Strategy for Start-ups and Beyond

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In this episode, I talk about brand strategy for start-ups. 

Brand strategy is an overused term in the branding industry. I discuss what makes for a good brand strategist and how they can best support businesses. 

Show Notes

Sometimes, design is what's needed. Other times it's support to understand which segment to target and how to discover buyers' wants and needs.

When working on brand strategy it is essential to be aware that there is a world of difference between the actions you need to take for a start-up to those you would take for an early-stage business to those you would take for an established brand. The work differs, not just because of the size or stage the business has reached but also due to the reason that the business is seeking your support with its brand strategy. 

 I discuss:

  • The different brand strategies
  • Proof of concept
  • What makes for a good brand strategist
  • The different needs that start-ups and early-stage businesses have
  • Why choosing names and identifiers needs to be informed by intellectual property law.

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Shireen: Hello, and welcome to Brand Tuned, a podcast for people like you, marketers, designers and founders looking to build a great brand that's differentiated and distinctive. It's hosted by me, Shireen Smith, intellectual property, lawyer, author, and marketer.

Brand Strategy for start-ups

Brand Strategy is a much-used term in the branding industry. In essence it’s about diagnosing the situation a business is in, and then devising a strategy to achieve its objectives. For a start-up one of its objectives is likely to be that of winning in the market, another will be to raise awareness that it exists.

I know from personal experience that some designers mention brand strategy in their quotes as a standard element of their service, regardless of the brief. For example, when I wanted to introduce a visual hammer for my brand. I got two quotes from designers, both of whom mentioned ‘brand strategy’. Yet the designer I engaged didn’t even have a conversation with me before creating some designs.  His designs consisted of a new logo and visual identity not just a visual hammer. He advised that it wasn’t possible to just add a visual hammer and that what I needed a new visual identity. According to him it wasn’t possible to design a visual hammer based around my existing logo. I soon parted company from that designer and found someone else who was readily able to create what I wanted based around my existing logo.

Essentially, there was no need for brand strategy because the strategy was in the brief. I had already diagnosed the situation and set objectives and decided the strategy. What was required was to simply implement and design a visual hammer to fit with my existing logo. The fact is, the term ‘brand strategy’ is bandied around so much that it’s damaging the very concept of strategy.

Different brand strategies

There is a world of difference between the actions needed to create the brand strategy of a start-up to that of an early-stage business or of an established business. The work differs, not just because of the size or stage the business has reached but also due to the reason the business is seeking support with its branding.

Say you’ve been engaged to work on the brand strategy of a start-up, what you need to do will be impacted by the ambitions of the founder, and the intrinsic needs of the business and the  surrounding context.

New businesses can change radically in the early years, so that a few years after starting, many look nothing like their initial manifestation. Sometimes this can be because they get market feedback on their concepts and their ideas develop in new directions. Other times it’s because their initial ideas don’t work so that they have to pivot into a different business altogether.

A good brand strategist will be able to identify what designs are appropriate for a given business. For example, a start-up’s needs will differ depending on the stage the business has reached. Is the business hazy about what it does, and who it does it for? If so, the start-up needs time to find its feet.

Until the business has figured out which of its services will appeal to buyers and attract the most revenues it needs to focus on testing its business concept. Its strategy should involve NOT spending too much money on anything, be it designs, or intellectual property protection until it’s clarified what demand there is for its products or services. A low-cost design would be good enough for such a business.

Even where two businesses are at the same stage of their journey there will be significant differences between them which impact the approach they need for their visual identity.

Proof of concept

When starting a new venture, it’s key to first prove the concept. It’s important to establish whether there is a need for what the business will be selling. Is there a market for the goods or services? 

The personal circumstances of the founders will impact every aspect of the venture. One person may be testing the market as a side hustle, while another may have raised funds so is testing the concept using other people’s money, while yet someone else may be putting their life savings into the venture. Such a person needs to make the business work to have a livelihood. So the degree of risk taking involved will impact the intrinsic needs of the strategy.

