Where and When To Begin With Branding as an Early-Stage Startup?
A company’s brand and visual identity always comes after the business idea. But what most early-stage startup founders don’t know is when they should seriously think about branding and how many resources they should put into it.
For answers, I had a chat with German-born and New York-based, Saskia Ketz. Saskia runs a branding studio for startups and larger companies. She’s also the founder of Mojomox, a platform that helps startups create a modern logo and brand kit in three steps.
I asked Saskia for her thoughts on branding for new startups, who needs to be involved with branding, and her tips for getting branding right without spending too much time.
Watch our edited interview with Saskia or read the full chat below, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Why is branding so important for new startups?
Let’s start off by clarifying the word branding. So many people think it’s a visual or a tone of a brand. But really, it’s the strategy of a brand. What do the headlines say? And how does my company fit into the competitive landscape? And how do I want my target audience to perceive the brand?
But if you’re starting a tech startup, you usually haven’t found product market fit yet. You don’t know your exact target audience and how your product fits into the market, which then means branding and getting the strategy right, is actually not possible in this scenario.
How much branding is sufficient for a new startup? What do they really need to get the ball rolling?
Let’s say as a brand identity, your logo, your colors, and how the website looks, anything that looks halfway professional is good enough. You want to have a deck or a landing page, or even an entire site that looks like it’s clear and easy to understand. That’s often about finding the right headline and a screenshot that explains the benefit of your startup and positioning. So overall, it’s just not so much about the looks.
I’ve spoken with investors who actually get a little bit suspicious if everything looks like a million bucks. They want to see that the team works lean on many levels, including the graphic design portion. That doesn’t mean that you have to make your assets look unprofessional. It just means you want to make them look simple and clean and organized.
However, this is different for non-tech startups and more companies that are in the B2C space. The B2C space is often where the entire product might just be the branding. So what does the packaging look like? And what is the story that I’m trying to sell and tell? A B2C startup might have to do a little bit more branding.
Who from the team should be involved in the branding process from day one?
There are many ways to do this. And it’s related to how you think as a founder about the participation of your team and how much time you want to spend.
The more people, the longer the process. I’m personally a fan of working lean, and that means only the founder or founders are involved in the branding process.
Many founders have no experience when it comes to branding a company. Do you recommend they pay for expert support from the start, even on a limited budget?
The real branding strategy comes automatically as you work on the company. It’s much easier to understand the different aspects of branding while you’re in the trenches.
My advice is to take a good guess at the beginning and then keep refining and shaping the strategic answers as you go. So if possible, don’t spend any money at this stage. Once you’ve found product market fit, then you’ll have the answers in place and then branding actually makes sense.
You’re known for telling startups that they spend too much time on branding and that it’s not important to get it right from the start. Why is that?
I think it’s just going back to product market fit. It’s the one and only thing you have to figure out when you’re at an early stage. And good branding is simply rooted in strategy.
If you don’t have the strategy down, your branding will be off.
Although you think startups spend too much on branding, you’ve also said that they shouldn’t design their brand themselves using tools like Canva. You’ve said they should focus on what you call “Black Dress” design. Can you explain what this is and what tools or services you recommend they use?
“Black dress” is just something classic that allows you to look professional on any occasion. It’s not going to make you stand out in any way. But it’s also not going to make you stand out the wrong way. It allows you to find investors and get your first clients that just look for something put together.
Of course, you can use any tool. You can use Canva, you can use many other tools. I just find that they often leave too much room for creativity, which then in return for non-designers, they often create assets that end up looking unprofessional.
I’m biased here, of course, but I recommend a tool that I created specifically for this use case. That is, startups that need a brand identity quickly for very little money. It’s called Mojomox and it allows people to design a modern, simple logo, or wordmark with a color palette in a few clicks.
What are some general tips that you give founders for designing their first logo and color scheme? What should they have nailed down before hiring a designer?
I think your first thing is to realize that your eventual goal is to stand out from the crowd, but still fit into your overall industry look. But to figure out what that means for your branding, you have to get a good idea of what your customer sees.
You need to have an overview of your competitor logos and colors and take screenshots and look up their websites, so you kind of get a sense of what their positioning is. And the second aspect is to figure out how you fit into that positioning. You have to figure out your own positioning.
You can make this a very complicated process with lots of charts and software. But in a nutshell, positioning is really one or two words that you want your audience to think when they think of your company. This doesn’t have anything to do with the product directly. But it needs to reflect some sort of aspect that your target audience cares about.
For example, Apple has one large campaign around privacy. The campaign showcases what Apple phones can be best at in its industry when it comes to privacy. They find that one word and they translate that into a campaign. You can do the same. You can translate that aspect into a logo and into a color palette.
Additionally, you want to move away from your competitors visually, so your customer can find you and identify you easily. Meaning, if everybody is using red but you realize you can say the same with neon green, you’ll pick the green.
What are some of the main mistakes you see founders make when it comes to branding?
The biggest mistake is simply that they spend time and money too early. And they often fold. If you look at the stats, startups often fold six months later. Or they pivot completely, which is also extremely common. Then branding needs to be redone entirely. So just by looking at the stats, you can actually tell that you don’t need to start at that point.
And the other mistake is that some founders are way too involved when getting their brand design and they try to make complex logos on their own for weeks, instead of just going out and hitting the ground selling.
Is there a rough budget you recommend that founders save for branding?
The percentage of how much a startup should spend on marketing varies highly. If you look that up, it’s anything from 10 to 40 percent. My recommendation is to spend as little as possible. The more tech and the less B2C your product is, the less you can spend on it.
But if your competitors look amazing and great design is important to your target audience, then you might have to spend a little bit more just to hit the table stakes.
Startups often change branding after they’ve been around for a few years, whether it’s just the color scheme, logo, or even a complete rebrand of the name. How do you recommend founders navigate whether or not they ought to change their branding?
It happens very often, so it’s not a big deal. I think founders often overthink this. It’s very simple. If the positioning changes, the product changes. If your target audience is not the same anymore, your branding changes.
For big companies, they usually make much smaller adjustments. But they also make these small adjustments over time. Sometimes, it’s not so apparent to people outside of the company. I think the shell logo transformation over the decades is a pretty popular image. I think if you zoom out, you can really see the evolution of the logo design in that case much more easily.
So you don’t need to be afraid you just kind of start over. It’s totally fine.