Branding and Its Importance for Startups

India (and much of the world) have recently seen entrepreneurship emerge as a viable, alternative career path in itself, in which ambitious individuals can craft their own legacy rather than building someone else’s. In India in particular, several young entrepreneurs have been inspired by the multiplying success stories around them and using now widely accessible and affordable internet access and strong technical expertise have churned out startups and unicorns at an unprecedented rate. Entrepreneurship has become the trendiest new profession of the 21st century. But the sudden emergence of so many aspiring businessmen and women has created new challenges (eye-watering levels of competition).

Competition in just about every sector is becoming cutthroat almost as soon as a sector itself is created, with each competitor offering the best in talent, technology, and service that customers can possibly hope for. In such a saturated business scenario, how can a new business hope to outdo and differentiate itself from large incumbents with years of experience and established networks or similarly young rivals that seem almost exactly the same as them? That is where branding comes in.

What is a Brand?

Advertising legend David Ogilvy defined a brand as “the intangible sum of a product's attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it's advertised." Branding is the process, and possibly art and science, of assigning that brand to multiple products and services. 

Today, especially for startups, a brand has become a constantly unfolding story of a business with certain predefined values and attributes at the core for which that business stands. While it will constantly evolve and change to keep up with the times and changing needs of the audience, the soul of the brand must remain the same. It is the greatest tool a startup has to distinguish itself from competitors large and small and proactively define itself for what it wishes to be. Every world-class brand began as a story.

A brand may comprise several elements, from commonly used to obscure, including:

  • Name
  • Logo - the swoosh for Nike, Golden arches for McDonald’s
  • Graphics and Images
  • Colour Scheme - different colors evoke different emotions that your brand seeks to embody, as seen below


  • Typography
  • Tone and voice - Diesel always has a spunky tone and attitude in all its advertisements
  • Slogan, Jingle, or Catchphrase - America runs on Dunkin’ for Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Shape - Nintendo’s Switch console has become distinctive and iconic
  • Sound - Netflix’s original productions all begin with a distinct audio
  • Taste - Coke has a taste so distinctive that it can be easily distinguished from Thumbs Up and Pepsi
  • Smell - Abercrombie & Fitch uses its iconic perfume in all its stores

Startups can chalk out their brand using these preliminary pointers:


Importance of branding for startups: 

  • Branding gives startups a unique identity in an otherwise crowded market, comprising both large, established brands with years of legacy, goodwill, and experience and newer entrants that are similar in size and experience to a given startup. By giving a business a distinct name, logo, color, tagline, font, aesthetic, etc, can give a startup an immediate hook through which customers can remember their otherwise new and unknown business 
  • Branding helps ensure consistency and builds trust. Like for larger businesses, customers of a startup who have become acclimated with its offerings know what to expect when buying its service or product and do not need to be educated from scratch 
  • Startups can leverage their now somewhat established brand names to launch new services and products, using the same values and emotions that they have successfully created so far to find an audience for a new offering 
  • Branding allows for easier conversations with customers. This has never been truer than in the age of social media. Businesses can interact with their audience directly through social media channels, asking them for improvements, suggestions for new ideas and products etc. This level of connection would be impossible without a brand serving as a bridge between customers and the business. Startups need to focus on community building to ensure they survive in the long-term 
  • Brands grant legal protection against counterfeit goods and trademarks. Protecting the reputation of a fledgling business is crucial, so any damage caused by counterfeits must be protected against at all costs 

As a startup grows and becomes more established, a powerful brand can bring the following additional benefits that are long-term competitive advantages: 

  • Branding increases inelasticity since a powerful brand can make a product so desirable that loyal customers would pay any price to buy into it, even with much cheaper alternatives available 
  • Brand loyalty will allow a startup to play with prices in times of difficulty without losing loyal customers since they will not think badly of a brand’s quality when the price is dropped to stay competitive or switch to another brand if the price is raised
  • Branding will let a business cater to the most lucrative customer segment at the top of the pyramid with premium offerings and wide margins, leveraging the brand as a status symbol stamp of guaranteed quality (as does Apple for its iPhones) 

With these advantages, startups will be in a position to hold their own against larger competitors and grow at scale.

