Anyone who has entered the startup arena knows that things move fast, get broken and can change on a whim. So much so, that entrepreneurs who aren’t baptized in lean and agile methodologies often face a grim end before ever truly beginning.

However, If you’re quick on your feet, you might just emerge with co-founder alignment, a solid MVP (Minimum Viable Product), and the attention of wanting audiences, media outlets and funding parties. This success often comes at breakneck speeds and leaves little time for entrepreneurs to take a step back and properly evaluate the big picture: their brand.

A brand is not just a logo or website, but a promise made and a promise fulfilled. Brand is the living, breathing experience of your startup, beginning with the aspirations of co-founders and cascading outwardly to everything from product to marketing to customer service.

Brand is important because it is the sum total of all experiences and interactions that take place between you and your audience. So, why is it often one of the most ignored aspects of new businesses?

Brand strategy is an integral part of any company that has withstood the test of time and is equally valuable to early-stage startups. Products may change, teams will transition and audiences shift, however, what’s at the core of your brand can (and should) remain a constant force. Brand strategy makes the turbulent evolution of startups more manageable through consensus building amongst co-founders and by providing a rare far-sighted lens in an environment built on short-term actions.

While truly comprehensive brand strategy is often very complex and beyond the scope of most emergent startups, every brand should have a few things at their core: a timeless foundation, actionable values, a culture-defining personality and high-level definitions of how these pillars translate through expression to the audience in a manner that’s contextually relevant.


A strong foundation provides a timeless anchor and grounds the brand in core function, mission, and vision. This can be as pure as a single sentence, but one that concisely states why you exist and what you bring to the world outside the boundaries of product, process or zeitgeist.


Next, what values drive you and your co-founders? What will always be part of your governing philosophy? Define these values based on how your team actualizes them, then take it a step further and hypothesize how your audience will latently experience them as a result of your team’s dedicated practice.


Personality wraps the brand in a relatable and likeable format. It provides a bridge between the actions taken by internal stakeholders and shapes them into a forward-facing attitude. This exercise can be achieved by simply compiling 15-20 visceral adjectives and emotionally charged verbs that capture the method and personality of your brand.


Mike Mates

Brand expression takes many shapes, but the two most important to consider for your strategic playbook are visual and verbal. Many companies become divided on the art and copy front, reverting to personal preference and subjective experience. A more methodical way to define these traits is to put the onus on your audience.

Based on what you’ve defined in the previous exercises, how will you express these brand considerations in a meaningful way to your customers? For example, the associated aesthetic and tone you’d employ with college-age men would most likely be very different than that used with middle-aged women.

While this is an overly simplified generalization, it underscores the importance of clearly defining your audiences in a manner that vividly summarizes their demographic and psychographic information (a crucial brand exercise not covered here).

Understanding your audiences’ expectations allow you to create an expressive layer that’s contextually relevant and that eliminates the personal bias of internal stakeholders. Most importantly, this understanding creates a greater opportunity for alignment between what you offer and what your audience seeks on a level deeper than simple product/market fit.

Mike Mates is a Seattle based branding professional and entrepreneur with over a decade of experience stewarding successful brands across the physical, digital, and beyond. Currently, Mike is the creative director at Startup Weekend. You can follow him on Twitter @mikemates.

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  • Drew Meyers

    I’m fortunate to have worked on the marketing team under some really experienced individuals who understand brand building…Spencer Rascoff and Amy Bohutinsky at Zillow. Without those 5 years of experience & learnings under my belt, I fully anticipate I would have overlooked brand as well with my current startup. However, I view it as one of the most crucial parts of building a startup and devote a considerable amount of time to it on a regular basis.

  • Kyle Kesterson

    Given that this is a broad stroke on a complicated and very individual topic, Mike nailed the pillars that every business should work to have a grasp on, whether they are in their first month, or 50th year.

    If anyone was to provide insight and guidance on brand in Seattle, it’s absolutely Mike. His work has stood the test of time, helped stumbling companies with so much potential actually realize it, and has helped develop processes in companies that create a very fluid machine around communication, understanding, and execution.

    Over the last decade, his philosophy and own case studies have been monumentally impactful on how I have thought about and executed on brand for my own ventures, such as Freak’n Genius.

    Mike + Startup Weekend = DANGER. :)

  • Marc Barros

    Awesome post Mike.

    The foundation is definitely the hardest part. Defining why you exist and your purpose is hard. Most of the time people will say “what” they do, but being able to say “why” they do it is a much deeper level.

    • mikemates

      Marc, I couldn’t agree more. It’s the classic case of wanting to say so much with so little (which often results in the dilution of a strong foundation by trying to hit every tertiary consideration). This is where I truly see the value of an objective 3rd party, primarily for the fresh eyes and ears. Someone who can listen, ask the right questions, and really distill everything they’ve heard down to a concise, timeless, and emotionally charged position. When stakeholders are too close to their own brand, they’re great at articulating the minutia details, but often have a hard time shedding the complexity and seeing the high-level picture.

