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When Leslie Ziegler joined the founding team of Rock Health in 2010, she had an enormous task ahead of her: make the intimidating world of institutional health care approachable for startup founders. No matter what the firm did next, its brand was going to have to do this heavy lifting, and as a veteran art director with the likes of McCann Erickson and DDB, this fell squarely in Ziegler’s camp.

How could she build a brand that seemed big and iconic enough to be worthy of the first incubator and eventually investment firm focused on digital health startups? A brand that would also pull the double duty of making the market seem seem friendly and inviting to founders unfamiliar with the space?

In the end, the brand identity she and the team pioneered made the impact she wanted — but not without some ruffled feathers. “We created a blend of health care meets girl next door — a mix of authority and approachability. ” she says. “It caught the eye of plenty of people and lowered the barrier to entry for many founders who thought healthcare was impossible to break into.”

But at conferences, their jeans and T-shirts and informal tone caught flak. “People would come up and tell us, ‘Hey, we’re saving lives. You need to take this seriously.’ This could have been negative, but we took it as an opportunity to introduce ourselves and say, ‘That’s what we’re trying to do too by bringing in the inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and this is how it’s done.’”

Since then, Rock Health startups have gone on to raise over half a billion dollars, and the firm has established itself as the first stop for new digital health companies. So much of this success was contingent on the brand Ziegler and her team took the risk to build — and she’s parlayed those wins into a career advising dozens of startups (including her own, Bitty Foods) to do the same. In this exclusive interview, she walks through the most important brand decisions startups can make to appear formidable, credible, and ready to make change. As you’ll note, none of them require a big budget or huge team — just supercharged attention to detail.

CONSISTENCY IS EVERYTHING

You hear it all the time, but it remains woefully true: Too many founders wait too long to focus on branding. The reality is they don’t have time not to. “The conventional wisdom in advertising is that people need to hear something three times to remember it,” says Ziegler. “If you play around with your logo too much or go back to the drawing board with every message, you’re effectively starting over every time.”

So, even if you’re 6 people, or just 2 people, take this step now: Invest the time to clearly articulate a set of standards for every message that leaves your office. No point is too small — even the order of the words you use in your tagline matters.

To me, consistency comes down to two things: the way your brand looks and the way it feels.

Let’s tackle the way your brand looks. You might think it makes sense to throw together a logo in Adobe Illustrator yourself just to get something out there, but if that means going back to re-do it every six months, you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Even a one-person shop can establish the basic brand guidelines that will prevent future pain points. “Come up with a palette of colors and typefaces in varying weights. Make a logo and stick to it. Do not change the font every five minutes,” says Ziegler. Create a document (even just a Google Doc) shared with every one of your teammates and stakeholders that defines these elements, with a short description of why consistency across the board — for everyone — is so vital. This is the beginning of what you’ll eventually call your Brand Book, which you should build over time as more visual design standards and use cases become relevant.

The fastest way to make your small brand look big is to present polished, coherent materials. “If you're a small brand trying to approach, say, UnitedHealthcare and your materials look like amateur hour, they're not going to take you seriously,” says Ziegler. Right off the bat, create brand guidelines. Lock down your logo and make rules for its use. Create branded PowerPoint and email templates. “Believe it or not, this is a very easy thing to do, and so many people overlook it or don’t think it’s important.”

Brand guidelines should define how the company looks and feels, and includes messaging. Here’s what you need to start your Brand Book:

How each of these elements is used should be consistent everywhere, every single time — in an email signature, on letterhead, in a presentation at a conference, on any slides you ever produce. The verbiage you use to explain the company should be word-perfect every single time. Remember the importance of ubiquity and repetition. There’s no substitute. You want important people to be seeing and hearing the same thing every time they encounter you.

The way your brand feels is equally important, but even saying that sounds nebulous and hard to nail down. Basically, what's the emotion that the elements of your brand inspire — from your logo to your elevator pitch to the way you sign customer service emails? Are you friendly? Edgy? Mature? Funny? Cheeky? Energetic? Serious? Orderly? Do you give people who interact with your brand more energy? Do you inspire their trust? Spend the time to think about this.

