Brand strategy for startups – an interview with Simon Coe

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Simon Coe is a brand strategist and coach who works almost exclusively with startups.

He comes from London but moved to Sweden, where he became a consultant and then a freelance copywriter for international B2B brands and agencies.

He spent three years working with Forsman & Bodenfors on a series of campaigns for Volvo Trucks that ended with the most awarded campaign of the decade – the Epic Split. After this, he started spending more time in Italy, where he likes to go paragliding and help early-stage startups.

Epic Split
Epic Split

Tell us how you got into the startup scene.

Simon Coe: – Just before the pandemic, I began working with a tech startup in Rome called Filo. There were two things that struck me. One was that it was a lot of fun to work with startups (such smart people with such open minds). The other was the realisation that startups need brand strategy even more than regular companies or established brands. 

The way I see it startups are all about high-speed growth, but if you don’t know where you’re going, then high speed can be very dangerous. This is where even a very basic brand strategy can make the difference between sink or swim.

What are the key differences between working with a startup and a larger, established company on communication and branding?

I think the bigger and more established the brand is, the more the company concerns itself with who its customers are – and how it can shift their perception. Big brands, especially consumer brands, depend on keeping huge numbers of people loyal to their products or services. Whereas for startups, who might not even have a customer base, to begin with, differentiation and purpose are far more important. They need to stand out and be clear about what they stand for. That’s the only way to survive.

This is why one of the worst things a startup can do is to imitate an established brand in the same field. What’s going to make your startup grow is not what you have in common with these brands but what makes you different to them and how you use that.

It’s useful to keep in mind that big brands are usually stuck with big infrastructures that don’t adapt easily, and there’s often too much at stake to change direction. Early-stage startups, on the other hand, have little to lose and often come to the market with something that has huge potential for change.

But as a founder you have to trust in what it is that you bring to the market that your competitors don’t. The tale of David and Goliath springs to mind: Don’t pretend to be Goliath if you’re half his size and your name is David. Better to practice using your sling and stone.

So how should startups think about brand strategy when they’re setting out? 

The first thing they need to know is what a brand strategy can realistically do for them. In the early days, I think the most valuable thing it can do is to provide clarity within the organisation. I usually say that the biggest threat to your survival as a startup is trying to be – or to do – too many things. Of course, this is perfectly natural. When you come up with something groundbreaking, it’s hard to know exactly how it’s going to take shape – or what avenues you will have to go down in order for it to take off. 

The problem here is that internally, you wind up with something very exciting … but highly chaotic. This might be a lot of fun, but it’s also a great way to stay in no man’s land – which is not a good place to be. So when you develop your first brand strategy, you’re trying to find clarity about where your startup is really going (what we often call purpose). Once you’ve figured this out, you have a point of focus that everybody and everything can align with. Then your organisation can move faster and more efficiently – in the right direction. 

Of course, this new sense of clarity and purpose leads to the next thing a brand strategy can do for them. It can enable founders to get investors, customers, partners and talented people to believe in the startup – and to take a leap of faith in it. Whether with a seed round, a POC agreement or a new collaboration. And let’s not forget paying customers.

So I guess what I want startups to know when they’re starting out is that they need a brand strategy sooner than they think – long before they go to market.

What advice would you give to founders on building a solid and consistent brand identity? 

To develop something solid and consistent, you really need some kind of roadmap, or at the very least, a north star. Ideally, you would develop the brand strategy before the brand identity. In reality, it rarely works like this, and so sooner or later, most startups run into problems – very often with the brand name. When this happens, it’s tempting to do another quick fix. Don’t do that. Invest in your strategy first, and then you’ll be able to develop a brand identity that will really help you to communicate what your brand is about. Once you’ve done this, consistency comes much easier.

Which challenges do you encounter most often when it comes to brand identity?

The single biggest issue I come across is naming. There are so many pitfalls when choosing a name for your brand. Besides the obvious ones like taking a name that you will never be able to register – or maybe even get you into a legal battle – there are a lot of things that you need to be clear about before you start. 

One that’s often overlooked is what should we be naming? Perhaps you’re simply coming up with a legal company name, or will it, by default, become a founder brand? Or should you instead be focusing on the innovation itself? Coming back to my point about the dangers of trying to be or do too many things, it’s often worth asking yourself this question: What is the one thing that we’re doing that is going to drive our success and generate the type of growth we’re looking for? More often than not, that’s what you should be trying to build your brand around.

