You’ve landed on the Big Idea, or at least that’s what you and your fellow sleep-deprived developers believe: a product that will change the world, even one that’s just making the world a little less annoying. In time—if you’re lucky and do great work and a million things go right—you’ll attract legions of customers who will make their own decisions about what your product does or what your brand is. But your branding? You get to control that.
With that agency comes a challenge: that neat logo and custom font that seemed so right as a startup might not age well, especially as your products mature and change, your company culture inevitably transforms, and your relationship with your customer base evolves. Those early branding decisions—made when you had the least amount of information—can lead to complex, expensive branding redos.
Thankfully, many companies have been through the rebranding exercise and have even documented the process, warts and all—without experiencing massive customer fallout or the backlash that every creative marketing team worries about. This gives startup founders a leg up as they think through their own early branding. Here are some valuable takeaways—best practices, common pitfalls, and perhaps most important, what not to do—from brands who’ve invested in branding… and sometimes, rebranding.
Start simple and leave room to grow
One issue that startups often face is that the capital they’ve raised tends to pay for engineers and keeping the lights on, not branding agencies. But there are experienced designers who have created DIY guides to creating viable branding in those early days. So for startups, the key at this early stage is to learn from others.
Take Slack, for example. The company behind the ubiquitous collaboration tool that fuels many startups had a familiar, hash-tag-like logo—the octothorpe—that was instantly recognizable yet soon became problematic. “It was 11 different colors—and if placed on any color other than white, or at the wrong angle (instead of the precisely prescribed 18º rotation), or with the colors tweaked wrong, it looked terrible,” the company explained on its blog. “It pained us.”
A case of an overly complicated design, the various iterations that stemmed from those initial design issues meant a cacophony of mixed imagery and a lack of cohesiveness that made it tough for Slack to project its brand. To address this, Slack’s in-house team joined forces with design studio Pentagram to create a new logo that simplified the color palette while retaining the spirit of the original, proving the old adage that sometimes less is more.
But sometimes branding that worked well in the early startup days can become so limiting later on that a wholesale break is required. For Zendesk, early branding centered on a lotus flower-like logomark and the image of a serene Buddha wearing a headset. It was simple and reflected the company’s values of building software that was beautifully simple to use. Yet as Zendesk grew, evolving the branding became complicated. “Just sticking a Buddha on something is not a way to stimulate a creative team,” said Toke Nygaard, Zendesk’s chief creative officer, in a discussion with Aaron Magness, chief marketing officer of Brandless, at Relate. “But also the character himself was getting increasingly problematic. Using a religious entity in corporate brand collateral was seen as offensive by some and we put a lot of restrictions around his use. We couldn’t animate him and tell stories through him. He became a blocker for us to develop our brand further.”
Zendesk faced a problem that many startups wrestle with: when building a brand from scratch, there’s not much of a backstory. “You don’t have a rich vein of culture and history to build your brand on,” Nygaard said. “All you have is a vague idea of where you want to go, and a dream—and maybe some personality juice from the founders to draw some inspiration from.”
[Watch: Caught on video: The Zendesk Rebrand]
Focus on your company’s values
Airbnb, which launched in 2007, also found that the branding that seemed acceptable in its startup days—the company’s name rendered in a billowy cursive font—no longer worked by 2013. “The business and the community had outgrown the brand,” said Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, in a video about the redesign process. “You can’t get this wrong—this is our identity. Hopefully you do it once, and it’s for 100 years.”
Airbnb teamed with DesignStudio, a firm that fully immersed itself in its client’s culture, which eventually led to the distinctive Bélo, which is meant to convey Airbnb’s core value: belonging. “The community is the product—they are the brand,” Chesky said. “We wanted something that transcended language, transcended culture, transcended geography.”
Like Airbnb, Zendesk’s values became more nuanced over the years and so the redesign process needed to convey the company’s emphasis on relationships being at the core of what their software enables. The end result? The concept of “Relationshapes,” which represent both the customer and the business, and provide infinite storytelling flexibility.
“We foster and nurture relationships between businesses and their customers—and that’s very simple,” Nygaard said. “The thing that’s awesome about this is that relationships are inherently complicated, so there’s a lot of raw material to tell stories. There’s drama and friction to do cool stuff. We just needed the vehicles to tell the story.”
Ask what will resonate with your customers
Brandless launched in 2017 and thought carefully about its branding from the start, a move that has played a huge part in the startup’s immediate success. Instead of spending time and resources devising catchy names and designs for its products, the company opted for what, at first blush, seems like a complete absence of branding.
The simple packaging lets customers know exactly what they’re going to get, including the product name, any certifications, and pertinent details that customers often scour product labels to discern, things like what the product does or whether it’s gluten-free or non-toxic, and so on.
That simplicity stemmed from a desire to avoid “false narratives,” Magness explained to Nygaard. “It is so much more important for you to think about how one individual, who’s not an employee, describes your brand to a friend. It’s not me in a glass house saying, ‘This is our brand.’ It’s providing the guidance and the guidelines, and hopefully the individuals can interpret it appropriately.”
By taking a step back and allowing customers to interpret its products for themselves, Brandless has capitalized on a growing community of end users who eagerly share their experiences with the products, further strengthening the brand. “I think that’s because we’ve given people the permission,” Magness said. “We’ve given them this white space to actually share their story. And then we’re just in the background, helping to bring it to life.”
Nygaard found the same to be true. While Zendesk isn’t a consumer-facing company in the same way that Brandless is, the rebrand unlocked new creative potential. “We invited the company in—it’s really important to make sure that employees are part of the journey,” he said. “Everyone owns the brand and is able to help it grow, and now the brand is taking on a life of its own.”