One of the two mistakes I see many early founders and entrepreneurs making are either spending too little time or too much money on brand for their startups & small businesses. I say this as someone who sells branding to founders and entrepreneurs, so while this advice may result in reducing the number of clients I’ll have in the future, I think the possibility of early businesses saving money, and perhaps more importantly, not being terribly hard to look at, is worth the risk in my book.
I want to introduce the idea of Minimum Viable Brand as a concept to aim at. Typically, when newer entrepreneurs talk about branding, they think that means a logo. However, what the average person considers to be a logo is actually two different brand elements in a trenchcoat:
First, we have the graphic element you’d typically call a logo, which is a logomark. The example below is from a Crypto marketing agency we branded called SmartBlocks:
Next, we have the logotype, which is the combination of the business name and a particular font chosen for the brand:
Finally, we have the combination of the two, which you can call the combination mark:
When you’re first starting out, entrepreneurs tend to go wrong in one of two directions. The most common of these for the older generation of entrepreneurs (and especially small business owners) is to ignore branding almost entirely, which leads to very confusing experiences for potential customers. You wouldn’t go to a job interview wearing a stained shirt and cargo shorts, so think of your brand like your business’ uniform and realize that any time someone sees it, you’re in a job interview. Potential users, customers, and clients are always getting information about you when they’re interacting with you, and if that information says “this company isn’t legitimate” or “this guy looks hungover,” you can imagine how that’s going to impact their future decisions to do business with you or trust you with their time and money.
The opposite of that mistake is the one I tend to see younger entrepreneurs make, including myself when I was starting out. This mistake is to go overboard with branding, and the reason people think they need to do this is because in today’s post-Apple market, people have realized the value and importance of being really well-branded. It’s an easy mistake to make- everyone wants to make a great impression. However, you can think of over-branding an early-stage business like buying a tuxedo for a job interview when you’re already broke. It’s not worth the investment and unless you can back up the statement you’re making, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
If you understand the basic rules of professional fashion, you could go get a perfectly acceptable outfit at WalMart and land the job. In the same vein, you can learn some basic rules of design, get a little bit scrappy, and make a perfectly presentable Minimum Viable Brand.
Let’s break your brand down into the basics. We’re going to need the following:
Step 1: A basic understanding of your brand’s essence
Step 2: A logotype and one or two secondary fonts plus a color palette
Bonus Step: A branded email signature [EASY]
Bonus Step: Branded social media profile and banner pictures [INTERMEDIATE]
Bonus Step: A basic website so people can find you and your offering [CHALLENGING]
Sounds easy enough, right? If you can nail these four things, you’ll be in much better shape than most of the companies I see in my day-to-day work, and I look at hundreds every month. You would be surprised at how often people get this wrong- so let’s help you get started with a leg-up over your competitors.
Before we get into the brand itself, we’re going to run through a trimmed-down version of one of the business philosophy sprints I run with my clients, the Alpha Sprint. I use this exercise as a way to get to the heart of what a business cares about, because good branding is the visual and verbal expression of a business’ invisible philosophy. It’s a way for you to communicate what you do, what you care about, and what experience you’re trying to give to your customers.
I’ve created a series of worksheets in Figma, a free, collaborative graphic design tool that I personally use for everything and highly recommend- most designers use this nowadays and it is truly phenomenal. You’re welcome to follow along with the rest of this article by clicking this link, otherwise, you can use pen and paper or your preferred choice of graphic design tool- even Google Docs will work for most of this. I’ll also explain Figma in a bit more detail later in this article. For the next section, we’ll be using the Step 1 worksheet below:
Get the Minimum Viable Brand worksheet in Figma here!
First, we’re going to outline your values- you should aim to have 3-7 one-word values, these should be things you and your business deeply care about. Good examples of values are things like “excellence” or “compassion,” bad examples are buzzwords like “synergy” and “innovation” which sound cool but don’t mean much to your customers. Words are important, and every synonym means something slightly different, whether it’s in the connotation or just the way the word sounds. Assertive, dominant, confident, and aggressive are all in the same family, but they have very different meanings. A good example- Domino’s Pizza’s central value is “dominate,” and as a result, they’re a very masculine company in comparison to Pizza Hut, which is more family-oriented and somewhat wholesome.
