Blue-print for Indian start-ups building a brand
Building a brand is like raising your child, you want to instil the right values (company vision & values), lay the foundation (clear brand positioning, strategy and characteristics), give the right resources to nurture them (invest in brand activities), equip them with life skills (ATL, BTL activities, diversify channels to entrench the brand’s personality in consumer’s mind and in the market), guide and mentor them (brand consistency, custodian, mould the brand over a period of time).
But as I have interacted with many start-ups and businesses, entrepreneurs have usually asked me how to start investing in the brand, when or what is the right time? Especially at an idea or seed stage with limited resources and capital, investment in the brand would seem as a low priority or burning cash. The exception to the below criteria would be for large businesses, corporate companies and industrial companies that should have ideally worked on their brand and its management along with communication and marketing.
So here I offer a broad version of a blue print which Indian start-ups can consider for various stages of brand building aligned to their phase of business growth. It is a bit generic yet I have tried to be specific about criteria so exceptions will be there depending on the type of start-up or/ and its offerings.
Type of Start-up:
Tech/ IT start-up, service oriented: A typical IT, technology start-up which does involves B2B business rather than B2C then typically I would recommend having a good branding and design language for its communication. This will require some investment initially but if the business picks up, the start-up can standardize the brand to make the company consist of its communication and marketing. If the IT start-up services fall under B2C, then you will need to consider good branding to brand building till you pick up the revenue. Few start-ups in this area are Kuliza, Hashed in.
Tech start-up, product oriented: Approach will be similar to the above category. The exception would be that for a product oriented start-up targeting B2C business should look at the complete brand building and management process in line with the revenue growth. However, you need to have the quality brand foundation for your product to make sure the brand building effort made letter is consistent and worth it. I generally recommend a start-up with a solid product should invest in a good brand building process to reap the benefit which involves creative marketing for B2B clients. Companies such as FreshDesk, Capillary, Sapience, Kayako would fall under the category.
E-commerce/ online business, service oriented: E-commerce or online businesses catering to B2B and B2C market will require a good brand foundation and brand building for effective marketing of it services, especially in B2C market. With the revenue margins might be slim, so it would be better to invest in brand building at different stages and manage it effectively. The B2B start-ups in online business cannot underestimate the brand building value as they are competition and other businesses like customers have to be engaged and retained. The businesses for B2C market are the aggregators or marketplaces that provide the platform as a service for other businesses offering a product/ service. Start-ups like MJunction, TATAb2b, Pumpkart are for B2B market and Housing, Grofers, Swiggy, Housejoy, Makemytrip, Cleartrip, Holiday IQ, OLX, Ola for B2C market are few examples.
E-commerce/ online business, product oriented: E-commerce/ online businesses that work with products, which means they are a private label or, at least, have a private label along with the platforms hosting other brands/ businesses. These are businesses that also involved with manufacturing and invest in their own product. Innovation, design, effective marketing is critical as the business can grow fast with the scope of high margin. The businesses in B2B market as generally at a large scale and high capital investment and their brand management exercise is might bigger than start-ups considered in the B2C market so I would not focus on B2B. The start-ups in B2C market are typically Myntra, Flipkart, Chumbak, Zivame (launching private label soon), Urban Ladder, Pepper Fry, Bewakoof, Fresh Menu. These brands are highly depending on quality branding and its future management. This is where very few brands in India that have done a good work in the brand building. This is also the sweet spot for Indian market where customers are most comfortable to pay higher price or premium for products rather than service.
Non-Tech business, service oriented: These are small scale or start-up businesses, that are private owned, no- tech, traditional services industry in India. This a broad spectrum of start-ups across sectors such as Food & beverage, Hospitality, Travel, Printing, Healthcare/ Hospitals, Transportation, travel and so on. These start-ups should ideally look for good branding at an early stage but the entrepreneurs generally don’t understand or not willing to invest capital in it. They consider branding and brand building at a much later stage when they have achieved some scale.
Non-Tech business, product oriented: These are also private owned, smaller scale start-ups, non-tech products that are across industries/ sectors in India. They are in sectors such as Fashion, Food-beverage, FMCG, Automobile, Electronics, Furniture, Sports and so on. These are start-ups that have to heavily invest in brand building and creative marketing as it needs to engage and retain customers. The traditional entrepreneurs still don’t understand brand building in India but new generation entrepreneurs and professional turned recognise the need, at least, to invest in the brand.
When to invest?
- Seed stage: Majority of entrepreneurs in start-ups and businesses in India don’t have the capital to invest at seed stage of their business. Although I have highlighted above a certain type of start-ups that do need to invest in brand building at the seed stage as they launch their product or service in the market. With few sectors that are highly competitive, many start-ups that are trying to create a presence in the market do not survive after a point due to poor branding. But my tip would be for entrepreneurs that have a strong product, private owned, or service that is niche or has the potential of high margins SHOULD invest some capital on quality brand creation (Stage 1). They need to kick start the brand on the right note to get the positioning accurate. They can at a later growth stage consider more investment in brand building and might even rebrand themselves so that they can focus on quality and creative output for brand and marketing.
- Series A: Probably a safer bet for entrepreneurs to invest more in brand building. After a successful series A funding, they will consider quality brand building from rebranding, a brand foundation to managing it as they scale up. Generally, start-ups in this stage of business should reach from brand foundation to building stage to help the brand get more visibility, deliver creative/ innovative marketing and specific brand experiences to engage the target customers. They need to hire the right branding talent that can provide not just creative ideas or designs but also strategic brand inputs to lay the foundation of consistency. This would be a critical stage and also an early advantage to create a quality brand.
