When Should Your Startup Invest in Branding?

Here’s the short answer: Start branding right away.

For most business owners, branding is an ambiguous and scary word that means thousands upon thousands of dollars of investment in creative services and market research.

But branding is much more than just the creation of a logo and the decision on a few cool colors. It’s the cultivation of your business’s identity and character, and that entails more than a basic run-through of branding essentials.

PGA and Travel Channel marketing veteran Brian Woyt helps us understand why sooner is better than later when deciding the most fitting time to begin branding.

Should startups be branding from the birth of their businesses?

brian woyt illustration with purple quotes

“YES. Most people think branding is simply a logo. Or maybe some colors. But a brand is a summation of all things that make an organization what it is.”

When making initial considerations such as startup capital, target market, product value, and other top-level business decisions, branding should fit into the mix. Consider what type of brand customers will think your brand is. The goal isn’t to trick your customers; it’s to make sure that they:

  • Can immediately identify your product, service, advertisement, and ad copy when they see it
  • Remember your product, service, company name, and personality well after they have experienced it
  • Connect with your company on the levels of emotion and trust

By considering branding from the incubation of your business, you’ll be able to build its identity more comprehensively as you come to understand your audience and its needs.

What if I don’t have the money to back branding efforts?

brian woyt illustration with purple quotes“There’s a misperception that branding costs a lot of money. Branding is free, and it starts with the purpose and the promise an organization makes to its customers. That doesn’t require any capital.”

While some of the optional marketing pushes that come with a quality brand can cost money, such as promotion, public relations, and advertising, you can begin your efforts for free using organic marketing methods like content development and outreach.

What does the first part of branding creation look like?

brian woyt illustration with purple quotes“Remember: your brand won’t exist in a vacuum – organizations need to think about how customers will see the brand stacking up against its competitors.”

There are two absolutely indispensable elements of an initial branding.

The Positioning Statement

It’s at once simple and complex; a positioning statement is only a sentence or two, but its contents should outline the brand’s unique value compared to the competition. It’s where you’ll express your purpose and your promise to your customers. To build one, ask these questions:

  • Who do you appeal to and why are you relevant to them?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What value does your brand add? What is its promise?

Your positioning statement will be your jumping-off point for everything you construct related to your brand afterward.

The Brand Standards

From your positioning statement, you can lay out your brand’s guidelines. Use them to nurture a connection to your brand within your organization and far beyond it.

  • Visuals – Write down hard standards for logos, imagery, fonts, and details of your corporate identity. Your employees and customers should be able to identify and react to your brand without explicit instruction if you’ve created quality visual standards.
  • Messaging – Communication is invaluable, and it will be a monumental part of your business if you want to attract customers. Map out the points of communication between customers and staff and ensure that greetings, company information, and expertise are handled cohesively across the board.

Solidifying brand standards early makes business scaling significantly less stressful. No matter your turnover, new employees, especially those who have been customers before, can receive training on positioning and brand standards, and may even help them grow.

What are the initial costs of branding?

brian woyt illustration with purple quotes“The most crucial element of the brand is the thinking that goes into determining what the brand will be and what type of conversation or interaction it will have with its customers.”

The cost of amateur and professional branding has too wide of a margin to give a fair price estimate. It’s more constructive to consider which parts of branding will cost money and which won’t, then decide where you want to pool your resources.

Stuff You Can Do for Free

You can create your positioning statement, establish some brand standards, develop content, and begin outreach to other businesses for free. The only investment in these efforts is time.

The founders of your company and up-front dialogue with customers will help steer your initial branding. Creating a concept of your company’s character and the messages it will send to customers is the foremost part of branding anyway, and you don’t have to pay bills to anyone to do it.

Stuff You Can Pay People to Do

If you’ve got a knack for the creative, you can invest your own time in creating visuals. Or perhaps you have an analytical brain, and you don’t mind sinking some time into marketing research. In either case, there are bound to be parts of learning about your audience and appealing to them that you don’t want to take on yourself.

Some of the most common paid branding efforts include:

  • Logo creation
  • Web design
  • Content writing
  • Packaging
  • Storefront design
  • Market research

However, by assembling an extraordinary positioning statement and branding standards, you can keep these costs minimal and select only the services you absolutely need.

Is it too late to brand if I already have a customer base and a fully realized website?

brian woyt illustration with purple quotesNo. It’s never too late. Most brands evolve over time anyway. Consider thinking about it as an evolution.”

Introducing a brand with a bang can certainly make an impact, but piecing it together gradually can improve your targeting and impact over a longer span of time.

If you’re well-established, do an audit of your brand. Prepare your positioning statement and look over your brand standards. Ask yourself:

  • Does everything seem like part of one brand?
  • Does our brand connect with the audience that we have established?

Answering the questions will help you find out what parts of your branding and positioning aren’t quite right. These are the parts that need to change.

