Branding A Startup: Positive & Negative Challenges

Any branding or rebranding project comes with its own unique set of challenges. Often those challenges can be satisfying puzzles to solve. They can motivate creative teams and encourage creative solutions. Sometimes though, you can face challenges that have few, if any, redeeming features. These are challenges that stifle creativity and make an agency's job more frustrating to complete. I like to think of them as 'positive challenges' and 'negative challenges'. Positive challenges are great, but the impact of negative challenges should be mitigated at all costs, and if possible removed altogether.

If you're starting a business and are considering working with an agency to create your brand, you might find it useful to identify the challenges that your business will bring to the table. This will help both parties to understand where and when issues may arise, and allow solutions to be considered before things get out of hand. For this article, I've compiled a list of some challenges, both 'positive' and 'negative', that might typically arise when developing brand identity for a startup.

Negative Challenge: The founder has no meaningful vision for the business

At its core, the process of identity development for startups involves taking the founder's passion for what they do, and finding an effective way of communicating it to the public that makes them feel equally enthusiastic. When the founder isn't inspired or driven by anything in particular, or if their objectives are shallow, building that framework of meaning that I mentioned above becomes almost impossible. This typically happens when the founder's only concern is what the business can do for them, whether that's money, job satisfaction or a sense of self worth. I'm not suggesting for a moment that founders shouldn't have these objectives (I think we can all recognise something there that applies to us), but if there's nothing broader and less self-centric then both business and brand can face problems.

For starters, no agency can develop a compelling brand identity based on such a flimsy framework. This leaves the agency with a miserable choice between developing an empty husk of a brand that has little meaning or character to justify its existence, or building a false sense of meaning on a foundation of made up values, which will quickly be identified as such by the public when the business fails to live up to its brand promise. Thankfully, most entrepreneurs have more compelling reasons for starting a business, although it can sometimes take some work to help them articulate what those reasons are.


Positive Challenge: The founder isn't sure what they want

Many designers would balk at me categorising this as a positive challenge, but hear me out. if an agency is working with an established organizing on a new brand or rebranding project then yes, uncertainty can be a nightmare. Dealing with several layers of management with varying tastes and agendas is pretty much my idea of hell. The agency ends up being forced back to the drawing board time and time again, with little direction and frustratingly weak justification. The agency may be in contact with a company representative who appears to be a single, rational individual, but behind that tranquil facade of rationality is a turbulent ocean of conflicting opinions and corporate politics.

When you're working with an entrepreneur, things are a little bit different. A lack of clarity about what they want from their brand identity is likely a sign of genuine personal uncertainty, rather than a symptom of incomprehensible corporate bureaucracy - this (hopefully) means that the business founder is open to recommendations, which in turn gives the agency a less restricted canvas on which to work. This can have positive effects for both parties, with the agency enjoying the satisfaction of flexing all its branding expertise in the development of a strong, clear and consistent brand identity, and the founder enjoying the commercial rewards of owning a brand with a unique and powerful voice.


Negative Challenge: Time is of the essence

Sometimes the pressure of a looming deadline can be a great motivator, but in my experience that's rarely the case with branding. Branding is a discipline that requires both creativity and sound theoretical knowledge, and every decision has to be justified based on multiple factors and requirements. This can be a lot to juggle, and time pressure generally results in these decisions not being given the careful consideration that they need. Brand identity development also benefits from being given the space for ideas to percolate, and the time for eureka moments to bubble to the surface.

Unfortunately, startups are often under a lot of time pressure themselves, and this can lead to difficult deadlines being set. If a startup has a big funding pitch in 2 weeks time and urgently needs a logo to help sell the concept, the less visible elements of brand identity will likely end up being compromised in the rush to get that logo out the door. Not only is this a challenge for the agency, but a hastily developed identity could raise all kinds of issues for the startup in the future.


Positive Challenge: The business has no heritage to draw on

This is almost an inevitability for most startups, so an agency certainly shouldn't be put off by it! It's one of the key things that makes a branding exercise different from a rebranding exercise. When you're rebranding, the challenge is to come up with something that feels fresh, but which also leverages the existing brand equity and heritage effectively. When you're developing a new brand, in a way you're creating that heritage - writing the first chapter in a narrative that will hopefully run for many years.

This can be a very challenging task, but also a very satisfying one. The key is to determine those elements that have driven the founder to start a business - values, life experiences, ideas, people, places, etc - and use them as a framework on which to build a meaningful story that customers will connect with. Not all of those elements will necessarily be explicitly present in the end result, but they'll be there somewhere in the brand's DNA for the lifetime of the business.


Negative Challenge: The founder is heavily influenced by another brand

A freelance designer I know once told me that she had to turn a client away because he insisted that his logo had to be identical to the Red Bull logo in every detail bar the name. Apparently the client was genuinely irritated and baffled that the designer was unwilling to do the work. This is an extreme example, but the fact is that when an entrepreneur feels that they need to copy the approach of another brand, it can cause problems for both the client's business and the agency.

Being too heavily influenced by a successful competitor, for example, can result in a 'me too' brand that doesn't offer anything new, and which therefore will struggle to make headway against the very competitor that it's working so hard to emulate. From an agency perspective, the disheartening challenge will be to find a way of copying someone else's work in a way that stays just on the right side of copyright law, with little room for creativity or invention. There is an exception though - if the business founder is genuinely enthusiastic about the underlying approach or values of a business in a different sector to their own, interpreting those values in a way that's meaningful and relevant to their business can be a rewarding task.


If you're starting a business and appreciate the value of effective brand identity, explore the Brandsworth website and discover the affordable branding agency for startups in Wales.