Once you’ve got your 3-7 values, create short, pithy value statements (I call these axioms) that help to explain what that value means. For example, if your value is “honesty,” your axiom could be “honesty is the best policy,” “always tell the truth,” or “we will tell customers that their baby is ugly, even if it hurts.” The key here is to keep them short and catchy, and your goal is to let your future employees and customers know what your value means to you. These form the basis of how you communicate what you care about, whether that’s in marketing materials, website copy, or even in the way you act in the day-to-day experience of running your business. They help with hiring, with advertising, and with ensuring you’re always staying true to the things you care about when times get tough.
Here are the values and axioms I created with Dan Rhoads, an insurance salesman and financial advisor as an example:
Next, we’re going to talk about why your company exists with a mission statement. I like to structure these as a sentence (sometimes a run-on) that starts with “Our mission is to…” and follows Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle/Start with Why concept.
Here’s one I did for Prismatica, an NFT Trading Card Game company that’s changing the way we collectively interact with storytelling in multiplayer gaming:
Our mission is to:
WHY - immerse the world in the foundation of what makes us human
HOW - through storytelling, collective myth-making, and desire-driven economics
WHAT - as a Web3 game development studio.
I like to think of a mission statement as the one-sentence elevator pitch. It should be the shortest possible explanation of WHY you’re working on what you’re working on, HOW you use processes and methods to accomplish it, and WHAT you’re literally doing. When you get this right, the WHY section should be an emotional hook, the HOW should explain some of the things you do well, or do differently than your competitors. Finally, the WHAT should be a black and white, buzzword-free description of your company. People tend to either struggle with WHY things or WHAT things, so if you’re a WHY person, force yourself to be as literal as humanly possible, and if you’re a WHAT person, make sure that your WHY section is purely emotional, big-picture and not “to make money by providing a service.” Ask yourself WHY you really care about solving this problem or providing this service in particular.
Once you’ve got that, we’ll move on to your company’s vision. This is an aspiration, emotionally-charged picture of what it looks like 100 years from now when you’re dead and your company has conquered the world. I like to frame these as short sentences starting with the words “Our vision is a world where…” and structured to really give people an idea of what kind of feeling they’ll get out of working with you. Obviously, a plumbing company isn’t going to have the same epic narrative as SpaceX, but even Sherwin-Williams, a paint company, has the words “Cover the Earth” in their logo, so there’s certainly room to dream here.
Here’s a vision statement I did with iMERS, a metaverse trading game:
A world where players anywhere can experience the thrill of trading in a competitive metaverse, develop superior trading skills, and become the next generation of trading superstars.
Next, we’re going to move into the trinity of brand elements, personality, visual identity, and verbal identity. For these three, I want you to take a few minutes and pretend (seriously) that your brand is a flesh-and-blood human person who you’ve been hanging out with for the last hour. Once you’ve done this for a bit, write down 7-15 bits for each of the following:
Describe how it acts; what would it do at a party? Does it even go to parties? (Is it: funny, serious, eccentric, bizarre, antisocial, hypermasculine, huggable, wishy-washy, commitment-phobic, tense, ponderous, wistful, etc.?)
Describe what it’s wearing. (Does it wear: slacks, shorts, a button-up, a dress, a Canadian tuxedo, a bear costume, all pink, etc? Include two or three colors here.)
Describe how it speaks. (Is it: formal, informal, loquacious, terse, relaxed, tense, grandiloquent, spartan, jargon-y, accented, scientific, rural, posh, nerdy, common, etc.)
Don’t overthink these three, they don’t need to be perfect, your goal is just to create a sort of caricature of your brand: not a caricature in the sense of a drawing with a big head that you got on the Venice Beach boardwalk, but in that you should be aiming to emphasize the distinctive characteristics that are unique to your brand.
As an exercise, let’s imagine the difference between the following:
How are the personalities of the following brands different? How are they similar?
Coke vs Pepsi vs Sprite
Apple vs Microsoft vs Google
Tesla vs Ford vs Ferrari
How are the visual identities of the following brands different? How are they similar?
WalMart vs Target vs Best Buy
McDonald’s vs Burger King vs Arby’s
Facebook vs Youtube vs Twitter vs TikTok
How are the verbal identities of the following brands different? How are they similar?
Arby’s vs Sonic vs Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.
Lincoln vs Chevy vs the Honda Fit
Geico vs Progressive vs Liberty Mutual
(A note: Arby’s is a wonderfully executed example of doing things right for their target audience, and the person who runs their social media account is an actual, factual wizard.)
At this point, assuming you’ve completed the above exercises, you should have a much better understanding of the core details that you’re trying to communicate with your brand! It’s a decent amount of work, but this makes all the difference between you and your competitors who won’t put in the effort. Great job, dear reader.
