Lean Branding for Startups

Starting a business is exciting for millions of people and, in a turbulent employment landscape, a necessity for many more. The result is a global movement of small startups with little funding and resources. To guide businesses to success, perhaps follow these insightful and logical calls-to-action:

  1. Get up and running with a ‘minimum viable product’, and start working out how you’ll earn money. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect.
  2. Give your business the flexibility to adapt and change in response to customer feedback.

Of course, many things need to be at least ‘good enough’ to launch any business, and branding is one of them.

Lean branding

From the countless articles on the web about ‘branding a startup’ a confusing picture emerges, blurred by personal agendas and vested interests. You could conclude that successful branding is hugely complex – scientific even – and only effective when founded on rigorous research and market testing.

Not so. Remember, this is a startup – you don’t know how things will pan out. All the research in the world can’t tell you who your real customers will be, or what will push their buttons. You’ll work this out as you go. Much like a business plan, a fixed brand strategy for a startup is a combination of guesswork and wishful thinking. For most, pre-launch is too soon to invest significantly in branding.

Generally, companies need just FOUR branding elements at startup stage:

  • A great name
  • A perfect dot com domain
  • A simple logotype
  • A professional website

Every startup needs a name, not least because you’ll be registering the company. You’ll want a great web and email address to match your business name, and you’ll need social networking accounts related to the name. You’ll want a logo for your smart website, and maybe a business card.

This is all most startups need, and here are some pointers:

1. How do I choose a name?

Business naming is tricky and subjective, and long essays have been written on the naming process. But here are two tips to set you in the right direction:

Avoid descriptive names

Say you’re a personal trainer. What’s wrong with calling your business something like Body Active Fitness? Everything. Everything is wrong with that. Familiar industry words make for bland, generic business names that are hard to remember and difficult to find online. You can’t build a brand on descriptive keywords.

Brand your business character (not its products or services)

Are you a serious, safe pair of hands, or a fun-loving innovator? Is your startup all about youth, or tradition? Are you the premium option, or bargain basement? Is it all about technology, or the personal touch? If you can identify the personality and style of your business you’ll be well-placed to recognise name ideas that would be a good match. And you’ll know when ideas aren’t right.

Go for names that SOUND like your kind of company. Forget logic.

2. What comes first; business name or domain name?

Inconveniently, it’s “both, at the same time”. A domain shouldn’t be an afterthought once you’ve found a name you love.

When it comes to domains, the .com still rules. It’s the default, and it’s international. So it’s the only domain you’ll need. A perfect .com signals authority, and offers the potential to ‘own’, even trademark, a business name.

If someone else owns the .com of your business name, the best you can be is ‘the other one’.

Avoid hyphens, add-on words, and flavour-of-the-moment ‘not-com’ TLDs like .agency, .pizza, .luxury, etc. They might look good, but can you can create effective brand names using them? Who knows.

If the perfect .com domain you want has been secured by someone else, you either need to buy it from them (if it’s for sale and you can afford it), or keep looking for another name.

You could approach the issue from the other direction; by looking through sites that sell domains. Google “brandable domains”, browse through the thousands of names available. Quality and pricing varies wildly and the volume is vast, so you need to know what you’re looking for (see point 1 above!).

If you’re looking to build a brand with value, you must work on the company name and domain name in parallel.

3. Do I need a fancy logo?

If you know an imaginative, affordable graphic designer who fully understands your business, then go ahead and have some creative fun. But for most startups, a brilliant logo is not required.

Most startups just need a smart, simple logotype.

A logotype is a name set in a distinctive, appropriate typeface. That’s all. No motifs, icons or swooshes. No concepts, no metaphors.

However, even simple logotypes can be trickier to create than they look. So most people will need a graphic designer to create a logotype. But get a recommendation; avoid those sites where you can get logos designed for next to nothing. This will only waste time.

Give your friendly designer a restrictive brief; don’t ask for their unbounded creativity. Just request three or four simple logotype options. If you want, you can get more creative later, once you have a clearer view of where your business is heading.

4. How do I get a smart website?

‘Web builder’ tools have come of age in recent years. So unless you’re technophobic or a klutz on PC or Mac, then most people can create their own basic, professional looking site. And anyone can manage their own content, even if help is needed with the set up and make sure the template is responsive – i.e. it will view perfectly on any device.

Branding a startup is more about avoiding mistakes than aiming to make things perfect. Think about it, but don’t agonise over it.

If you can afford professionals to get you a business name with a perfect .com, design your logo and build your site, then go ahead. But even then, you shouldn’t go too far. Don’t paint your brand into a corner.

Branding that retains the flexibility to ‘pivot’ is really important – and this means keeping things simple. If you have almost no money, there’s a lot you can do without professional help.

Taking a ‘lean’ approach to branding is more affordable, and makes business sense too.

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