Our 6 Must Reads to Build a Brand That Breaks Through the Noise
PR & Marketing

Our 6 Must Reads to Build a Brand That Breaks Through the Noise

Building a brand is vital for startups, as they challenge incumbents in an existing industry or attempt to define a new one. Getting the right branding formula can feel more like an act of sorcery than strategy. This roundup provides some practical tips and process.

The red box of The Economist. IBM blue. The Nike Swoosh. These iconic brands are equally recognized by their name as a hue or logo — and have withstood the test of time. Which company wouldn’t want that sway and staying power? Problem is, most startups don’t have 50 or 100 years like these brands to amass relevance and prevalence. They must find a way to make early efforts enduring, turning customers into community, trials into trust, and buzz into brand.

We hear time and again just how challenging creating a brand can be. Other company-building endeavors are difficult, but seem to at least have some footholds: fundraising has its cycle, hiring has its questions to ask, and onboarding has its steps. But creating a brand can seem more like alchemy. Somehow along the way, inputs like name, logo and a one-line company description turn into a consistent voice, defensible market positioning and customer recognition.

That’s why we put together this list for companies building their brand — and especially for startups with limited runway. The following advice comes from founders, operators and experts who’ve helped build some of the biggest and most trusted brands that were launched in the last decade — from Airbnb to Thumbtack, Dropbox to Gusto. (The only exception is the 20-year old Netflix). We’ve filtered through the Review archives to assemble the six most tactical articles, so you can begin to lay the foundation for an enduring brand today.

Begin a brand book to look bigger than you are.

When Leslie Ziegler joined the founding team of Rock Health in 2010, she had an enormous task ahead of her: make the intimidating world of institutional health care approachable for startup founders. No matter what the firm did next, its brand was going to have to do this heavy lifting, and as a veteran art director with the likes of McCann Erickson and DDB, this fell squarely in Ziegler’s hands. And to get there, everything she built had to be consistent.

To me, consistency comes down to two things: the way your brand looks and the way it feels.

The fastest way to make your small brand look big is to present polished, coherent materials. That means having guiding principles — a brand book — that make your brand feel consistent. That entails nailing the basics, like branded PowerPoint and email templates, and sweating the smallest details, like the copy for your 404 page or discount code. Ultimately, brand guidelines should define how the company looks and feels. Here’s what you need to start your Brand Book (which can start as a simple, shared Google doc):

  • Colors: Palette of 3 to 4 complementary colors (include the RGB or hex codes if you don’t yet have Pantone equivalents).
  • Fonts: Define headers, body copy, and <h1> through <h4> tags for web/app purposes.
  • Logo: Show how it’s used in color, black and white, and reversed-out on a dark background. Show how the icon and wordmark can both be broken out as well, and have vertical and horizontal formats if appropriate. Put folders of these high-resolution logo source files on a shared drive as vectors and rasters so people have a bank of correct assets to easily use and share whenever they need — there are a lot of needs you won’t anticipate, and that your team will fulfill without even asking you.
  • Top-Line Verbiage: One-line company description; one paragraph company description (boilerplate or similar for use in press); brand attributes (3-5 adjectives that describe your company).
Leslie Ziegler

Nail your three P's.

Arielle Jackson has an enviable marketing resume by any standard. For nearly a decade, she helped position Gmail, Google Docs, Calendar and Voice. Drawing from this experience and a following role at Square, Jackson has outlined a simple, but powerful series of exercises that she’s used with over 30 startups to nail the purpose, position and personality of their companies: a vital step to building a memorable brand.

One of those startups is eero, a home WiFi system that blankets homes with fast, reliable internet and replaces outdated routers with something better. With her early support, Jackson helped eero pull in $2.5 million in sales in a fortnight via a successful pre-order campaign. Here’s a look at one framework she’s adopted from former Google Head of Marketing and Communications Christopher Escher. This exercise brought eero’s positioning statement into focus — and helped explain the startup’s offering in as plain of English as possible.

Here’s the template:

  • For (target customer)
  • Who (statement of need or opportunity),
  • (Product name) is a (product category)
  • That (statement of key benefit).
  • Unlike (competing alternative)
  • (Product name)(statement of primary differentiation).

Here’s eero’s version:

  • For tech-forward households
  • Who have deadzones or buffering,
  • eero is the world’s first home WiFi system
  • That blankets your home in fast, reliable WiFi.
  • Unlike a single, ugly Netgear, Belkin or Linksys router
  • eero uses multiple devices working in unison to create a wireless mesh network.

The added benefit to this exercise is the context around creating it. “When I first met the eero founders and they explained their product and idea to me, it took upwards of an hour for me to get it. But in the time it takes to read this statement, most can get it now,” says Jackson. “That’s the power of the positioning statement.”

Describe your positioning language to a sixth grader.

