3 Branding Mistakes Most Startups Make (and How to Avoid Them)

July 7, 2021
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With gorgeous visuals dominating our social media feeds and splashy companies with impeccable design popping up all the time, it’s impossible not to think about branding as a modern startup. But, despite the amount of attention so many founders give their brand identities, I see some common mistakes that can hold their companies back. 

The good news is, developing a solid brand doesn’t have to be as complicated as many folks make it out to be. Here are the three most common branding mistakes I’ve seen startups make during my 15+ years working as a brand strategist—and how you can easily avoid them to ensure you’re putting your company’s best foot forward.

Mistake #1: Spending Too Much on Branding

If you’re like most startup founders, you’ve probably spent a lot of time fretting over your budget for branding. Is it worth trying to scrounge up the $50k you’ll need to work with your dream agency? 

I’m going to let you off the hook and tell you, no, it’s almost certainly not. What so many founders don’t account for when doing this math is just how often early-stage startups pivot as they’re trying to figure out their product-market fit. 

Considering that good design is all about tying your brand to your business strategy (more on that in a minute), you don’t want to invest a lot into your brand until you feel secure in that strategy. If you do, that investment is quickly going to feel like a waste when you realize you need to rebrand to match your company’s new direction.

But you also don’t want to try and create a sexy brand on the cheap. You get what you pay for in the design world, so this usually won’t end up looking as professional as you’d like. Instead, I recommend startups aim for simple branding that allows you a lot of flexibility for future changes. Think of this like a black dress: it’s nothing revolutionary, but it also looks timeless and sleek. 

For instance, make a wordmark—your company name in a timeless typeface, à la West Elm or Glossier—instead of trying to create an image-based logo. (I even created a tool to help entrepreneurs do just that!). Use a color-palette generator to choose a few simple colors based on the feeling you want to evoke. And make ample use of the templates available on sites like Canva for everything from websites to business cards to social media posts, customizing them with your wordmark and colors to make them yours. This sort of approach will get you good-enough branding, even on a budget.

Mistake #2: Focusing on Form Over Function 

Especially when you’re DIYing your company branding, it can be tempting to choose what you think looks coolest. The problems come when brands solely select design elements based on their beauty without considering their usability in the slightest. 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen brands design funky logos that are impossible to decipher when they’re scaled down to fit in a social media icon, or choose a typeface that looks cool but is challenging for users to actually read, or pick a website design that looks unique but is difficult to navigate. 

Instead, make sure you think about your users at every step. When designing your logo or wordmark, test it at a bunch of different sizes to make sure it works. Check your color palettes against accessibility tools that ensure there’s enough contrast to be readable (and that your chosen palette will work for colorblind folks, too). Have a friend try and use your website to see if they’re able to navigate easily to where you want them to go. 

Any time you’re making a brand decision, just take a step back and ensure it supports your users rather than getting in the way of them engaging with you entirely.

Mistake #3: Not Tying the Brand to a Solid Strategy 

Of course, a DIY brand strategy may not work forever. At some point, once you’ve found your product-market fit, you’ll want to invest in professional design and branding work to take your company to new heights. But too many startups walk into that process with a mood board of what they want to look like, instead of focusing on what they want their brand to convey.

The best brands aren’t plucked out of thin air—they’re rooted in the company’s business strategy. All of the design elements, from the logo to the colors, are carefully selected to align with a company’s mission and goals, to attract their target audience, and to set them apart from the competition. 

So instead of spending time blue-skying about your dream design, use your energy to do some actual business exercises. When I work with clients, we go through branding workbooks that ask questions like: 

Yes, working through these types of questions is a lot harder, and a bit less fun, than thinking about your favorite colors and fonts. But doing so will be infinitely more valuable to your brand, and the future of your business. 

About the author: Saskia Ketz is the founder of MMarchNY, an NYC-based branding agency that’s worked with world-class brands like Netflix, Ikea, Timberland, and Mojomox, an online wordmark builder that allows startups on tight budgets to create dynamic, professional-looking logos themselves.

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