Sep 26, 2023

Doug Fox: The 5 Commandments of Startup Branding

Doug Fox is a LaunchX mentor, passionate brand champion, and motivating coach.  He wrote the following article which appeared on September 15, 2016 on LinkedIn.Entrepreneurs are faced on a daily basis with way too much to do and far too little time, forcing their day into a constant prioritization. Frequently their startup brand gets pushed way down to the bottom of that prioritization.In this environment, I know they’re way more likely to read about the things they could screw up than the things they could do well. Creative Director Steve Lynch always said that 'if the 10 Commandments had been the 10 things to do, no one would’ve read them'. So I introduce the time starved startup founder to the 5 commandments of startup branding:

Commandment #1: Thou shall not chase shiny objects

I’ve written about this previously in my Positioning: Adderall for Startup ADD post, and I can’t hit it enough. Lack of focus dooms many an entrepreneur (and large company as well).

Focus, focus, FOCUS.

Craft your strategy based on audience insight and then until there is significant data that points otherwise, you keep barreling ahead. Resist the urge to make those 'n' of 1 pivots after your most recent sales call.

Keep your eye on the prize. And ignore all those shiny objects along the way.

An important part of this effort is the crafting of a sharp value proposition for your company. One that states who you are, and who you aren’t. Who you target, and who you don’t. This gets everyone on the same page. That will not only improve your marketing but your business operations as well.Mike Troiano, CMO of Actifio is one of the top thought leaders in startup positioning. Check out his Startup Marketing 101 Slideshare.

Commandment #2: Honor thy audience

Study your audience deeply. Understand their pains, wants, needs and desires and then build your brand and your business around those needs. Validate your approach and then barrel forward.I’m amazed how many times I meet an entrepreneur who knows very little about their target audience.

You had one job!

Know your audience. Talk to them. A lot. Ask lots of questions. Lots of open ended questions. What language do they use to describe the problem you solve. Not just about the problem you solve, but about all their challenges. Get to know them. Figure out what makes them tick. Trust me, it will be a huge help.And then even worse are the entrepreneurs who says their product is for everyone. Well that might be the easiest target audience to write on paper, but it is impossible to target. If you are all things to all people, you will be nothing to no one.Pick an audience. Know them well and target them so you sound like the long lost friend they’ve been missing.

Commandment #3: Thou shalt not emphasize only ‘what’ you do

‘What’ you do matters to your audience. It’s the thing they’ll be replacing if they engage with your brand.But ‘How’ you do it is more important, ideally how you do it differently. This is where you can stand out, get attention.But the ‘Why’ you do it can be the most motivating thing. On the non-sexy side, the ‘Why’ can be the benefits of what you do.But ideally there is a bigger compelling ‘Why’ driving you, driving your company, your offering. If there is one, it can motivate not just prospects, but everyone inside your own walls as well. Uncover the why and benefit greatly.If you haven’t watched Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk - Start With Why, close this window and watch it right now. “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” It will be the best 18 minutes you spend all week.Zipcar is a great example.What they do - Car sharing serviceHow they do it - Technology improved member experienceWhy they do it - Too many cars on the road. Change the world.Which company do you want to rent from? The one that offers a car sharing service, or the one that is tackling congestion problems across global cities.Why matters. Uncover your why.

Commandment #4: Thou shalt not ignore emotion

“We sell to very serious engineers and they make decisions completely rationally.”


Whether you are selling a $1 million dollar piece of equipment or a $10 t-shirt, people make decisions emotionally and justify them rationally. Uncover the emotional benefits of your offering and leverage them to to make a stronger, deeper connection with your audience.Connect emotionally first and then that will give you more opportunity to tell your rational story. More opportunities to overcome their hesitations and objections. More opportunities to check all the boxes. More opportunities than your competitors to close the deal. This is a very good thing.HubSpot is a great example of a marketer leveraging emotion. On the list of emotions, love is one of the riskiest ones to leverage as a marketer. (kind of like blogging about religion) But HubSpot has done it so impactfully and credibly. Its Marketing Love platform has connected and converted the marketing audience at an amazing rate and valuation.HubSpot uncovered a key insight. Many marketers had fallen out of love with their profession. They started their career with lots of enthusiasm but somewhere along the way became disenfranchised. Instead of connecting with customers, they were spamming them. Tweaking subject lines to trick prospects into clicking more often.By encouraging marketers to ‘Create Marketing People Love’, they took their position as a career relationship therapist, and marketers have been lining up around the world to lay down on their couch. Kudos to Mike Volpe for his vision for HubSpot.

Commandment #5: Thou shalt not ignore the internal brand

Brand stewardship starts internally. And no matter what type of fancy marketing efforts you put out there, your employees = brand reality.Your brand needs to be credible to who your company is, and the employees embodying those traits. You need to train those employees on the brand values, how to communicate the brand, and ideally how to live the brand.The best place to start here is with HR. Clearly define who you are looking for in employees, and who you aren’t. Set the tone with their onboarding, and then carry it through with how the founders behave each and every day.A strong internal brand will strengthen your external marketing efforts. But a strong internal brand will also also help you recruit and retain the best people. It will help you define and focus the daily effort. And it will foster the people skills and encourage the traits you want inside and outside the walls.Tony Hsieh and Zappos have done an amazing job crafting a terrific internal brand.

Internal matters, a lot.

So in summary, the positive side of the 5 commandments of startup branding:

  1. Focus, Focus Focus
  2. Know your audience intimately
  3. Uncover the ‘Why’
  4. Connect emotionally
  5. Start your brand internally

Embrace these commandments and avoid a big flood in the future.Or spend your time building an Ark to wait it out. Good luck getting your investors to fund that.

Follow us on:

Subscribe to our newsletter