Whenever we kick off a new project with entrepreneurs, it always starts with a conversation. This is a chance for us to ask a million questions, get into their heads, understand their business and their vision, and tease out the points that are actually going to matter as we build a brand together. Founders don’t struggle with a lack of ideas for what they’re trying to achieve—usually it’s that they know too much. A good founder can talk for hours about why what they’re building is better in every way than anything out there (and ultimately how what they’re really doing is changing the world!), and sometimes that’s even true. The problem is that you can have an amazing product, and a big vision, but without a focus on brand from the beginning, it’s going to fall flat. Today, nothing could be further from reality than “if you build it, they will come.” That may have been true in the early days of the internet, when people were just so excited that they could buy [whatever] online, or that an app could do [that]. Those were the days when a new technology or an innovative business model was actually a meaningful point of difference, and you were able to launch with very little focus on brand and still gain traction.

The single most important question we ask in our first conversation with founders is not how their business works, or who their competition is, but what the problem is that they are solving for people. What I find amazing is that ninety-nine times out of one hundred, they don’t answer with the problem they’re solving—they answer with a description of their business and its benefit. Someone launching a new gym concept will answer, “Getting consistent quality training at an affordable price.” Or someone launching a platform for small-business owners will say, “Visibility and ownership of their data.” Notice these are not problems, these are solutions. It’s very natural to jump to the solution—after all, when you’re launching SEO services, that’s what you spend all your time thinking about and working on. But to build a beloved brand from day one, it needs to be the opposite. You need to spend all your time thinking about the people you’re hoping to reach, and how you intend to make their lives better.

When I used to work in advertising, my job was to write creative briefs, which is a sheet of paper that describes what the ad campaign needs to achieve. There’s a section on the brief called the “consumer insight,” which is supposed to contain a truth about the consumer that the agency would build the campaign around—what do we know about our target audience that should guide what we say to them? The example of a bad insight was “people wish there were a crunchy cereal with nuts and raisins.” This is a bad insight, because it isn’t true: people are not sitting around wishing for your exact cereal. They might want to lose weight, or maybe they get hungry again every day by 10:00 a.m., or maybe they’re worried about heart health. But that doesn’t mean they’re wishing for your cereal. It’s your job to show them how your cereal can be a solution to whatever problem it is they’re facing.

Today, when we’re building brands at Red Antler, we also start by thinking about the consumer insight, or the problem you’re solving for people. Coming out of our conversation with founders, we first deliver the brand strategy, which is a document that outlines a vision for what the brand stands for, and we are usually creating it before the business has even launched. At the heart of this document are three critical pieces:

  1. The mind-set of our target audience, meaning, who are the people this business is most for? This section is less about identifying an exact demographic (e.g., women in their midthirties living in major urban areas) and more about identifying the attitudes and behaviors that define the people who will care about this brand the most. It’s meant to paint a vivid picture of the “brand champion,” the person who will be first to love the brand and will then spread the word.

  2. The key problem for that audience, i.e., what’s missing from their lives. Of everything we know about them, what’s the most salient problem that this business can solve?

  3. The brand idea, which shows how the brand is going to be the answer to this specific problem. This is a clear, singular statement about what the brand stands for at its core. It’s the explanation of why this brand will matter to people.

3, the brand idea, becomes the foundation that drives all communication. But you cannot even begin to think about 3 until you are clear on 1 and 2. It doesn’t matter what you think you stand for if it’s not going to be relevant to anyone outside you and your team.