When former VP of Product Management Gibson Biddle joined Netflix in 2005, the product expert still had focus groups asking him: “Wait, I don’t get it. Do you mean streamlining?” No, streaming, he would say. No one knew what that meant. In the early days, building the company’s brand meant not only finding ways to promote and position the “brand promise” of Netflix, but also introducing — and owning — language that was fundamental to an incredibly new business. Beyond Netflix, Biddle has led and advised on brand creation and product development for education and gaming companies, including Chegg, Sega and Mattel.

When Biddle works with startups, he does so in ways that leverage many minds at once. During a workshop with employees at Naturebox, he divided the group into teams of six to apply his positioning model to the business. All participants reconvened to share their thoughts at the end of the hour. The objective of this exercise is to capture and articulate what others value about a company, so it’s critical to get many perspectives. It’s also helpful to track shared language across teams. Here are the initial answers from three of the groups at Naturebox:

Selected answers from a Naturebox branding workshop with Gibson Biddle

So how can you start with something like this and arrive at crisp, unanimous positioning language? Describe it to a sixth grader.

“Aim to be succinct and clear. Pretend you’re speaking with a sixth-grader. Your customers are busy so they don’t have time to parse fuzzy concepts. Your goal is not to dumb it down, but to tighten it up. ” For example, Biddle challenged Group A to unpack “custom subscription snackbox.” One person offered: “Snackbox Delivered to Your Door.” That was too “salesy” for Biddle. “Snackbox Subscription Service.” That works. What would someone with zero context and limited knowledge of your business understand right away? Go with that.

Biddle has two more tips for teams as they whittle their positioning statements down to the essentials:

  • Put your descriptions on a diet. Biddle is strict on the economy of language in a positioning model. “Cut things down to three words maximum. Choose the most critical words.” At Naturebox, Biddle asked Group A to choose three of the four words describing their service so the team wouldn’t just list words, but carefully prioritize them. The team settled on “convenient,” “healthy,” and “variety.”
  • Don't stop until there's precision. “There’s typically one fuzzy word in the bunch. Find that abstract word and dig deeper into it,” says Biddle. He prompted Group A to unpack “variety” until the team arrived at “choice” and then “selection.” “Selection” is a better fit for Naturebox, as the company aims to not only provide a range of products, but also a deliberate curation of healthy snacks. “Don’t give an automatic pass to words that are popular across teams,” warns Biddle. “Everyone’s a suspect.” Both Groups A and B chose “unique.” “Unique in what way?” he persisted. “Its great taste — it’s tasty,” the team responded, providing a more exacting answer.
Julie Supan

Build for the high-expectation customer.

For Julie Supan, positioning and branding has as much to do with one’s customer as one’s company. Since leaving Youtube in 2009, Supan has become one of the most sought-after branding experts, helping companies like Dropbox, Airbnb and Thumbtack craft their positioning prior to launch. Her first step? Identifying their target user: the high-expectation customer.

“The high-expectation customer, or HXC, is the most discerning person within your target demographic. It’s someone who will acknowledge — and enjoy — your product or service for its greatest benefit,” says Supan. That discernment is key, because this customer is also someone who can help startups spread the word.

The HXC needs to be a person who others aspire to emulate because they see them as clever, judicious and insightful.

The high-expectation customer is a good consumer, regardless of being an early adopter. They’re someone who can be trusted to know the market and make good decisions. “They look things up. They research things. And they have ideas for new types of products or services that can help them save money, gain time, get healthier or make their team more productive,” says Supan. “If your product exceeds their expectations, it can meet everyone else’s.”

Consider who this customer is for some well-established companies — and read further here to get more depth on each example:

  • Airbnb: This HXC is invested in being a good global citizen, and doesn’t want to simply visit new places but to belong. “It’s the guest who wants to ‘live like a local’ and experience Paris as if they are living there,” says Supan. “They’re energized by the idea of staying in unique spaces and feeling welcomed, but are cost-conscious, too.”
  • Dropbox: “This one may come as a surprise, because people used to think of them as just a file sharing and syncing technology company. But the Dropbox high-expectation customer is actually a person who wants to simplify his or her life,” says Supan. “They're trusting, organized, tech-savvy, and looking for ways to get some time back in their day. They want to know they're covered, that someone has their back when it comes to their life's work, which is primarily in their computers — family photos, videos, work files, school docs.”

Once you nail down the HXC, get the entire company on board with understanding these customers, use their language to engage with them and continually survey them to stay on top of their evolving needs. The HXC serves as a valuable touchstone to ensure that you’re growing in the right direction and to validate — or invalidate — your action plan. “Your users will understand the product, and know that it’s meant for them. You’ll slash your cost of customer acquisition and enjoy the benefits of a clear roadmap,” says Supan. “If you do the work, they’ll lead you to consensus about what your company is — and what it isn’t.”