Ziegler has a favorite trick for jump-starting this conversation with co-founders and other early leaders: “I ask them to turn the brand into a person,” says Ziegler. “The exercise initially feels silly, but makes internal brand identity very easy to scale. I ask, ‘What celebrity or historical figure would this brand be? Is it George Clooney? Is it George Washington?’"

The goal is to arrive at a framework and an easy shorthand that a team can use for branding gut checks as the company starts to grow rapidly. “Other people on your team can say, ‘Okay, what would George Washington say about this? What would he do? Would he put that ad there? Would he work with this partner? Does this feel right?’”

Whoever you pick to represent the brand, what do they represent to you? How do they make you feel? Write down the adjectives that come up for you. What types of values shape the decisions that they make or express or symbolize? How do you believe this person would make decisions? How would they greet someone? How would they speak conversationally? Picking a person that everyone knows and recognizes serves as a relevant rallying point for making these types of calls about your brand and reinforcing them quickly later on.

For instance, one company she renamed actually likened their company to Sesame Streets’ Big Bird, saying it was a sagely, larger-than-life character who is patient, considerate, thoughtful and caring. Everything they produced and the brand decisions they made aligned with this description.

Eventually, your brand will be intimately familiar to you; making the right decisions will be second nature. This is also a product of strict consistency. Until then, though, don’t let your guard down.

The branding choices you make now are building your company as much as the programming language or CRM software you select.

It affects the type of candidates that will be drawn to work with you, the way you stick in the minds of prospective investors, and your first impression for customers.

“It all starts with finding a clear, strong answer to this question: What do you want your company to be when it grows up? You don’t have to wait to have a brand that reflects that,” says Ziegler.

The majority of founders believe that their brand will grow up alongside them, so they can afford to look and speak and sound like a young, early-stage company — and that they’ll inevitably evolve. Yes, your brand is almost certain to change down the line, but if you have a strong sense of what you want to build in the world, why not stop playing small ball with your brand? Do your best to have it reflect what you want to eventually be for people, starting now.

START WITH STRONG BASICS

Your brand doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Once you’ve defined its look and feel, it’s time to manifest that identity by creating the all-important bones of your messaging — i.e. the way you talk about yourself (consistently) across all channels. What follows is a deep dive into the basic elements you should be codifying in your Brand Book from the start.

In Ziegler’s experience, one of the greatest impediments to new startups is much less obvious than competition or sparse funding. It’s indifference to brand. “There's a tendency to underestimate how far things like a compelling name and consistent design can get you.” Her advice: Every new company should stop what they’re doing until they’ve thoughtfully, strategically developed these four foundational pieces of branding:

Your Name

Obviously this will be one of your first branding decisions — but when you’re at the “two people in a garage” phase, crafting a name often gets short shrift. That’s fine for a while, when it’s easy enough to change. But Ziegler advises founders to settle on their best and final name no later than the point at which they incorporate.

Before you finalize that name, though, run it by people. Lots of people. Different people. “If it's a product that's going to be mainstream and is going to speak to a broad audience, then you should talk to a broad cross-section of potential customers.” Your parents in Texas will have a different reaction to a name than your friends in New York.

We live in a highly sensitive world these days. One misstep and you're in big trouble.

That’s not to say that there’s a single perfect name out there. “It’s like naming a kid. Everyone has a relative or association they don’t like with that name,” says Ziegler. She often recommends invented words as brand names for that reason. “They don’t come with baggage.” Given how many startups are dead set on claiming a whole recognizable noun for themselves — despite the difficulty obtaining domains and more — that’s counterintuitive but trend-conscious advice. (One way to expedite getting lots of opinions and ideas is to run the naming exercise described by product marketing maven Arielle Jackson here.)

