Growth hacking: Using brand to focus and ignite a startup

Creating a brand can be thought of as either a luxury by the startup community, or even as an investment without a clear return. Whether you think of brand as simply the outward expression of your company, or if you think of brand (as I do) as the core values and purpose that drives everything your company makes, says, and does, brand helps you go and grow faster.

Oleria, a brand co-founded by Jim Alkove and Jagadeesh Kunda in the enterprise security space, proved out the value of brand investment from day one. At the start of their company, their first activities were to define their values, their purpose, and then create a name, tagline, vision, set of messages, and a visual identity that oozed that purpose and values.

“You have to remember that your brand and your company aren't two separate things. …your company, your values, the culture that you want to have and then your name, logo, visual identity, verbal identity are all aspects of who you are as a business. They're rooted in what… change you want to bring about in the world.” Jim Alkove, CEO, says.

The growth in this growth hack comes from identifying and doggedly driving a single focus on a core idea with simplicity and precision.

To truly leverage brand as a means to growth hack your startup, it’s best to define brand holistically: the values, purpose, promise, product pillars and differentiators, messaging and other verbal expressions of the brand (such as taglines, narratives, C-suite speeches, press releases, investor decks, marketing collateral, and sales scripts), as well as the visual identity.

For the Oleria founders, this meant zeroing in on a purpose for the brand in the market, “The core focus is addressing the tension between security and business agility.” Essentially, there are two opposing forces in the market today: companies need security to lock down and prevent breaches that are becoming more and more common and sophisticated, while companies also need to be able to unlock innovation and resources to move quickly and freely in order to maintain competitive advantage. Through a collaborative set of workshops and reviews, Northbound and the Oleria team arrived at the core idea of Oleria: Security that sets your business free. This notion of “Freedom” was then used to inform every decision the company was making from product design and functionality to marketing, sales, and investor relations.

Developing a strong brand upfront serves as a shortcut rather than a time-consuming exercise, allowing startups to maintain momentum while building a foundation for success.

Startups can often perceive strategy as slow and incompatible with their fast-paced environment. However, it's crucial to define your market, identify the actual customer problem you’re solving (one that is market-driven, not internally driven), and establish core values early on. This clarity accelerates time to market, customer acquisition, and decision-making.

Investment in brand from the start – while it may raise a few eyebrows of more traditional investors – can create greater efficiency across the organization. By bringing clarity around what problem you’re setting out to solve or what tension you’re intending to resolve, who your total addressable market is and the ways you will uniquely attract your core audience of buyers and users, and how you’re different from alternatives or competitors, you’re able to cut time to market and time to customer conversion.

One of the most critical and hardest elements of success, as cited by CEOs of startups and other highly innovative companies worldwide, is talent attraction and retention. A clear brand from the start can accelerate attracting talent – and not just any talent. A clear brand will attract employees with whom your purpose and promise resonate and who identify with your values. This creates true momentum in culture building, which ultimately drives employee retention.

Once on board, your new employees will have clear, consistent guidance without constant management on where to focus, how to behave and how to prioritize their activities, meaning they will produce and do more things that are “right” or “on brand” without intervention or redirection.

Additionally, when your team is creating a consistent experience and set of expressions, you will need less initial marketing and sales investment, and the investments you do make will be more effective, as your future customers will more easily remember your brand, understand your promise, and (assuming your promise is meaningful to them) be interested in trying your product.

As Jim said, “we aimed for alignment between our internal and external narratives, streamlining the story into one cohesive message. This approach facilitated employee selection, allowing us to share the company's identity during the hiring process. This early investment in defining our core values accelerated the onboarding and cohesion of our team.”

Identifying, articulating, and expressing your purpose from the start also takes less effort, as there are fewer people, activities, and assets to coordinate around at a company’s inception than when it’s on a Series B or later round of funding or growth. Using this time, when a company is small and still very nimble, to establish a salient identity quickens understanding and the accumulation of employee and customer affinity.

“Our visual identity and user experience frameworks proved beneficial, both in exciting customers and aiding the engineering organization. The ability to visually convey the desired customer experience allowed for quicker development of the underlying infrastructure and platform. These upfront investments generated alignment and excitement among customers, employees, and investors, fostering a multi-stakeholder framework for our brand.”

Oleria is a shining example of how to take a different path, one that uses brand as a growth hacking tool for startups. By leveraging the components of brand strategy to establish a culture, a corporate purpose, product truths and guidelines, and a breakthrough brand expression, Oleria has created a clearer, more rapid path to market traction, monetization, and customer acquisition.

Looking to accelerate your startup's growth through brand? Reach out!

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