Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Alexandra Lamport, Brand and Communications Lead at London-based fintech startup Aire, shares her top 3 tips for building a truly authentic and impactful brand identity.
While I spend my days encouraging our brilliant team at Aire to share their expertise via our blog, I confess to having felt at first a little hesitant at doing the same. This is in no small part due to the many branches of ‘brand’ available for discussion. So, instead, I’ll let you into a few startup marketer secrets. I hope these thoughts may help and inspire you on your own brand journey.
Balancing the long and the short of it
An authentic brand identity is increasingly hard to achieve. Startups are in danger of appearing too similar in how they present to the world, summarised perfectly (if not depressingly) in this piece by Ben Schott for Bloomberg. Brands must steer clear of this commodification trap and strive for distinctiveness to best reflect the unique nature of the business that’s being built, and the nature of the people doing so.
I’m often amused by courses I attend or articles I read that refer to ‘year one’ of brand planning. In a startup we talk in days rather than months and planning ahead of a quarter would seem foolish. Not because we’re not long-term in our goals - at Aire we know our mission will take years to achieve and require us to change the mindset of thousands of decision makers - but because the nature of our business as each team pushes forward at such speed will change faster than we can plan for. In an environment like this, resilience is key and positivity is crucial.
A colleague of mine once told me that the problem with marketing is that it’s ‘never done’. And when a business moves fast, the balance of long-term brand building versus day to day tactics and sales activation is hard to balance. Coined by famed marketers Les Binet and Peter Field as ‘the long and the short of it’, these are two parallel workstreams none of which you can, unfortunately, afford to neglect.
Agility is everything
An Agile framework can really help here. Working in two-week sprints allows work to be committed to and showcased, alerting stakeholders to where current priorities lie within a brand team. At Aire, we’re lucky enough to have an Agile team that helps facilitate this way of working across the entire business - you may not have access to this expertise so readily, but there are plenty of Agile Marketing books and podcasts out there that can offer actionable advice for you.
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Looking for brand clues
Our brand is treasured at Aire and we see it truly holistically - it stretches across the business into all our different interactions. For this reason, we’re proud of it and we care deeply about its development. It pervades the business - both in its physicality on t-shirts and Zoom backgrounds but also in our language: ‘the Aire way’ or ‘this feels so Aire’ are phrases well understood and that I hear often in my role. The statistics back this up too: in a recent brand survey we ran, 94% revealed pride in the brand and we saw incredible alignment around what we stand for now and what we should strive to achieve in the future.
But, it is also important to remember that your team is not the brand. They're instead its closest advocates and its most important guardians who strengthen it, living its shared values and contributing to its culture. They breathe life and energy into it. Similarly, as marketers in managing a brand, we don't by default become it. Nor is our brand our founder. It's particularly important to be able to tell that difference: all of us act for it and in pursuit of it only.
However, what we can do is learn from its progress. We can look for clues in its history and future potential to navigate where we go next. Iconic brands don’t start like that - they adapt and change over time, reinventing themselves to stay relevant to their audiences. But, they are able to do this because they build strong foundations. Doing this now will help to guide the future decisions you and your team (as it grows) will have to make - anchored by a clearly defined and articulated brand strategy. In a year like 2020, never has this need for anchoring for marketers been so important.
So, while your brand may show up on clothing and water bottles (and that’s great for building distinctiveness and recall), how as a marketer can you uncover the clues and history behind your brand’s inception to build out your strategy today?
1) Lay the foundations: Discover your brand story
You’re likely to start with the founder or CEO: a crucial source of research for uncovering why the business exists today. Much of the brand equity within a startup comes from the intentional early brand-building decisions made when the business was born. But, remember, while your founder may have set about making their vision a reality in the business they’ve built, they can’t live the brand as your customers will. They - like you - are too closely invested. So spend time there, but don’t stop there.
At best, founders will take an active interest in the development of the brand, seeing its virtues in extending their early work and bringing some of those ideas into reality for customers. They’ll push you to think differently and see your work as a continuum in impact across the organisation. At worst, they’ll simply leave you to it ‘as the expert’ and then question email copy months later. Beware! And always, always look for option one.
Another danger for the start-up marketer is the ability to get lost in the weeds of tactification. In a department that is so easily famed (or dismissed) for the visual, the need to ‘show’ your work can be overwhelming. But there is merit in taking that time to think. What do we stand for? How do we intend to build our awareness and brand equity in the year ahead? What is our intended brand image? What are our brand codes (or visual identity) by which we want to be known? In a startup where execution is essential the time to do this is not easy to find. But the clarity it provides for marketers is extremely valuable, particularly when teams are lean and time is tight.
So, first you must seek out a business with true brand intent at its heart. Without it, you’ll struggle to execute above the sales activation and tactics level.
2) Dig deeper: Speak to existing employees and key stakeholders
Second, reach out to people who’ve been around a bit and watched the company grow. Schedule that (virtual) coffee and find out about their motivations for working for the brand. What got them to that business in the first place? What keeps them there? At Aire, we publish regular Q&As with our team and these require an almost forensic approach to finding out about people. Use opportunities like these to inform your thinking - you’re likely to uncover views and opinions steeped in the heritage of the brand you may not otherwise uncover.
3) Breathe life into your brand story: Create passionate brand advocates
And third, remember that as a marketer, you can only ever set the tone, because your brand will ultimately play out in the decisions your employees and advocates make in their day-to-day work. There’s of course the tangible: the slide decks, the whitepapers, the blogs. But there’s the subtle ‘feeling’ a brand gives that we’ve all experienced, but can rarely put a finger on. Much of this is built in the engine rooms of brand managers.
This is summarised brilliantly by this quote: ‘brands are ultimately about feelings and feelings are complicated’. Yes, absolutely. But they are also about value: about correctly positioning the value your business offers to the outside world. As a marketer that’s where your most important job is: in the ability and commitment to push to articulate that value to your target audiences at every step.
My colleague was right: in marketing, the work is never done - but if we change ‘work’ for ‘opportunity’ maybe it’s just as exciting that we’re just getting started.
About the author: Alexandra Lamport is a Brand and Communications Lead at London-based fintech, Aire. The startup provides actionable credit insight to lenders and is operational in the UK and the US. To date, Aire has raised over $23m in funding.