How These Small-Time Brands Made It Big

Posted on August 15, 2012. Filed under: Business, Editorial |


by Catherine Kaputa  |   7:00 AM August 15, 2012

If you’re an entrepreneur, you know that things rarely go as planned. Many don’t survive the “Valley of Death” stage, when start-ups scramble for funding, resources, and customers, while still trying to get traction for their business idea. And yet some entrepreneurs hit it big and transform a business idea into a big brand. What do they do differently?

For my book, Breakthrough Branding, I studied a range of entrepreneurs and their branding habits. I learned that whether you’re an established or aspiring small business owner, the best apply a bold and powerful simplicity to the branding process.

Here’s what the successful brands I studied did to execute that simplicity:

They focused on a small idea. Everyone talks about finding a big idea, but a small idea is more powerful. Kevin Systrom‘s original app, Burbn, did a lot of things. It was a mashup of location check-in sites like FourSquare, social gaming sites like Zynga, and photo-sharing sites like Flickr. Then Systrom focused on the one small thing that had the greatest traction, its photo-sharing app, which gives low-quality camera pictures a trendy retro look. He gave it a new (and better name): Instagram.

They deployed a powerful visual. Find a visual something — a shape, a color, a logo, a design that signifies your brand and cuts through the clutter of today’s marketplace. Think Twitter’s bird logo, Christian Louboutin‘s red soles, and POM Wonderful‘s hourglass bottle. With a name like Twitter and a communication service based on short, 140-character messages, using a bird as a logo was a natural. Mindful of money in the start-up phase, the founders originally used a simple bird graphic from iStock photo that cost around $15. Twitter’s founders gave the logo design a distinctive turquoise blue color, and in time the bird came to universally signify the brand.

They treated the name as a strategic creative decision. You want to lock in your brand’s identity with a name that resonates with customers and can travel well (on the Internet and in global markets). It should be short, easy to spell, and easy to say. For fourteen years, Phil Knight called his athletic shoe company Blue Ribbon Sports. Then, a friend suggested that he name the brand after the Greek goddess of victory, and Nike was born.

Sara Blakeley came up with shapewear for women and named it Spanx — a name that certainly gets to the point. Blakely reflects on the decision: “The name is edgy, fun, extremely catchy, and for a moment it makes your mind wander (admit it)…” In the early days when Blakeley mentioned the name of her product line, many an offended retailer hung up the phone. But as the founder persisted, it was her customers who embraced the saucy name and the way her shapewear made them look and feel.

They didn’t overwhelm customers. And simplified everything from product offerings to the way they market. Warby Parker is an online glasses shop that sells trendy, vintage-inspired frames for $95. They offer just 50 variations, so customers are not overwhelmed with hundreds of frames like in your typical eyeglass store. To make it easy for customers, you can even “try” on frames virtually by uploading your picture on the site and trying on the different styles; or you can have up to five pairs mailed to you (shipping is free). The company has even embedded in the brand is a philanthropic tie-in: “Buy a Pair. Give a Pair.” For each pair that you buy, a free pair is given to someone in need. To keep innovating their brand, every week culminates with Inspiration Friday, when employees bring in photos, ideas, videos, or articles that caught their attention. One of these sessions led to Warby Barker, where your dog can find frames for itself (probably with your help).

That’s how these small-time entrepreneurs built powerful, pervasive brands. By focusing on the details, they created an easier, more memorable experience for the person who will appreciate simplicity the most — the customer.

More blog posts by Catherine Kaputa

Catherine Kaputa

Catherine Kaputa

Catherine Kaputa is the brand strategist behind SelfBrand, and author of Breakthrough Branding: How Smart Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs Transform a Small Idea into a Big Brand. Previously she was senior vice president at Smith Barney and taught at New York University’s Stern School of Business. She also supervised the “I❤ NY” ad campaign.
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