How to nail your startup’s branding: A practical guide

10 mins
How to nail your startup’s branding: A practical guide
In this article

Building a strong startup brand involves more than the obvious bells and whistles. Just because you’ve got a great t-shirt doesn’t mean your branding’s in the bag! 

Think of your brand as a unique set of assets or identifiers that helps you stand out, be recognisable and cut through the competition to win over your ideal customer. As savvy startups know, building these assets involves laying some strategic groundwork from day one – and a whole lot of consistent effort after that.

We asked our friends at Stella Startups to share some wisdom on exactly what goes into building a successful startup brand, how to create a strong brand with limited resources and how to avoid some common branding pitfalls.

What defines a strong startup brand?

Gemma Clancy, Stella Startup’s Head of Marketing, explains that startup branding is a holistic process that integrates the product position, brand essence and customer-centric messages a business consistently creates and conveys about its values and mission.

“A strong brand for an early-stage startup is defined by having a clear understanding of who the customer is and what unique value the startup can offer compared to existing alternatives,” she says.

This involves first gaining in-depth insights into who your product, service or solution is for and aligning this understanding with a distinct value proposition. 

Next, it's crucial to determine your startup's market positioning. "Positioning defines your place in a category," Gemma says, adding that it’s like the “real estate" your business occupies in the minds of your customers.

The goal of positioning is "to make your product a leader in delivering something a well-defined set of customers cares about." She emphasises that while you might not nail your positioning on the first try, the process of working it out is invaluable. It unites your team around a clear vision and sets the stage for more focused and effective efforts.

Next, comes brand essence. Bridget Cull, Stella Startup’s Head of Communications says, "For a brand to resonate with its target customers and gain space in their minds over time, it needs to show deep insight into its purpose in the world.”

“Your brand essence might be something like ‘joy’, but it's not as simple as plucking a word from the air and claiming it,” she adds. “It's about thinking deeply about four main things – what job you help customers with; what larger problem you're helping to solve; a core brand truth that conveys why you exist, and how you solve an unmet need of your target audience.”

Your messaging is the other piece of the puzzle and the glue that ties everything together. Bridget says that clear, customer-centric messaging that conveys your unique value to your target audience is essential. She notes that startups often get tangled up trying different takes on their messaging but should instead follow the mantra: “Repeated clear messages that resonate with your customers result in sales.”

She adds, "You often visit a startup homepage and don't understand what they're trying to sell or who they're selling to. It's essential to get crystal clear on what you do, who you do it for, and why it matters. Spend the necessary time behind the scenes to nail down these elements, and then craft consistent messaging to use and adapt for different mediums."

“By first understanding the customer and defining the unique value proposition, positioning and brand essence, it becomes much easier to create meaningful visual elements. This approach ensures that these aren’t just arbitrary choices but deeply reflective of the brand's core values and mission.”

[Image: Out-of-home ads for Aussie insurance startup BUTTER.]

Nailing your brand with limited resources

Gemma and Bridget shared insights on how startups can use limited resources to create impactful branding. 

Gemma emphasised the importance of clarity in objectives, saying, "Startups need to get really clear on what they're actually hoping to achieve with their branding and marketing. Otherwise, you'll end up with an endless to-do list." She noted that early-stage businesses often lack a clear vision of what success looks like and how to measure it, which can lead to resource-draining comparisons and unfocused efforts.

Bridget reinforced the need for focus, advising startups to avoid the "Magpie effect", and of copying the playbooks of bigger, more established brands. She adds, "If you have clear objectives of what you want to achieve in the short term with your marketing, you just have to stay focused on that, rather than getting distracted." 

Because many startups don’t have the luxury of a dedicated marketing function, delegation and outsourcing are two key tactics that can keep the marketing and branding motor running.

"While it’s ideal to have someone in-house driving your marketing strategy, this is often not feasible for early-stage startups,” Gemma says. “In the initial stages, it’s usually a team effort, with everyone pitching in and tasks being delegated around.” 

