What Every Founder Needs to Know About Brand

Wachsman speaks with Slope Agency founder, Karine Hsu. Together we explore the fundamentals of branding, with Karine detailing the most important things that every founder needs to know.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of branding, what is it, what does it encompass, and why does it matter? 

Brand is the system and architecture that allows companies to make consistent strategic and visual decisions about how they appear in the world. At its core, this encompasses (i) strategy and (ii) visuals. Those components, when done right, form a company’s core identity and the basis for long-term growth.

Branding matters because it differentiates a business from its competitors. It also helps with recognition and recall, builds trust and credibility, creates emotional resonance, and if done well, compounds into business value and growth.

Great brand systems also generate internal benefits as well. Consistent brand architecture can help team members quickly create new collateral, website changes, marketing campaigns, etc. that are on-brand without going through endless revision cycles. A strong brand that resonates will also help boost fundraising and recruitment funnels by attracting aligned investors and talented employees.

When a company comes to Slope, where do you start? 

In many ways, this is highly dependent on the needs of the company and the specific scope of work. Typically though, brand work starts for us with a deep dive into the brand strategy side. The goal here is to spend the first phase of a project making sure we have a deep understanding of the company, competitive landscape, customers, project goals, etc. This often consists of a combination of desk research and interviews with key stakeholders.

Having a foundation rooted in fundamental truths about the company is helpful since it helps us align with our clients on their worldview. From here, we can craft a more opinionated strategy and identity systems.

We believe brand systems are set up to help businesses scale, and that an aligned understanding of what we need to communicate with our clients helps us make decisions that are rooted in core truths about the company, rather than visual or strategic biases that we might hold as individuals.

What is the role of branding in the success of tech companies and startups? What brands are doing it well? 

Branding is crucial for tech companies and startups as it differentiates them, builds trust, enhances user experience, attracts talent and investment, and drives customer engagement. We often find that in particularly nascent industries like Web3 and AI, being thoughtful and considerate around the narratives you put forward as a business, and the accompanying visual identity system is particularly important.

Two examples we’d note that have strong brands and are mentioned by clients often: 

Ramp, a fintech company focused on offering financial solutions tailored specifically for startups and emerging businesses, has disrupted the traditional business credit card market. Ramp has built a brand that brings a brand system that feels highly tailored for its customers. The use of bright neon pops of yellow, paired with minimalist, modern design gives off a simultaneously airy and approachable feel, while also maintaining a sophisticated technology edge.

Similarly, Linear, a project management tool for software development teams, has leveraged branding to establish a distinct position for developers. When they launched, there were countless Project Management tools like Asasa or JIRA to choose from. By focusing on building a delightful experience and brand experience that evangelizes the developer community (sleek, dark mode, etc.), their consistent branding has earned them a loyal user base and positive recognition within the tech community.

These examples highlight how effective branding can differentiate tech companies, build trust and credibility, enhance user experience, and drive customer engagement. Ramp and Linear demonstrate the power of branding in establishing a strong market presence and positioning themselves as industry leaders.

What are the most common mistakes you see among early-stage companies when it comes to brand? 

Common mistakes among early-stage companies when it comes to branding include:

  • Lack of Strategic Brand Planning: Many early-stage companies dive into branding without a clear strategy. Focusing solely on visual design without considering the target audience, positioning, and messaging can result in incoherent branding that fails to communicate a unique value proposition effectively.
  • Inconsistency in Branding: Despite having a brand identity or guidelines, companies will often inconsistently apply their brand system across different visual elements and messaging styles. Establishing and maintaining consistency in design, messaging, and brand experience is crucial for building a recognizable and cohesive brand identity.
  • Failure to Evolve and Adapt: Some early-stage companies view branding as a static entity, neglecting to evolve as the business grows and market conditions change. Brands need to be flexible and responsive, aligning with customer feedback, market trends, and business goals. Regularly refining the brand strategy ensures ongoing relevance and alignment with the evolving needs of the target audience.

Talk to us about brand storytelling. What’s the relationship between brand, marketing, and PR? 

Brand, marketing, and PR are all interrelated functions that work together to build and promote a company’s reputation. 

We see branding as the initial step to forming a company’s foundation by establishing the brand’s identity and differentiation. Marketing then utilizes the brand’s messaging and visuals to strategically promote products or services and engage with the target audience. PR focuses on managing the brand’s reputation through media relations, communications, and events, ensuring a positive public perception. 

Together, these functions create a cohesive brand presence, communicate the brand’s value proposition, attract customers, and drive business growth.

Pictured: Karine Hsu