The following graphic indicates just invaluable branding can be.


Types of Branding (most relevant for startups) 

While there are numerous forms of branding, some of the most relevant ones for startups in the early days of their growth are (over, and branding your product/service of course)

Personal Branding: Startups are initially just the founder(s) and a few set of people who follow them. Therefore, a large part of the company ethos is determined by the founder(s) and their personality, vision and quirks and that is what becomes the company DNA. Several employees and customers may also associate the founders and the company to be inseparably linked together in name and reputation, so crafting a powerful personal brand is also critical for founders. They should use online and offline channels to become opinion leaders in their startup field and share their views and expertise with a wider audience to garner repute for both themselves and their businesses. Some cases where startups/businesses became synonymous with the founder (for better or worse) include Steve Jobs and Apple, Adam Neumann and WeWork and Travis Kalanick and Uber. Founders should proactively control their personal brand before their audience forms incorrect perceptions about them and consequently their business. 

Corporate Branding: This is a tool that the startup can use to tell its story and personality; what it is truly like on the inside. Corporate branding includes values, mission, price points, target audience, exclusivity for customers, inclusivity for employees etc. It also includes the perks that may be offered to employees that would make them proud of being a part of the startup - bonuses, stock options, the chance to work for a sustainable enterprise, challenging work, stellar teammates, free meals etc. All of these elements will make a startup standout as a distinct corporate entity capable of attracting the finest talent from all over the country or even the world, something that a startup could really use to evolve successfully. 

Online Branding: Online branding has become even more important in the post-pandemic era, with tools like Reels being offered by Instagram and other social media channels becoming a common marketing tool for businesses of all sizes. Influencers tend to give new businesses a more relatable feel and a marketing channel that directly reaches their audience, but must be kept authentic and relevant to avoid coming across as just another paid promotion case. Other than social media, online branding also includes creating a strong website with an intuitive interface and design that matches the brand and its color/font scheme. A unique domain name is also a powerful branding tool, making it easy to find and remember for customers while standing out from similar or copycat brand names.

Brand Architecture

A rapidly growing business needs to be able to understand brand architecture at a juncture of rapid growth to know how to leverage its brand without confusing customers on brand identity and what exactly the business does when a new offering is launched. On the launch of a new venture under the same business, businesses can choose to go with one of 4 strategies (and sometimes a hybrid model). The main 4 modes of brand architecture are highlighted below –

  1. A Branded House is best suited for businesses who seek to minimize cost and consolidate their brand by applying the same brand and associated values across all audiences being targeted. Loyalists who trust the master brand are much more likely to buy the related brands in the branded house. However, if the master brand’s name gets tarnished, it will affect all businesses within the brand house. For eg. Apple is the Brand House containing iPhone, iPod, Airpod, Mac, etc.
  2. Sub-Brands are similar to a branded house architecture, but differ in that they enjoy lesser power than their master brand and are extensions of it into new business areas or industries, while Branded Houses put the master brand at the heart of the associated brand rather than above it. They also carry the same risk to the master brand if they suffer reputational damage since the master and sub-brand are closely related in name and positioning. Examples of this would be Virgin Group being the master brand, with Virgin Records, Virgin Galactic, and Virgin Atlantic being some of the sub-brands.
  3. Endorsed brands are sub-brands that are put above the endorsing brand, giving them the backing and reputation of the endorsing brand while leaving them to operate independently. This strategy gives greater flexibility and power to the endorsed brands, allowing them to cater to a wider set of audiences and values. However, they require larger marketing and resources to be positioned as an endorsed brand and still carry the same reputational risk for the endorsing brand should problems arise. An example of this would be Kelloggs being the endorsing brand, and the endorsed brands being Chocos, Special K, Frosties etc.
  4. House of Brands are best embodied by conglomerates like P&G and Unilever, with a whole range of brands across different industries comprising a single house of brands without any common names or logos. They allow each of the brands within the house to operate independently, so any damage to the master or sister brand within the same house would have little to no impact on the other brands. However, brands within the same house do not enjoy the same co-branding advantages that they would have under a branded house or sub-brand architecture and need separate resources and teams to operate successfully. Customers might also be confused about what exactly the master brand is and stands for.

