5 ways startups can use design to boost brand equity

The most successful startups aren’t shy about being forward, but their branding has to be immediately arresting and recognisable despite the lack of heritage and history. So what design tricks do startups use and what can established brands learn from them?

Design is how established brands immediately convey their history and values to consumers. Built up over many years, design tropes are the constant thread that runs through brands’ advertising, PR, packaging, web, mobile and even the way their staff dress. Have you ever seen a Googler in a beige suit?

For startups design is equally vital but they enjoy none of the heritage, reputation or indeed budget of their bigger rivals, and yet some still rise to the top, outcompeting big-name businesses and quickly earning brand equity. There is more than one path to that destination.

Investing on a shoestring

“Design is absolutely key and most small startups don’t invest in it. Quite often they are set up off the dining room table and people can’t engage top end design agencies. But you want your product to have some pull rather than being something that you have to push,” explains Andrew Jennings, founder and managing director of fruit drink manufacturer Berrywhite.

It was for this reason that Jennings and Berrywhite, even as a startup with limited resources, engaged design agency JKR to create an identity for his product.

“We used crowdfunding to raise the money and last year achieved £380,000 through 180 investors to build the business, and part of that was to design our brand and our bottles. We’re not in a position to go and do TV commercials so the packaging has to sell the product on the shelf.”

Focusing on design is also a key point of difference in sectors where design barely figures at all. The takeaway food market has been evolving of late into a much slicker operation and directory websites such as Just Eat are giving independent restaurants a more professional sheen. Josh Magidson, the founder of Eatstudent which was recently acquired by Just Eat, is attempting to do the same to the Chinese takeaway market in his latest restaurant startup, ZingZIng.

“The point of design is to convey great quality and there are quite a few takeaways so we want to stand out. The packaging, the store environment, they all have to have real impact and move away from the cliches of ‘moon’ or ‘east’ and red colourways. From the Americanised takeaway boxes to the online ordering and the driver, it has to make Chinese food less of a guilty pleasure and make it a point of pride.”

Magidson has a single outlet in London to date but plans 10-20 in the capital plus expansion across the rest of the UK.

Two seconds to stand out

Design is clearly something these particular kitchen table entrepreneurs are not prepared to skimp on. Mello, another startup juice drink brand, also engaged design agency Ziggurat Brands because, as co-founder Rose Aldean states: “It’s all about the customers and their initial contact on the shelf. They’re already shopping for something else and we have to grab their attention. We’ve got two seconds to stand out and communicate how we’re different. That’s why we invested in Ziggurat.”

In more traditional industries, the design norms are so well established that simply stepping away from them can be enough to capture the attention. Iqbal Gandham, marketing director of online investment brand Nutmeg explains how to subvert the norms in finance: “For us it was the big, bold use of colour. I need customers to catch us out of the corner of their eye.

“Every ad should also have a ‘win’ – investment without the bankers. When you catch our [billboards at tube stations] first thing in the morning it’s good to have a bit of a laugh.”

Creative agency DesignStudio developed Airbnb’s new logo

Understanding where the company would be seen and how long customers would have to look at their creative was what informed the design: “We looked at dwell times of Victoria compared to Waterloo and changed them accordingly,” says Gandham.

The difference for both Berrywhite and Mello comes in subverting the category design conventions. The former’s cans are matt silver with minimal fruit imagery while Mello is all geometric designs with pack copy more at home in a beauty magazine than the cooler. It would appear to be working. Since Mello launched in 218 Waitrose stores the company has been tripling its sales on a week by week basis, despite sitting next to innocent and Tropicana.

Authenticity before originality

Video recruitment technology company LaunchPad Recruits began from founder Will Hamilton’s bedroom with trifold A4 sheets printed off for conferences. Having just undergone its first major branding exercise with CAB, its marketing director Kirstie Kelly suggests that brands don’t need to beat themselves up over complete originality.