Track down — and reward — your champions.

Kenneth Lin was skimming through Reddit — an unremarkable daily habit — when he discovered something that changed his life for good: his company, Credit Karma, had finally broken into the mainstream. There it was: a thread about credit monitoring kicked off by a user suspicious that his company’s free credit check service was a scam — including a passionate response from a user defending and extolling Credit Karma. “Oh my god,” Lin thought. “That person doesn’t even work for us.” It was a purely organic moment — foreshadowing the word-of-mouth trend that would win the startup millions of users in the months to come.

Ten years later, Credit Karma has established market dominance, with more than 50% of all customers hearing about the site from other users. It’s Googled more than Geico — considered the standard bearer for companies that have managed to build sexy, personality-driven brands in patently unsexy industries. Which makes it all the more surprising that Credit Karma pulled this off with a staff 1% the size of Geico’s, a paltry budget, and no PR agency help in those early, critical, brand-establishing years.

To build your brand, there’s a category of users you want to endear yourself to over time — you’ll know them because of their high NPS scores, their engagement with sharing and referral tools, and their penchant to write glowingly about you on forums and in blog comments. They’re people who will tell many others about your product without you even asking. It’s worth the effort to look for them and make contact when you do. “Your super promoters drive irreplaceable value for your business,” says Lin. “They buy more, go out of their way to provide feedback, stay longer, and refer their friends. Deepen their loyalty by bringing them into your community.”

For example, Credit Karma tracked Reddit users who would come to their defense in comment sections. They reached out and asked them what more they wanted to see from the service. The feedback they got was that people were frustrated with inaccuracies in their credit reports. Fixing these issues was tedious and costly. They listened and deployed Direct Dispute in response, which allowed consumers to challenge inaccuracies in their reports with a few clicks.

The bottom line? Part of being courageous is having champions behind you. Don’t get caught taking them for granted. You need people to stick with you as you place big bets.

Once you define what you stand for, stick to it. It takes grit to redefine an industry.

Let a new brand sink in. Build consensus in waves.

One fall day, ZenPayroll’s employees streamed into their San Francisco office, and, regardless of their role, hopped on the phone with customers to explain what had just happened: they were now Gusto employees. The company had rebranded, and the change extended much further than the name and logo — they would now be going after the competitive health benefits market in addition to outfitting businesses with payroll software. This could have been frantic and stressful. But their voices lighting up the phones were bright and celebratory instead.

Take it from Gusto’s CEO Joshua Reeves about the difficulties of a rebranding — and any kind of branding effort for that matter. “One of the most important things I learned from this whole thing is that people don’t automatically know how they’re going to feel about a word or an image. You have to take some time to let it settle in,” says Reeves. “So when we got any negative feedback, we’d give it some time. We wouldn’t react. And we’d notice people coming around to things. It’s a huge piece of advice I’d offer founders, even when it comes to just making big decisions. Let things marinate.”

The rebrand conversation started with the founders who broadened it to the other members of the executive team for the purposes of yearly planning. But it didn’t stay under wraps for long. They also wanted to have the timeline and guiding principles locked in before sharing it with the rest of the company.

The first time the leadership team talked openly about the shift, they officially kicked it off at an all-hands meeting — which Gusto holds twice a month. “The objective was to say, ‘Look, everyone here is a stakeholder in this process.” The session focused tightly on the new product launch driving the rebrand and the core values and ideas they wanted the new look and feel to convey. Instead of opening up the floodgates to feedback right there, they underscored that everyone would have a chance to offer ideas and opinions through a round of surveys.

One of the things Reeves came prepared for was pushback, and he got it. People disagreed with parts of the process, and the need to change the name. They doubted the ROI of the time spent on the project, or questioned why it was important now. The most effective response was continually explaining the ‘why’ behind the actions they were taking, and acknowledging others’ ownership in the company.

“One of our core values is that everyone should have an owner's’ mentality about Gusto. Everyone is here building something they are part owner of,” says Reeves. “When we reminded them that the new name wasn’t just for the customers but for all of us who wear the T-shirts and talk about our work and take pride in our work. Seeing their co-workers as part-owners who were excited and energized about the rebrand made a difference.”

The company ran a process — from surveys to branding workshops to more all-hands — to generate a short list of new names. As you might guess, Gusto was on that list, having garnered fans during a general workshop with employees. “We picked that name ourselves — we didn’t bring in a firm to do it for us,” says Reeves. “We could have, but the people who work full-time for us are the ones this name has to represent.”

This is just the beginning of the Review's wisdom on how to build a brand that resonates and matters. Check out the full articles referenced above as well as others on how to get people to trust your product, better position your startup and find the stories that build your brand.

Hero image by wavipicture/iStock/Getty Images. Photos by Bonnie Rae Mills.