Every startup has a "Brand Debt" – make sure you know yours

Jim Bull, the co-founder and chief creative officer of Moving Brands, asks: “How early do startups need to think about their brand?”

From the Series

When asking how early startups need to think about branding, you’ll generally receive one of two answers. The first school of thought says, “Get the product out fast and lean, see if it flies, and if it does, then worry about your brand.” The other and more current school says, “Your brand is your product. Tackle brand and design as part of your product, get it right early on, and there will be less to fix later and greater successes earlier.”

So where do I stand on this? Well, unsurprisingly, I’m a big advocate of getting your brand sorted early.

Brand influences every aspect of your business from your products and portfolio to your team itself.

Each and every touchpoint and experience you create is an expression of your brand. Brand is not a value added to your business, it is your business.

From experience, I’ve seen that brand can create higher numbers of engagements, stronger interest from press, higher valuations from venture capital and a better product experience for the user. On the other hand, I also know just how difficult it is to convince a tech-focussed, speed-focussed, product-driven entrepreneur that brand should be considered in their first product cycle.

But recently, I’ve found a way to reframe the conversation – I call it "Brand Debt".

In software engineering, there’s a concept called "Technical Debt". It’s a simple idea: when you’re writing code and you need to build something new or solve a problem, you can either solve the problem in its entirety (which would usually be time consuming and cost prohibitive), you can create a patch to cover it up, or you can let it slide altogether. If you go for the patch solution, you have created what is called a “Technical Debt” within the product, and it’s a debt that you know needs to be paid back in order for the product to function correctly as you scale your business.

There is good rationale for a patch, including the realities of deadlines, getting a product to market, and the availability of resources, but eventually, you will reach a crossroads where you’ll need to actually solve the problem. The longer you keep patching, the deeper the problem becomes.

Like all debt, you are making a trade-off that you know will likely cost you more later. Most founders often feel comfortable with the decision to take on Technical Debt because they assume money, resources and time will be available in the future to solve the problem properly.

Think of your business as having the same issues and debt in relation to your brand.

Brand is something that must be done, of that there is no question. In the same way that your software engineering must be right, your brand must be right too.

Despite the potential and far-reaching benefits of investing in brand early on, for entrepreneurs, branding is often the aspect of their business with which they are the least comfortable.

But, whether you choose to control it or not, every startup has a Brand Debt in the same way as it has a Technical Debt. Neither debt can be avoided and both debts will need to be paid in order to achieve success. Technical brilliance must be matched by a brilliant brand. So, instead of asking, “How early should I start thinking about brand?” ask yourself, “How happy am I having a large brand debt later on?”

And you shouldn't read this thinking that your potential brand debt will only be a small amount of money. Successful startups who do not consider brand early on end up spending a considerable amount of time, effort and money either correcting their brand or making their brand fit for purpose for its customers.

Spending money up front on your brand may seem counterintuitive, but ask yourself – from the beginning of your startup, do you want to build a brand foundation to aid growth or do you want to put it off for later? The former requires more upfront investment, but you’re more likely to be able to engage and grow from what you’ve started. If you choose the latter, there’s a good chance that when you do start to look at your brand, you’ll have a lot to undo. Cost will then become an enormous factor.

The new generation of the most successful startups are the ones understanding and balancing the books on both their technical and brand debt. And make no mistake, whether you like it or not, every startup has Brand Debt – the question is, when are you going to get yours under control?

Jim Bull is the chief creative officer and co-founder of Moving Brands an independent, global creative company with studios in London, Zurich, San Francisco and New York.


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