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  Julie Cottineau Why Entrepreneurs Need Smarter Brands
by Julie Cottineau
June 24, 2011

Working at Virgin for the past five years in the US development office, I’ve met some amazing entrepreneurs. Some of them we’ve done business with, many of them the timing/opportunity wasn’t right – but we still got some exposure to their passion and way of thinking.

 
 

These folks, I’m convinced, have a different genetic code than the average businessperson. They have an amazing ability not just to identify gaps in the marketplace and develop new ideas…but to act on them.

Being a successful entrepreneur is not easy. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And most of all it takes a kind of blind faith, to believe in yourself and your product or service and to get up every morning and keep it moving forward despite (many) obstacles and better resourced market incumbents.

But here’s one thing that I think a lot of would be entrepreneurs are missing…a smarter approach to branding. For many entrepreneurs, “brand development” consists of thinking up a name and a logo and focusing on getting a website up and running.

While these are important elements, they miss the more fundamental role and purpose (and secret weapon) of branding — a powerful Brand Idea.

Here’s the mistake I see made most often with entrepreneurs. They don’t invest enough time and energy in defining and pressure testing their Brand Idea.

If they do have a clear vision or point of view on the fundamental purpose of the brand, it is often more of an internally felt compass and not something that is discussed aloud or shared with others. It’s similar to a religious belief or moral philosophy that may be deeply held but not often articulated. It stays mostly in our hearts and is not often shared.

What’s the problem with this? After all entrepreneurial ventures are often deeply personal journeys driven by the vision of one exceptional person (like my boss Richard Branson).

The problem is that while business ideas are openly circulated in hopes of attracting investors, employees and/or partners, they can only go so far and do so much without a companion (dare I say integrally woven) Brand Idea.

A strong Brand Idea can help amplify your business success:

1. Attract the Right Kind of Investor

2. Make Sure You Have a Well Defined Target Audience

3. Develop Products and Services Faster and with More Discipline

4. Create Brand Expressions that Cut Through

5. Stay On Course as the Company Grows

If you are an entrepreneur interested in learning more practical ways to build your brand, join me at the “Brand in a Box”: Branding for Entrepreneurs course I am giving with SheSays on July 15th in NYC.

What is a Brand Idea? There seems to be a bit of confusion around this. Perhaps because like many things in marketing and branding, we’re always coming up with new and different ways to describe it- which just adds to the general confusion. Some call it a Big Idea, or Brand Philosophy, recently I heard the term Brand Narrative.

Regardless of the label, the fundamental concept is that a Brand Idea is a succinct and motivating summary of what your brand stands for. It should be aspirational (maybe even a bit lofty) and should help guide every single decision you make in developing and managing your business.

Side note: a Brand Idea is not a tagline. It is internally facing, not externally facing like a tagline. Taglines can and should be refreshed over time. Brand Ideas are normally more fundamental than that. While they may evolve as your business and markets evolve, they generally remain consistent unless there is a major 360 degree turn in your businesses reason for being.

1. A strong Brand Idea can help you attract the right kind of investor. “Dumb money” can be fairly easy to find. But “Smart Money” is harder. But it’s better. Because it means you’ve found backers who are on the same page and share the same philosophy. They are more likely to give you on-going advice and be supportive of your need to build a strong business and brand. A well thought out and presented Brand Idea can help you attract the right people on the right terms. It can also help cut through the 1,000’s of pitches that VC’s and another investor see on a regular basis. It can make your venture more memorable and interesting.

2. Developing a Brand Idea forces you to make some tough calls about your target audience and to really make sure there is a well-defined and substantial market for your venture. Too often we fall so in love with our own ideas that we don’t stop to question if there are other people (besides our mom and college roommate) who would also be a receptive , paying audience for our product or service. Brands don’t exist if there is no one out there willing to buy them. If they are not answering an unmet need or addressing a current need in a better way. Brand Idea development makes you go through the process of identifying your target audience, understanding what motivates them, and making sure your idea answers their needs in a way that is relevant and different from current options. You’d be surprised at home many people short change this step… with pretty disastrous results. “If we build it, they will come” may work for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but it can be an arrogant and costly mistake for many entrepreneurs.

3. A Strong Brand Idea can help you develop your product and services faster and with more discipline. One of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs is to stay on track. It’s hard, to know which opportunities to pursue, and which ones to pass on. Particularly when you don’t have the structure and decision making processes of a large company. A well defined Brand Idea should be used as a continual, actionable filter to review everything: products, partnerships, people for fit to your core values. If they don’t fit, even if they have merit, then pass.

4. Well defined Brand Ideas are the cornerstone of great brand expressions that cut through. So many entrepreneurs that I have met and/or worked with spend hours of wasted (precious) time going in circles about the name, logo and marketing materials of the company. But often the reason they can’t decide or seem to get what they are looking for isn’t that they are using the wrong creative resources. It’s that they haven’t defined the Idea behind the creative. They think they will know something good when they see it. But 10 years of running Naming and Consumer Branding at Interbrand has driven home how subjective the creative process can be. Having a strong Brand Idea translates into tighter, better creative briefs which translates into better creative — with fewer (time, money and energy sapping) rounds of iteration and evaluation. And once you have this strong Brand expressions developed, c chances are they will cut through in the marketplace and amplify the always too limited spending of entrepreneurial brands.

5. A Strong Brand Idea will help you navigate the growing pains as your entrepreneurial venture expands from a two to twenty to two hundred employees. Having a tacit understanding of what the Brand stands for and where it should and shouldn’t go is often OK when you can fit all of your brand stakeholders around your kitchen table. But what happens as you grow? How do you efficiently and effectively on-board more people quickly and make sure that they have the same understanding as the original 5 members? How do you make sure you expanding workforce of brand ambassadors is putting out a consistent message to the marketplace? We encountered this same issue at Virgin as the brand began to grow particularly in the United States. We finally decided it was time to take some of the “gut” knowledge and put it down in writing. With an articulated Brand Idea, Core Brand Pillars and some training tools such as identity, tone of voice and launch documents. This didn’t mean we were turning “corporate”. It just meant we were getting smarter about sharing our Brand knowledge and DNA with new members of the family.

Fundamental Brand building, particularly early development of a Brand Idea can be a powerful tool for an entrepreneur. And the difference between a Google, Starbucks, Twitter and all those other failed ventures that never quite made it.

 
   
   Julie Cottineau Cottineau is the Vice President of Brand at Virgin, one of the most successful entrepreneurial brands on the planet. When not hanging out with Sir Richard she is hard at work developing brand strategies for amazing new ventures like Virgin Hotels. Before joining Virgin, Julie ran the Innovation group at Interbrand, and led cross-functional teams in the development of game-changing brands like Orbitz, Stolichnaya Elit, Heinz EZ Squirt, and SBC U-Verse. She is the inventor of Interbrand’s proprietary Brand Tango® Innovation process (actually a game!) which uses out-of-category thinking to drive breakthrough results. Follow Julie on Twitter (@jcottin) and on her blog, BrandTwist.com. Join her on July 15th in New York, when she's teaching a one-day seminar — Brand in a Box: Branding for Entrepreneurs.



 
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