Why Early Investment in Brand Identity Is a Startup’s Best Bet
This is a guest post by Milena Milak
There are choices to make in the first months of launching a startup -- where does the money go first, since you can't do it all upfront? Where do you push hard, and what do you save for later when you have customers walking through the (digital) door?
In my experience, those early, lean dollars go toward the nuts and bolts that get your idea up and running: coding, legal, maybe some core hires for essential operations. Everything else -- like advertising and design, can come later.
But I'm here to advocate for rethinking that approach and considering the benefits of addressing brand identity earlier in your startup journey. Founders often see this as a luxury or complimentary endeavour when, really, it's crucial to future success. At MagicBell -- which is just over a year old -- we recently chose to allocate VC funds into hiring an agency to create a comprehensive brand design, and we are so glad we did. In this post, I'll explain why we made that choice, what the process was like, and what we're seeing now.
Realizing the power of brand identity
Early-stage startup investments are centered on optimizing ROI. You want the most momentum for the least amount of money. Within the technology sector, in particular, art tends to take a back seat. But at MagicBell, we realized that even the world's most popular tech companies are immediately recognizable by design -- Google colors are instantly identifiable, and Apple built an empire on its strong design emphasis. As a traditionally trained artist (think oil paints and bucolic scenes), I couldn't help but champion that good artwork is part of the product experience.
I brought my artistic skills to the MagicBell brand early on in small ways - mainly through blog illustration and some user interface design (read more on my journey as an intern UI designer here). It's important to mention that during the early days of creating MagicBell's brand, different design aspects were outsourced to a handful of freelancers or temporary hires. One person had whipped up the logo, another person had done the website, and I worked on the blog illustrations and marketing assets. This made the brand experience feel inconsistent and, in some ways, unsophisticated.
We wondered how we could reimagine MagicBell but also keep the roots that we liked that were familiar to our customer base. We needed uniformity, imagination, and different types of experts. That's when we contracted with Overnice, a Berlin-based branding agency that would help us find ourselves.
The creative process of reinvention
The first mission was actually to find our mission. Were we just going for a new website and color palette? Did we want to change the logo? One thing I knew for sure was that the "hand-drawn" style I was previously using for creating the blog illustrations and brand assets was no longer a good fit. As an illustrator, my goal was to introduce something new. The only predefined conception I had was to develop a modern, cleaner look with a hint of a retro/vintage twist. It was essential to keep the style simple but not at the sacrifice of character and unique personality.
An important note here is that branding isn't just about being recognizable; it's about communicating your brand.
Since MagicBell is all about productivity, I introduced characters doing different things, like working with notifications and inboxes. The illustrations would need to match the playfulness of MagicBell but also embody our values. As an inclusive organization, I wanted the characters to appear gender-neutral, so hairstyles, faces, and clothing would abide by that. I wanted every illustration to convey a story.
Overnice spent several hours discussing what was important to us in order to discover where art could align with the mission. We wanted something inviting and friendly but also professional and high-quality. At the end of the discovery process, Overnice submitted a guiding statement:
The MagicBell illustration style will help bridge the gap between the playful and techy aspects of the brand. The style will imitate the previous collage style but focus on a much calmer feeling. A mixture of elements will still be harnessed. It should signify a multitude of notifications, but the overall imagery should have a certain flow to it, signifying a much more controlled product and not a completely chaotic experience. Below are some ideas to get a better feeling of how the style could be influenced, but this should be natural experimentation embracing Milena's expertise and curiosity. The ideal style should be easy to recreate (save time), uniquely expressive (let's embrace inspiration but find our own form), compatible with the brand aesthetic.
My advice? Don't be afraid to borrow inspiration from brands you love! To avoid the overload of elements and ensure the style wouldn't be too busy, I shifted our attention to the New Yorker editorial and its distinct illustrations. The New Yorker style combines both the desired playfulness and the simplicity we wanted to achieve. The exploration process helped to establish the main idea: introduce a variety of characters and objects we can use to convey the story of what MagicBell is and how it works.
Before diving into the actual designs across MagicBell's assets, we finalized our key style pointers (You can take a sneak peek at the process in this Notion card)
- high contrast combined with negative spaces
- monochromatic color palette
- vintage editorial style
- A splash of color
- more "roundness" in shape (this comes into play beyond illustrations and shows up in typeface, for example)
- high contrast
- gender-fluid characters
- conveying a story
The whole process of building a new website and introducing the new consistent brand took about three months. This time gave us a library of brand design resources and a consistent, high-quality look:
The benefits of investing in brand identity early on
Now that we've settled into our fantastic new redesign, I'm enjoying several benefits that come with early investment in brand:
Branding is tied to growth. When we revealed our new look to investors, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. We were putting forward a much more sophisticated face, something to which investors respond. In fact, we have raised more funding since the redesign. Customers also respond to better design; we all want to go with the more innovative company that looks like it has things figured out. Our typeface and illustrations more easily catch the eye, and MagicBell content is immediately recognizable (and memorable) in any social feed. Good branding is about grabbing attention and leaving an imprint, and now our customers can rely on that throughout our evolution as a company.
Outside perspective always helps. Ever see the person whose streak of blush is so intense you wonder how they can't see it? That's because talking to ourselves can create an echo chamber of blindness and become a deterrent to improvement. Using an agency helped us bring in fresh eyes and minds that could suggest things we may never have thought of and explain why some may not be the best choice.
We crowdsourced expertise. Early on, we wanted to get our logo out there and our website up. To do these things well requires niche areas of expertise. Instead of contracting siloed freelancers who do general design jobs and trying to get them to work collectively, we benefited from someone doing that for us within one agency. You really can't have one designer design your website, logo, and UX. It takes a village.
We can scale more quickly. As we add features to our site, we don't have to scramble or negotiate over what it will look like. We already have a go-to style guide. For example, we plan to add illustrations of our team members to the site, which we now know will match our branding across the board.
For more insight on how we're making choices as a growing startup, visit our blog for regular updates.
More of a listener? Check out our podcast, The Magical Podcast.