Crafting a brand identity is fun and it can skyrocket a startup's legitimacy. But it's hard. Especially if you're jumping into it for the first time without a whole lot of experience or direction. So here are some steps that I'll be expanding on later this week. This initial run is an effort to get these thoughts out of my head and on to something tangible.
1. Establish and define the brand
The brand is the gut feeling someone has about an entity. Without defining what this feeling is, it's impossible to craft visuals that are aligned with it. The route to this definition comes from asking a lot of questions, empathizing with who would love this company the most, and precisely detailing the personality of the company. Think of it as creating a movie character. You want to know them intimately.
2. Seek, steal, and repurpose
Visual identities are often relegated to what I call the "design aesthetic." The design aesthetic doesn't have a unique personality to it but has good command over whitespace and simple layouts. While there isn't anything wrong with utilizing those design principles, establishing an emotional connection is contingent upon a humanistic element. Something unique, tasteful, and appropriate. The design aesthetic is a fail-safe for those who do not have a deeper story or who are afraid to be something different. As such, they try to create something on their own and fall into the design aesthetic trap.
What's the antidote? Find inspiration (from a book, a movie, a place, another brand), steal as much as you can, and repurpose the elements for your brand. Something inspiring and impactful already out there, magic happens when you place it in a new context.
3. Establish visual elements
There are foundational elements in every identity build. Namely, color, typography, layout, logo, and subsequent elements like illustration, pattern, photography, iconography, and motion. Once a visual theme has been set, the task is now to apply that theme to these elements so there is a cohesive look to everything. It's been phrased before that any piece of collateral should be recognizable without the brand's logo on it. This is done by aligning and consistently using branded visuals.
4. Flex and be ready to adapt
Change is inevitable. Prepare yourself to move and adapt your visual identity as time progresses. New mediums will arise, styles will change, your company will change, and eventually, your visuals will need to as well. Be prepared to flex, experiment, and change.
I go on a run in the morning every Monday-Friday. I frequently pass by a woman who always seems to be loading her kids in her car for school as I run by her house. As she got in the car, she rolled down her window and said, "you should do crossfit!"
My response, "I like to keep it minimal."
What she doesn't know is that I've been to crossfit gyms before. They are expensive and truth be told, the workouts are outrageously intense. Could I do them? Maybe. But that's beside the point. The point is that it is a step I'm not ready to take and taking it would do me more harm than good. Crossfit is designed for people who are looking to go to the extremes of human fitness. While it certainly won't take me there (yet), I've got a good routine that is affordable, keeps me in shape, and that is patiently scalable.
The same principle applies to startups and developing a brand. While your brand is always there, since it's the gut feeling someone has toward your startup, you do not need a fully-fleshed out brand from the get-go. You don't need to hire a full-time designer, you don't need a flawless identity system, and you don't even need a formalized brand strategy to get started. There are many reasons for this but here would be the top three:
If you are getting your startup off the ground, you cannot expect that it will be perfect or that you will be successful overnight. It takes time. So when you hear people selling you services like design, SEO, digital marketing, business planning, and the like, ask yourself: "do I really need this to get started?" Chances are the answer is no. Those things are important and, if you can afford to do them, it would be worth it. But you do not need them to get started.
Caveat: this is not an excuse to release something you are morbidly embarrassed by. You should always do the best you can and be honest with yourself about the quality of what you put into the world. But do not bite off more than you can chew and have the fortitude to be patient.
Fishing in a small pond with no other boats around where the fish practically leap into your boat is better than fishing in the ocean.
Let's expand that analogy. Why would it be better? A couple reasons off the top of my head:
- Accurate bait/lure rigs
- Less competition from other fishermen
- Higher chance of contact
- No sharks or other things you don't want to catch
- Plenty of fish to keep you busy
In short, picking a small pond positions a fisherman to be successful.
The same is true of software brands and there is a marketing term for it known as positioning.
Positioning is a framework that was laid out by Al Ries and Jack Trout in their book bearing the same title. Without getting too far into the weeds, the premise is that the top three companies in a market category are the big players and that everything else is fighting over scraps. You are either known for something or you are struggling to make ends meet.
Back to the fishing analogy, because it alludes to the foundational piece of building a strong position within a market: choosing a small pond.
The pond in this case becomes the market category, choose one that is too big and your chances of success diminish. For example, accounting software is too big, unless you plan on competing with multi-billion dollar companies like QuickBooks. However, a scaled-down, specified pond could help here. Something like Accounting software for designers, a messaging app for lawyers, or a security app for watching your dog (thank you Furbo). By choosing a smaller niche, you can gain an advantage over the big brands trying to serve everyone.
Accurate bait/lure rigs:
This would be the same as good marketing and offerings. If you know your fish, you don't have to guess what they might want, you know. Designers want the ability to brand things like invoices and change the typefaces. A lawyer doesn't care about that as much, but it means the world to a designer. Conversely a designer doesn't need a robust amount of security in communicating with their clients, but a lawyer does. And a typical homeowner doesn't have a dog that would love to be rewarded a treat for being a good pet, but a dog owner would be thrilled!
Point being, you can provide things that make you irreplaceable if you know what the customer wants.
Less competition from other fishermen:
If you create something that is adored by a specific group of people, its hard for them to choose anything else. It's like getting a shirt made specifically to your sizing compared to something off the shelf. The same principle would apply to software, there is no substitute for something that feels like it was made for you.
Higher chance of contact:
If you stick in the pond long enough it's guaranteed something will happen eventually. Can't say the same about the ocean.
No sharks or other things you don't want to catch:
Bass fishermen don't want catfish. Tuna fishermen don't want reef sharks. Crab fishermen don't want anything other than crab. Why? Because they're aren't built for managing them. Knowing your pond allows you to have customers that will give you good reviews and use your product the way it was intended. It lays a good foundation for them to refer others to you and grow your user base.
Plenty of fish to keep you busy:
A common objection to positioning narrowly is that one might get bored or doesn't want to limit their user base. Mainly because they believe the market isn't big enough. The truth, if you can be highly profitable and grow a large group of folks who can't get enough of your product. Chances are, if there is 5,000 people on this planet filled with 8 billion, you can generate a solid amount of revenue for a $20 per month subscription (that's $100,000 MRR).
Furthermore, you will always find new needs this group wants, ways to help them out, and you can always scale up (far harder to go the opposite way).
Pick a small pond.