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How Early-Stage Companies Can Define Their Brand And Figure Out Their Core Messaging

May 12, 2022

Quality alone doesn’t sell a product. You have to market it. Your company could be solving a problem customers have struggled with for years, but if your potential user base doesn’t know you exist, your work just doesn’t matter.

By Paulina Karpis, Partner and Chief People Officer, B Capital

Quality alone doesn’t sell a product. You have to market it. Your company could be solving a problem customers have struggled with for years, but if your potential user base doesn’t know you exist, your work just doesn’t matter.  

So when you’re small and scrappy, where do you start building your brand strategy? 

Dan Buczaczer has led brand messaging for leading companies across a range of industries for two decades. He currently serves as CMO of Labelbox, B Capital Group portfolio company and newly-minted unicorn that automates the time-consuming yet critical process of labeling data.  

Prior to Labelbox, Buczaczer was CMO at marketing intelligence firm Quid (now Netbase Quid). He has also worked on campaigns with Disney, Hyundai, and Samsung. 

In February 2022, Buczaczer presented at a B Capital ‘Portfolio Leaders’ workshop on brand and product marketing. During the workshop, he shared 5 tips for early-stage startups developing their initial branding strategy. 

1. Understand the purpose of branding.

A brand is basically the lens through which you filter your company’s messaging, said Buczaczer. It enables you to look at a particular message or piece of content and determine whether it really speaks for your company or meets your priorities.  

You can define your brand by building what Buczaczer refers to as a “Brand Bible,” or basically a slide deck or guide that outlines your company’s story, core values or principles, and tone. Your initial Brand Bible can be broad and high-level, answering questions like: 

  • Who are we? 
  • How are we going to operate? 

The answers to these high-level questions will help you decide on messaging and marketing tactics, and maintain consistency.  

“If [Labelbox] believes we are about transparency and ease of use, then we need to look for as many opportunities as we can to show off transparency and ease of use,” he said. 

2. Start with the facts.

To build a Brand Bible, start by learning about your company with an open mind. Talk to your company’s founders, staff, investors, customers, prospects, and any other stakeholders who seem relevant. You may also listen to recordings of calls between other staff and customers or prospects.  

“I spend my first few weeks [in a new company] just interviewing people. It’s a great way to understand just how much the stories sound similar versus very different. You want to figure out what you’ve got, where you’re starting from, as well as exactly how they’re explaining it,” said Buczaczer. 

Your goal with your interviews should be to understand:  

  • The founder story 
  • The company’s internal challenges 
  • How different stakeholders compare your company to competitors  
  • How customers view your company 
  • Why your customers came to you in the first place 

“I’m always fascinated by why people are coming to us in the first place—it’s not always for the reason we think it is,” he said.   

3. Keep your brand specific but not narrow.

Define your brand in a way that is true to your core product or service, without making your brand so narrow that you limit your company.  

“You want to basically define yourselves in a broad enough way that it still feels consistent as you continue to release new products, new features,” Buczaczer said. 

He used Nike as an example. While the company started out just with running shoes, they defined their brand more broadly around excellence in sport. That enabled them to easily transition into other sports attire, and even into electronics with products like the Nike+ app and tools such as Nike’s Fit feature for finding the right shoe size.   

“They would have never imagined in the 70s that they were an electronics company, but because they carved out a space that has to do with being your best and athletic excellence and pushing yourself, they have found permission to kind of move further and further afield and claim more of that space,” said Buczaczer. 

He said LabelBox has “found permission” by staying in touch with clients about their emerging needs, and asking them if they would use certain features if added to LabelBox’s product.  

4. Target your content.

Once you’ve defined your brand, you have to start developing messaging. The key with this, said Buczaczer, is to be very targeted. He used the process of creating a TV ad brief as an example: While a brief may only be a page long, and a TV ad may only last for seconds, the messaging within an ad is highly refined. 

He breaks down the process of creating targeted messaging into three questions: 

1. Who is your target audience?

Who do you need to reach? Why? And what do you know about them?  

2. How is your target audience acting?

What is your target audience doing today that they could be doing better and differently with your product tomorrow?  

“At LabelBox, the answer for most of our customers to, ‘What are they doing today?’ is they’re using spreadsheets” to track machine learning data, said Buczaczer. 

3. What do you want them to think and feel? 

How do you want your target audience to feel immediately after consuming your content?  

“Even in the B2B world, we have a heart and we have feelings, and we get excited by things, and we get scared about things—and that matters. And I think it’s probably the biggest missed opportunity in B2B,” he said. 

5. Repeat your message.

You might feel like you’re repeating yourself too much, but you probably aren’t. He pointed to political campaigns as an example of where repetitive messaging has success. 

“Those poor candidates are on the road for three years, just giving the same damn speech day after day, right?” he said.  

But the truth is that successful campaigns are the ones that stuck to the message and drove it home. For President Bill Clinton, that message was the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” President Barack Obama’s campaign repeated the idea of hope.  

The same thing works for companies. If you know a brand, it’s because you’ve seen its imagery and heard its message repeatedly.  

“The customer, actually, their mind is going in a thousand different directions, they’re barely paying attention to any one of us. And so that’s where being so maniacally consistent is really useful,” said Buczaczer. 

To learn more about guiding your startup’s growth, visit B Capital Group’s blog. You can also sign up to receive information on upcoming B Capital events.  

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