Shifting your messaging is going to be cheaper than reworking your visuals. If you don’t need to change your visual branding, don’t waste resources on it. You can still rebrand or improve branding through new messaging. Do so by reworking your communication guidelines, rethinking your content strategy, and revamping your outreach approach.

If your branding is a mess, break down the changes you need to make most and divide them between the things you can do on your own and the things that require outside help. Make decisions based on needs, not desires. Your bottom line will be grateful.

Brian Woyt, current CEO and Chief Strategist at Wolf & Missile, employs his countless years of experience in prestigious marketing roles for large-scale companies in his daily work. He has seen and orchestrated marketing efforts bottom to top, and has generously shared his expertise with us so that we can share it with you. Take it from a branding master – the time to start branding is now.

You guessed it – Leverage Marketing offers branding services, too. Even cooler, we can tie your branding efforts into other marketing channels as well, including paid search, SEO, video marketing, and anything else digital marketing. Catch even more on branding and digital marketing in our Leverage Marketing newsletter and learn all the behind-the-scenes stuff for free!

How Do Customers See Your Brand?

It doesn’t matter if you think your brand has the potential to be the next Apple or Nike—what matters is what your target audience thinks of your brand.

Understanding brand perception is essential to succeeding in a competitive marketplace, according to Brian Woyt, founder of the branding agency Wolf & Missile. “Ultimately, your brand is what the marketplace says it is,” Woyt says, “Not what you think it is.”

To be long-lasting, your brand must form a connection with your audience. That connection is based on trust, and your brand earns trust when it remains true to what your audience expects of it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to remain true to your customers’ expectations when you don’t understand those expectations in the first place.

You need to research how customers view your brand so that you can develop resources that meet your audience’s expectations.

Brand Discovery: When You’re Starting from Scratch

If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ll be able to use real customer feedback to understand your audience’s perception of your brand (more on that later). But if you’re new on the scene, you won’t have any marketplace feedback yet. Instead, Woyt recommends performing a brand discovery exercise:

  1. List the attributes or features of your product or service. (e.g. The FidoVac 5000 has a power rating of 8.5 amps.)
  2. Determine the consequences of the attributes (With the power of FidoVac5000, pet owners will be able to suck up pet hair from all surfaces).
  3. List the benefits of your product or service. (FidoVac5000 owners will enjoy the appearance of a cleaner home and won’t have to worry about pet hair getting stuck to their clothes when they sit down.)
  4. Determine the value of your product or service to your customer. (FidoVac5000 owners will enjoy greater peace of mind in their clean home.)

This exercise should help you move from the features of your product (which you already know) to the value of your product (which is what customers care about). Once you’ve identified the value your product or service offers, you can use this to define your brand. Your value should stay front and center of your traditional and digital marketing branding.

Positioning: How Your Customers See You vs. Your Competitors

Your brand doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like it or not, most of your potential customers are weighing you against your competitors. To stand out, you’ll need to determine what makes your brand different from similar brands. Ask yourself: What does my audience want that I can deliver but my competitors can’t?

Woyt suggests taking the following steps to position your brand:

  1. Research the competition.
  2. Create a four-quadrant map of the competition’s positioning, as in the example below.
  3. Add your brand to the positioning map.
  4. Ask yourself what you need to do to minimize overlap or set your brand apart.

Next, you should write a brand positioning statement. This can be a sentence or two that states your brand’s unique value in the marketplace. To write this statement, ask yourself:

  • Who do my products/services appeal to and why?
  • What are the people at my company passionate about?
  • What promise is my brand making to the customer?

Understanding Brand Perception

If you’re an established business, you should be talking to real customers (and potential customers) to better understand how they see your brand. Conduct surveys by phone and email, and organize focus groups if possible. Questions to ask your customers include:

  • What attracted you to our brand instead of a competitor? Or, if you chose a competitor, why did you go with them?
  • What are the biggest frustrations you experience when trying to do business with companies in our industry?
  • Have you ever recommended our brand to another person? If so, who? And why?
  • What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear our brand name?

In addition to interviewing customers directly, you can also use social monitoring tools to see what kind of online reputation your company has on social media and review sites.

There are dozens of social monitoring tools on the market, and you’ll have to do your due diligence to determine what’s best for your business. Here are just a few of the most popular tools:

  • Google Alerts: Lets you set up email alerts for mentions of your brand and other keywords in online publications
  • Hootsuite: Lets you view brand mentions (on social channels, blogs, and news sites) in real-time and gauge brand sentiment
  • Talkwalker: Lets you track mentions across all major social channels, print publications, and TV and radio broadcasts globally
  • Buzzsumo: Lets you view social shares of your brand’s content and identify specific users who have shared your content

Pay attention to both positive and negative sentiment. Looking at negative sentiment can help you identify what you need to change to improve your customers’ perception of your brand.

Your Customers See Your Brand Differently Than You Thought—Now What?