Now that we’ve covered the heart of your brand, let’s talk about how we’re going to execute it and make something beautiful, or if you’re not artistically-inclined, how to avoid making something catastrophically ugly.
Before we do that, one word of advice-
If you are a founder, you are likely one of two types of people: the person who does everything themselves, or the person who understands how to delegate effectively. You should aim to be capable of being person one when you have to, but you must learn to be person two if you’re going to succeed.
I say this for two reasons:
One, it’s important advice that took me a long time to learn.
Two, if you’re not above average at design, or if you don’t consider yourself to be a particularly artistic or creative person, that’s okay, just be capable of acknowledging that you’re not the best at it, and double down on what you are good at instead.
A huge reason that lots of poorly-branded companies exist is because founders are either too stubborn to outsource or they don’t realize that they have bad taste and thus don’t know what good design looks like. This happens way more than you probably realize. It’s worth understanding that at some point you’re probably going to have to work with designers, and you will be better off learning how to let them do their jobs and trust that they know what they’re doing. When in doubt, hold up your design next to a company at the top of your industry and ask if they’re really comparable, or post it in either r/baddesigns or Graphic Design Is My Passion and get some honest feedback.
With that out of the way, it’s time for me to do my absolute best to prevent you from doing anything terribly complicated or difficult, so let’s make you a Minimum Viable Brand.
First things first, we’re going to assume you have a name for your company! If so, great, if not, you should figure that out and meet me back here once you do.
We’re going to take the name of your company and turn it into a logotype. For this part of the exercise, we’ll be using the Step 2 worksheet:
If you have any prior experience using fonts other than the default fonts that come with your computer, you’re welcome to substitute your own, but I’ll assume you’re not for the sake of simplicity, so we’ll use Google Fonts, which are free and easy to use in most cases.
There are two basic kinds of fonts that you need to know, Serif and Sans-Serif. A serif is the little pip that comes off of letters in a font like Times New Roman, and Sans-Serif fonts like Helvetica lack those pips. Serif fonts tend to look more old-fashioned, prestigious, and serious, while Sans-Serif fonts look more modern, futuristic, and approachable. This is the first choice for you to make with your brand, but try out both and see what feels right.
When you’re choosing a font in Google Fonts, pay attention to a few things:
Is the font legible? It doesn’t matter if it looks cool if no one can read it.
Is the font clean or distressed? If your brand is edgy, you may want a distressed font, but if you’re a spine surgeon, you probably want to convey precision and professionalism.
Is the font serious or playful? If your brand is a cupcake bakery, you probably want something on the fun side, but you may not want to look lackadaisical if you’re a tax attorney.
Think back to the personality and visual identity of your brand while making this choice- you should pick a font that evokes the traits you’re trying to convey.
Once you’ve chosen your logotype font, you can select that font in Figma using the provided template and we can start experimenting. I’ve included both a black font on white and a white font on black so you can see what the logotype looks like in two different use-cases. Ideally, good design is flexible and works in multiple different scenarios.
With the logotype, you can experiment with different weights of the font, like BOLD, italic, or LIGHT, which can change the impression you’re giving. Lighter weights suggest a softer or premium feel, while bolder fonts are stronger and more intense.
Once you’ve settled on a logotype, we’re going to select one or two additional fonts to use as your Title + Subtitle fonts, as well as your paragraph or body text font. If you’re new to fonts, feel free to choose one font for all three, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can find a different font for each. Ideally, you should choose a font with multiple weights so your paragraph can be a normal weight and your titles can be either bold or light. In the Step 2 worksheet, I’ve used only Open Sans, a Google Font, for every use-case to show you that using different weights can go a long way.
If you have a Sans-Serif logotype, you can use a Serif font for your titles + paragraph to increase the seriousness of the brand. Vice-versa, if you have a Serif font for your logotype, you can use a Sans-Serif to increase the readability or to tone down the brand. If you decide to do both Sans-Serif or both Serif, be cautious in your choice of font, it’s slightly harder to match complementary fonts together this way, in my experience. Remember to think about what you’re trying to convey with the choice of fonts.
Once you’ve gotten your fonts selected, we’re going to move on to color selection for your brand. If you’ve followed the instructions to this point, you’ll have two or three colors from the Visual Identity portion of Step 1, so we’re going to take those colors and find them in Coolors.co, a really handy color palette picking app that will prevent you from picking colors that don’t go well together. I am not as good at color picking as I am at other elements of the design process, so I use this personally from time to time, and I think it’s very helpful.