Using words that have nothing to do with your industry is another way to avoid baggage — and add intrigue. “I named a company called Piper Biosciences because ‘biosciences’ is not a particularly friendly word, but ‘piper’ has a more cheerful feel for consumer-facing elements. It’s a serious company — they’re using plant sterols to naturally reduce cholesterol — but that paved the way for branding that is bright and approachable.” Don’t underestimate the value of inspiring those emotions. More often than not, those are the emotions that will convince people to do business with you.

To touch briefly on visual considerations, do take into account how the name looks, not just in your chosen typeface, but when written out in a variety of configurations. Your name is the brand element that you can least control when it comes to how it’s rendered. And be sure to choose a typeface that supports and ideally doubles down on the emotional response you hope the name itself will prompt.

Your Logo

Your logo can tell a powerful story about your brand if you let it. As you develop the mark that will represent your company in the world, ask yourself what it evokes. “Is it serious or playful? Is it modern or old-fashioned? Does every adjective someone would use to describe your logo also describe the company itself?

In her own work as a branding expert, she walks founders through a series of questions to suss out their aesthetic taste and how it dovetails with what they aim to accomplish:

From there, she gets into more obviously design-related details: what colors do you like or dislike?

If a startup has more than one founder or a broader founding team, Ziegler asks them to answer the questions separately. As with all early branding decisions, these conversations are as much about hashing out company values as they are about deciding on a look. “Sometimes it’s shocking how different the answers are. You often see that two senior leaders, maybe even the co-founders, think very different things about the company and how it should be represented. Presenting them with that reality often makes them step back and say, ‘Whoa, I didn't know that's what you thought we were building.’ It can lead to other important conversations. This is even more incentive to run this process early on."

Once those existential questions are resolved, establish your mark and key guidelines for its use immediately. “Even if you’re just using 99Designs or a contract designer, come up with a logo that you like and don’t settle until you do. Find the different use cases — type to the side, type underneath, black and white, whatever — and institutionalize that.”

Whatever you enshrine, make sure it’s shared with everyone. Not just members of your team, but also your investors, influencers who are interested in what you’re doing, your social media channels, your parents and friends, etc. You want everyone who could potentially be talking about you often to have the right assets at their fingertips.

Your One-Line Pitch

Next, you need to be able to concisely and consistently explain the problem you’ve set out to solve. So many people think that their one-sentence pitch should just be what their company does. Instead, it should really be focused on what your company is solving, making easier, or changing fundamentally. That’s how people will mentally bridge what you’re doing to what they already care about. The goal is to arrive at something that works as well with your aunt who doesn’t know how to operate a cell phone as it does with a tech-savvy VC. “It’s really important to land on something that everyone can understand,” says Ziegler.

Here’s what this one-liner can’t be:

Here’s what this one-liner should be: A one-two punch with the important problem you’re looking to solve, and a pithy description of the solution that will believably do exactly that.

Again, don’t settle for less here because you’re pressed for time or you have too many cooks in the kitchen seeking compromise. This one statement is going to be put to the test, used all the time, and is the key you’re hoping to use to unlock many doors.

Your Boilerplate

Consider this an extended version of your one-liner that allows for more detail. This is what you’ll use on your press releases or partnership announcements — or anywhere you need to be more formal. Like your one-sentence pitch, it should reflect the clearest, most direct way to explain what your company does. As always, consistency is key. But there’s a little more room here to explain things and use more grown-up. That’s not an excuse for jargon or industry-only terminology, however. It just doesn’t have to be 100% fun and frolicky if your other brand assets are.

Best practices for good boilerplate include:

This is absolutely an area where the default for startups is to dash something off the first time boilerplate text is needed, only to do it again differently the next time and the next. This makes it a missed opportunity to create the drumbeat of repetition that will eventually make your brand stick with the people who matter.

