Carpe Diem: How Brand Vision Can Unleash a Startup

By Nirali Rodriguez and Bill Maday

Chaos reigns even in the best of startup circumstances. There’s a product to build, relationships to nurture, partnerships to explore. If you’re well-funded, there’s likely significant overlap in job responsibilities as everyone tries to capture every opportunity. If you’re bootstrapping it, well, you wish for overlapping job responsibilities as you scramble to build products, relationships and a brand.

Some of the world’s most successful startups emerged from this chaos. Often, in part, because of it—after all, when your feet are in the fire, you become quite aggressive in the pursuit of cooler surfaces. Think of Amazon, Nest and the countless others who fought their way through to become the tech titans they are today. These companies share many commonalities, of course. One of the most critical, that helped them move from messy to purposeful chaos: A powerful vision for the brand.

From Messy to Organized Chaos
Perhaps the most important thing a powerful brand vision does is inspire employees. Working in a startup is daunting and employees crave brave, bold direction. Brand vision does for employees what Professor Keating, Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society, did for his students: Help them imagine themselves as the builders of a new world. Casting employees as the heroes of an epic journey to disrupt the status quo deeply invests them in the company and rallies them to the fight.

A powerful brand vision also sets an agenda, guiding business decisions and giving purpose to operations and the culture at large. Jeff Bezos always had his sights on changing the retail model—books were simply his first tool of growth. With the vision set, his team was free to explore and pursue ambitious—and sometimes crazy—ideas.

Last, but hardly least, a powerful brand vision serves as an objective decision-making tool, giving employees something to measure their efforts and ideas against. This isn’t to say that it should slow progress or that mistakes won’t be made. It shouldn’t and they absolutely will. Regularly. But a clear brand vision offers an anchor point to return to as the business changes and grows.

Build the Brand, Build the Business
Let’s consider the role of brand for established companies versus startups. For the stalwarts, even those for whom brand is essential to their being—think Nike, McDonald’s, Apple, IBM—brand refreshes are seasoning on a dish that’s already been cooked. Even the most successful ones are about resurrecting the company’s deepest strengths and tapping into their most authentic selves to regain relevance in a changing world. A new brand vision comes from the top down and must play well with legacy decisions and deep-seated beliefs, both inside and outside the organization.

For startups, a brand vision is a foundational element to create explosive, out-of-the-gate growth. To do so, it must be inextricably linked to the most foundational business and product vision. And together, they become the components used to govern business decisions, where to invest, which products to build and which markets to tackle—even the kinds of people to hire. To complete our overcooked cooking metaphor, brand vision for startups isn’t about creating a perfect meal. It’s about inspiring new thinking, encouraging relentless experimentation and, ultimately, making something deliciously unique.

In our marketing experiences, we’ve seen up close the impact brand has on stalwarts and startups alike. And in the early years of a startup, a clear and compelling brand vision takes on an outsized role in helping the company achieve liftoff. With chaos one of the few constants in a startup, how powerful is your brand vision—how is it helping you steer through the chaos to unleash your business’s full potential?

As an Associate Partner in Strategy, Nirali spearheads brand development for emerging and established brands, including Arity, Hyatt, IBM, Mack Trucks, Marvin Windows and Doors, and Morningstar. Drawing from 14+ years of experience, Nirali works alongside clients and cross-disciplinary teams to solve business and brand issues through data-driven human insights, creativity and hands-on prototyping. Before joining VSA in 2011, Nirali lead strategic planning for a variety of brands at Havas Worldwide in Chicago.
Nirali can be contacted at nrodriguez@vsapartners.com

Bill is a Creative Director, Writing at VSA, and specializes in brand strategy and expression, advertising and digital efforts for B2B companies. He has led writing initiatives for startups and established brands, including IBM, Northern Trust, Arity and Berkadia. Prior joining VSA Partners, Bill worked at Razorfish, leading content on various digital initiatives for a Fortune 50 financial services company.
Bill can be contacted at bmaday@vsapartners.com