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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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