Branding is an oft misquoted or misunderstood term. At the most basic level, it involves visually or verbally communicating your identity or message so people know who you are – and hopefully remember you.

At the emotive level, it entails creating such a deep relationship with consumers or buyers that not having your product would be akin to leaving the house with one shoe.

During a focus group interview, I once asked a young snowboarder what he and his peeps looked for in a sunglass product. His response; “Strictly Oakley”. There wasn’t even a choice. In his category and age group, Oakley had so resonated in their hearts and minds that any other choice would be anathema.

There are, of course, other excellent brands. However, what Oakley accomplished through consistent innovation, forward thinking design, and a meaningful dialog with that consumer, was to transcend the basic need for eye protection to having a brand that reflected their very essence and being.

This is branding at its finest.

Why Branding Begins at Birth

At birth, a child immediately begins forming an identity. They even take on characteristics of the parents. From there, using John Locke’s “Tabula Rasa”or blank slate theory, the child absorbs the social and sensory experiences they have, be it from touch, sight, smell, taste, or sound. Birthing a brand is no different. A brand becomes a product of its parents. It needs to be fed and nurtured in order to grow. It’s your bundle of joy that you look forward to graduating into the big leagues one day.

What we often find, however, is that amongst the various requirements to launch a new product such as legal and R&D, branding takes a back seat. For example:

In addition to a product name, proprietary technology features need trademarks as well. All too often, products are launched with simple descriptions rather than with their own exclusive moniker that commands association. To accomplish this, have your marketing agency or naming specialist sit in on your product development meetings. Do it early and you will establish compelling points of difference. You may even find you’ve missed a few things.

Associated with naming is messaging. Perhaps the single weakest link I find with companies outside giants like P&G who’ve learned this lesson well is messaging. The reason is, “features & benefits” are pulled from dry PowerPoint bullets rather than from the creation of original language that stays with consumers.

For example, what’s more interesting?

“Reduces wrinkles.”
– or –
“Hydroderm formula nourishes skin while significantly reducing wrinkles.”

The right words have a direct impact on sales, especially when your competitor is touting the exact same features at store level. Be different. Be distinct.

We all know how Apple Computer’s commitment to design, both in function and look, helped them become who they are. As we look at the world around us, everything is designed. Even nature itself. Have you ever purchased a product, being impressed by the commercial or packaging, only to discover the darn thing doesn’t work or is difficult to use? We’ve all been there.

Design is integral to the branding and communication process. Both in function and aesthetics, it becomes the value and identity you present to the marketplace. Be purposeful. Be consistent. Invest. It will pay huge dividends and prevent unnecessary “reworks” down the road .

Application to Startups

Startups are a good model to illustrate how branding begins at birth as they begin with a blank slate. I should note, this applies to longstanding companies launching a new product as well.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed three types of startups.

  1. Idealistic
  2. Cautious
  3. Storm Troopers

Looking at this list, how would you define yourself?

For the introduction of this blog series, let’s start with:


Dream big, it’s said, and you may not reach the moon but you might land on a neighboring star – all good if you have the right spacecraft and enough rocket fuel.

I remember having a discovery meeting with a startup company who will remain nameless that essentially wanted to compete with i-Tunes and have a paid subscription service. Okay….I’m always up for a challenge. The CEO was a recent Wharton graduate. Young, ambitious and cocky. No problem there. The greats usually are.

Following a little research prior to the meeting, notwithstanding Napster, I came across a fairly new startup at the time called Rhapsody that was well-funded and offering their service for free to expedite customer acquisition. 10 minutes into the meeting, I asked the young CEO; “So, what’s in your plan to circumvent Rhapsody? Like a deer stuck in headlights, looking at his team, he responded; “What’s rhapsody?”

The rest is history. Embarrassed before his subordinates in the room, in their newly leased and furnished office, the meeting abruptly came to a halt – as did the service it later turned out.

Sometimes, even the most talented people can become so embroiled in the weight of a startup, they neglect the commitment to detail that got them started in the first place. As important, they can neglect nurturing the very thing that will ensure the future of their company – namely, brand itself.

Nurture brand as you would your R&D, developing your patents or finding key employees. Start early and don’t wait because – branding begins at birth.


Next in the Series: The Doting Parent

Leave a comment