Congratulations, you’re finally getting your startup launched!
A question many entrepreneurs and new business owners have is: When should I invest in branding? Is it too early? Will I look unprofessional, and lose potential sales or investors by waiting?
Let’s start by talking a bit about the term branding. The word is hot, and in fact so hot that many of us are nauseated by its overuse. The term “branding” can mean the visual representation of your product, service or company and usually refers to your logo, web site design, packaging, marketing materials, user interface, etc. Branding can also refer to much less concrete/physical things like your reputation, customer service and the promises you are making to your customers.
By looking at those definitions, you can see that those more abstract ideas of your brand start growing as soon as your startup began to take shape in any public way. People immediately make first impressions about your new idea. If there is no visual identity to attach those feelings to, they are probably associating these ideas and opinions with the start-up founder(s) or any other public and tangible perception of the emerging brand.
When people ask about investing in branding they are usually referring to the more tangible aspects of their brand identity. If they plan to work with a professional designer or brand agency, when is the time to engage them?
There is no blanket answer to this question but here are some ideas to consider:
Stores, restaurants and small service based businesses must launch with a full brand identity.
If you plan to open a restaurant or retail store you need a designer involved sooner than many other startups. A restaurant, for example, needs to get its brand identity nailed before they launch. The signage, decor, menu and overall atmosphere is not something that can come later. The dining experience and the brand identity are highly interwoven.
Another example would be something like a yoga studio (see our work for Stillwater Yoga), the immediate effect of that brand identity may be critical to creating the right first impression. These businesses can always adjust and expand their brand identities as they get more established, but they cannot hang out their open sign without the basic brand elements of a strong logo and other key visual elements.
Packaged consumer goods must well designed before placement in a store
If you have a consumer good that you plan to sell in stores, your packaging must be well designed and professional produced before selling en masse to consumers. Before you get to that stage, however, you have time to work on your brand identity as you refine your product or scale operations.
For example, many food producers start selling at craft fairs or farmers market (see our work for the Perfect Peanut Brittle Company). That is a good time to test design ideas and see what resonates with your buyers. However, it is unlikely you will get accepted into national chains or highly selective boutiques if your package design is not professional created. And you definitely don’t want to be creating confusion about your brand by altering your brand identity once you start to sell in retail stores. Consumer purchases are heavily swayed by package design, so you will need to invest in branding to make it big.
Solopreneurs can slowly grow their brand identity organically
Many people wish to start a consulting type of business for themselves. It may start as a one-person start-up and eventually will grow to a small business with a few employees. The bar is set high for what people expect for a professional business web site. Don’t slight yourself on how you portray yourself and your business online. But it’s ok to use a wordmark rather than a symbol type of logo, which is generally more economical to have designed.
Your business offerings will likely change as you figure out what work is profitable and appeals to you, and your brand identity should be flexible enough to move with these changes, while still maintaining some consistency. Remember, the brand of a solopreneur is very closely tied to the business owner, and always will be.
High tech startups benefit from a visual identity
When people think of startups, they most frequently think of technology based startups. These companies may make software targeted at the general public or a very small niche. They may make highly specialized products. It can be a struggle to engage investors or interest if people cannot understand the technology.
The “thing” these startups create is frequently not very visual—invisible code or not very sexy equipment. Therefore, the logo for a high tech firm can end up playing a larger, more important role than for other startups.
Invest in design, not production
Nearly all startups are working on tight budgets and need to carefully evaluate all spending decisions. Remember that a well-designed logo should last you for years. Investing in a good one is worthwhile.
But you may need to cut corners on production costs. For example, a food or beverage entrepreneur may use stickers that are manually applied while they are in their early stages with low quantities. If they have the right design in place, their brand identity will transition easily to a more automated solution when the time is right.
We work with many new business owners, and we understand that chicken-and-the-egg feeling of: “What comes first? The brand or the launch?” Use your design dollars wisely to create pieces of your visual identity that will stand the test of time, but don’t spend it on high-cost production values initially.