When a new business opens its doors, it must quickly create a strong brand out of nothing. The clock is ticking, and most new entrepreneurs cannot afford to spend six months and thousands of dollars on “brand development.” This baby needs customers coming in the door — and fast.
Here are five tips for building a strong brand and loyal following for a new business starting on day one — from those who have lived it.
1. Start with a vision, not a product.
Customers want to invest in a culture rather than simply buy a product. “Focus on your attitude, not just your products,” advises Moorea Seal, creator of Moorea Seal, a lifestyle brand that curates handmade designers from across the U.S. Your unique story will quickly differentiate your business. Seal initially had no money. Her story and approach were all she had to stand out, so she shared her vision through social media rather than advertising. “People are smart and see through classic marketing easily.”
Crossfit KURA’s owner Melissa Guitron followed the same route with her new San Mateo, California-based strength and conditioning facility. Unlike other gyms in the area, KURA focused on creating a lifestyle vision for clients. “We are a mindset, and that is what attracted loyal fans from the start.”
Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Water, started her company, because she herself searched for healthier beverage choices for a family addicted to sugary sodas. “We solved a relatable problem and shared that story from the beginning,” she says. “”We stand for healthy living and empowerment.” Connecting with this vision, early customers became rabid brand advocates and word spread.
2. Interact with your customers. Constantly.
Two-way interaction with customers, however many, is the key to building a brand quickly. HINT’s customers constantly express why they love the product — reasons Goldin may never have known about, such as helping them cope with diabetes or cancer. “People want to engage, and there is real value in actually listening to them. They’ll tell you how and where they use the product, what they care about, and why they buy it,” says Goldin. “If you want to be more than a flash-in-the-pan, a sticky brand needs true customer interaction,” In fact, HINT recently launched a direct-to-consumer channel just to get closer to their customers.
Seal feels the same way. “Our investment in social media is key. Our customers want to be invited in and welcomed, so we constantly share personal stories and curate items they love. We can give them what they want.” Founded as an Etsy jewelry shop and blog, this approach grew the company to one million Pinterest followers, which spawned an online store and, in 2014, a retail location.
3. Find your own voice and tribe.
For KURA, the brand-building process was an evolution. “We developed organically as a collective,” says Guitron. “Initially, we ran our sessions at a local track, in a client’s garage.” This collective mindset of everyone pitching in is at the heart of KURA’s brand and informs all aspects, from the copy to the colors to the programming. “It’s easy to lose sight of your message when there’s so much competition. That confusion makes you do crazy things! But we found our own voice and identified our ideal clients so we could make smart decisions that stretched our start-up budget further.”
This means you cannot appeal to everyone. “Some people kept telling us to introduce a sweetened product, and we said no,” says HINT’s Goldin. This doesn’t mean HINT can’t do brand extensions or introduce caffeinated products, like the recently-launched HINT Kick. But the company stays true to offering healthier options. This stake in the ground keeps the company focused. “You can’t market to all different types of customers right away,” she says. “They’ll be confused. Find out who your customers really are and what they want and stick to that rather than trying to position all over the place.”
4. Find partners with shared values.
KURA has brought the brand to life by partnering with those who share its brand values, such as GoPro to capture their athletes inside and outside of the gym. The companies both share a similar “zest for life” attitude. Guitron continues to forge unique partnerships in the community, holding events at Lululemon stores and even a beloved neighborhood craft beer and wine bar.
Aligning with like-minded brands is how HINT chooses celebrity endorsers. “Our company has very clear values,” says Goldin. “We have turned down famous spokespeople who’ve expressed interest, because they were not passionate about our brand or didn’t walk the ‘clean living’ talk.”
When just starting out, proactively seek out brands through social media or directly reach out to those who embrace similar values or audiences — and know that partnership creation never stops. Even with Seal’s success, she still constantly hunts for new bloggers and designers. “Reach out and find those special relationships. And don’t worry about being a ‘nobody.’ Some big brands love to partner with up-and-comers, since we live in a culture that always looks for the next big thing.”
Like Goldin, Seal has had to say no to certain brands who want to advertise through her popular Pinterest account. “Your audience will hold you accountable,” Seal says. “If you want to build loyal brand advocates, you have to stay true to your mission rather than sell out for a quick buck.”
5. Stay true to your core and focus on the long term.
Guitron attributes KURA’s first year growth to her relentless focus on long-term relationships. “Unlike other gyms, we are not about quick-fixes or empty promises,” says Guitron. “We’re in it for the long haul.” They have designed their programming and marketing strategy to attract lifelong clients — not short-term deal seekers.
Goldin agrees. “Every decision you make early on impacts the future. I see so many entrepreneurs starting out offering steep discounts or bending to partner whims. If you are not building a business to make money in the long-term, why are you doing it? You’ll have tough times. It’s not easy. But there are times when you can and should say ‘No.’”
This includes a very tough decision Goldin made to turn down a mass-market retailer, because they would not merchandise the brand the right way. The windfall would have hurt the long-term strategy. In the end, the retailer agreed to HINT’s requirements.
Long-term thinking, however, does not mean a static brand. Seal’s business evolves with changing trends and customer tastes while staying true to the core vision. “My name is on the brand. Just as my own tastes evolve, so does my brand.” Her brand is still inspired by the Pacific Northwest and combines the rustic outdoors with a fresh urban vibe. It will always showcase handmade designers and it will always donate 7 percent of profits to charity. Seal advises, “The core of what you truly believe in and care about should never change — but how that’s translated can evolve.”