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.

You don't need a tagline. Seriously. No. Don't.

I have a habit of talking people out of giving me work. 

In just the last few weeks, I've spoken with three startups who wanted help in creating a new logo, a tagline, and a new name. If I were at all decent at business, I throw a proposal together on each and get going making my mortgage payments. But instead, the first thing I did (and always do) is made them prove to me why they feel they need this new or revamped piece of their brand identity. (Unrelated: Villain is hiring a head of new business...)

The two main reasons why I suggest brands avoid changing their identity? It's really expensive and they're often treating symptoms, not the cause.

Money: Often the most expensive part of your brand is your name with logo and taglines not too far behind. And the cost is not just in creating the name (which will set you back anywhere from $20-100s of thousands in strategy, creative, trademark, and URL work) but in the dollars it will cost you to get it out into the world and build equity into it. 

Treating the symptoms: many times companies are trying to solve an internal problem with the wrong tools. Maybe they hired a new CEO and s/he wants to prove s/he's shaken off the old guard by giving the brand their own personal touch. Maybe they have a new product coming out and want a quick way to make a splash and get it some attention. Maybe they're trying to raise a round of funding and need a reason to get back into the news.

These are all normal business challenges. They're just not ones that should be solved by messing with your core brand elements. They should be solved via sales strategies, messaging, personality (visual/design elements, verbal style and tone), PR, and internal structural changes. 

It's the job of messaging, style, and communications to evolve and grow your brand, to change the perception that is associated with your brand's name and logo.

When it comes to brand identity elements specifically, part of your brand is has a specific job to do and a strong brand allows each element to do that job and nothing more.

  • A name can only communicate 1-2 points at first until all the other elements of the brand (messaging, logo, products, executives, etc.) do their job of adding more equity and meaning into that name.

What do you think of when you see this name?

I'm going to bet you didn't say "1 to the 100th power," which is what a googl is, the original intent for the name. Google as a brand name now stands for so much more – for search, for innovation, for advertising, for playful logos, for really high stock prices. The brand name has evolved in meaning.

  • A logo is the visual representation of the brand. It should support and expand the intent and personality behind the brand, not duplicate the meaning of the name. Slack uses a visualized hashtag as their logo, a modern symbol of connection.

To quote Metalab, the agency that created the Slack logo,

"Most enterprise software looks like a cheap 70's prom suit — muted blues and greys everywhere — so, starting with the logo, we made Slack look like a confetti cannon had gone off. Electric blue, yellows, purples, and greens all over. We gave it the color scheme of a video game, not an enterprise collaboration product."

Slack as a word means casual, relaxed, but Slack as a brand means fun ways to connect. That's where the logo came in. 

  • A tagline is a high-level strategic message used for a long period of time (multiple years) in partnership with the name and logo. I often call a tagline the "lead horse" for a brand. It should be your stake in the ground, telling the market where you are headed.

Arguably the most popular and effective tagline of 2016?

While one may (vehemently) disagree with the intent behind the tagline, objectively the tagline did its job: It was the lead horse, proving what the Trump brand stood for. Even if the campaign messages changed (or were proven to be anything but truthful), the tagline stayed consistent.

Remember, unlike capabilities lines and headlines or campaign lines (most of the time), taglines should be trademarked to ensure you're not stepping on any competitive toes and you're protected if others try to step on yours. That means strong financial investment. They can all be used together purposely and effectively, such as the below Accenture example, but that requires a great deal of brand management and commitment to long-term strategy. 

Accenture ad displaying how a name, logo, tagline, capabilities line, and headline work together.

Accenture ad displaying how a name, logo, tagline, capabilities line, and headline work together.

Net-net: most startups don't need a tagline.

They're changing direction so often, they're testing out their audience messages, they're seeing what sticks and positioning that way until their products and the market push them in a new direction.

Brand flexibility is vital to a startup's success.

Often when a startup is asking for a tagline, they're doing so because they want to clarify to the market what they're offering. They want something descriptive, a clear headline or capabilities line to prove what they do and who they do it for. It's not always an easy challenge to solve, but it's rarely solved through a tagline. 

Save the money you'd invest in trying to be catchy and trademarkable and instead use that to create a simple, smart brand message that supports the brand in the long-term and allows for the most flexibility. 


How to Start Building a Marketing Funnel

If you're a first marketing hire or you've inherited a marketing team where there's little to know data and the entire funnel is either non-existent or completely broken and you have no idea where to start, I'm going to give you a mind blowing piece of advice. 

Begin at the beginning. 


