The branding lessons followed by every successful startup

In 2004 Lego was all but bankrupt and its target audience, children, had fallen out of love with it. The company faced extinction. Playmobil licked its lips. Fast forward to today and Lego’s revenue has gone from $6.7bn to $55bn Danish krone. It has five stores in London alone, one of the world’s most recognisable logos, and a catalogue of film, game, book and clothing merchandise. Its audience, moreover, now includes adults, whether the adults admit it or not.

Lego’s resurgence was the result of a monumental rebrand, not a miracle – though, as the lead strategist of a rebranding agency, I’m inclined to say that this is a distinction without a difference. 

At nearly 100 years old, however, Lego had a leg up

Startups must do everything from scratch, from fine-tuning their product to breaking into their desired market. Branding can often be pushed to the sidelines; conventional wisdom says that startups shouldn’t even think about it until they reach a certain revenue, for example, or number of employees. In fact, I believe it pays to think about hiring a branding agency from the get-go. To that end there are a number of branding lessons to which every successful startup should take heed.

Create a cohesive identity

There’s no rule of thumb. Context is everything. If your startup’s market is already saturated, it makes sense to create a brand that distinguishes you from the rest. In other words, unique selling points aren’t unique just to the product. Both Apple and Microsoft sell computers, but which of the two focussed earlier on design? If you’re struggling to penetrate a market, branding – even something as simple as a branded investment deck – helps create a cohesive identity. This is especially useful when branching into multiple markets; a distinctive brand can serve as an umbrella. Perfection is recognisable, and perfection is lots of little things done well. Why not do them earlier than the competition? To incorporate these little differences up-front is to treat yourself to an advantage.

Consider the durability of your brand

Consider how to maximise your brand among your main audience. Then think down the line about potential new audiences, i.e. which market directions you’re likely to take. Significant growth can sometimes mean outgrowing your original identity, so it’s wise to build one robust enough to weather change.

Choose a brand agency that aligns with your values

Startup founders have their arms full and may struggle to discern the best branding agency for their purposes. Fortunately the decision can be made simpler. First, think about which brands you like, which you don’t like, and why. Allow your team to collaborate: an informed opinion is a prudent one, and if you’re able to tell the agency straight away the kind of look, tone and messaging you desire, they can help your own brand become the object of someone else’s desire. This ties in to collaboration more generally. Different branding agencies work in different ways. At Notepad, for example, we value solid, friendly and communicative relationships with our clients, whereas some clients may prefer to be let alone. Ideally your values align.

Why not do it yourself?

There’s a lot to be said for self-sufficiency. Not so much for hubris. It may well be that a startup founder has a good eye, a knack for slogans or a weekend photography hobby. But a successful rebrand can take months, even years, and founders are susceptible to tunnel vision, blurring their ability to make the right branding decisions. Writers need editors for the same reason.

A branding agency can bring a fresh pair of eyes and ears, keeping track of a target audience and delivering much-needed respite to startups mired in stakeholders, internal benchmarks and subjective opinions. We offer clarity. We constantly push each other to find the best answers, solutions and angles. We establish a creative standard for which start-ups alone may have neither the vision nor the capacity. This is certainly the case at Notepad, where our energy and ambition becomes that of the client’s.

A good brand is not possible to remember but impossible to forget. And the key to achieving that is a good agency, working with startups from research to strategy to launch. Picking the right one at the right time could mean the difference between obscurity and immortality.