From startup to scale-up: How a right brand design strategy can help startup cross scale-up hurdles

The author weighs in on the nuances of brand strategy and why it is important to frame the value of the product/service in a relevant and distinct manner, while preserving the cultural ethos as the startup begins scaling up.

Startups are born fuzzy

Innovation-led startups come to life, suspended in the amniotic fluid of new possibilities. The nebulous cocoon formed by founders, seed-capital and an enthusiastic bunch of early adopters, helps them take form rapidly in this embryonic stage.

This fuzziness is the very pre-condition of innovation where ideas are half-baked, potential is gut-felt but not yet quantified and markets not yet serving the disruptive product/service. All the things that are taboo in the corporate corridors of scaled-up giants.

Yet, in their journey to scale-up, this very nebulous state must be transcended, and clarity must be achieved. A necessary rite of passage to achieve scale.

Startups die fuzzy

Scaling-up magnifies everything by 10X, the shiny brilliance as well as the dark spots and the grey areas. Startups that fail to align all the moving parts and tie all the loose-ends, risk tripping on their own shoelaces.

When analysing the top reasons why startups fail, CB Insights listed out these as the more prominent ones: ‘lack of market-need fit’, ‘getting out-competed’, ‘user-unfriendliness’, ‘poor marketing’, ‘ignoring customers’, ‘discord amongst founders’ amongst other obvious ones like ‘running out of cash’, etc.

These reasons point towards an ‘inward orientation of startup’ that has failed to align its offering to the other two key components besides its own product/service offering: the consumer and the competition.

Brand strategy as a ‘frame of growth’

The journey of a startup towards scaling-up is really a process that of getting sharper and acquiring clarity of purpose that is visible to all stakeholders: founders, investors, employees and users. Often in their effort towards scaling up, fuzziness persists and comes in the way of growth. Defining the brand strategy and using design to bring the thinking above can be a great tool to manoeuvre this transition towards a larger scale.

Brand strategy is all about framing the value of the product/service in a sharp and evocative way for the world, in a manner that makes it relevant to the potential users. At the same time, the value must be framed in a distinct way that makes it stand out from the clutter of other competing new ideas.

When viewed like this, a brand becomes a powerful tool that can provide a sharp ‘frame of growth’ to the startup. And a well-designed brand becomes a critical advantage rather than a ‘good to have’ veneer.

A well-defined brand strategy can unlock the frame of growth which makes the scaling-up journey far more effective by:

Seeding the core idea and driving familiarity:

Much too often startups build ideas that are powerful but not yet familiar to their users. Hence, it becomes critical to ‘frame the relevance and desirability’ of the offering thereby enabling users to see value in it.

Case in point: Airbnb. From early on, the brand ensured that its audience understood what the service offered and presented it in a way that was relevant and desirable to the audience across the world.

Framing value in a way that’s relevant and distinct

Brand thinking brings clarity by framing the product/service from the lens of ‘what will trigger adoption by users at scale in the face of competition’. Case in point: ALTR. I got to work on this startup at a point when it had already perfected its product and was now looking at scaling up its reach globally. ALTR is a disruptive, lab-created diamond brand, wanted to trigger large scale adoption of a product that would be pitted against the de-facto ‘mined’ diamond.

While the other created diamond brands fought the battle on ‘ethics and futuristic technology’, ALTR knew this was a niche pitch and wouldn’t be relevant for the larger base. ALTR brand strategy was to re-purpose the product in a way that was relevant and desirable to the diamond wearer. We positioned ALTR as a ‘brighter and bigger diamond’ vis-a-vis a mined one. By re-framing the product in a way that made it desirable, ALTR changed the game across markets by tapping into desire rather than logic.

Bringing long term value consistency to the tactical growth hacks

While start-ups get busy hacking new growth spurts by tactical use of marketing, a strong brand frame acts as a guard-rail to ensure long term value of the startup adds up over time and doesn’t dissipate. This is a key parameter that investors evaluate while funding the scaling-up phase.

A sharply defined brand positioning world will have a cumulative effect on the value of the enterprise. Case in point: Imaginarium. When we started working with this Indian 3D printing startup, it was looking at scaling up its presence to become an industry leader. The brand strategy took a bold stab at the future of an industry that was emerging at that time.

Imaginarium, today one of the largest 3DP firms, positioned itself as the creative platform that spoke to creators, inventors and engineering firms alike who wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible through design. Over time as the brand pivoted multiple times to harness the changes in the fast-evolving space of ‘additive manufacturing’, the robust brand strategy ensured the brand value accumulated with each new pivot.

Providing a frame that keeps the culture intact while the team grows way beyond its founding team

One of the key shifts a startup makes while scaling up, is to decentralise management and expand. This is a critical milestone and most of the founders are deeply concerned with keeping the energy and culture of the founding years intact.

Before the maddening pace of expansion sets in, a startup needs to clearly capture and articulate its internal culture and the vision that has driven them this far. This is usually present in the form of memories of early wins, instincts of its founders and other stories that form a part of the unsaid culture of the startup. Brand strategy can be an invaluable tool here that integrates internal DNA of the startup with its product/service offering while defining the brand personality and goals.

The value of brand strategy and brand-building lies in its ability to tell a compelling story that drives relevance, engagement and adoption with the brand. At a startup stage, Y-Combinator’s motto is ‘Make something people want’. If we were to re-write this for the scaling-up stage the motto should be ‘Make something people want… and frame it right’.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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