      • Marc Barros

        I think it’s a skill people should learn and get better at. It’s not an easy skill so learning from a third party initially can be a great way to get started, but I think entrepreneurs should be pushed to define “why” as soon as they define “what” their company is going to do.

        A future post that helps people learn how to get to the why would be great. :-)

        • mikemates

          Agreed – I’ll start banging on a followup post that gets into this. I agree that while difficult, is not unobtainable by any stretch of the imagination. Thanks for the feedback Marc!

  • Tlloyd25

    Great post Mike. I think you offer some great advice here. We work with a lot of hightech startups. One of our most popular posts you may enjoy — CEOs – If you had to write an employee letter explaining your vision, what would it say? Would love your thoughts.

    • mikemates

      Thanks Tlloyd!

      I especially like your position on defining the purpose beyond profit. I’m a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and especially the way Chip Conley describes it in his book ‘Peak,’ as it applies to employees, investors and customers. I think what you’re hitting on here is a great starting point for helping internal teams self-actualize beyond the base needs, and more importantly a starting point for building brands on timeless virtue, rather than market driven factors (a common mistake made by brands of all sizes).


  • Ryan Dancey

    Brands live in brains, not in boxes (or websites).

    Your brand is what your customers think of your product or service. You can attempt to influence those thoughts, and what you actually do with your product influences those thoughts, but in the end, a brand is a meme and it’s beyond your ability to directly control.

    As a startup you should be focused on making a great product or service, because THAT will be the foundation of your brand. After you’ve accumulated some customers and begun to interact with them and with the public at large, your brand will grow and change with those interactions, but it will be hard to shift it far from whatever you establish right at the outset.

    Remember that your marketing is unlikely to be able to seriously re-direct your brand. If you make a crappy product or service, the best marketing in the world won’t change your brand. If your marketing is unaligned with your business, the marketing won’t work, and you’ll suffer from people’s visceral reaction to the disconnect between what you actually deliver and what you say you’ll deliver.

    As a startup, you need to keep it simple. Pick two or three critical things that you actually do, that you want people to know you do, and that are meaningful to your customers. That’s your brand. Once it takes root in the brains around you it will be very, very hard to change, so choose wisely.

    • mikemates


      I completely agree and would even take it one step further. Brand to me is more than just customer perception, but ultimately the living breathing experience cultivated by an organization’s every move. Brand begins with the alignment of a team and cascades outwardly to every touchpoint within their company’s ecosystem.

      As Alexandra Steele pointed out in the comment above, it’s the sum total of all activity within a brand that creates perception (and the ability or inability to align that perception with external audiences).


      • Robert Hammond

        The product/service is the foundation of the brand. What your customers say about your product/service on the web is your brand.

  • Alexandra Steele

    Mike – Good overview on the value of branding and I would suggest adding one more audience to your mix, your internal customer or Team. In my experience, a strategic branding journey can help the Team and key stakeholders get on the same page as “brand” acts like a North Star for a company.

    • mikemates

      Thanks Alexandra! See the response to Ryan Dancey on the comment below for an extension of your thoughts here regarding team :)

  • facebook-647800675

    Is not the brand simply the cumulative results of the company’s people and products over time?

    • mikemates

      It’s definitely a big part of that – however the key variables to consider to make this a meaningful result are intent and context. Intent involves the alignment between planned sum total activity and audience perception. Context is the vessel of understanding required to successfully align with audience perception.

      From product quality, to marketing, to social outreach, to office environment, brand is shaped by every action taken, intentional or otherwise. Brand is the sum total of all experiences and interactions that occur by and between internal stakeholders, which is why there must be a well defined strategy and common understanding of what the brand means, and how it’s executed across all facets of the org.

  • Paul_Owen

    What about the voice of the customer? Branding starts with demand. Not with an idea. Not with IP. Not with funding or partner alignment. The best stories always start with demand. Start there and work backwards.

    • mikemates

      I actually believe the best brands are born from a balance of customer demand and a shared vision amongst initial shareholders. It doesn’t matter how much demand exists in a given market if the internal shareholders aren’t passionate about creating something great to fulfill it.

      The two exercises I generally always work in tandem as the most important pillars are the internal foundational strategy and the audience profiles. These two ultimately inform each other and a great deal of insight can be learned about market opportunity when we find the common points of alignment.

  • Andrew Kinzer

    Great post, Mike!

    • mikemates

      Thanks Andrew! ;D

  • Adam Lieb

    I espouse this philosophy daily. Couldn’t agree more Mike. I wish there were more voices like yours in the community.

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