results come from tapping an expert to help you develop how to communicate about your business and iterate that strategy into different media. Take a look at the “Top Charts” on the iTunes App Store. I’ve never taken a look at that list and seen a single ugly app – not one, not once. It’s par for the course to have top quality UI, so don’t make the mistake of underestimating the value of beauty.
6. Be Engaging
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
– Simon Sinek
There’s a lot of buzz around the word “engagement” these days, and with that the definition becomes increasingly muddled, however what I am referring to is connecting deeply with your audience and motivating them to respond.
Strive to strike a perfect balance between connecting with the analytical side through excellent engineering, and the creative side through beautiful design. When you can pair the two of these together, the results are powerful. When creating your brand, make sure that you are developing something that speaks to your audience, and inspires them to connect on an emotional level.
7. Be Consistent
We become what we want to be by consistently being what we want to become each day.
– Richard G. Scott
Once you’ve done all this work to capture your audience, be sure you don’t confuse them with inconsistency, and ultimately lose them. Whatever it is that your brand is meant to convey, be sure that your venture displays that thoroughly and consistently so as to leave no doubt about the continuity of the brand. Solidify the ideas your brand elements represent by ensuring the same spirit is applied consistently across all media.
In Closing …
There are a lot of things to consider when starting a new venture. Take the time to do things right the first time. Beware of people and companies that promise quick fixes to complex problems. But most importantly, as you take the time to develop your product and your business, make sure to dedicate the time to communicate it to the outside world effectively – so they can see all the same magic and potential that you do.