Start-up companies and new product launches are a particular focus for our agency. We’re true believers in innovation and growth, fuelled by a passionate, yet healthy Canadian patriotism.
We’ve successfully brought to market premium craft beers, new product lines in office automation and footwear, luxury condominiums, car care centres, personal injury legal and health services, and a host of other companies during our the 25-plus years in business.
In every case, we’ve worked collaboratively with our clients to create the strategic insights, the imagery, the messaging, and the launch plan and tactics that cut through the clutter and carved out their niche in the market.
All of that work was guided, as it continues to be, by adhering to key principles of brand development. These principles are best articulated through a series of questions you need to explore and answer BEFORE you launch and build your brand and its community.
1. What does your brand stand for?
Values define brands because your community assigns value to your offering. If they see that your offering has value to them, they’ll be more likely to try your product; maybe even switch from the product where they already placed their loyalty.
This is not just about the classic “value proposition” based on features and attributes. While that is essential, the core values you offer to potential customers are about a deeper experience you want your community to have when they engage with your brand. How are they going to feel about your product/service? What emotions are you hoping to stir in them to cause them to think about your offering? Once they begin to rationalize those feelings, you have a better chance of them acting on those feelings and thoughts to explore your brand.
If you’ve done your homework in crafting your company’s mission statement, whatever your company is planning to put out there in the way of a product or service should be the fulsome expression of that mission.
As simple as that might sound, lots of companies promise plenty in their lofty mission statements only to fail miserably on delivering on their values by cutting corners (Volkswagen) or creating a sub-culture of deceit and expediency (Wells Fargo).
Maybe avoid that by asking another double-barrelled key question?
2. Who are your customers and in what state of mind are they?
If you’re launching an all new brand, knowing who your eventual buyers are is fundamental to your success.
Certainly, demographic characteristics are important as a baseline. You absolutely need to know the age, educational background, ethnicity and professional focus of your buyer, among other descriptors. But you also need to understand the state of mind your potential customers are in – and how your offering is going to help improve their lives.
Naturally, this is based on the assumption that you’re offering something new that will disrupt the marketplace and wedge itself into the sector. Your product/service’s key benefits and attributes have been designed, one would presume, to affect people’s lives going forward. So, where are those people at now, emotionally?
This is a good time to invest in focused research of your target audience through discussion groups, online surveys, exit surveys at point of sale or more advanced ethnographies where you get to discuss your offering in greater depth with targeted influencers who represent your larger market.
One key take away here is to not do this work yourself. It’s time consuming, complex and knowing the right questions to ask requires a professional level understanding of how to glean key insights from people who are not typically asked any detailed questions about any purchase they plan to make. People are not professional interviewees; so you need professional interviewers to get it right.
Your role is to share the DNA of your offering with your brand research team. Detail the core values you have identified that you believe will move your target audience. Focus on the emotional reactions you want your brand to create in those people. Our emotions motivate our decisions. The state of mind of your potential buyer is an emotional state, above all else.
3. Have you got a horse of a different colour?
Even if you happen to believe your brand stands alone, and that no “real” competition is out there for your unique offering, remember: Even Henry Ford had a competitor when he introduced motor cars to America. They called it a horse.
Everyone has a competitor and knowing everything you can about the people who are going to get grill about your offering is essential.
In our view, the key things to learn from a branding perspective are:
What are they doing right that you can emulate to jump start your market entry?
What are they doing wrong that you can leverage to point out how much better your offering will serve the same market?
Knowing what to emulate or avoid includes your competitor’s imagery, messaging and media mix. And how your competitors maintain loyalty and grow their brand community. What can learn that’s visible, and what is below the line that require more investigation.
We always recommend that our soon-to-be launched brands sign up for their competitor’s e-newsletters or RSS feeds. Engage with them on social platforms. Buy their product, try their service. Immerse yourself in their brand so you can clearly understand how to make your brand stand out.
Of course, market research from trusted industry sources are key as are general market trendsetters and influencers in social and traditional media are essential sources. But nothing beats getting into the DNA, into the very heart of your competitors.
That’s why auto makers buy their competitor’s vehicles and strip them down to see how they can make their own cars better or to straight up copy market-winning ideas. It ain’t pretty, but we all drive better cars today (generally) than we did 25 years ago.
4. Do you know what time it is?
A major flaw in many start-up brands’ planning is simply not allocating enough time to get everything right before you pull the switch. That misstep can be fatally compounded by not keeping an eye on the general vibe we live in and launching a new offering that proves to be out of step with the zeitgeist.
Take for example fax machines or pagers… or cigarettes. If some shrewd inventor came to market today and presented cigarettes to the federal government as a viable product for human consumption, presuming we had already discovered tobacco kills you, that misguided sap would be ushered out of the room. And yet, if we were all presented with recreational pot in the next couple of years, the makers of “Reefer Madness” would spin their graves into dirt mousse at the outrage. Timing is everything. Branding is no exception.
First, investing the time in getting your branding right is as critical as the offering itself. Lots of marketers still believe a new mousetrap will sell itself. Nothing does. Even Jesus has brand ambassadors.
Brand strategy, brand development, launch plans and the eventual launch take months, not weeks to get right. Get the branding pros on side as soon as you have a viable minimum offering mapped out.
As for “timing the market,” that’s a bit ticklish. No one can predict when the best time is but it’s pretty clear what some of the worst times are.
If your product is seasonally based and summer fun bunnies are the target market, maybe don’t launch at Christmas time. Similarly, if you’re selling the latest in downhill ski innovations, a mid-July launch is probably ill advised. Same thing goes for other big cultural moments that are already locked into the social mindset. Meaning don’t let an obvious calendar reality like Halloween or Super Bowl or Mother’s Day, go overlooked when you target a date. Conversely, if one of those already scheduled moments in time is your best opportunity to go live, go for it.
But before you do any of the above, let’s grapple with the big, and often times, ugly question that needs to be addressed:
5. Have you got the resources to get this right?
Over the years, we’ve seen two scenarios play out from would-be Blade clients who have reached out to us for branding and advertising services. I say “would-be” because if one of these scenarios was in place, we declined the opportunity to serve those start-ups.
First, they have an unrealistic idea of what it can cost to develop and launch a brand from the get go. Or second, they have invested all their money in the product/service and simply never acquired or assembled the money needed to properly brand and the launch the offering.
In the first case, a good rule of thumb is that you’ll need to put aside a minimum of 10% of your first year projected sales to a maximum of 30% of those sales for branding and advertising. Anything less, and you’re kidding yourself. The world is too complicated, people are too busy and unless your offering shines down from the heavens above to warm to hearts of millions spontaneously, it takes real money to get any kind of traction… and on-going investment to ensure that traction turns into momentum that grows your brand community.
In the case where there was simply never any money earmarked for a powerful branding and marketing effort, the hard truth is the offering needs to postponed until those resources are in place. Otherwise you risk all the product/service investment because you can’t produce the spark that ignites the marketplace. Branding and advertising is that spark.
Getting your brand off the ground, or even launching a new line extension to your existing business, is an exciting and challenging initiative. The power and relevance of strategically crafted and expertly deployed branding and advertising has been proven over and over again to be a deciding factor in the success and failure of countless such initiatives. When you embrace branding as a key business discipline, you embrace community building and that’s what modern branding is all about.