While these architectures are better suited for businesses that are further along on their growth journey, knowing the different structures and their purposes can better allow a growing business to position itself for diversification/expansion appropriately to avoid losing brand positioning in the future.

Case Study - Fevicol 

Perhaps no measure of branding success could be greater than when a brand name itself becomes synonymous with a product or service. While there have been several brands that have managed this feat including Xerox, Colgate, and Coca-Cola, India-grown Fevicol by Pidilite Industries has truly shown Indian branding at its best.

Firstly, the company began focusing on its then core customer segment, carpenters, as early as the 1950s and 60s in an era when branding and design in India were in their infancy. Its iconic logo itself is a testament to its razor-sharp customer focus, brandishing two mighty elephants trying to pull apart a ball (Magdeburg hemispheres) with no success (given the sticky strength of the product). This set Fevicol apart from the competition, with a distinctive and memorable look.

Secondly, to further build on its brand with its customers, Pidilite realised that carpenters faced a scenario where their services had begun to be perceived as nothing more than a commodity, with a limited number of design ideas for them to use. To solve this, it launched Fevi Craft in 1980, a mini design book containing ideas for designs that carpenters could imbibe and showcase to their customers. This would evolve into a regular issue by the late 80s, solidifying the brand in the minds of carpenters for a long time to come (even in days before content marketing had become widely known and practised). 7 Pidilite had demonstrated that it understood the customer’s pain points and was actually willing and able to do something about it.

Thirdly, Pidilite realized that while having Fevicol, its flagship brand in such an enviable position was great, being overly dependent on one product alone was not a good long-term strategy. By organizing events for an exclusive group of brand loyalists called the Fevicol Champions’ Club, where other products by Pidilite could be demonstrated along with cultural and leisure trips and activities, the company was able to build a solid sense of community with its carpenter base. These regular events would not only allow the brand to be in regular contact with its customer base but also serve as a forum where ideas could be shared and feedback received. Using knowledge gained from these interactions, the company was able to understand where the gaps in the market lay and plug them with either new product lines or those from companies it would go on to strategically acquire.

Indian startups can take away the following lessons from Fevicol’s legendary success:

  • Your logo matters - it must be an amalgamation of your brand, vision, and mission to ensure consistency of how your business is perceived. It serves as the most memorable aspect of your brand and therefore needs careful thought and design when created 
  • Brands are solidified in the minds of customers when they go above and beyond and delight them - an excellent value proposition is the best form of branding in itself 
  • Branding also involves community building - an avid brand fan group can serve as advocates for your business and a breeding ground for new ideas and priceless insights if they have been sufficiently won over. Continuous effort must be taken to connect directly with them, making your customers feel heard and valued 
  • Use your brand success from one product to market and sell other products from your company - this will help diversify your bets and reduce over-reliance on just one offering while cutting down on unnecessary marketing spending At a later stage, established Indian brands can be used as tools for global expansion and market entry- 
  • Embrace stereotypes when they work to your advantage. Indian brands enjoy much better reputations in comparison to those from some other countries. Software and technology brands from India in particular might enjoy widely positive stereotypes and this branding headstart could go a long way in penetrating global clientele 
  • Indian startups seeking to grow beyond borders can also draw upon India’s massive diaspora to win large customer bases in newly penetrated markets by playing the familiarity and Brand India card. This tactic has been used by recent successes like Zomato in the UAE to become a dominant player in the country, playing on Brand India and familiarity with Indian ex-pats