Which fast growing start-ups didn’t take branding seriously? The ones we don’t know about. And the ones that eventually failed. With umpteen competitors springing up everyday and incumbent behemoths in each sector prying to swallow up promising new businesses, what a new business does on the branding front might decide if it survives and thrives or dies.

The story of two companies

Let’s take the example of YikYak and Whisper in the secret social media space — apps where users post stuff anonymously. These kinds of startups are particularly difficult to brand since cyber-bullying and hate speech are rampant.

YikYak, valued at $400 million in its heyday, ultimately shut shop after a string of unceasing legal challenges arising from online harassment. The company was sold for its parts for a paltry $1 million in 2017. In contrast, Whisper lives on despite the same problems. What was the difference between the two companies? YikYak failed to break away from the mould of an app that facilitated teen gossip whereas Whisper branded itself as satisfying a key human urge — to confess without being judged.

In an interview with Adweek magazine Whisper CEO Michael Heyward said, “You know you can go to the Sistine Chapel, which has little confessional booths, and people confess to their priests. This is an idea that has been around for many centuries—way before the Internet.”

Back to the drawing board

Creating a brand’s identity is not only about defining its look and feel. It is important to communicate to stakeholders what a company is about. A very useful model that can help us understand this concept is Kapferer’s brand identity prism.

Key elements of Kapferer’s model are:

Physique — This encompasses the distinctive visual features of a brand such as logo, colours, packaging and form factor of products.

Personality — How does a brand personify itself? For example, Airbnb could be a bohemian vagabond and Kingfisher had a work hard, party harder vibe back when it was the king of good times.Culture — A brand’s culture is its value system. You could say Tata is trusted because it always seems to put service before self. Nokia’s culture was sturdiness above everything

Self-image — It defines the quality of a brand that a consumer aspires to associate with. Your friend probably served Bira at her party because she felt it would make her look artsy and someone who likes to try out new stuff.

Reflection — While self-image concerns how consumers see themselves in a brand, reflection defines the demographics that a brand seeks to target. For example, Rolex projects itself as a C-suite brand while Fastrack identifies with a sporty, trendy youngster oriented brand.

Relationship — The last element defines the relationship between a brand and its consumer. When Swiggy instantly credits the cost of an order into a customer’s account after a complaint, the brand is establishing a relationship of trust and maturity.

All the above attributes stick on with a company. A start-up must create a mission statement in its early days to describe how each of these parameters would be defined. Doing so will help a young business navigate a lot of issues related to customer service, user experience, and business model in a consistent manner. While a company’s modus operandi might evolve with time, it’s very important that the brand identity remains consistent.

Storify your startup

“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”

Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO

Why do consumers buy one product over another? Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that 95% of our purchase decisions happen in the subconscious mind. While we do create a rational structure in our mind regarding a product with respect to its pros, cons, price and value proposition, the final decision is based on a hunch more often than not. This holds a significant lesson for branding: you need to appeal to a deeper instinct in the consumer to convince them to choose you over a multitude of others.

Enter brand story. Simply put, it is the overarching narrative around a brand. It might include a brand’s history, quality of products, customer experience, design aesthetics et al. The aim of a brand story is to forge an emotional connect with the consumer.

However, its importance goes beyond attracting a new customer for a startup. Your brand story might determine the fate of your venture capital funding. New York University professor Aswath Damodaran, popularly referred to as Wall Street’s dean of valuation, says that having great indicators of performance isn’t enough from a valuation point of view. There needs to be a coherent narrative that strings together all aspects of a business.

The founder myth

A young business might not have a great story to begin with. The way to fix that is to tell a breathtaking story about how it was founded. Take for instance Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. A Harvard student creates an application to compare looks of fellow college mates and overwhelms the tech systems of the world’s most storied university. Stuff of legends, right?

More interesting, if devious, is the story of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. She dropped out of Stanford University as a 19-year-old to create a technology that would enable blood tests with a finger prick. Silicon Valley worshipped her and billed her as the next Steve Jobs. Of course she helped create that narrative by mimicking his idiosyncrasies. At one point she was named the richest woman in America as Theranos was valued at $9 billion until the house of cards crashed as evidence of the tech being a bluff emerged. Caution: This is not an invitation to fake it till you make it but to illustrate the power of the founder myth.

Hack the world

What if there’s no interesting story about the founder to tell? In that case there’s another hack to create a good narrative about a young business — solving a real world problem. That doesn’t mean you pivot your company to make decentralization of the internet your aim like the company Pied Piper does in the show, Silicon Valley. You can always spot problems in local communities that your product can solve, especially in a country like India.

To sum it up

Brands like Coca Cola and Apple weren’t built in a day. Creating and sustaining a powerful brand image in the traditional style needs a lot of time and money — two resources that are generally scarce for even a fast growing start-up. Innovation is the key here. Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram are great levelers for young companies and established ones. While you certainly can’t rope in Kareena Kapoor as your brand ambassador, a viral video where a budding influencer plugs your brand could go a long way in amplifying it.

Lastly, it is important for start-up founders to appreciate that branding is a full-time job. When it is not possible to hire a good agency or an expert, you must find a person who believes in the business and is a good storyteller. Ultimately, delegating the job to a professional would be a great place to start-up the creation of a successful brand.

written by Shreesh Shankar