Design should be influenced, she suggests, by your brand heroes: “Your brand needs to align with your ‘aspirational business’ – whether that’s an Apple or a Virgin. Customers see design and it triggers an emotional reaction if it is similar to the design of a brand that they love.”

For a company that serves both business-to-business and consumer markets, gaining a sense of the philosophy through its design is as vital to LaunchPad Recruits as its technical capability.

“It’s about identity and heart and spirit,” Kelly adds. “You can then develop a real personality for your brand that shouts – not speaks – volumes. We’re not the biggest company but our design conveys the values we live and how we support our customers.”

In this case, LaunchPad Recruits tries to marry the Apple-style design philosophy (clean, modern) with the human ‘face’ of the company. All the brand collateral, from website to marketing documents, features the people and partners who work with the company.

“The brand is visual and all the assets reflect that but it has to match the experience of doing business with us.” She also warns: “I’ve seen businesses have beautiful and expensive brand assets but that doesn’t match the conversations you have with the sales team.”

Design for the future

Choosing design that stands out isn’t just about leaping out from the shelf, real or virtual. It’s also about considering the brand’s ability to futureproof, and it will ultimately influence what a brand does when it becomes more established.

High-end digital fashion retailer Net-a-Porter launched initially online in June 2000 in the format of a shoppable magazine. Its early design success was to ape the style of Vogue publisher Conde Nast’s fashion titles online while taking retail cues from statement fashion stores such as Chanel and Harvey Nichols. Goods were delivered in chic, high-quality black bags and boxes.

Since launch, it has expanded into a variety of realms, including publishing. Channel-wise, it continues to eschew bricks and mortar stores and is following the wider retail trend into mobile. Here, its design ethic has to be even more stringently applied to maintain premium feel on a device limited by screen size.

“Customers expect things to be well designed, beautiful and easy to use. This runs through any new product you want people to be using on a daily basis. There’s never a moment when we’re not thinking about user experience,” explains Alexandra Hoffnung, creative director, social commerce for Net-a-Porter.

“We’ve always stayed very consistent with a strong brand identity that customers are familiar with and we then extend it into sub-brands. Whether it’s Porter [magazine] or The Netset [social commerce network], there’s a Net-a-Porter vein running through everything we do. It’s still about being fast, aesthetically amazing and engaging.”

Evolution not revolution

Berrywhite and Mello both employed brand agencies to get the design right from the very start: “Once you’ve set your stall out and branded your business at a certain level, that’s what your brand is.”

But for LaunchPad Recruits, starting out with a self-sufficient and less polished approach wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: “If we’d gone to market [initially] with our new brand I wonder if we’d have appeared more sophisticated and less accessible and if it would have been too soon,” says Kelly.

Nutmeg’s Iqbal echoes this comment, suggesting that design should evolve as a company matures: “I do find startups jump way too early into building a brand. Unless you have a good understanding of who your customers are, how do you build a brand?”

Another brand that was once a darling of the tech startup space and is now the biggest property company on earth, Airbnb, underwent its first major ‘establishment’ rebrand last year.

It included a much discussed new logo from DesignStudio that was likened in a less than flattering way to various intimate body parts, but which has received much kinder reviews in retrospect. Airbnb’s head of brand, Andrew Schapiro believes startup brands that become instantly recognisable at launch can reinvent as they grow (see an extended Viewpoint here).

However, he adds: “It took a bit of stepping back and seeing where we were, what was our intention, what we were thinking and how the world sees us.”


Andrew Schapiro

Andrew Schapiro, Head of brand creative at Airbnb, on the impact design has had on its success

Morag Cuddeford-Jones

We hadn’t done a lot of traditional marketing or storytelling. Design has impacted the way we evolved our product, how we thought about building the brand and that has really differentiated us. We really focus on authenticity and how we marry design with intention. It’s honest, sometimes provocative and that’s what we’re about. In reality, […]