Once you’ve pulled up Coolors, click the “Start the Generator” button and we’ll get to work. Press the space bar to randomize the colors, and once you see one that you like, click the lock icon on that color to lock it it. When you lock a color, the other colors in the generator will all be complementary shades that match that color, which is pretty neat! Additionally, if you get a color that’s close but not exact, you can click the 3x3 grid icon on that color to view alternate shades of that color, so it’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Run through this a few times until you find your colors, then copy the six character hex code (a standard format for naming colors in design) over into the Figma file and change the color of the four gray squares at the bottom of the Step 2 frame to your brand’s colors.
I’ve set 6 color styles in the Figma file, these are:
Primary - #444444
Secondary - #888888
Accent 1 - #BBBBBB
Accent 2 - #EEEEEE
Light - #FDFFFC
Dark - #150A04
Here are some instructions on how to change the color styles. In Figma, color styles allow you to color multiple elements at the same time and change the colors all at once. When you change the color styles to your brand colors, you’ll see all the instances of your color in the Step 2 frame change simultaneously, so you can see if your colors work well together. The most important are the Primary, Secondary, Light, and Dark, if these don’t have good contrast, the logotype will be very hard to see.
Personally, I don’t like to use pure white (#FFFFFF) or pure black (#000000) in most cases, it tends to remind you you’re looking at a computer screen or looks strange in print, so I recommend choosing a LIGHT and DARK color at the very far end of your brand’s PRIMARY or SECONDARY color’s shade list in Coolors, but this is an advanced tip and you can ignore it if that seems too complicated. When in doubt, simple works best.
Once you’ve got your colors sorted out, feel free to experiment with changing the color and weight of different parts of your logotype to get some element of style. If you have multiple words in your business name, this can be very effective. Whatever you do, just make sure the words are visible on both the LIGHT and DARK backgrounds. If certain colors work on one and not the other, consider using different shades for each use-case.
Alright, that’s your basic Minimum Viable Brand! It may not look like much, but that combination of fonts and colors is enough to handle most everything you’ll need to get started, and it’s more than many small businesses have thought out. Most importantly, it’s simple enough that it’s much harder to screw up.
Hubspot offers this really simple-to-use email signature generator that I highly recommend. I’ve included in the Step 3 worksheet in the Figma file some branded Profile Picture templates with instructions on how to add your picture to them below the worksheet. Feel free to use these if you like, I enjoy them but they’re totally optional and based on your personal taste.
Otherwise, just use a normal headshot of yours. Also included in the worksheet are the light and dark versions of your logotype so you can export them for the signature.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to go a bit further with branding your business, I cannot recommend a subscription to Envato Elements higher than any individual use of your time and money. You can get templates for graphics, stock photos, video, and music, professional fonts, presentations, and even animation templates for only $16.50/m or about $200/yr. It is the absolute best bang for your buck and while it’s a bit more complicated to use some of these things, if you know how to, it dramatically improves the quality of your brand. For example, you can get templates for social media layouts and recolor them using your handy new brand colors! A slightly easier and lower quality but still workable way to do social media content is using Canva or Adobe Spark.
This is the most difficult of the bonus steps but in my opinion, if you can manage it, will have the highest degree of benefit from a design perspective- using Webflow to get a website template. Templates range from free to $24-129 (one time), and they also provide web hosting. There is a free option here as well, but to get the proper sort of hosting it’s $15-$45/mo for a normal site and $42-$235/mo for a site with eCommerce functionality. Most people that I work with pay no more than the $15 option, the higher options are for very large sites with lots of traffic or purchases, so if you ever get to that threshold, I guarantee the site will be paying for itself.
The reason why I recommend Webflow so enthusiastically is because even the most basic Webflow template is better designed than 90% of websites, they have a very strict set of standards that makes them all excellent and relatively easy to customize. This is not the simplest thing in the world, so be warned- if you’re not fairly computer literate, you may want to find a younger family member to help or outsource this part.
The most critical feature of Webflow that makes this as simple as possible is their templates’ Style Guide page. You can go on that page and add in your brand colors and fonts, then change the copy on the site and voila, you have a professional grade website in a relatively short amount of time!
(If you’ve followed the tutorial up to this point and you’re interested in doing a Webflow template or working with Envato Elements but you’re struggling, please feel free to reach out to me, I’m happy to help and will consult with you for free.)