Shaping a startup’s visual identity is a complex process. And it's usually longer and more expensive than it should be. After hearing many horror stories from our new clients, we’ve decided to write a brief guide of everything you need to know to face your startup branding challenges with the right mindset.
In this post, we’ll share:
- Why startup branding is different from corporate branding
- Common startup branding mistakes (& what to do about them)
- Our visual branding checklist for startups
- A look at brand kits & how to create one that works for your team
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Disclaimer: Throughout this article, we use the concepts of “branding” and “visual identity” interchangeably. While branding goes beyond visual identity, visuals are a key component. And the term “branding” is commonly used to refer to visual identity design.
Why Is Startup Branding Different?
On average, developing a visual identity for an enterprise can take between 4 and 12 months. This is usually due to:
- How many stakeholders are involved
- The need to dive into the brand’s history and vision
- Potential applications
- The need to strategize on a global scale
But startups are different. And, depending on the growth stage they’re at, they may require different branding approaches.
For instance, a startup that’s just building their MVP will be operating under different conditions than a mature startup, or one that’s investing heavily in growth after just finding product-market fit.
A pre-MVP startup doesn’t need a $50k brand identity. Why? Because the vision for the product isn’t properly developed yet. And leadership isn’t yet certain on how to connect with potential customers or solve the problem they’re after.
Meanwhile, a company that has already found product-market fit may have a small number of applications to work on, but a solid vision for the product.
At Postdigitalist, we usually work best with startups that have already found product-market fit. That’s why most of our partnerships begin shortly after series A.
Regardless of whether it has this sort of specific experience, your branding agency of choice should be aware of the startups’ lifecycle and the challenges that each stage entails.
Common Startup Branding Mistakes (& How to Prevent Them)
We’ve already covered the basic differences between “conventional” visual identity design and startup branding. So, let’s dive into common branding mistakes that startups (and agencies) often make.
These mistakes are:
- Beginning to design too early
- Believing that branding choices have to be definitive
- Not sharing assets with the rest of the team
- Working on too many applications, just because “they’re necessary”
- Not worrying about brand differentiation
- De-prioritizing branding until there’s a tight deadline
Let’s dive into each of them.
Beginning to Design Too Early
Some startup founders hire branding services too soon. But some service providers may start designing too early in the branding process.
Hiring branding services too early would mean worrying about visual identity before starting to shape the product. Brand designers can help you express your product’s identity visually, but they can’t make up a product from thin air.
What to do instead: Invest in a brand MVP that serves as a foundation to iterate upon in the future, but focus on product development first.
Additionally, it’s very common for designers - especially those with very limited experience and budget, to start producing designs as soon as possible. They present logo options within 48 hours after signing their work agreement. Speed is essential when working with startups. But that’s simply an inefficient way to do things.
What to do instead: Make sure your potential branding agency spends time researching your sector and analyzing your goals before beginning to design. The first deliverable should never be a logo or application. Research and strategy should come first.
“This Has to Be Definitive”
Some brand fundamentals (such as the general characteristics of a logo and the brand’s color palette) last forever. Look at Coca-Cola. But that’s rarely the case when a company’s just getting started.
And, in a fast-paced sector, visual identity shouldn’t be written in stone. It’s okay to iterate and it’s okay to change.
So, while you should keep some of the most recognizable elements of your brand (your logo, for instance), don’t be afraid to mutate and change as you grow.
What to do instead: Go for a vendor that takes an iterative and modular approach to branding. You want a solid foundation, not a strict commitment carved in stone.
Closed Source Branding
Some agencies bet on their clients not having control over their brand’s visual assets. But that’s just not the way to do things.
You can’t take true ownership of your brand if you don’t have the design project’s source files. Collectivizing assets can also help you make your marketing and sales teams less reliant on your designers.
What to do instead: Make sure your branding agency provides you will all the source files you need (+ a solid brand kit).
Don’t add applications to your project without a clear use case. It’s natural to want to go overboard and get dozens of assets designed. But that’ll only add costs and complexity to your project.
What to do instead: Look around you, talk to your team, make a list of the applications you know you’ll need, and prioritize them.
Brand differentiation is key for making a lasting impression. And it could even prevent some annoying occurrences, such as users being unable to distinguish your app’s icon from your competitor’s.