CONSIDER EVERY TOUCHPOINT

It’s not enough to create polished materials, set them aside for specific uses, and move on. Your brand needs to infuse every conversation you have, every email you send. “This is like anything else: it takes practice, and it takes commitment. There are times when you don't want to spend the extra 60 seconds to go back and look at an email before you press send,” says Ziegler. “It’s worth it, though. The sum total of those day-to-day communications are more often than not what people will remember about your company. And details matter.”

Word choice is important. Tone is important. Even the way you sign off on an email is really important.

When it comes to playing with creative messaging, Ziegler is not one to shy away from pushing the envelope and trying new things. (This is a woman, after all, who once went through a period of signing emails with “Snuggles!” to disarm correspondents and open more productive back-and-forths. It worked like a charm.) Still, her first tip for getting creative with your branding is to create constraints.

“You always have to consider your audience. A playful tone of voice is not something you want when you're interacting with the FDA, for example,” she says. “It’s not a playful organization. But while you can't write a #YOLO letter to the FDA commissioner, you probably could write one to some early customers who have been really supportive.”

By clearly articulating constraints, you begin to define the space in which you and your team can innovate — and the areas where you’ll be better served by playing it safe. “We all want to think, ‘There is no box.’ But actually, having a box is sometimes really helpful.”

To belabor the point, making sure everyone is working within the same box is absolutely key. You want to present a united front from the very beginning in how you sound. To a large extent, brand is built on consistently setting and meeting a defined set of expectations. Make sure everyone on your team is setting and meeting the same ones. And make it easy for them to be successful, by providing the right assets and guidelines a simple cut and paste away.

Consider the goals you’re pursuing in your communications with each of these key stakeholders:

Your Customers

Make sure that your brand extends through every customer touchpoint, from your support responses to your error messages. Canned responses don’t have to sound canned. “Make them feel warm and human. Write a funny 404 page if that’s in line with your identity. Even dead ends should feel like you,” says Ziegler.

Let’s take a closer look at customer support emails, for example. You have to write them, so why not have some fun? As a bonus, this can be a fruitful arena for testing out your voice and messaging while you’re at it. “See how your customers respond. Unless something is wildly inappropriate, sending experimental language is pretty low risk and low cost. Those emails are only going to a few people at a time at the very beginning, and usually people who are pretty bought in.” Use this rarefied time to maximize your learning per send. Ziegler still does this at her current company, Bitty.

“I will often write a semi-serious, ‘We're so sorry we messed up. Here's a discount code’ email, and I'll personalize the discount code. So maybe it’s ‘WELOVESUSAN.’ Then just for fun, I will throw in a really ridiculous animated gif. And every time I do it, I get a response: ‘That made my day!’ ‘That was the best response I've ever received from a company.’ ‘You took the time to actually answer me like I was a human!’” These little touches go a long way.

Injecting as much humanity as possible in your customer interactions is usually the way to go, even if your brand is more buttoned-up than that. Particularly when you’re navigating a major screw-up, there’s enormous opportunity in each interaction. “Maybe they're having a bad day, and you sending them the wrong product was the last straw,” says Ziegler. “See this situation as an opportunity to turn everything around for this person. You're never done.”

Understanding your customers as human beings — really thinking about what they want to accomplish, what they want their lives to look like, and how they consume information — should inform your marketing and outreach.

“You can’t be on every channel right away and do it well,” says Ziegler. “Narrow in on the people you really want to get in front of right now. Where are they? Maybe they’re on Snapchat, maybe they’re not. If you’re focused on a more professional crowd, they’re probably on LinkedIn.” Invest your time and money there instead of trying to do it all.

Focus on the channels you need to be on to reach your customer, then build a calendar to clearly define when and how you will interact there. This is the second tool Ziegler recommends, right behind the Brand Book. As you start to express your brand in various ways that extend beyond reactive communications — perhaps to press releases, or social media or a blog or email newsletters — you’re going to want a rudimentary editorial calendar to keep track, make sure folks aren’t stepping on each other’s toes, and to trigger a check for consistency in each touchpoint. Your calendar can live in Google Spreadsheets or on Trello for a long time. The important thing is having one place that everyone on the team is prompted to look at regularly.

