If you do a Google search for branding, you’ll quickly realize just how vast of a subject it has become in the last decade or so. From your local startups, to tech giants, to the bakery down the street from you, to TED talks, to the hundreds of designers, agencies, and influencers who show up in your feed—they all seem well-versed on the subject in one way or another. Or so it seems.
But is there a right time to spend your precious, hard-earned money on professional branding?
So Why Branding?
If you’re reading this, you’re probably working hard on a startup, you own a flourishing business, or you have an idea that you hope to turn into the latter someday. You already know there is more to growing your brand than getting a logo fitted, buying a domain, and posting content on Instagram (P.S. Please don’t open a business Instagram account if you don’t need it). But what good is a brand when there is so much more to figure out and maintain?
When done right, branding creates equity—meaning that through consistent brand-building efforts over time, your buyers begin associating meaning to what you sell. When they consider buying from your category, it helps them think about you in buying situations (also known as mental availability). Brand equity is the reason Coca-Cola pops up in your mind when you want a refreshing drink, and it’s the same reason you think about McDonald’s when you’re in the mood for a burger.
Branding is what converts your business from a generic seller in the category to a recognized business with meaning attached to it, and it’s worth its weight in gold.
You want brand equity because, contrary to popular opinion, people don’t buy why you sell (see Simon Sinek’s TED talk). They just simply buy the brands they know and remember—and like. But enough about this. I’m not trying to further confuse you with yet another branding definition.
So When to Brand?
If you were to look at a timeline of your business, the process of branding began happening to it as soon as you brought your product or service to market. Think about it like this—people have a perception of what you as a person are about, whether you try to influence it or not. In a similar fashion, buyers automatically assign meaning to products and businesses because it simplifies their buying decisions.
Starting from that premise, if you care about how your offering is perceived by your buyers, the moment to begin investing—time, money, and attention—in your brand is yesterday! But since yesterday, today, or as soon as possible are not helpful time metrics exactly, consider the following two (very ambiguous) development stages in a company’s life. Most of you will fit into one of the categories below.
1. You’re a startup
New startups are born every day. But each day, they also die by the hundreds. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that your startup’s brand is the sole most important element in your business strategy because it simply isn’t. But brand is an undeniably fundamental aspect of your business’ long-term growth, internal and external.
Many entrepreneurs start throwing money at the first designer they find to get a logo done as soon as they have an idea, but that’s a huge mistake. If you own a startup, the earliest you should consider hiring professional branding services is only after you have a business and marketing strategy in place. Do you know if anyone actually wants to buy what you sell (are you market-validated)? Do you know where your money will be coming from? What are your business-related costs? Who are your customers? What’s the competition doing? Will you be infringing on anyone’s intellectual property?
These may all seem like basic, instinctive questions, but you’d be surprised how many business owners omit to answer them thoroughly before committing any hard-earned money to branding efforts and live to regret it afterward. Before you spend any time, attention, and money on branding services, take the time to think through this. There is no point in having a brand done if you can’t keep the lights on.
And when that side is settled, it is quintessential that you invest in quality branding, not just spend on it. And no, I don’t mean that the more you spend, the better the result (although that generally rings true for startups up to a price point, after which you get diminished returns on your investment).
2. You’re not a startup anymore
You’re beyond the point of struggling to make it through the quarter. Your business is hitting its goals, things are going well, and you enjoy the luxury of foresight for years ahead without it making you feel like you have a gaping hole in your stomach. You probably already have a pretty good existing brand. Whether things are going well or they are not so sharp, there are reasons to consider investing in brand at every stage in your company’s development process.
If your business grew past infancy, it’s time to heavily focus on the long-term efforts connected to your brand, namely investing in building and maintaining the mental and physical availability of your brand. At this point, you have real data and perception to work with, so use that to your advantage. It’s a luxury startups can hardly afford.
Like I said before, people don’t buy why you sell something; they simply buy the brands they remember, know, and like. You don’t buy a Big Mac because McDonald’s donates to some cause somewhere, you buy it because you want a burger, and McDonald’s happens to be the first thing that comes to mind, and it’s a block away from your office (have you had enough of my burger talk already?).
If you find yourself beyond the startup stage, you are undoubtedly still ready to invest in branding. And now you can probably even afford to hire some very bright minds.
It’s common to think of branding as either something you do when you’re just starting or something you get done when your business goes through a big change (also known as a rebrand or brand refresh). But brand-building goes way beyond creating or reinventing your visuals. Begin by deeply analyzing the context around your brand and make sure that what you’re doing is actually aligned with what you are saying.
This will enable you to make objective, market-informed decisions aimed at growing your brand and not gut calls based on personal preference, which history has shown is often the death of brands.
Whatever stage you find yourself in, there are reasons to invest in branding—whether that is to establish your brand as a startup or to refresh consumer memories about your brand. Additionally, whichever position you find yourself in today, remember that treating your brand as an investment is a requisite. Lastly, remember that your brand should live and evolve with your business. You don’t just set it and forget it.
Article written by Marcus Tiplea