SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)
It is something of an understatement to say that most early-stage entrepreneurs have a lot on their plates.
“You focus on your product,” says Neal Roese. “You focus on your service, your overall business model, the plan to secure your funding.”
Stretched thin by such critical issues, many entrepreneurs set aside the work of branding—work that, at least on the surface, seems like it can be dealt with later. But what if prioritizing this piece of the puzzle could help other parts click into place faster?
Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School who studies the psychology of judgment and decision-making, believes it is never too early for entrepreneurs to focus on the customer and their needs.
“As you develop your branding, you move beyond the purely functional aspect of your product or service over to the psychological side,” Roese says. “And that’s really important for building a long-term, sustainable brand.”
Roese offers three ways entrepreneurs can incorporate early-stage brand management into their startup plans.
Entrepreneurs looking to manage their brand from the outset need to develop a clear sense of who their target customer is. How do they envision their future customer’s income level, age range, demographic characteristics, and purchasing habits? This information can then be used to create a psychological profile of the customer, which will help the startup determine what benefits their business can provide them.
“For example, is your customer a person who is adventurous, and if so, are you going to satisfy their thirst for exploration?” Roese says.
This is what allows you to define your brand’s “personality”—in short, how it would behave if it were a person.
“Establishing your brand’s personality allows you to cultivate a vision of where the brand is going in terms of what it is and what it is not. This helps startups anticipate future growth into other product categories.”
From its start in the late 1990s, Lululemon has defined its brand personality as fit, calm, and spiritually balanced. The strength of that personality has come to help the brand define the athleisure category, despite strong competition from established athletic apparel brands such as Nike and Under Armour.
“Establishing your brand’s personality allows you to cultivate a vision of where the brand is going in terms of what it is and what it is not,” Roese says. “This helps startups anticipate future growth into other product categories.”
Understanding your brand’s personality, and where it might go in the future, is especially key when it comes time to develop a brand design plan: choosing a color scheme, coming up with a logo, and naming and trademarking the company’s products or services.
Roese recommends entrepreneurs determine how those branding elements fit along a “general–specific” spectrum—and try to find a sweet spot between abstraction and specificity.
Being abstract can position a company for growth and a wider range of legal protections, but it also comes with the risk of vagueness or brand confusion. “There’s a chance people won’t know what exactly it is, and you’ll have to spend a lot of money to explain it,” Roese says.
At the other end, very specific branding will make it easier to understand, but may limit growth. It may also make trademark applications more difficult.
“If you’re just describing your service, you really can’t get legal protection because there’s nothing distinctive about your brand,” Roese says. “At the end of the day, there’s no simple solution as to how broad versus specific your brand identity should be. It’s a trade-off.“
One brand that found their sweet spot along the spectrum is Calm, an app that provides meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness programming. The app brings daily messages, stories, and music designed to soothe the soul of busy customers.
“The name Calm is somewhat descriptive, but it also has lots of room for the brand to grow,” Roese says. “At face value, the word calm means an absence of strong emotions, but it can also mean a lot more. It might refer to a nap. It might refer to a walk in the woods. Or it might refer to medication that sedates you. The brand can use the word Calm now to refer to meditation that is conveyed digitally by an app, but there is a lot of room for the brand to grow into new categories that share the same general theme.”
After a company’s launch, an entrepreneur’s job focus turns to finding ways to grab more market share. Having a well-defined brand can make that job easier by helping customers recognize and remember your products, even as you scale into new markets.
Here, consistency is key, Roese cautions.
Aer, a San Francisco-based startup that makes hybrid computer/gym bags, has kept the same brand font and similar visuals over the last two years, even as its product line has expanded to include carry-ons for travel, work bags, and a variety of outdoor apparel.
“You know instantly who the brand is for: They’re targeting young people who live in cities and use public transit,” Roese says. “Their visual identity has remained pretty consistent, while they also work to deepen the emotional resonance of the brand.”
Airbnb, which initially focused on enabling travelers to rent others’ rooms and homes, has evolved into a lifestyle brand that gives travelers the experience of living as a local rather than feeling like a tourist in a hotel. This expansion has included offering vacation packages and incentivizing hosts to provide concierge-like services and recommendations on local activities. Yet the company’s branding materials, from its logo to the look and feel of its online platform, have remained consistent, giving customers a sense of familiarity even as its products and experience design have changed.
“If you have taken the opportunity to think through what the brand ought to mean, on an emotional level, then you’ll be in a position to capitalize on a great tool for marketing, which is consistency over time,” Roese says. “Airbnb hit upon the psychological idea and then stuck with it as they grew into a business that is still hospitality, but now has many different instantiations of hospitality.”