After 25 years and more than 100 successful branding projects, Blackspace partner and identity expert Christoph Rohrer knows: “Start-ups that don’t become a brand within two years have a hard time with sustainable success and attracting good people. He reveals his four most important insights and tips on the subject of start-up identity.
1. The vision: from the green city to Mars
Running a start-up without a vision is like driving on a motorway without a headlight – you have no idea where you’re going – and you live a risky life.
Much of their identity comes from their history and origins. Many people are traditionally concerned with representing this identity in a value model. The German, medium-sized manufacturer of energy systems, Viessmann, for example, formulated the values “innovation, top quality, complete range, efficiency, sustainability and reliability” half a century ago – and these principles, even after careful adaptation, still form the guidelines for the company’s orientation today.
In the identity process for a start-up, on the other hand, we begin on a white sheet of paper when it comes to substance, history and values. On the contrary, the company is based on hypotheses that have yet to be proven – the assumed relevance of the business idea, so to speak. So because you don’t know for sure, you have to be even more sure where you want to end up: the vision is the anchor and compass for every step the start-up company takes. Elon Musk, who is hyped by investors as well as by the entire world press, certainly provides the broadest horizon for this – the SpaceX vision of the Martian settlement is simply too good not to want to believe in it. The Chinese EV start-ups Byton, World Champion or NIO, shooting out of the ground, are also showing the German carmakers how light-footed and visionary a start-up can be – without the burden of 100 years of history on their shoulders. But we also find great examples in front of our doorstep: The sustainable energy and mobility provider Green City in Munich has the vision of “making the city worth living again”. From the very beginning, everything the company does has been subordinate to this vision – the best formulation for a start-up brand.
2. The name: Aura instead of package insert
In 1998 hardly anyone knew the Fintech start-up PayPal. Today, the payment service is not only to be congratulated to almost 200 million users worldwide, but also to have done everything right with the brand name from the beginning: PayPal sounds friendly, is easy to remember, works internationally and, on top of that, creates the freestyle to explain what the service actually offers the customer: namely, uncomplicated payment with the “pay friend”. PayPal is a great example of how a good name can be translated into language as a matter of course.
The topic of naming is generally immensely important for start-ups, because here, too, they are a blank page. However, what is often misunderstood is that the name tends to MUST explain EVERYTHING: the industry, the service, the added value, etc. Does he really have to? Can’t it sound as if it has always existed? In addition, there are other communication elements that can explain or emotionalize, such as the claim.
A good example of this is Byton, the e-Car brand that was introduced by the Chinese Future Mobility Corporation in 2017 and is traded as a Tesla competitor. The name derives from “Bytes on wheels” and thus contains a reference to the fact that
Byton vehicles for a future in which mobility is increasingly becoming a digitally networked experience. The emotional claim “Time to be” underscores the mission: namely to maximize and enjoy the ride – the vision of autonomous driving in the back of one’s mind. Fortunately, all these strategic considerations are not reflected in the name: “Byton” sounds promisingly like a technological utopia and radiates an enormous aura.
3. The logo: from the community to the tribe
The logo has a high symbolic and identification value for start-ups because it holds together a newly emerging community – meaning customers and investors as well as employees. The more innovative the business model, the more you should consider where this type of sign actually comes from when developing a logo: from clans, tribes, from heraldry. Especially in the start-up phase, it’s all about raising the flag that everyone follows – especially the employees who have embarked on the start-up adventure. The logo has a large order, needs more dynamism and identification potential than, for example, an established manufacturer of frozen ready meals. So why not some combative elements or really a “tribal” logo? I really like the sports label Morotai, which successfully pitched for Dagmar Wöhrl in the TV show “Die Höhle der Löwen”. It is almost reminiscent of war paint and goes very well with story and naming: “The brand’s name comes from the Indonesian island of MOROTAI, which the Japanese soldier Nakamura Teruo defended alone in World War II as the last remaining warrior. MOROTAI has set itself the goal of awakening the fighting spirit and potential in everyone.” According to MOROTAI, there is a warrior in every one of them.
4. The place: products to touch and spiritual home
The Canyon bikes, which are highly traded under Mountainbike-Junkies, can only be bought online. Nevertheless or precisely because of this, the brand has decided to set up a showroom in canyon.home, an assembly hall at its headquarters in Koblenz – to offer customers and employees the one thing they can’t have virtually: the real experience with the bikes.
Even brands that were originally born in the digital world are increasingly recognizing how important the live experience is. Amazon, for example, is one of the big players whose digital service seeps into the real world with a concept like Amazon Go.
Start-ups that are founded today are inherently “digital natives”. And because they feel at home in the digital world, it makes sense for them to stage their products in the virtual world as well: on websites, via influencers or with the help of virtual reality. What they should not forget, however, is that the promises they make in digital space must be kept in real life.
The same applies to the start-ups themselves: In the context of cloud solutions, e-commerce and apps, the real place for start-ups has a special significance: because here their identity becomes tangible. It is therefore worth staging this place – because the real place has an enormous identity-forming effect, especially inwardly, towards employees and in the team: while the vision is the spiritual home, the place is the physical home where the new community can grow together and identify with the company.
Our own story on this topic: We are working in transition areas right now, before our new Townhouse is finished. We have a view over the rooftops of Munich, but otherwise it’s quite cramped. To create our own interim culture, we ordered a hundred Wies’n beer tables and radically painted them black, just like all the walls. So we created our own ‘Space Identity’ ad hoc, which also temporarily strengthens the team spirit.
Apropos team spirit – cohesion is especially important for start-ups: especially young talents practice a real Start-Up Tourism in addition to CV-Cosmetics. But if you want to reach out to those who are convinced and create loyalty, it is essential to build a brand identity – in all areas.