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Seven lessons to build your startup brand

Over the past year, I’ve worked with tech startups at MaRS to help them improve their customer and talent brands. Adopting a research-based approach, I developed a three-step audit process to identify aspects of their brand that could be improved and to uncover points of differentiation in their brand against competitors.

Through this work, I began to notice common challenges that tech startups face in developing their brand fundamentals.

I’ve found these seven key lessons—explained in detail below—have the most impact for startups:

  1. Decide what you stand for and then put your stake in the ground.
  2. Know that while technical specs help create the value of your product, they are not a complete value proposition.
  3. Speak to your customers in the way they’d like to be spoken to.
  4. Recognize that your company’s heritage matters to your customers.
  5. To guide customers through your brand story, prioritize your online messaging effectively.
  6. Know that you don’t need big-name customers to build and communicate credibility.
  7. Recognize that your customer brand and your talent brand must enhance each other.

These lessons all correspond to challenges that startups frequently face and they are a natural part of building your brand.

This is messy and challenging work, but worth it. While over time you may have to adjust your brand, dedicating time early on to establish your core brand will set you up for long-term success.

1. Decide what you stand for and then put your stake in the ground.

When establishing their brand identity, startups need the discipline to keep a laser focus on their messaging. When you try to say too many different things to too many different groups, you’ll confuse your audience. They won’t know where to focus, they won’t have a solid takeaway and they won’t gain confidence that your offering will meet their needs.

When startups struggle with this, it often because they have not chosen the specific customer segment and problem they are targeting. In other words, the startup is still trying to be everything to everyone.

As Krista Jones, Managing Director of Enterprise at MaRS, once put it, “You need to decide what you stand for and put your stake in the ground.” The “stake in the ground” is communicating decisively what you stand for. This allows you to focus your messaging, inspire confidence in your customers and start building an authentic relationship with them through your brand.

2. Technical specs help create the value of your product. They are NOT a complete value proposition.

Tech founders often are not marketers at heart—they are scientists and engineers who are experts in their field. I have found that my clients can very easily communicate the technical specs of their product and how they compare to the competition. But they also struggle to translate those technical specs into actual value statements.

The technical capabilities of your product can be easily translated into the functional benefits of your product. Functional benefits speak to the utility of your product and can include some of the technical specs, but, to really build a strong and compelling connection with your customers, you must communicate the emotional benefit of your product.

From my research, emotional benefits are often overlooked by highly technical products, offering you a significant opportunity to stand out against your competitors. Emotional benefits can difficult to identify, but are rooted in one core question: What positive feelings do customers gain by engaging with your brand?

Example: A MaRS startup shared a story with me that they received a postcard from one of their clients (a small business owner) who was on vacation with their family. It was their first vacation in years because they had been so worried something would go wrong with their store-front hospitality business. Thanks to the services the startup was providing to them, they had the peace of mind that if something did go wrong, things would be resolved quickly and efficiently. Delivering peace of mind is a powerful emotional benefit of our client’s product. It speaks to the customer’s personal and emotional needs.

3. Speak to your customers in the way they’d like to be spoken to.

In order for you to communicate your value to your customers in a compelling way, you need to understand what they value and how they communicate to each other. As Nathan Monk, Director, Growth Programming at MaRS, explains, startups often focus on building customer communities as a key part of their marketing strategy. But if the aim is to build or join a customer community, you need to approach that community in a way that is authentic and relatable.

Once you’ve zeroed in on a specific market segment to target, it’s time to gain a deep understanding of just who your customer is. The best way to do this is to speak directly with your customers. Through conversations with them, you want to learn:

  • Do they understand the technical jargon within your industry?
  • What other related products do they use?
  • What aspects of your brand will they relate to the most/least?
  • What do they value? What motivates them?

4. Your company’s heritage matters to your customers.

Your company’s foundation story is critical in providing authenticity to your brand identity as it shows where the values and vision of your company came from. I have found that tech startup founders tend to undervalue their natural story, often because they compare their story to those of their competitors, as opposed to considering how their heritage relates to their customer community.

Example: One team of founders I worked with discounted their foundation story because their background was working in industry as mid-level managers, as opposed to being thought leaders in academia. They were competing against companies who had notable academics on their boards, and they felt that their foundation story lacked credibility when stacked up against their competitors’. What they had not considered was who their customers were and what they saw as credible—i.e., people working in the industry versus in “ivory towers.” Their foundation story therefore had the potential to speak more directly to customers than their competitors’. Because they had worked in similar industry roles, this team of founders could relate better to the problems their customers were facing and were more authentically part of the customer community than their academic competitors.

Heritage builds authenticity and credibility. Even if your heritage story is short, it still speaks to your larger vision, helps you connect with your customers and gives context about how and why you started your company.

5. To guide customers through your brand story, prioritize your online messaging effectively.

Through the design of your website, you have the power to guide your website’s visitors (i.e., prospective customers) through your brand story. There are many different design elements you can use to optimize user experience, but the one I tend to focus on most in relation to brand is how messaging is prioritized.

Messaging can be prioritized in many ways. For example, the location on the page plays a role (top left corner of the page vs. middle bottom of the page), as does the font size (larger vs. smaller). As customers navigate your website, they will take cues from how you prioritize your messaging. What are you signalling as being important? If the prioritized messages pique their interest, they will move on to the secondary messages to learn more. Thus your prioritized messages must captivate interest and help customers reach key relevant content as quickly as possible.

6. You do not need big-name customers to build and communicate credibility.

One of the most common brand challenges that startups face is communicating credibility, particularly when they do not yet have any well-known customers. Credibility is all about building trust with your customer and making your brand relatable and authentic. So what I advise startups to do is to focus on building up the overall brand story in order to help those early customers feel confident in your brand. You can do this by:

  • Publishing thought leadership content on your website (white papers, blog posts, etc.)
  • Sharing partnership stories (e.g., from advisors, related organizations, technical partners)
  • Discussing any awards and/or industry events you have won or are participating in
  • Telling the overall history of your company
  • Posting leadership and advisory biographies

Simply communicating and reinforcing your brand story through different forms of content can help create a sense of trust for customers.

Once you do have big-name customers, you can add testimonials and case studies to further strengthen your brand story through their voice.

7. Your customer brand and your talent brand must enhance each other.

The fundamentals of your company’s brand reflect both your customer brand and your talent brand. Like customers, prospective employees want to connect with your values and your mission, as well as the benefits of aligning themselves with your company. There is no shortage of job opportunities for skilled workers in the Ontario tech community and this makes attracting and retaining top talent difficult. Just as with your customer brand, your talent brand is a key differentiator between you and your competitors.

For help in assessing your talent brand, check out the three-step brand audit framework. Talent and customer brands must strengthen one another. Your employees are a direct part of helping your company achieve your vision, and they should live and breathe the values you identify in your customer brand. While your employees are likely not going to the same demographic as your customers, they do need to genuinely believe in your customer brand.


By Deanna Schmidt