Creating your shopfront: How and why you should use branding for your startup

How and why to use branding for your startup was the theme of Aalto Startup Center’s keynote speaker, Chris Bolton, a designer with over 20 years of experience building brands through visual identities, from startups to multinationals.

In his session, Chris Bolton covered the foundations of creating your own branded ‘shopfront’: an individual place where your business uses branding as a tool to build awareness.

Bolton, a Canadian, has worked with established brands such as Fiskars, Marimekko, Royal Doulton and K-group in recent years. He has discovered that established brands and startups have two things in common: endless ambition and a limited budget. But it turns out that you can do a lot with very little – as long as you avoid ending up bland instead of a brand.

What is a shopfront?

Branding is much more than a name, a logo and a color palette. It’s an expression of mission, values and vision. It’s a plan to support your core business and grow the value and awareness of your company. Branding is essential to create an experience that connects you with your customers, clients, employees, investors and other stakeholders.

“It’s the facade of your business that communicates what you sell, differentiates you from competitors and defines a price point,” tells Bolton.

But there’s a common pitfall: ending up bland instead of a brand. Bolton says that a strong brand cares more about what they do: they have a mission and they make it verbal and visual.

“For example, rebel brands such as Patagonia and Oatly. They are bold and different – and memorable for a reason,” says Bolton.

Master your touchpoints

So what makes a strong brand? Bolton described branding as mastering the touchpoints all the way from physical to digital in a seamless way. He outlines a straightforward approach to the main touchpoints of your business: the pre-purchase, the post-purchase and the purchase experience.

The pre-purchase experience consists of things like a website, ads, social media and business cards. In the post-purchase phase, you may need a loyalty program, owner’s manual, customer service and newsletters to reach the audience again. In the purchase phase, you have a store, salespersons, packaging and e-commerce.

“The key is a clear, understandable and consistent experience,” pinpoints Bolton.

The touchpoints are every interaction you make to reach your audience, and the audience is more than just your customers. It’s the media, financial community, suppliers, pressure groups, employees, competitors and so on. And for the audience, the market is usually crowded. That’s where the branding comes into the core of the business.

“The shopfront is a metaphor for verbalising your business, product or service to consumers or partners. Your brand is the single most important investment you can make to your business,” says Bolton.

Break the code to create your own distinctive space

“Ask yourself: does your company have a clear core idea? Can you explain what your company does or what makes it different?”

Your core idea together with branding is a distinctive shopfront. And branding is a set of assets that works for your purposes – it’s what makes the strategy visible.

“The brand has four senses: product, environment, communication and behaviour. The brand is what helps your business grow and stick out from the crowd,” says Bolton.

There are blended brands who claim to be unique, but they are just blands.

“Think about the Oatly brand again. The product is a media and a brand and definitely not a bland,” says Bolton.

A strong brand is in the core of business strategy and it is scalable, distinctive, memorable and above all clear and consistent. It manifests in colours, typeface, slogan, logo, music, smell, but a strong brand goes beyond these elements. It has a clear value proposition, vision, ambition and strategy.

How to be different? It all begins from the market.

“Study your competitors and what they do. For example, most Finnish brands are blue, but give more thought to the colour. Think about your audience, environment and context. For many brands, colour is the main identifier, but it could even be the branded product itself.”

Of course, the brand evolves every day. It’s never fully ready. After all, branding is a valuable asset, a capital investment in intellectual property.