How Startups, SMBs Can Think About Brand Strategy

Figuring out what your brand and marketing strategy is challenging but exciting.

A brand strategy is the blueprint for your business that describes, among many other things, what differentiates you from other businesses, how you should communicate inside and outside your organization, who you should communicate to, and how you are going to share your vision with others.

We talked with John Corleto, a brand strategist with experience in global consultancies and start-ups, about why brand strategy is important for SMBs and startups, where he gets his inspiration from, and handy tips for creating your brand strategy from scratch. Below is the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

1. Why is a brand strategy important for SMBs/startups?

The biggest value of a brand strategy is that it brings clarity to your business. When you are a startup, you have infinite choices ahead of you and this means you must make infinite decisions about your market, product, service, or target audience. A brand strategy acts as a filter for all your decisions, helping you create focus about the value you bring to your customers and stakeholders, giving you an understanding of competitors as well as what makes you different as a business. A brand strategy can be a great tool for internal decision making, recruitment, and even communicating with investors. It is important for bigger businesses too, but as a startup or a SMB, the gains to be had are high.

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2. What are some of the main considerations to arrive at a brand strategy?

The process of coming up with a brand strategy can be elaborate depending on the problem you are trying to solve. The best way to start this process is by thinking with different mindsets. Some of these are:

・Understand your core business

What is the goal of your business, what makes it unique, and how are you going to deliver to your customers? You may be inclined to come up with a very eloquent mission statement, but when you are starting out, it is important to source all the information about your business. By talking to your team and surfacing hidden insights about your business, you get a better understanding about it.

・Understand your target audience

Who is your target audience? How do they behave? Are there special quirks about them that make them different from others? Having knowledge about this helps define your communication strategy.

・Analyze your competitors

Who are your core competitors? How are they communicating with their audience? This will help a business understand what differentiates them. For example, is your business a disruptor brand who wants to change the industry, or a challenger brand who wants to challenge other established businesses with a new innovation?

・Look for inspiration outside of your business

An important aspect of formulating a brand strategy is something that most people forget about. This is to look outside of your business for inspiration. Inspiration can come from the arts, philosophy, literature, and even science. Some of the best ideas on how to improve a product or service come from these lateral areas. Many of Apple’s brand stories came from Steve Jobs’ knowledge of typography. A good brand strategy will pay attention to the visual aspect of branding but also go beyond and use a broader narrative that can connect with deeper human values.

Nudie Jeans, for example, takes sustainable fashion to new heights. Focusing on high quality and the idea of a pair of jeans growing more beautiful with wear and tear, the brand offers customers the chance of getting their Nudie jeans mended for nothing in ‘repair’ shops.

・Figure out which information you are going to use in your brand strategy

Once you have all the information, the next step is to find overlaps and commonalities. The idea is not to choose everything, but to make a decision about what you will use in your brand strategy. To make important decisions, especially concerning creativity, you need a small core group with varying skill sets, but also need creative bravery to make a bold decision. It’s a good idea to have a small group of key decision makers from different parts of your business approve the brand strategy so that the decision-making process doesn’t get diluted with too many opinions.

3. What are some of the tools/data sources you use to inform your work?

The most important thing is to make sure you plan your research questions ahead of time! A broad range of resources are available to us today - the internet, books, insight reports, etc. Reading widely and taking inspiration from different sources fuel a good brand strategy. There are paid insights reports available in the market, but as a startup or SMB with limited resources, the internet is a good place to start.

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4. What are some of the challenges you face on a regular basis?

People can sometimes be afraid to make a choice. It can be difficult to say no to options so as to keep your options open. But to arrive at a good strategy, you have to narrow down the options. What you choose not to do is as important as what you decide to go ahead with. One of the features of a good strategist is to be able to make decisions and reflect on them to fine-tune your ability to respond to similar situations in the future. This helps you understand what works and what doesn’t and use everything you learn in evolving the brand strategy.

5. Do you have some tips for a startup or SMB who are starting to think of a brand strategy?

Building a brand strategy from scratch is a really exciting process and I’m glad you are going on this journey. These are some of my tips:

・Branding can be a useful tool right from the beginning

It can truly influence many decisions that have a direct impact on the business. When I was teaching on an entrepreneurship course in a university in Sydney, it was eye opening how many entrepreneurs were able to refine their product or service based on the work they carried out for their brand strategy upfront.

Don't lose sight of other parts of the business

When thinking about a brand strategy, it’s important not to lose sight of other processes or aspects of the business such as finance, manufacturing, creative, etc. Keep communicating with all the key members of your broader teams.

Keep a fresh perspective

Brand strategy involves thinking about the business and the customer using different lenses. You don’t have to be a brand strategist to think about brand strategy and put it into practice!

For our premium users, we offer a 45 minutes session with a brand coach. You can sign up for a session with John Corleto here.

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