Many startups run by founders with little marketing experience worry that branding is something that they are missing and need to spend more time on.  I blame Apple for this.  I cringe when I hear startups tell me they need to do “marketing like Apple”.  The reality is that things that matter for more mature established companies are different from those that matter for smaller companies playing in less mature markets.  Here are three branding mistakes I think most startups should avoid:

Mistake #1: Confusing Branding with Design (and Forgetting about Awareness)

Design (particularly for your website) is important because it has a direct impact on your conversion rates and how easily people can find what they are looking for.  Branding on the other hand is about what people believe about your company, product and/or services.  For most startups, the problem is not that people have misconceptions about your brand, it’s that they don’t think about you AT ALL.  If nobody ever finds out about you, your beautiful logo, amazing crafted “brand values” and meticulously thought-out “brand image” won’t matter (please note: Apple does not have this problem).  In order to have a brand, you need to be known.  The best way for small companies to get known is to have an offering that a market loves (and ideally loves to talk about).

Mistake #2: Believing that you have Control over your Brand

Again, your brand is what people believe about your company, and it’s products.  As such, it’s something that a company can try to steer in a direction but buyers will ultimately control.  For example, in the past week I’ve heard Microsoft described as “evil”, IBM as “stodgy”, Oracle as “mean”, and Apple as “arrogant”.  I’m sure none of these companies is spending marketing budget to support these.  What a market decides your brand is about is the direct reflection of their experiences with your product and company.  By focusing on those you are focusing on your brand.

Mistake #3 – Believing that Brand Matters more than Product or Customer Service

When folks say “We need to market more like Apple” often what they are getting at is that people will buy Apple products, even if they are more expensive and have lesser features, because of the Apple “brand”.  But startups would be foolish to think that they can win in the market with inferior, more expensive products because their marketing looks better.  Apple didn’t.  The beautiful marketing alone without highly differentiated products, a great in-store customer experience, the reputation they have built over decades for innovative, easy to use products, etc. etc. would not have been enough.  There’s no shortcut to building a great brand.  You still have to do the work of building products that people love and providing customers with service that keeps them happy over time.

If you do a great job with customer service and product, later on when you are flush with cash, you can hire some fancy consultants to come in to give your brand a face to match its soul.  Your company isn’t Apple.  At least not yet it isn’t.

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