Some sectors (such as fintech) are particularly prone to a lack of differentiation. This usually happens when:
- A niche has “tried and tested” branding formulas
- The product or brand message is tightly associated with a color (e.g.: eco-friendly = green)
What to do instead: Have a clear idea of what makes you different and don’t be afraid to experiment. It pays off.
“Branding’s Not a Priority Right Now”
Focusing on design too early may lead to a wasteful and inefficient design process. However, some startups don’t work on their visual identity at all until there’s a big deadline coming up.
We’ve been there and done that. These projects may have amazing results, but they’re carried out under stress. And stakeholders are forced to make what feel like permanent decisions, at speed.
What to do instead: Even if you’re not ready to invest in branding right now, gather references and build an awareness of what your competitors are doing.
Visual Branding Checklist for Startups
We’ve covered why startup branding is different and why projects fail. So, now let’s dive into some concrete steps you can take to build your startup’s visual identity the proper way.
We recommend you:
- Research the market
- Set communication priorities
- Clarify your brand message
- Develop the pillars of your brand identity
- Develop test applications
- Create a visual brand style guide
- Design marketing materials
- Monitor brand performance
Let’s dive deeper!
Research the Market
What are your competitors doing? What are market leaders doing?
Analyze why leading brands’ visual identity works, and where your competitors are failing.
For instance, if all your competitors have similar color palettes, and a market leader is characterized by a strong use of an unconventional color, you know what to do.
Set Communication Priorities
Last year, when working on an investment platform’s brand identity, our client made it a priority to keep a “clean” look-and-feel that alludes to technical precision rather than human intervention. No stock pictures, no hands, no characters. Using marketing argot, we could say that the brand had to transmit high proficiency and low warmth.
What do you want your visual identity to transmit, more than anything else? What are non-negotiables?
Clarify the Brand Message
Define the company’s unique value proposition and set clear messaging.
In some cases, your branding agency will be able to support you on this endeavor. But ideally, you should reach out for branding services already knowing what will be the core of your marketing message.
Develop the Pillars of Your Brand Identity
Before moving forward to applications, develop the pillars of your brand identity.
These “pillars” include:
- Your logo
- Color palette
- Layout & composition principles
- Shapes & iconography
Create a few applications to test whether your approach is actually applicable.
These applications should be low-cost and easy to iterate upon. So, we recommend creating:
- A social media post
- A display ad model
- A pitch deck cover
Create a Visual Brand Style Guide
Outline how the brand will be visually represented across all platforms. A brand kit or visual brand style guide will help you to keep your brand consistent and maximize buy-in.
We’ll explore this asset later in the post.
Design Marketing Materials
Once you’ve got the pillars of your brand figured out, and you know that they work, it’s time to develop your marketing assets.
This stage could involve anything from a couple of social media graphics to an entire website. And it can include several “micro-launches” or be a quarter-long effort towards a single, big launch.
Once everything’s ready to go, launch your brand publicly. We usually recommend one (of all) or the following initiatives:
- Sending a special edition newsletter
- Writing a blog post
- Conducting a brief social media campaign
- Going on a livestream with your design team and explaining the process
- Crafting an announcement video
Monitor Brand Performance
Branding isn’t done after launch - even if your brand’s well-received. Analyze customer feedback and adjust the brand strategy accordingly.
What Is a Brand Kit?
A brand kit is a collection of materials that help to visually communicate and reinforce a company's brand identity. It includes logos, colors, fonts, images, and other elements that define the company's look and feel.
Brand kits provide a set of guidelines for how to use the elements and how to create consistent, on-brand promotional materials. They are used to ensure that all brand communications are cohesive, impactful, and memorable.
Brand Kit Checklist
Let’s cut to the case.
Every startup brand kit should include:
- Visual language principles
- Your logo & alternative logos (if they exist)
- Where to find your logo in different file formats
- Logo usage guides (do’s and don’ts)
- Brand colors (in HEX, RGB, CMYK & Pantone)
- Color usage guidelines
- Your typographic palette
- Typographic combination examples
- Typography usage guidelines
- Where to find your brand’s fonts
- Iconography & images
- How to use icons & images
- How to choose icons & images
- Layout and spacing principles
- Composition guidelines
- Application examples
- Your designer’s contact info, in case any questions arise
Strategic Branding for Ambitious Startups
In this post, we covered some startup branding basics. But the success of a branding project doesn’t just rely on the founder understanding what to expect. It’s key to choose a partner that knows how to help startups instrumentalize their brand identity for growth. And if they’re great designers, all the better.