Branding or Marketing: What should a startup invest in first?

"We're only a year old and are running on Seed money; we don't need to invest in brand yet, right?" 

That's usually the first question I'm asked. To which I usually reply asking this startup CEO what their ultimate goal for the next 12ish months is and they typically respond with:

"We just need to get our story out there to get people who should be buying our product so they know who we are and that we deserve to be considered with the big guys in our industry. Can you help with that?"

Rock Sock Robots

 

Immediately, it's clear the word brand has a perception problem.

Brand is perceived as being big, expensive, and time-consuming. All things startups don't have time for. Moreover, it's almost always used to mean rebrand in which an organization has to totally redefine who they are visually and verbally; it means a new name, logo, and positioning (if it existed to begin with).

Yes, of course, there's a spectrum of "rebranding." Some people consider a new campaign a rebrand, but for the purpose of this discussion (and what I hear many startup founders believe when they hear the word brand), I'm talking about a total brand reinvention. 

A rebrand is like declaring bankruptcy. It's always the last option.

1% of the work I do is on a complete rebrand. Typically it's after a major crisis or if a startup is ditching their core audience to serve another or a major product failed and they need to pivot their business. It definitely happens, but it's rare.

Usually, the brand work we do at Villain is much much smaller (like the difference between a $500,000 rebrand and a $5,000 positioning workshop). We're usually focused on getting to the core of what makes a company different and building a story around that. It's about putting the puzzle pieces in the right place then sharing that completed puzzle everywhere we can.

At its simplest, your brand is a story. Marketing is the vehicle by which you tell that story.

Do you want to focus on PR to get your name out in the trades? PR is the marketing vehicle, brand is the story you pitch. 

Do you want to rebrand your website to convert more leads? Your website is the marketing vehicle, brand is the words on the page, the logic behind the type style, the color choices, the photography style you decide. 

Do you want to invest in sales marketing to convert more leads further down the funnel? Your pitch decks and leave-behinds and one-pagers are all marketing, brand is the consistent headline on every one of them, the hook your best sales rep has been practicing for months and use to open every meeting.

Without brand, your marketing is fragmented and usually pretty ineffective. Without marketing, your brand is an untested idea. Considered separately, they can be a total waste of money.

Together, brand and marketing can make you a helluva lot of money.

You don't need to invest a lot in both, but you do need to invest in both.