Some founders might be aspiring to be the next big thing, so they’ll be raising investment, trying out new business models, and experimenting to some extent. The venture may be a kind of game for certain founders. They won’t be afraid to break things, try out new approaches because a few failed ventures in a place like Silicon Valley is considered par for the course on the path to finding a scalable business model. Such founders will be looking to validate their ideas. They’ll try different approaches, create a minimum viable product to get feedback on and they’ll keep improving the product. Fund raising is a big feature of their lives.   

A founder who needs to create a viable business out of the gate isn’t going to be so experimental in approach. The consequences of failure could be devastating for them if they were to fail. Their business venture needs to be made to work. So, they’ll deliberate over decisions and move carefully to avoid mistakes. But even the most cautious plans will need to change and evolve in response to market conditions. 

What makes for a good brand strategist

A good brand strategist who is sensitive to the needs of the founder will give guidance on how to reduce risks. For example, if the founder is an expert wanting to introduce a new product to the market, they would be well advised to offer consultancy services alongside the product even if they’re ultimately looking to create a product. It’s a lot easier to get paid for consulting services, so  consultancy could be the route to financing the product development activities. 

Brand strategists should consider the significance of the business to the founders and understand its financing. How is the founder funding the venture? How long do they have to make a success of it?

Businesses in the experimental/design thinking stage might well just need a temporary name and identity. Their ideas might change in response to market feedback. Until a business has identified its niche, and target buyer its positioning will be unclear. A business with an unclear positioning will be less successful. Therefore, a temporary visual identity would be the right approach to use. As far as intellectual property is concerned, the main issue is to ensure the business will not infringe on other people’s IP rights.

On the other hand, if there is an innovative business idea, adopting a temporary name may compromise the idea. So instead of using a temporary name some businesses need to use a trademarked name even during the proof-of-concept stage. For example, when Tesco introduced its  loyalty card scheme the concept of loyalty cards was novel and unknown. The main way to preserve the value that would be derived from such a concept, should the idea take off, is through its name. Therefore, opting for a temporary name would be a mistake. The idea might gain traction while the business is in proof-of-concept stage

Tesco’s choice of Clubcard as a name is an example of an extremely poor choice of name. It was incapable of functioning as a trademark with the upshot that every other business was able to copy Tesco and introduce their own versions of Clubcard for their members. They benefitted from the recognition that Tesco had garnered for the concept of loyalty card schemes. So, choosing a strong name is critical for certain types of concept.

An effective brand strategist will help a business to learn more about its market and which segment to target. They will have empathy and sensitivity to the needs of their client. The designs they create must be appropriate to the life stage of the business, the ambitions of the founder, and the intrinsic needs of the situation. 

A brand strategist who can offer the most effective support should not lose sight of the fact that even businesses that are funded still have a limited window of opportunity to make the business work. Nobody has unlimited time and money to pour into a business. Every founder’s funding will run out even if their livelihood doesn’t depend on generating an income from the business quickly.

Founders may need guidance to understand Lean Start up principles, so they avoid wasting money creating an all singing, all dancing product without first thoroughly understanding what the target market wants and needs. If they’re helped to create a minimum viable product, and to identify the right target customers to get feedback from, they will be able to iterate a workable product more effectively.

Difference between start-ups and early stage businesses

A major difference between start-ups and early-stage businesses is that early-stage businesses have proved their concept. I often work with such businesses. Many of them have been in business for 1-3 years and discovered what works. They often look to “rebrand” in the sense that they are ready to finalise their choice of name and to get a proper visual identity created for their business.

Whether they change their name or continue to use the same one, these businesses have proof of concept, so what they primarily need from brand strategy is to fine tune their thinking, but the focus should be on creating the right identity designs and website for them. IP protection should be part and parcel of the work.