Consider all the value-add marketing vehicles you have at your disposal. What do you have the tools and budget to make a reality? What do you think your audience actually wants? How can you make that product true to the brand you’ve defined?

“One of the best things that we did at Rock Health was create an industry digest. We realized there really wasn't a good email going out to people about the digital health world, especially entrepreneurs, with funding, events, and news,” Ziegler says. “Think about your area of expertise. What can you teach? Can you share an article from a little-read source that will be meaningful to your customer? Can you point them to help that they’ve desperately needed but weren’t sure how to get?"

Find a way to use your brand and your marketing to add value for people, so it’s not just about you.

Your Investors

“For this audience, the goal is to show focus. To show that you know the problem you’re solving and how to solve it. You're not building a Swiss Army knife; you're building the best freaking steak knife to solve that problem,” says Ziegler. “So when you define your one-liner and your boilerplate, keep in mind that your investors will be a main audience for those. When you have them locked in, use them to full effect here.”

Again, consistency is the whole ball game. You’re not coming up with a new identity or a new voice. But if your customer service emails sound like how you might chat with a friend, investor interactions should reflect your brand at its most ruthlessly focused.

Investor conversations are one place you really do want to project a confident, coherent, thoughtful brand. Doing so demonstrates solid leadership, clear and strong direction, and the strength of a team that can rally and act as one. These are all things you want even your existing investors to see and assume about you.

Don’t underestimate brand as a lever to foster trust and belief in what you’re building.

Your Advisors and Board Members

No one starts a company alone, and whether you’re dealing with formal advisors and incubators or less formal cheerleaders, you’ll get the most from those relationships if you’re clear and direct about what you need. Brand focus and crisp expression helps here too. Because no matter who you are or what you’re doing, you want your brand’s value, mission, and direction to be crystal clear.

“At Rock Health, we worked with one founder, Nick Crocker, who was so impressive at doing this. He would come to us and say, ‘Hi. I have a problem. This is my problem. These five people can help solve it for me. Here's an email I've prepared for you to forward directly to these people with my ask. Could you please send that to them today?’" As Ziegler puts it, this approach augmented both Nick and the company’s brand in their minds — both were part of a brand that had strong, well-defined goals and a straightforward, energetic approach to meeting them.

By providing context and a clear ask, you alleviate any friction for your advisors and give them the tools to help you. This might seem far afield from brand identity, but it’s all related: pursuing a goal with clarity — and consistently communicating what you’re trying to accomplish — is the core of your company’s identity.

Preparation is key when it comes to interacting with a board, too. But in Ziegler’s experience, board meetings throw a lot of founders off their game. “They get flustered and pulled off into the weeds,” she says. “Just take a breath. Find a calm internal place to go when you're feeling overwhelmed. Think, 'what would be an on-brand way to respond in this instance?'”

Go into these meetings with a clear understanding of what you want to get out of them and how the board can help — with talking points to get yourself there. When you have a co-founder, unity is also crucial. “The team has to have a shared point of view and agenda. You need to agree on what the priorities are, and have each other's backs.” Talk about how you want to handle a variety of common challenges you might encounter in advance. Let your brand unify you in a shared motivation and shared strategy for achieving it.

The Press

When it comes to getting all-important press coverage, the landscape is harder than ever. Tech outlets rarely cover basic funding announcements anymore, and fledgling companies may not have the cache to command a lot of attention when they launch. So, if you do get in front a reporter, that makes it even more important to know your central message and how you want to project your brand in a short amount of time — backward and forward.

For starters, have talking points and stick to them. Create what is widely known as a “Comms Doc” where you can stash:

A reporter’s goal is very likely not the same as yours, so keep your eye on the story you want to tell. “Stay laser focused: ‘This is the main thing we want to share. We are this. We do X. We are for this.’ Don't take the bait if you're unprepared to handle a controversial question,” says Ziegler. “Pretend you're in a presidential debate and bring it back to the thing you want people to remember, because you don't have very much time with them.” If you created and spent the requisite time internalizing your Comms Doc and rehearsing in front of people who won’t pull punches, you should feel pretty confident.