The general marketing funnel looks something like this:

  1. Awareness - get your target audience to know your name
  2. Engagement / Education - get them to know what you stand for and offer
  3. Consideration - get them to understand how the tools are relevant to them and their needs
  4. Purchase - get them to buy your stuff
  5. Retention / Growth - get them to buy more and stick with your brand

People slice and dice the above up into smaller pieces or call them different things, but essentially, that's the flow a consumer or business goes through to buy your stuff. And they have to follow that flow, step by step. There's no "pass go and go straight to Retention" without first knowing your name, your offerings, and buying something with you a first time. 

That's why I suggest your marketing efforts and priorities follow this funnel in the beginning, too.

Your goal should be to create problems to solve in your funnel. Break it. Cause the leaks in your bucket before you try to patch them. 

Focus on awareness, thought leadership, making a name for yourself that strongly aligns with the message and perception you want to put in the market. While some will say "any PR is good PR," I'd suggest you focus on quality and not quantity - aim for strong stories in the press that don't just throw your name out there but make a point to share your POV in the market with the world. 

When you're doing this so well that your sales team complains that they're dealing with too many leads of varying quality, you move down the funnel and put a system in place to evaluate qualified leads. Same idea for consumers making it to your site, shopping around, but not actually purchasing. Get them there, then optimize those product pages and the check out page. 

There will always be more to fix, more tools to implement, more people to hire to manage those tools, more money to spend, more optimizations to make.

Just start at the start and soon, you'll be at the end. Then start over. 

Why Your Company Needs a Brand Archetype

One of the biggest challenges companies face is focus. There are a million opportunities in front of you and saying no is often harder than saying yes -- especially when increasing revenue and happy shareholders become the most important goal. But that kind of focus is what makes for a strong brand. Focus and consistency means the market and your customers know who you are and what you stand for. 

This is where a single brand archetype comes in. 

What's a brand archetype?

An archetype is an idea that represents a pattern of universal behavior in people. In branding, it's used as a role you consistently play in the market. There are 12 archetypes. I'll give you a rough rundown here, but you should check out The Hero and the Outlaw by Margaret Mark if you want a more in-depth look. It's a fun, easy read. 

  1. The Innocent

    • The wide-eyed innocent, focused on bringing optimism and pure happiness
    • Coca-Cola, Pillsbury
  2. The Regular Guy 

    • The Tom Hanks of the world, who believes everyone has worth and strives to be a supportive, down to earth pal
    • Home Depot, Trader Joe's
  3. The Hero

    • The bold, confident, expert advocate who will throw you over his/her shoulder and rush you out of the burning building
    • BMW, Nike
  4. The Liberator / Outlaw

    • The rebel who constantly seeks change and disruption, paving the way forward to dethrone the industry leaders
    • Virgin, Harley Davidson
  5. The Seeker 

    • The explorer, discovering new paths and experiences, focused on the individual and independence
    • Red Bull, The North Face
  6. The Creator 

    • The artist and visionary focused on expressing meaning and value in the everyday
    • Lego, Google
  7. The Ruler 

    • The controller, focused on order and being the role model, leader, and responsible one; the older sister.
    • Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz
  8. The Magician

    • Making dreams come true through imagination and special moments; focused on inspiring change through shared ideals
    • Disney, Polaroid
  9. The Lover

    • The passionate, committed romantic, inspiring love and delightful moments
    • Haagen-Dazs , Victoria's Secret
  10. The Caregiver

    • he compassionate, generous protector there to care for others over themselves
    • Johnson and Johnson, Campbell's Soup
  11. The Jester

    • The mischievous, light-hearted fun-deliverer, focused on making sure everyone is focused on a good time and enjoying the moment
    • Ben & Jerry's, Cheetos
  12. The Sage

    • The wise mentor, sharing intelligent expertise and experience to gain trust
    • BBC, Thomson Reuters

Why is having an brand archetype useful?

An archetype is a role your brand plays in the market. It's who your audience looks to you to be. By sticking to one archetype, you as a brand know how to communicate, how to look, how to interact with your customers. 

If you're a Hero brand, your job is to advocate for your customers needs above all else. You're likely not going to hand them a bunch of paperwork and say "good luck, pal." if you're a hero brand. You're going to sit with them, talk through their options, and have a smart, well-backed-up point of view on what steps they should take. You'll say no to ad campaigns that come across as cheeky or contrarian because that tone would break the expert advocate trust you're looking to build with the market. 

On the flip side, if you're a Jester, your job is to bring fun and spontaneity. You'd see ad campaigns in the form of flash mobs (though, lord, please don't do another flash mob) or guerrilla marketing not a traditional print or direct mailer unless it poked fun at traditional ways of campaigning. You focus on surprise and delight and being the brand your customers want to hang out with at a party, not so much at a board meeting. 

Archetypes give you an objective reason to say yes or no to a new product, a rebrand strategy, a new marketing initiative. It builds trust with the market. It creates consistency in the minds of your customers. And it makes your job a whole lot easier. 

