Mario Gamper, VP of Strategic Design, discusses why startups should build identities that offer both structure and flexibility.

Branding is a difficult territory to navigate for startups. Spending time, money and cognitive energy on something that isn’t instantly improving key growth KPIs looks a lot like waste. Moreover, why put a strong effort into branding, when you’re (secretly) not even sure how long your current product or company will survive?

Startup leaders therefore often hotwire their brand identity by quickly deciding on a name and logo. The result: a world full of Foxmondos. Brands that scream out their cleverness and internationality, but don’t express a truly differentiating identity.

What startups without good brands are missing out on is the reduction of complexity that comes with a well-structured brand. Not only does a brand simplify acquiring and retaining the right customers (complex startup challenge #1) it also serves as an internal compass for your employees in times of maximum growth and constant change (complex startup challenge #2).

Why then is “branding” never listed a top reason for startups failing on Techcrunch, Fast Company or Quartz? Because the effects of not knowing how to express your identity are indirect. A hastily released brand hurts you on the ricochet. It translates into problems you’ll definitely find in those lists: “Customer Development Issues,” “Lack of focus,” “Disharmony on Team,” et cetera et cetera.

But even when startup CEOs want to avoid the flawed brand shortcut, they face difficulty. Conventional branding processes and agencies often won’t match their needs. “Too slow, too expensive, too rigid,” are typical complaints I hear both from external startup teams, as well as from our Venture CEOs and PMs here at BCG Digital Ventures.

In this post, I want to take a look at how to solve the problem of rigid brands,or rather: how to make brands bendable enough so that they don’t break in the initial phase of hunting and pivoting towards product/market fit.

It’s a problem we’ve had to tackle ourselves for the startups we build at Digital Ventures. To solve the branding needs of our new ventures, we’ve developed a set of design sprints that quickly build a reliable Venture Brand in 5 weeks with a mix of internal team members and external experts. Venture leadership is involved in the key workshops and decision points of the sprints.

While the initial set of Brand Sprints solved the speed and cost issue, our Venture CEOs were still unsure how to keep their brands open enough for the pivots or adjustments that sooner or later become part of the story of most ventures. To answer their needs, we added questions and prototype exercises to the brand sprint that test for future flexibility.

Let me give you an example from the first of our four branding sprints: “Brand Belief and Purpose.” It answers the most fundamental questions of a venture’s life: “Why do we exist?” “Why that is a good thing?” “What value do we offer–and for whom?” and “Which values do we believe in?”

To this we now added checks for bend-ability, by also asking questions like: “Could we solve our purpose with a different product?” “Would our values still work if we were part of a mature corporate ecosystem?” or “Does our brand identity still work if we move beyond our initial customers?”

Similar bend-ability questions and exercises are added to the other sprints in the set: Brand Name, Brand Visuals and Brand Relationships.

bcgdv-bendable-brands-pollen

At DV, we not only define the key elements of a brand, the team also instantly prototypes them. We simulate a customer call, draw an ad, or write an internal memo that expresses the new brand. This way, we quickly get a read on how their brand will become real, and how well it could bend to accommodate a pivot on the path to product/market fit.

If you’re currently building your brand, you’ll find that avoiding excessive rigidity will take different forms in each of the various dimensions of a brand. While the focus will be on identity messaging, you can also look at the organizational dimension. In our Brand Visuals sprint, for example, we now ask questions like “Is our visual brand system easy to expand for non-experts on the venture team?”

As DV builds corporate ventures, not all of our experiences will translate to the experiences of founders out there. There are obviously many ways of building a good brand for your startup. But whether you do itself, or with a brand agency partner, building a bendable brand will set you up for a smoother path to product/market fit.

A well-defined brand will differentiate you in the market, will help you find customers and will create cohesion within your fast-growing team. But only a bendable brand will not stand in your way when you find and follow new pathways to growth.

Read more from Mario Gamper and his recent article on AI assistants’ impact on experience design, “Trust is the New Clarity.”