The Startup Brand

Aaron worked in auditing in accounting for four years before joining our technical marketing course to learn brand management skills and pursue a more creative career path. Basisify is not a real startup. It was designed by a Georgia Tech couple, Tiffany Zhang and Mike Bradley, over their spring break. Hitting the ‘Get started’ button reveals more fake startup websites. They certainly nailed the aesthetic of plausible startups. A combination of factors make the spoofs work: the vertical full screen splash pages,the two-tone minimalism, the three-step value proposition. Even the tone has the cheery optimism that is commonplace in startup branding.[bctt tweet="Many #startups' branding looks the same. Here's why."]

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Tiffany and Mike aren’t the first ones to parody the startup tech scene. The viral video, Carrot, by Dan Angelucci advertises a carrot as if it were a smart phone. Obviously, poking a carrot like an iPhone is funny by itself, but the commercial also works because the vocal cadence and music is a familiar backdrop for other startup tech commercials. The hit HBO show, Silicon Valley, imitates the whole culture. Thomas Middlehitch plays the lead, Richard Hendricks, who is a nicer version of Jesse Eisenberg’s imitation of Mark Zuckerberg. The two-second elevator pitch—“It’s Craigslist for rentals” or “Yelp meets Spotify”—has also become cliché. Residents in the startup hubs of Boston, New York and the Bay Area could distinguish a startup office even if they don’t work in one. I’m guessing most people would close their eyes to envision brick walls, a keg in the fridge, bean bag chairs, a ping pong table, and zero cubicles. The startup culture is instantly recognizable.

If there are common characteristics that are so easy to parody, clearly there is a repeated style, too. These spoofs aren’t mimicking a single entity, but the whole community. Most companies desire their name to be associated with a certain image or a few keywords but, as evidenced by these parodies, many of them can be skewered simultaneously because of their similarities. The anti-corporate, Mac heavy, hoodie proud, youthful image is prevalent throughout the whole society.

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Branding allows a company to identify and distinguish themselves via packaging, presentation, slogans, and tone. A cursive font on a shampoo bottle could indicate class just as printing the year established on a bottle of wine could showcase time-tested tradition. Brand managers pour hours into minute details to ensure every aspect of the product the consumer sees is within the clear definition of the brand. Despite this, many startups have such a clearly similar style that it is easy to mimic.[bctt tweet="Many startups' branding has a clearly similar style that is easy to mimic"]

Is this monotony a bad thing? Not necessarily. Startups need to be flexible. Founders make various pivots depending on new information. Twitter started as Odeo, a service designed to search and describe podcasts. Realizing they didn’t want to compete with iTunes' rising prominence with podcasts, Odeo opted to alter into a micro-blogging status platform that led to their success. Similarly, PayPal began as a Confinity, a personal digital assistant security software, before pivoting to the electronic wallet service it is today. New customer information could lead to a change in brand and product. A proud or stubborn founder could be detrimental to a new company's ability to survive.

Twenty years ago, a younger company might have been associated with inexperience. The rapid ascension of behemoths like Google and Facebook and other new but ubiquitous companies have bestowed an aura of competence among younger tech companies. Those apps occupy the same amount of square real estate on an iPhone as any other app you download. For a nascent company, positioning themselves under this strong startup umbrella is a good stopgap while they figure out exactly what uniqueness they have to offer the world.[bctt tweet="For young #startups, relating their branding to other successes can be a good stopgap"]

Photo credit: tiffzhang.com