Why Not Both? The Strategy vs. Demand Generation Startup Dilemma

I'm not sure the punishment for using the word "unicorn" in a non-My Little Pony context, but I'm going to take the risk this one time and one time only. 

The marketing unicorn exists. And you, sir / madam, can have it. 

Strategy or Demand? Both. 

I work with a lot of young startups. Many of whom have yet to hire their first marketer. Usually that's a big part of my job - helping them define who they want to hire, setting up the building blocks they need to make that person successful when they're onboarded. And I've realized it would save me a ton of time if I just had printed on the back of my business cards:

Thou shalt not choose between strategy and revenue.

They are the same. You'll see incredible impact on every initiative you take when you think about, define, and execute them together.

Action, Not Activities.

We all hope our business is around for awhile. Connecting your short and long-term initiatives is the quickest way to do so. Measuring and adapting your long-term brand and business strategy every day is as important as creating and calculating the impact of your short-term marketing campaigns based on those strategic goals.

I see these disconnected a lot -- just as much with established brands as startups. They'll try to shoot for some quick wins via a viral campaign under the guise of "growth hacking." It usually just ends up confusing the hell out of their audience, not knowing what the brand stands for or how it's valuable to them, if at all. Those initiatives often look something like this:

  • Shipping an alpha product that doesn't fit their core offering in order to get some buzz in TechCrunch. They usually name them something funky to help with that one-off attention. Makes for a sexy headline, but usually doesn't build equity into the brand. 
  • A Facebook sweepstakes with a C-list celebrity. Gets lots of shares and comments so marketing manager calls it a win, when really it's just the fans of that celebrity commenting, not your product's target audience. Rarely does it sell product. 
  • Renting space on a big-time publication with loads of traffic. You'll end up with a bunch of views on your syndicated article, for sure. But likely they're not people who would consider buying your product and often times they aren't even people who would normally read that publication. They're buying the traffic to your article with your spend. 

Why don't those work? They're just activities. Things to throw money at without a connected goal. True action has a larger purpose, a short and longer-term pay off built on one consistent idea you're building in the minds of your audience. Here's the difference: 

  • Spotify launches a year-end campaign to discover how much music you listened to this year. Their brand is all about discovery from Discover Weekly playlists to ending this 2015 review with suggestions on the tracks and artists you missed. Beyond just adding to a consistent strategic message, it promotes more engagement with its product which is Spotify's bottom line. 
  • Newcastle created a campaign that lived around but not during the big game. Their strategy is a "no bollocks" approach to life (and beer), hiring Hollywood's adorable straight-shooter Anna Kendrick to represent. They poked fun at themselves and the media industry and it all resulted in a lot of beer sold. Why? Because it made sense for their brand and was delivered directly to their targets on Gawker and Reddit. 
  • Chartbeat PR push to prove differentiation in metrics. I worked on this one, so yes, completely a not-at-all humble brag using this example. But it's a good one, promise. Web analytics company Chartbeat has a totally different way of measuring online engagement. Instead of clicks, it understands the second-by-second attention people give to an article (or don't, as it were). The problem was, Chartbeat wasn't known for this different data; it was known for the pretty design of its products. So, we partnered with some smart quirky journalists to prove the difference between clicks and attention and got lots and lots of unpaid attention -- huge win for a young (read: poor) startup. 

There's power in knowing your audience, what they want, and how your brand can deliver that differently from anyone else. The magic is in putting that all to work today and every day. 


Originally posted on Medium

Three disclaimers:

  1. I have zero background in PR. I’m a brand strategist and a sometimes writer. I manage comms at Chartbeat because at a startup you have lots of jobs and PR is one of a handful of mine — today anyway. So, some of this is probably PR 101 (that’s half of the point) and some of this is probably dead wrong (that’s the other half of the point.)
  2. Chartbeat is based in NYC, which is the media industry’s mecca, and our clients are mostly publishers and our users are mostly editors and journalists. So, in the pursuit to get some coverage for ourselves that stuff, you know, helps.
  3. Success is relative. So, don’t take this as my trying to give any of y’all advice. But I’d really love to learn from yours.


I headed into the Chartbeat office in 2011 wearing a blazer, armed with a PowerPoint deck. Because I was a consultant from a big-deal agency and that’s what you do, even though I was only asked by my best pal (hi, Mona!) to come in and help the team land on a homepage headline. I was used to working with brands like AT&T and Disney and General Mills, and I was used to being hired to be the smartest person in the room. And that meant blazers and decks.

After about 45 seconds, I learned that I would never be the smartest person in the room ever again and I was dead wrong about pretty much everything I thought I knew about startups and marketing.