- Series B and beyond: Series B or C round funding might also be for certain start-ups the right time to invest in their brand. It depends on their stage of business growth or need for product or service to be revamped for effective marketing and engagement with target customers. Many start-ups by this stage have created a customer base or captured a market share, have fine-tuned their product/ service positioning or pivoted and settled with their business model that they can invest more in brand building. So from here, start-ups need to slowly scale their brand management and fully integrate a brand team and processes that are aligned with the business operation.
Beyond Series C or D funding, depending on the capital infusion and business success, the entrepreneurs or founders by now are away from brand building efforts and there is an internal team or an agency retained to manage their brand. This stage is also critical for start-ups and businesses that are growing in team size (maybe above 30 or 60 members) to practice a brand culture unique to its business. This is also the time to focus on innovative/ creative brand and marketing activities which build on the existing brand equity that can retain customers on a sustainable basis.
How shall we invest?
Building a brand is always a collaborative approach and the entrepreneur/ founders need to clearly recognise and adapt to it. They need to find the right consultant or firm that can align the business vision and be given the flexibility to build the brand creatively and strategically. As mentioned before, it is important you find someone who is good in bringing brand strategy and creativity together as a powerful combination. How the below steps of brand development is applied differs for different types of start-ups and contextual.
As we spell out a simpler version of the brand building process, I would reiterate that the process can be contextual as per the company/ startup involved. Processes can differ for different start-ups with specific product or service offering, depending on the sector. A general approach would be to consider a collaborative process to engage a creative agency or a brand team/ consultant, adopt design thinking tools and use the combination of strategy and creativity.
Stage 1 – Brand creation
This is the starting stage for any entrepreneur to consider the business having an identity. It starts from the brand logo, stationery, templates, a design language that can be translated further for the website, retail, packaging or other communication material. I do recommend that the brand strategy and positioning (especially for private owned, online/ e-commerce, non-tech start-ups in product or service) should be completed before the logo so that it can lay the right creative way forward or strategy for the brand logo and design language.
However, many start-ups after series A or certain business growth consider the brand strategy more seriously, invest in it and also consider rebranding their business.
Stage 1 milestone:
– Brand identity
– Design language
– Templates and collaterals (brochure, website, packaging)
Stage 2 – Brand foundation
After some business growth, product/ market validation, the start-up is able to secure funding in series A or B to start looking at its brand more seriously. As mentioned before, the founders might consider quality brand strategy at this stage and establish all the brand and design elements required to standardize the brand. The foundation needs to include the final brand identity, a complete package of design language for web, mobile, print or retail that can bring the consistency to the brand. This stage will require a brand manual that becomes the key reference guide for internal team and external agencies to use and to align with the brand strategy ensuring delivery of creative brand/ marketing activities (ATL & BTL). By this time there are enough brand collaterals and creative agencies are getting on board. Depending on the business growth, onboarding and liaison with creative agencies can be considered at the next stage, brand building.
Stage 2 milestone:
– Brand strategy & positioning
– Brand & design standardization
– Brand manual
Stage 3 – Brand building
This would be a stage where the business is growing steadily, there is a high frequency of brand and marketing activities that needs a sustained output of creative engagement of customers and sales. Assuming the start-up has a good marketing budget after a series B or C round (for B2C product brand it could be above 2 Crore or a B2B service could be above 30 lakhs, really depends on the type of start-up), the brand and marketing activities can have specific goals for the calendar year. This is the stage where all creative agencies should be screened, tested by doing few pilot projects and are onboard with the start-up on retainer or regular project basis. Depending on the start-up and its team, they can have a single agency managing all scope of work in brand and marketing deliverables or they can manage multiple agencies that are specialised for specific activities. Both models have their own advantages and disadvantages so the start-up needs to make a relevant and contextual decision of the choice to make it a successful collaboration. The main categories of creative agencies involved in brand and marketing activities are a design firm (for all design specific communication, collaterals or disciplines of space, product, retail), advertising agency, PR agency, digital marketing, content management, brand consulting firm, events agency. We are now witnessing more specialised agencies, niche services for specific brand and marketing activities. It is extremely critical to screen and find the right creative agencies that understand and interpret your brand effectively. Start-ups need dynamic agencies that are always current, innovative in approach, consider short and long term impact of their deliverable to retain their customers. I will write a more detailed post separately on how to select quality creative agencies. By this stage, the start-up should hire a strong brand and marketing team to manage the activities efficiently.
Stage 3 milestone:
– Screening creative agencies and test them for pilot projects.
– On board the creative agencies depending on your business needs.
– Hire brand managers, design and marketing team that are in-sync.
Stage 4 – Brand integration
As the business is scaling up, by this stage the start-up has an internal team at least with one brand manager, 3 – 10 member marketing team has vendors and agencies on board where markets and customers are aware and recognise the brand for its quality product or service. Depending on the nature of the business, the company might have a separate design team for product or/and for UX and a marketing team. The company needs to make sure that a brand and design culture is established which create rituals and symbols for all teams to practice and bring them closer to the brand culture. This is the phase where the founders have completely handed over the brand management to the internal team. At this stage, the brand and marketing team with its new creative agencies should have completed at least one calendar year of ATL & BTL activities. The internal team can also start measuring the brand value, its impact and focus on building better brand equity through their activities.
Stage 4 milestones:
– Have 5 – 10 members in brand & marketing team.
– Focus on building brand and design culture
– Completed at least one calendar year of brand and marketing activities with internal team and creative agencies.
– Started to measure brand value.
There are no set rules for the blueprint but hopefully, these simplified steps will help an entrepreneur to assess and consider the brand building as a focused exercise for their business growth. Please do consider that this model is also contextual to specific start-up business requirements, the type of sector they are operating or the target audience they are catering towards. It is best to find a quality consultant or firm that can guide the entrepreneur.