Branding Beyond the Logo: A Strategic Approach for Startups

(with strategic exercises you can run yourself)

Building a new business or trying to convince someone to invest in your idea is all about trust. Although design elements such as a professional-looking website convey trust, it is certainly not the task you should start with. Would you hire or invest in a person that looks very professional but can't deliver on their promises?

We often see digital service providers market their visual images too early in the process, like the example below. is a company that connects creatives and other talents with companies, starting with the headline: "Here’s what you need to brand your business" a Logo, Guidelines and a business card...

Screenshot of home screen of

While understanding that a platform like this has many creatives looking to help entrepreneurs and businesses to design assets and identities, we feel that this process has been utterly misleading for many people.

When starting a new business, the logo, colors, or a new business card will not get you more customers or convince anyone to invest in your idea. That is just a fact.

These brand identity elements are all part of your brand, but they’re NOT your BRAND. They are simply pieces of the puzzle which should include messaging, story, and other external exposures that might influence public opinion. If they are not perfect in the beginning, that’s okay, there’s no need to stress about outfacing things that look pretty on Instagram; we’ll get to that later.

The all-important first step is to ensure your brand strategy and messaging are settled before prioritizing visual elements. Take a step back and focus on your company’s purpose, then align on mission, vision, and core values before moving on to brand identity.

One more example: Imagine two companies pitching to a VC firm; one has product market fit and a well-defined goal but uses a standard template from Keynote/Powerpoint with their logo written in black and white… VS. a company that has ten very well-designed pages with complex logos, but fails to communicate clearly what they stand for and how they want to change the world. Working with VC firms for many years now, we can assure you that the second company won’t even get a callback.

Summary of what NOT to do:

Don’t start by investing time in choosing the right presentation templates, colors, fonts, and logos until you are 100% comfortable with your mission and vision. As Mr. Christopher Star has said: Startups are like babies, do not worry about their prom outfit or which college they should go to, if you haven’t figured out the “how to change their diapers” part first.

Visible and Invisible Brand Components (Brand Pyramid)

Visible and Invisible Brand Components (Brand Pyramid)

A Brand Personality Pyramid, Copyright by Anneli Hansson

This is a brand pyramid. As you can see here, “look and feel” (ie, visual elements, like logo design, fonts, colors, etc) are a small part of your brand personality, balanced carefully atop a strong foundation of invisible brand personality elements. The true purpose of your brand’s visual elements is not to be catchy and make a splash. While this is what you want eventually, the essential purpose of the visual elements is to communicate “who we are”.  What the founders believe in will not be seen on social media, but the design and fonts will always be on top communicating the foundational brand personality elements..

Your Values, culture, core beliefs, and other real traits that made you start this company or project in the first place, will be the guiding star while shaping your identity. Use it from the beginning to lead your team and grow consistently.

DIY Approach to Getting started

The short answer is “Brand Strategy.” This may sound serious and expensive, but it doesn't need to be. Similar to having the option to hire a 100,000 USD agency to make a new website or using a template builder such as,, or whatnot, you can take a simpler approach and follow your own pace in building the right solution for your business.

Brand Strategy, when executed well, is the art of bullet-proofing your communications and vision. It can be a simple conversation among the co-founders to ask, “hey, why are we doing this?” and write the answer down and document it.

Here are a few questions that every founding team should discuss every quarter;

If you have never discussed these, write them down in a shared document and update them quarterly (if your team is on the same page from the beginning, these should be reviewed frequently, but will rarely need to change). You will see a dramatic improvement in the alignment and consistency of your communications. The exercises below will also provide great hindsight for uncovering misalignments between the founder’s visions, enabling you to resolve them much faster.

Sample Exercises you can facilitate internally

In the spirit of finding DIY solutions for brand strategy, here are three exercises that will help you improve the alignment and growth of your startup;

1. The Onliness Statement

A simple onliness statement
This is purely an internal exercise, meaning the result is not intended to be used on your tagline or website but is a great way to steer your vision as uniquely as possible, enabling your team to pull on the same strings. For example “We are the only tech startup in Tokyo that helps people with disabilities find work online, without people’s assistance. ”Even if several other companies are very close to that statement, it feels right to use this as your “onliness statement” and make sure you get buy-in from your team.

2. “Two-Year Goal” Exercise

Sticky notes with two-year goals
In this exercise, you give each participant of your leader’s group five minutes to write down as many “2-year” goals as possible. Next, give everyone three votes to determine the top three goals for the next two years. Once the voting is finished, you can write down the top five ways of getting to that goal, by asking questions like “how can we achieve Goal #1? Let’s discuss.

3. The Good old “Impact vs. Effort” Chart

An Impact vs. Effort chart by AJ&Smart
Simply gather your project partners/company and give everyone ten minutes to collect the goals from the previous exercise or write down all the goals for the company. After the lists are complete, gather the group and organize all the activities into this “Impact vs Effort” chart to determine what to focus on first, and what will be worthwhile to do now rather than later. We recommend starting with tasks that will have the most impact with the least amount of effort.

How we stay aligned on our goals & efforts

At Gohan, we are a team, just like all of you. We plan our courses, workshops, and yes, this blog post together. We use MURAL boards (, a visual tool that provides a workshop-like experience, enabling us to communicate interactively with each other from anywhere in the world.

#BrandStrategy #Exercises #Alignment #Positioning #Branding Agency