I went in thinking Chartbeat had a brand challenge that could be solved by the people in the room in a day. Turned out it was the entire media industry’s challenge to move from a click-based business model to one of post-click attention that will take years and the smartest publishers, brands, agencies, and technologies to solve — Chartbeat was just the crazy company that decided to do something about it.

My biggest challenge wouldn’t be about creating a buzz around Chartbeat, but instead marketing change for the industry.


Day one: I walked in with a 90 day plan and a to-do list.
Day one: I threw out the 90 day plan and to-do list.

Instead, I just got to know Chartbeat. I found out people loved us, which, you know, is a pretty great thing to find out. But it turned it out it wasn’t for the thing that Chartbeat was best at — data. We work with most every news site across the globe, which means we have our finger on the pulse of the web at any given moment. But a year or two back, no one really knew that.

So that’s where we started.

Our Chief Data Scientist (hey, Josh!) and I decided to put some effort in to see if we could use our data to show there’s more to the performance of an article than its clicks and impressions. We (by “we” I mean me standing over Josh’s shoulder eating snacks while he did all the work) anonymized and aggregated our data and pulled out the stories that we, as readers of the web, found interesting. We shared them with a couple journalists who dig data.

Two pieces — one from Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic on the rise of dark social traffic and one from Farhad Manjoo who was writing for Slate at the time on how we consume content after we click — started making people think about data differently. Really smart people in the industry started agreeing that content should be valued by more than just spikes of traffic.


Those stories worked because Alexis and Farhad are good at what they do. They asked the right questions, they did their research, they didn’t take any data we gave them at face value without poking some holes in it.

They’re great journalists.

In order to keep working with great journalists not just one off but, well, forever, to get the kinds of stories out we wanted to, we had to accept a few things:

  1. No press releases. Writers hate them, so we don’t do them.
  2. Not all press is good press. Focus on getting the right story out, not the traffic that story could generate.
  3. We can and should say no to some stories. If we aren’t the people that can tell that story best, provide the best data, we don’t do it.

All this means I only email specific journalists when we have something I think they specifically would love, and I’m told they appreciate that.

But this also means we’ve missed out on A LOT of traffic and media impressions by following these rules. I’ve had editors of publications with huge reach email me the day after I’ve given an exclusive to another outlet saying they would have loved to have covered it. I’ve been incredibly bummed out when a great story talking all about an idea my team busted their asses to develop doesn’t get a lot of reach.

But I’ve also had writers come back to us dozens of times asking for our thoughts on a topic, and we’ve built incredible relationships with editors that have given us feature stories generating 20,000+ shares, minutes of active attention, and, yes, lots of traffic and pageviews as well. So it’s a trade off I’m still working to balance.


Chartbeat was founded in 2009 (I joined in 2011). And we’ve pretty much had the same mission and the same message since the beginning — to help measure and monetize the best content on the web.

Why? Because we believe it. But, let’s be real, we aren’t spending millions on advertising either. That means it would be tough to get people used to associating Chartbeat as the “go-to tool for measuring and monetizing engagement and attention on the web” and then pivoting to something new and different overnight…or even over a year.

Companies like IBM have done that well, but only when they’ve reinvented their entire business — and it took billions to do.

Even when those companies have billions of dollars to spend, like Coca-Cola, they often choose to stand for one simple message — in Coke’s case, Happiness—for decades. Why? Because they believe it (hopefully) and it’s expensive to change your message without changing your entire business and without confusing your audience. It’s like the New Coke version of messaging. It’s a dangerous game to play.


This is an embarrassing statement, coming from a gal working for an analytics company, but man, I had no idea what metrics to look at in the beginning. If we could get them, I tracked peak concurrents, overall pageviews, overall engagement, time people actively read the stories, shares, influencers, Klout scores, everything.

Sometimes posts got tons of traffic but few shares, sometimes lots of engagement and lots of shares, sometimes an article of one topic on a specific publisher dominated but another one bombed. I had no clue what to make of any of it.

So instead of killing myself over the metrics, I focused on the goals. Sometimes it would be to get new people who hadn’t heard of us before reading and talking, so even just getting published in a specific trade was a goal. Then next time that changed to getting a majority of Twitter shares of the article being from agencies or brands, for example.

Goals driving metrics is a super simple basic idea. But it’s tough to force yourself to follow.


I asked for help. A lot. I bugged my friends who work in PR (hi, Meg! hi, Kerry!). I joined lots of PR groups on every social network ever. I constantly emailed our investors and their marketing teams for connections and advice. I even asked journalists for their feedback. And every one of them gave me their time and brains. Every one. (Thank you all again, by the way.)

This is probably the only part of this article that I think you should take as advice. People are smart and kind and helpful. Let them help you.

That and wear blazers, no matter where you work. Blazers are a great, great look.