I’ve noticed that a growing number of people are starting their own businesses in later life. Over-50s are actually apparently the new business start-up generation. Many studies have shown that businesses set up by the over-50s are more likely to still be trading five years later. They do better than businesses started by younger age groups. A 2018 study by Jones, Javier Miranda of the U.S. Census Bureau and MIT found that older entrepreneurs have a greater chance of success in their projects than younger ones. Their research found that the most successful entrepreneurs are in fact middle-aged.

Older entrepreneurs

Apparently 50-year-old entrepreneurs are about twice as likely to have a runaway business success as their 30-year-old counterparts. This makes complete sense given that older entrepreneurs are likely to have deeper knowledge of an industry. Also, they have more experience and larger financial resources to tap, as well as more social networks to mine for support in leveraging their business idea.

Knowing this means that if your client is such a start-up then you would do well to treat them as you would an early-stage businesses with a proven concept. They’re less likely to need business help, and more likely to need a good, permanent visual identity.

Apart from understanding the different types of client need, a good strategist should be skilled in marketing, design, and intellectual property. That’s because whenever you create a new identity, you’re creating identifiers. So, it is important to understand the legal aspects of distinctiveness. For example, instead of choosing any type of name, you need to choose a name that is aligned to the business’ strategy.

That means if your client is going to operate internationally say and will be selling a variety of different products and services, they’ll need a highly distinctive name. That’s why Zumba needed to rename itself from Rumba which would not have been suitable for its business plans.


When choosing identifiers such as symbols, characters, jingles, sounds, colours, shapes, and taglines it’s important to understand how the law of distinctiveness applies. The brand strategy should focus on how ownership over identifiers will be secured in the short term and the long term because it’s essential that identifiers are unique to a brand. The brand strategy should outline the recommended steps to secure  uniqueness in each identifier with a view to ultimately trademarking them.

The work involved in brand strategy differs depending on the size and scale of a business. Brand strategy for established brands is part and parcel of managing the brand. It is carried out by the marketing department annually as part of the marketing plan. The initial exercise will be more complex, involving the need to establish what awareness and associations the target consumer has to the brand in question, and also setting appropriate objectives. Generally, it is unlikely that the brand strategy would involve a rebrand necessitating a new name, or identity.

Whenever new identifiers are introduced, intellectual property is involved. Teams working on the brand strategy of established brands might only create a single new identity asset during a project if that. On the other hand, when you create a brand for a start-up or early-stage business you’re choosing a range of identifiers – perhaps there will be a new name, logo, tagline, colours, sounds and the like. So, those involved in brand strategy for early-stage businesses and start-ups need a solid grasp of intellectual property to do an effective job. That’s why the Brand Tuned Accreditation program that we’ve just introduced is aimed at new brands.

However, even those working with large established brands should understand intellectual property because the very fact that they only occasionally introduce a new name or other identifier means they are more likely to get it wrong. They may not understand the legal aspects of distinctiveness well enough to  choose appropriate names or identifiers aligned to the business strategy. They need to know how to choose  identifiers such as symbols, characters, jingles, sounds, colours, shapes, and taglines that are legally distinctive. And the brand strategy should include mention of how ownership over the identifiers is to be secured both in the short term and in the long term. That’s essential to ensuring identifiers remain unique to a brand.

They need to address what the brand should do to ensure it is uniquely associated to its identifiers. If they’re using a particular colour, or sounds, what does the business need to do to be able to own that colour or sound? This is something for the brand strategist or head of marketing to address. The company’s lawyers may not necessarily have the answers because corporate lawyers are not specialists in branding.  Ultimately, it’s the brand strategist who needs to understand Identity and Distinctiveness deeply enough to know when to involve lawyers and what to ask those lawyers to do.

That’s why I’m thinking of introducing an identity and distinctiveness training course for brand strategists. If this might be of interest to you then do please Register your interest to find out more by visiting the Training page on the website or looking at the show note for a link

In conclusion, if you're working on the brand strategy of a business, remember that there is a world of difference between the actions you need to take for a startup to those you would take for an early stage business or for an established brand. The work differs not just because of the size or stage the business has reached, but also due to the reason that business is seeking your support with its brand strategy.

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