But apart from strategic mistakes, what I often see is a lost opportunity. Your name should be the spearhead of your brand identity. It is the one brand asset that will shape the way you are perceived each and every single time you come into contact with a new stakeholder. Each and every single time.

Of course, it’s possible for a brand to make it with a name that has almost no meaning (just think of brands that are built on a common surname). But if your name can connect in some smart or subtle way with the idea inside your brand, then it will accelerate your growth many times over. 

When you come up with a name that has that kind of power, people start believing in it before they even know what it is. And that’s a great way to start a new relationship with anybody, whether they’re an investor, a new employee, or your first customer.   

What strategies do you recommend to startups who are trying to stand out from the crowd or create awareness?

The short answer is there are no one-size-fits-all strategies. In fact, any tried and tested strategy is going to make you blend in with the crowd rather than stand out of it. So we’re back to the point about not imitating other brands. It might feel like the safe thing to do, but it’s actually going to make you disappear because nobody will know who you are or what your brand stands for. 

My advice is to resist the urge to invest in marketing before you have figured out your brand strategy. By that, I mean some type of brand platform that will define the fundamentals of your brand in a cohesive and compelling way. It’s not something you can expect to thrash out with your partners in an afternoon, and you will almost certainly need some professional help. But when you’re done, it’ll be worth it. You’ll know what your brand stands for, you’ll know how you’re going to live up to that in ways that others don’t or can’t – and it’ll even be clear what it is that’s going to make you stand out. 

And where does storytelling fit into all of this?     

The storytelling should come straight out of those strategic findings. The first iteration won’t be perfect, but the important thing is that you can share the essence of your strategy in a way that everybody gets. It’s not that you’re going to make up a story based on fantasy; you’re just going to retell your story based on those key themes – what you’ve decided the brand must stand for, how you plan to live up to that, and what aspect is going to help your brand to stand out. 

You can tell the story by looking back or looking ahead. You can tell it as a pledge or a manifesto. You can tell it like an investor pitch or, better still, like an elevator pitch. The point is to get the main ideas across in a way that captures people and makes them believe in you. Then it’s time to tell your story to the world – and use it to gain the awareness your venture deserves.

So what’s the best way for a startup to go about developing the brand strategy? 

A few years ago I would have said the best option is to turn to an agency. But I’m increasingly convinced that the most effective brand strategies are the ones that the founders themselves create. Firstly, founders know their unique situations better than anybody. Secondly, it takes enormous commitment to implement a strategy – the type of commitment you have if you yourself created it. 

That’s not to say that founders don’t need brand strategists. They do. They need somebody with the critical know-how and experience to guide them swiftly through the process. And it really helps if they have the distance needed to maintain some objectivity. Because, as we all figure out, sooner or later, you can’t read the label of the jar you’re inside. 

So nowadays, I would say the best way to go about developing your brand strategy is to find a strategist rather than an agency. And one who feels comfortable working with you rather than for you. There needs to be some push and pull in both directions.

What metrics should startups use to measure the success of their brand strategies?

The first thing to look at is clarity and alignment. Begin with the people inside the organisation – do they have a clear understanding of what the brand is trying to achieve? Are the decisions they make aligned with it? These questions have a qualitative rather than quantitative nature, so they might not work on a spreadsheet. But simply start casually asking people in your day-to-day work, and you’ll soon find out if you have clarity and alignment.  

If you don’t, your brand strategy might have failed before it even got out the door. And if you do have clarity and alignment in the organisation, then you can start probing people outside of it. Stay curious about what people perceive your brand is trying to do – it might seem obvious to you, but you’re its creator.

The next metric worth checking is how much time it takes you to get somebody to believe in your brand. A major part of that comes down to the story we tell and how well we tell it. So start by considering how much of your time you as a founder have spent trying to convince partners, investors or customers, to trust in or to invest in your startup. Use this as your reference point – it should get easier, not harder, as time goes on.

For a founder who reads this and wants to start work on their strategy straight away, where should they begin?

They should get a pencil and a piece of paper and try answering this question: What will the world lose out on if your startup doesn’t make it?

Once you have an answer to this that both daunts you and excites you, then I’d love to hear from you – or see you at one of my seminars!

Simon Coe Paragliding
Simon Coe Paragliding