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  • Writer's pictureJohn Bell

Essential Branding for Startups And Small Business

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

The NextNow Digital (NND) Agile Marketing Canvas builds on the 4 Principles of New, Digital-First, Agile Marketing and simplifies marketing and sales planning for startups into four tools. The first is the Brand Print.

I am a big believer in the market power of branding and the value of great brands. My years at Ogilvy working on teams that managed terrific brands like IBM, Ford, American Express and Nestle served as a rigorous bootcamp to the best of brand-building. Now, I have condensed those processes into an essential toolbox for startups.

“You now have to decide what 'image' you want for your brand. Image means personality. Products, like people, have personalities, and they can make or break them in the marketplace.”
- David Ogilvy

Branding is more than making your products or services memorable and differentiated from other offerings. Brands embed an impression in people’s minds appealing to their emotional and rational sides. They improve consideration and selection of your products or services and help you compete on value vs. price. Great brands drive stronger financial results.

Startups and small business can gain the advantages of strong branding, as well. So much has been written and accomplished by the greats of branding like David Ogilvy, and the current generation of brand leaders like Brian Collins of Collins, Daryl Travis of Brandtrust, and David Aaker of Prophet. Often, this top brand thinking remains out of reach for many small and mid-size businesses. There are many agencies who have built on this foundation, however, and delivered terrific brand-defining programs for local businesses. Some can be a bit complicated.

There are some new ‘best practices’ around brand-building, and small business and startups can leap ahead by embracing them.

It’s about the experience: Today, brands are articulated through experience as much as messaging. The way you onboard a new customer, the checkout process in your ecommerce store and interactions with a salesperson are all demonstrations of a brand experience.

It’s about the customer and the data: Brands are increasingly defined in the minds of customers via their experience with and exposure to a brand. Now, there are more ways to listen to customers, query them and align a brand to their rational and emotional needs. There is more data to work with.

It’s about what you as a business owner hold dear: It is still up to an organization’s leadership to articulate what matters to the brand and just what the promise will be to customers and stakeholders. And while brand definition always had to be highly efficient – short on words – now that is doubly true. Crispness, relevance, relatability and value all matter 10x today. Businesses who do not take time to understand their own brand and then articulate it consistently and repetitively in everything they say and do, will be missing a big competitive advantage (or competitive necessity)

The (ever-so-simplified) Brand Print

Here is a tool, a single “canvas” that helps small businesses and startups define or refine their brand promise. It builds on the foundations of branding yet simplifies the process. Its brevity is intentional. A smaller and newer business has fewer team members and departments to align and embody the brand – therefore, there is less of a need for complex systems to align a big organization.

This is a place to start. This is an approach to make it simpler and quicker for a brand owner to articulate the promise and ensure it infuses all communication, all experience and the growing internal team within a venture.

Business-at-a-glance: This should be a reminder, a grounding. If you have tackled your Business Canvas, this is likely just a copy-and-paste. We cannot lose sight of who our customers are and what we actually “sell” or deliver.

Brand Personality: This falls into the “KISS” category – ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ Many of us have participated in brand development workshop after workshop and reinvented ways to get at the same thing – e.g., “if your brand were a celebrity (car, animal, food), who would it be?” Think about the values of the organization that are important to you and the team. Articulate the voice, tone and imagery that bring that to life. This is your opportunity to decide what is important to your business and to be intentional about how your brand behaves.

Narrative Platform: This is the great, simplifying idea. Born from the intersection of public relations and classic brand-building, the narrative platform is particularly useful to small businesses as it brings focus (Get more background on the Narrative Platform here). By reducing the brand value proposition to three-to-four themes or ideas, this becomes easier to repeat again and again. Consistency and repetition are key to becoming memorable – especially when your media budget is slim-to-none.

The Narrative Platform requires some customer and market research, as well as a collaborative work session with key business leaders. That’s how you make sure you have the right inputs and the right buy-in with the results.

Here’s what the Narrative Platform delivers:

  • An efficient way to define the brand and value proposition.

  • Articulates how the brand creates value for customers.

  • Aligns all marketing, communications and sales teams & messages allowing them to reinforce each other.

What it includes:

  • 3-4 themes that articulate what is important to your brand. If prospects knew and believed these things about you, they would prefer your brand. These themes drive the development of all content in marketing and communications.

  • A Key Narrative statement which summarizes what the brand believes in; what your POV is. It brings the supporting themes together.

The Brand Print “canvas” is intentionally reductionist. It documents a great way to get a startup or small business on its way to creating a great marketing and sales strategy that delivers results. It can serve as a foundation into a bigger brand development engagement (names, identity, style guides).

Next up: NextNow Digital (NND) Agile Marketing Canvas: The Marketing Strategy



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