Editor’s note: This guest post is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.
We’re in the midst of a startup explosion. The barriers to starting a new business have never been lower; the aura of the entrepreneur has never been hotter. As category after category gets disrupted, competition among this new crop of businesses has gotten much fiercer. It’s no longer just about taking share from established players – you also have to watch out for the three other startups with similar business models who saw the same opportunity as you did, and are launching at the exact same time. The difference of who prevails often boils down to brand.
When we launched Red Antler 11 years ago, many questioned the value of branding for a pre-launch startup. The pervasive attitude was that startups should be “lean,” they should establish “product-market fit,” they should iterate and test and worry about branding later. That may have worked in an era when innovation alone was enough to get people’s attention, and when “new” was enough to get people to care. But when incredible user experience design is table stakes, and when direct-to-consumer choices are popping up in every category, you cannot expect that success will just come because you have a smart idea, or because you’re offering better value.
We believe that the sooner founders start thinking about brand, the more set up they’ll be for scalable success. And when we say brand, we aren’t just talking about logos, colors, and fonts. Those are important articulations of your brand, and they help tell an overall story. But brand should be viewed as an organizing principle that guides everything a company does, internally and externally. A brand-led company is a company with clarity of purpose; a deep understanding of why it exists and why people should care.
What does this look like in tangible terms? There’s so much jargon in our industry, and so much confusion around what it takes to build a brand, that I’ll try to break this down as simply as possible. When we first start working with a new client, before we even think about typefaces, we start with a conversation around strategy. This does not mean business strategy, which our founders have typically already developed. Think of the business strategy as the story in your pitch deck – what your business offers, what problem is it solving, why is this defensible, how will you grow. The business strategy is an important input to the brand strategy, but it’s not enough to build a brand on.
The brand strategy, or positioning as it’s sometimes called, is the emotional concept that you want to stand for, beyond any single functional benefit. To use everyone’s favorites as an example, consider how Nike doesn’t stand for shoes, it stands for performance. Or Apple isn’t about electronics, it’s about creativity. Those are examples of brand strategy, which then informs the creation of the brand identity.
To use the example of one of our clients, when Casper first came to us, they had their business strategy. They knew they were going to disrupt the traditional mattress category by moving the purchase process away from the mattress showroom, and creating a direct-to-consumer brand that offered far better value, greater convenience, and of course, universally appealing comfort.
They had dedicated their waking hours (and some sleepless ones) to developing a mattress that could ship in a box and that was undeniably comfortable, but they didn’t want to be a “mattress company,” they wanted to be a sleep company. We looked at the competition, who were all stuck in the world of very functional, overly technical, pseudo-scientific benefits and trademarked materials, and we asked ourselves, why do people even care about sleep? It’s not for the hours they spend in bed when ideally they’re not even conscious. It’s for how they feel when they wake up. This insight led us to the brand strategy that better sleep leads to a more interesting life.
The brand strategy then informs how a brand looks, feels, and behaves – in other words, the brand identity. Brand identity describes the visual and verbal world of a brand: its name, logo, typefaces, color palette, illustration styles, photography, and messaging tone of voice. With Casper, we made sure in the early days to always embrace the duality between sleep and wake, offering glimpses of how sleeping on a Casper unlocked a richer, fuller waking life. This created a surprising world that moved far away from the traditional category images of people sleeping soundly in a dimly lit room. But even more important than any isolated design decision is how a brand makes people feel. It’s the connection you form with consumers by consistently grounding yourself in what you can do to make their lives better.
Sometimes people look around at the brand landscape today and their impression is that everything looks the same. If we only focus on the parts we can see, it’s true that there are certain design best practices, as well as trends, that influence a prevalent look. Of course, our role as a brand company is to continue to push the envelope and invent what’s next. But I also believe that a conversation centered only around aesthetics is missing the real meaning of brand, which is to stand for something that resonates in people’s hearts and keeps them coming back again and again.