Dan Cohen, Founder and Principal of Full Court Press Communications, asked some entrepreneurs about their marketing and branding strategies. 

By Dan Cohen

You have a creative idea for a new company.  Your product or service may be anything from a business plan on a napkin to an early sample, or even a finished item.  Now what?

Entrepreneurs and their support networks face difficult choices on where to devote their time, energy, and financial resources. Often, branding and communications are not a priority, and companies have a lot of unanswered questions about how to invest in both. When is it too early?  When is it too late?  And frankly, what is branding and communications, and why should it matter to us?

We are asked these questions constantly by our friends in the business and social good communities. We have a few guiding principles, but in the interest of being innovative, we also crowd-sourced some thoughts from among our peers who can add some insights.

What do start-ups need to know about branding and communications?

Our counsel is that YOU are the only one who can define your product or service.  And the sooner you do it, the better.  Quickly deciding on who you are targeting – and perhaps more importantly, who you aren’t marketing to, means you can narrow your focus, allocate the right amount of resources and surround the audiences you want to reach.  This is true whether the target is a customer, investor, or donor.

Once you make those choices, you can build a plan to make them a reality.  Don’t be afraid to focus on a few priorities that matter most to your customers (like a strong website, or some stories in key media) while leaving other less impactful tactics behind. As you develop your plan, be sure to ask yourself: does this approach help me advance my goals and get me in front of the audiences I want to reach?

But what do others say?

Oakland’s Omri Dahan is a successful start-up, clean tech, and professional services entrepreneur. He is Chief Revenue Officer at Emeryville-based Marqeta.  Omri says to first focus on your market and counsels that if you are a consumer-facing startup, then “an early and strong emphasis on branding and communications is critical.”  However, if you are focused on the business market (B2B), then “the priority must be to focus on a very clear target vertical and not stray from that.”

Mark Zitter, Oaklander and founder of Zitter Health Insights, a healthcare research firm, is a serial entrepreneur and investor.  He argues that early branding and use of communications tools can help garner attention and reduce buyer fear of taking a chance on a new company.

“Many start-ups focus only on the first issue (a brand), because it’s fun to brainstorm eye-catching logos and clever names. However, customers don’t want to make a mistake, so all of your branding and communications should also be designed to reduce the perceived risk of working with an unknown organization,” he added.

Elke Barter takes a different and old-school approach.  She is a graphic designer who advises start-ups. She also recently completed the graphic overhaul for Jack London Square and Visit Oakland.

She says, “Invest in a package that will make you look slick and smart–and by package I mean logo, business cards, letterhead (yes, you’ll use it), and a killer website.”

She adds that it is important to engage professionals to help and to not go it alone.  To succeed, she says, “arrive with ideas for your agency or consultant, but trust them as the experts to make recommendations that are relevant, creative and thoughtful enough to help build your brand.”

How should I invest in branding and communications?

Every dollar, every day, every moment counts when starting a business.  Everything you spend without a clear sense of how it will be returned by consumer success requires a giant leap of faith.  But often, it’s that leap that separates success from failure.

Investing in branding and communications is important and it should begin early on. All companies must make tough choices and commitment to do it in a way that focuses not on what you want, but on what will drive the target customer to engage, trust, and buy from you.

We always counsel that while it may be fun to invest in tactics like a cool website, its far better to invest in and focus on communications and brand strategy. Yes, it’s like eating your spinach before dessert, but it pays off.  Every moment, every dollar you spend on the front end deciding what to do, and building a rationale for it, will pay off in the long run in both customer success and financial efficiency.

But you don’t have to take our word for it.

Oakland’s Jeff Kirschner is a veteran advertising expert and founder of Litterati – whose goal is to build a litter-free planet by using Instagram. He counsels that the benefits of having a branding and communications strategy is that it “helps your entire team stay focused on the core message and helps you identify the most powerful stories to tell to achieve success.”

Chris Cassidy of digital marketing firm, Hustle Labs adds, “Branding and communications aren’t Band-Aids to be applied after you’ve worked out the important stuff. They need to be part of the discussion and product development from the get-go.”

Oaklander Warren Mazer, a strategy consultant and CEO-for-hire, adds, “You must have a branding and communications strategy or there will be NO return on any investment.  However, you need to be clear-eyed and ruthless that any strategy may include delaying spending money (minimizing the “I”) to increase the return (“R”).

Perhaps its best summed up by Oaklander Neil Hart, a Partner in the Strategic Technology Advisory Practice at Ernst & Young. He shares that “Your brand should communicate why you do what you’re doing, not what you’re doing.  When you invest in that, your return will be maximized.”

How can I get started?

Here are a few steps you can take to get started on the branding and communications journey:

  • What are our company goals?
  • What is the “only we?” of our product/service?
  • Who are the target audiences we need to reach to help us achieve those goals? Who should we ignore (for now)?
  • What are the right messages to help us reach, connect, and build trust with these audiences?
  • What are the right communications strategies and tactics to invest in to reach these audiences?
  • What can I measure to know if I’m succeeding?

 Asking yourself these questions early on, and deliberately answering them, will go a long way in helping you develop the right communications and branding approach.



placeholder head shot Dan Cohen is Founder and Principal of Full Court Press Communications, located in the Tribune Tower. He’s a recovering political consultant, lawyer, and big-brand PR guy whose firm focuses on making social change through strategic communications (mostly in California).