If your research reveals that brand sentiment is largely negative, it may be time to rebrand. As part of your rebrand, develop buyer personas. Identify buyer needs and pain points. Think about how your messaging can better connect with your customers. Work through the brand discovery exercise (if you haven’t already) to make sure you’re focusing on the value you bring to customers, not just the features of your products or services.

If brand sentiment is largely positive, but your customers think of your brand differently than you do, it’s still worth making some changes. Ask yourself if your brand’s actions and interactions are aligned with your positioning statement. If they’re not, think about how you can better tailor your marketing resources to your audience’s expectations.

Need help positioning your brand in a crowded marketplace? Leverage now offers digital marketing branding services—contact us now to learn more.

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Brand Marketing at SXSW: How to Make Your Brand Stand Out

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media and music conferences that take place in Austin, Texas. With increasing attendance and new attention-grabbing tech displays each year, brands struggle to get noticed at SXSW. How can your brand bring a unique experience to SXSW that translates into something unforgettable? It’s increasingly difficult to get noticed when every consumer-facing company gives out free swag, throws parties with free beer, and shows off the latest technology.

SXSW is known for helping to launch Foursquare and Twitter, and the conference regularly screens excellent films and television shows, many of which go on to great acclaim. Marketing at SXSW is an increasingly complicated endeavor, as getting noticed above all the buzz is difficult enough. Brands struggle to tie in product releases, navigate consumer trends, and figure out how to draw attendees to their events.

While every SXSW is different, last year some successful brand activations made their mark on attendees and marketers. Creating SXSW marketing that stands out sometimes means doing something a little different than what everyone else is doing (or what you think they’re going to do).

Each of these SXSW brand activations highlights a unique aspect of their product and communicates that to the audience—something every brand needs to do. While you may be successful by just following the current marketing trends– whether that’s virtual reality, make-your-own soda, or just giving out free stuff—doing something that conveys your signature SXSW brand image will likely be more successful.

American Greetings

american greeting sxsw branding

credit: @mullenloweus

It might seem odd for a greeting card company to even come to SXSW, let alone do a brand activation. But American Greetings wanted to disrupt the mold of disruptive digital technology by bringing in the analog. Their three-day 2016 promotion was entitled #Analog and allowed festivalgoers to do DIY printmaking and pop-up cards. They could learn letter-making techniques from an American Greetings artist, fill in a coloring book mural, and even get a selfie stitched with thread. American Greetings’ message is not to say that digital communication is not important or analog can replace digital communication, but rather that they’re complementary. Many people don’t slow down to send paper cards, and American Greetings’ SXSW marketing message is that analog still matters, and we should slow down to appreciate it.

Suicide Squad

Another unique brand activation at SXSW 2016 was Suicide Squad’s tattoo salon. Although the movie didn’t come out until Summer 2016, Warner Brothers started promoted it early through this special Harley Quinn-inspired experiential marketing. Instead of just doing a sneak peek of the film, Warner Bros transformed Affinity Tattoo and Body Piercing into Harley Quinn’s Tattoo Parlor—and offered free real (and temporary) tattoos. This brand activation got people excited about the film, created a unique SXSW marketing angle, and involved artists and fans in an innovative way, without using virtual reality or alternate reality to do so.

Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot, a techie show that launched at the 2015 SXSW festival and won the SXSW Audience Award, wanted to come back in 2016 and make a splash. The show’s marketing team figured there was no better way to do way to do that than to bring their iconic “Wonder Wheel” Ferris wheel to Austin. In one of the largest SXSW brand activations to date, USA Network designed the Ferris wheel to look like the Coney Island Wheel in the show, complete with nearby carnival games. The Mr. Robot cast and crew even visited SXSW to pay homage to the success the festival helped them garner—and of course, see the Wonder Wheel in real life. By creating SXSW branding that directly references the television show and allows the audience to experience a piece of their world—Mr. Robot succeeded in their SXSW marketing.


If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably heard of Mophie. They make external batteries and cases to charge your favorite devices. As you can imagine, at SXSW, battery life gets eaten up pretty quickly. Between all the tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, and interactive brand activations and events, your smartphone may be dead before the day is half over. But Mophie is here to rescue you—with adorable St. Bernards. At 2016’s SXSW, Mophie partnered with the National St. Bernard Foundation, Glympse, and a motorcycle company to bring you a fresh phone battery when festivalgoers needed it. If someone tweeted using the hashtag #mophieRescue, the company would send one of its fleet of St. Bernards straight to them with a Mophie battery pack to charge up. This cute SXSW brand marketing makes Mophie look good, helps people out, and helps a good cause—dog rescues.

The Takeaway

SXSW is a brand marketing war. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different companies competing for attention from festivalgoers and consumers. Many companies try using the tried and true techniques of giving out free swag, throwing parties, and utilizing the latest technology trends. But these aren’t enough to truly make your product or company memorable. Take note of the uniqueness of the SXSW branding campaigns mentioned in this article—they all did something that was integral to their brand identity and helped their core audience in some way. If you can harness this mentality for your SXSW marketing, you can succeed in the crowded marketplace.

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