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Brand strategy for early-stage startups: start it now

How a Minimum Viable Brand fast-tracks the first steps of the business journey

 

By Vanessa Moulédous,  Branding expert, mentor & advisor to startups, ex La French Tech and Head of Brand of Global Sydney 2056’s centre city

 
Brand strategy for early-stage startups: start it now

A brand advisor and mentor to startups for 2 years, I have met enlightened founders, accelerators, investors who believe that the brand is the business growth engine. However, there is no unified view and little business literature on when to start the branding work as an early-stage startup. The mainstream opinion is to wait for the product-market fit: before that, it’s all moving pieces and hard to define a brand. I used to think so.


Until recently as I came across the “Minimum Viable Brand” (MVB). Now I advocate for the brand strategy work to start as of the beginning of the startup journey: used as the business compass, that minimum brand strategy provides a framework to guide all decisions and actions and fast-track the key initial steps - customer validation; key talents, customers and investors acquisition.


What is a Minimum Viable Brand?


The concept is not new – 2014.Simply put, a Minimum Viable Brand (MVB) is the “Minimum Viable Product” for branding: a lighter framework capturing the founder’s vision for the business while allowing flexibility to refine each Brand Platform element as iterations provide feedback.

An MVB is not a compromised methodology though. Startups are newborn businesses: their history, stakeholders and team are small; data collection fresh; the “sprint” technique at use and the brand strategy methodology adjusted to it. Cost and time are consequently cut short, the delivery remains professional.


The MVB unearths the answers to the usual key questions:


  • Why are you on Earth for?

  • How will you make it happen?

  • What people do you want to resonate with?

  • How different are you from the market?

  • What do you promise to those people?


And like the Brand Platform, an MVB is unique and relevant to the market.





Why is a minimum brand strategy key to early-stage startups?


An MVB allows to test the vision for the business:

Surprisingly, too often than not, startup founders don’t know their core targets. How to check the vision-market fit and potential then? An MVB helps validate a founder’s vision early in time and quickly pivot saving resources from a dead-end business idea.


An MVB fast-tracks the go-to-market:

The MVB crystallises the founder’s vision for the business. It acts as an internal business compass to drive decisions during iterations and minimises time and money waste.


An MVB offers early adopters a clear picture of the startup:

Early 2023, my mentee Kazakh Prometeo Chain System, a blockchain supply chain system startup, was struggling to convert B2G clients. Akdana Tleuliyeva, Marketing Manager, reckons that “Our people are tech people […]. At first, it may sound like the company was just focused on technology for

 the sake of technology […]. They couldn't find the right words to explain […] the reason why the company exists to the masses of people from different backgrounds”.


Through the branding work, the vision was elevated beyond technology and Prometeo presented as a disruptive player developing sustainable technology-based ecosystems to evolve business management towards transparent and autonomous decision-making. In December 2023, Prometeo was nominated as 'Best Newcomer' and 'Best Web3.0 Startup' on Euro-Asian Startup Awards 2023. “Even though we didn't invest a large amount of money into marketing, we started to receive recognition. Companies, potential partners, and useful networks started contacting us first. […] Branding exercises were a good investment that […] have the potential to be fruitful in the long term.” (Akdana)

An MVB attracts the core audience and paves the path to customer loyalty:

In the case of Resuit, a Canadian B2C/C2C fashion startup with a unique tech proposal, a misidentified target audience prove costly in a fast-paced environment. Resuit addresses fashion pollution through recommerce. Involving department stores buyers to recommerce unsold items turned out an uneasy task: sourcing new labels was their “Needs and Wants”, not saving the planet.


Attracting the right audience from the get-go also helps to build a community of loyal users. A window to the soul of the company, the MVB appeals to like-minded users and cements trust: “81% of consumers […] need to be able to trust the brand in order to buy from them.” (gaggleamp.com, January 2024). Early-adopters co-creating with the startup develop a strong emotional link with the brand and become brand advocates.


An MVB helps attract and retain the first key talents:


Take the following statistics:


·  “In 2023, impactful work was the most important attribute for employees worldwide (45%) before career advancement and compensation.” (“Leading job satisfaction factors globally 2023”, Einar H. Dyvik)But…52% of employees don’t even know what their company’s vision for the future is (wundamail.com, March 2020).


· “Employees who find a passion and purpose at work are more than 3x as likely to stay.” (Understanding Employee Statistics: The Key to a High-Performing Workforce, 2023, bucketlistrewards.com).

As a startup, the ability to share a relatable and actionable purpose and vision with staff is key. A Minimum Viable Brand acts as a translator and provides meaning to the first instrumental talents to face accelerated growth and new challenges.


An MVB sends a green signal to financial partners:


In the AIDA funnel, a strong brand creates preference over competitors, thus trust, repeated actions over time turning into customer loyalty – a potential for recurrent future revenues from a financial perspective.

The International Organisation for Standardization writes: “Intangible assets […] are arguably the most valuable, but least understood intangible assets are brands.” (ISO Standard 106681 for brand valuation). In a 2017 MASB survey, brand accounted for 20% of US S&P 500 companies' total valuation. Even at early-stage, the brand effort can be valued and increases valuation and power of negotiation during fundraising and lesser capital dilution for startups showing brand growth through simple metrics - brand awareness, perception surveys, referral rate or Net Promoter Score.


Slowly, the brand is moving into VCs and investors’ conversations. Keith Rabois, General Partner at Founders Fund said: “building an excellent brand from the very beginning stands out because it lasts”. Investors see commitment to the business long-term success in startup founders that show an understanding of branding and start the work early.

Investors take informed risks: the existence of a minimum brand is a safer bet.


Is a minimum brand strategy worth it the effort for a startup?

 

It is key. An MVB helps to test the vision for the business, guide the iterations, fast-track the go-to- market, offer a clear image to the market, identify the core audience and build strong connections with it, attract and retain the first key talents and investors and get more power during fundraising. “In today's perfect competition market , differentiation through product is impossible. Brand is the only way.” (Dr Nader Tavassoli, LBS). Product-driven startups with no Minimum Viable Brand are set to be one-offs.



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