“Try creating a clear 90-day plan with specific responsibilities for each team member. It's also an option to strategically outsource certain tasks, like production and execution. Laying the marketing foundations early on makes prioritisation and delegation more efficient and keeps the whole team aligned.”

Avoiding common startup branding pitfalls

Gemma and Bridget insist that while navigating the branding landscape can be tricky for startups, it’s possible to save time, effort and resources by being aware of common pitfalls. Here’s a look at some frequent missteps and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Inconsistent brand messaging

We might sound like a broken record on this one, but that’s because it’s super important! 

Gemma notes that a major pitfall for startups is the lack of clear, consistent brand messaging. "For me, the number one pitfall is not having clear messaging that speaks to your target audience and makes sense to them," she says. “Without this consistency, it's going to be challenging to ever really build a distinctive brand and connect effectively with your potential customers.”

Bridget emphasises the need for consistent customer-centric messaging, saying, "While it's good to consider what works for different mediums, such as LinkedIn or your home page, be consistent with key messaging and visuals so you start to stick in people's minds."

She adds, "It's okay to tweak messages for space and platform, but base changes on a strong value proposition, not on a new or untested idea. Otherwise, you risk confusing and losing your audience."

Mistake #2: Not doing competitor and IP checks

Bridget also advises on practical steps for startups. "When choosing a brand name and visual identity, check that no one else in the market is using something similar. Sometimes, startups don't realise how similar they look to competitors," she says. 

Conducting a legal check for intellectual property (IP) is equally important. "Look into trademarks and IP early. You don't want to invest time and money into a brand only to find out you can't legally protect it," she cautions.

"It's as simple as doing a free search on IP Australia. If you love a brand name but find 20 others like it, you need to move on," she advises. Taking these early steps can save startups from costly mistakes down the road.

Mistake #3: Not investing early in branding

Gemma and Bridget agree that early investment in branding is crucial.

"It's a mistake to think you don't need to invest in branding early because you're not a big company yet," Gemma notes. The sooner you start, the sooner you can learn what works and build up your brand's presence. "Branding can seem intangible, but it's vital for long-term success," she adds.

[Image: Branding from Stella client Grapevine.]

So, which startups are nailing the branding game?

We wrapped up our conversation by asking Gemma and Bridget which startups they believe are excelling at laying solid branding foundations.

They highlighted:

  • Butter Insurance: Its outdoor ad campaign cleverly taps into the lives of its Gen Z and Millennial target markets, generating relatable stories and anecdotes complemented by the company’s distinctive tone of voice, brand name, and logo.

  • Grapevine: This startup collective made big waves with its launch, using clear, goal-driven messaging to rapidly build a purpose-driven community.

  • Aquila: Despite dealing with complexity and a diverse audience, this energy tech startup successfully developed foundational messaging that paved the way for consistent, understandable communication across its website and other brand assets.

Five quick tips for startup branding success

To help startups navigate the journey of building a strong brand, Gemma and Bridget share five quick tips to get you started:

  1. Understand what your customers need and define your unique selling proposition (USP).

  2. Clearly articulate why your solution is better than the alternatives and where you stand in the market.

  3. Ensure your messaging and visual branding consistently support your USP, brand essence and positioning.

  4. Once the foundations are in place, build your branding muscle by taking consistent, strategic steps toward your goals.

  5. Adopt an “evolution” rather than a “revolution” approach to branding, making strategic tweaks only when truly necessary.

Find more startup resources and tools with Airwallex for Startups

Effective branding is a crucial element in the success of any startup, helping you stand out, connect with your audience, and communicate your unique value. Having the right support can make all the difference.

Airwallex for Startups offers the tools and resources you need to elevate your brand and grow your business. Ready to take your startup to the next level? Sign up for the Airwallex for Startups program today and start blazing your trail to success.

Disclaimer: This information doesn’t take into account your objectives, financial situation, or needs. If you are a customer of Airwallex Pty Ltd (AFSL No. 487221) it is important for you to read the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) for the Direct Services, which is available here.

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