All that said, you want your press interactions to be mutually beneficial, too. That’s the best way to get published. And founders possess a key commodity that reporters want: market data. “Reporters really like stats. The more snippets you can give them about your industry, the more wide-reaching you can make the story (i.e. our company is part of a larger trend or conversation), the likelier you are to get published.

You want your brand to project expertise. In order to be an important and notable member of your field, you should talk like you already are one, and offer information that establishes your leadership in the domain. The more you can use data or reference conversations with acknowledged leaders in the space, the more your brand borrows that credibility and finds its own foothold.

Most importantly: Use your one-liner and the language you've developed as core to your brand. That doesn’t mean sort of using most of them, or paraphrasing, or saying practically the same thing. It means saying the exact same words in the exact same order as they might appear in a press release, or in your Twitter bio, or on your website. Again, don’t forgo important opportunities to repeat yourself. That’s how you’ll build a brand that seems to “be everywhere at once.” That’s how you’ll get people who don’t even work for you using your words to describe what you're doing. The press is the perfect channel to broadcast your brand as you’ve envisioned it.

Your Employees

Last but certainly not least, there’s your team — and that includes prospective employees, too. “People underestimate how influential brand can be in the recruiting process,” Ziegler says. She cautions founders not to get lazy. Competition for top talent is fierce; make your brand an asset to help attract candidates that may be entertaining offers from the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon. Because larger company brands are such well-known quantities industry-wide, it’s possible to set yourself apart and showcase the benefits of being at a very different type of company.

For starters, make your job reqs stand out. “You can be very straightforward about the way that you describe the position and the skills required in order to be eligible,” she says. “But the way you describe the company and the culture doesn't have to be boring. Find a way to differentiate yourself from others in your field. Read whoever you consider your competitors to be, read their job reqs and figure out how to be better, more fun, more human.”

We all hear a lot about perks and schwag in Silicon Valley, but for Ziegler, it’s the thought — and the creativity — that counts. “Think of small, memorable things you can do during the hiring and onboarding process. Maybe everyone who comes on board gets a pair of Allbirds. Think of original perks beyond fleece jackets that also tell someone something about the company,” she says.

As an example, she cites a company she admires that put out limited edition t-shirts each year to celebrate specific team wins or milestones. They’ve become collectors' items that also make early employees who have many of them feel special, and signal their tenure to others. Leveraging your brand in this way can build tremendous loyalty and internal community.

Similarly, when it comes to onboarding, think of ways both explicit and implicit that you can educate new hires about your culture from day one. “Create a one-page letter that tells new people about the culture. Or do something kind for people when they start, like taking them to lunch or drinks with coworkers who can tell their own stories of what it's like to work there,” Ziegler suggests.

“Every single thing that you do for people reflects your culture, and your brand. Take catering. Don't just get junk food. Think about it. If you’re a health food company serving hamburgers and pizza every day, that does not reinforce your company’s mission.” As you make brand consistency a habit, you’ll see that it starts to define your internal culture, too.

You always want your external branding and your internal culture to mirror each other.

Done right, your brand should also serve as a company-wide touchstone. “I don't care how successful you are. There's going to be a moment when things aren’t going well,” says Ziegler. “Hopefully in those moments, your brand and culture can refresh you and remind you why you're working a million hours a week."

Even before you hit those low moments, while you’re building your brand, ask yourself: is this something that will sustain us through the slog of getting a company off the ground? “Am I still going to be pumped up about this name? Am I going to be proud of what we’re building? Am I still inspired by what our company represents?” Ziegler says. “That’s what makes building brand early on so essential — it ends up being a totem you can come back to again and again to make sure you’re doing what you set out to do.”

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