Savvy Startups Like Casper and Brandless Are Investing in Brand Image First — and You Should, Too

Savvy Startups Like Casper and Brandless Are Investing in Brand Image First — and You Should, Too

Product used to be king, but in today's fast-moving, copycat-filled world of business, a strong identity can be the key to success. And yet, a growing number of startups are doing just that, seeing great success as a result. Casper didn’t launch until 2014. So the entrepreneurs enlisted help from New York branding agency Red Antler. From there, its purpose and desired image guided myriad decisions on product design, business policies, marketing communications and the consumer experience. JetBlue’s brand promise to bring humanity back to air travel has guided every element of its service offering, including its signature Terra Chips, onboard entertainment systems, user-friendly website and warm customer service. Many entrepreneurs conflate brand strategy with marketing, considering both to be costs associated with promoting a product after it’s been launched. In short, branding should be the forcing function to make defining decisions about every aspect of a company’s launch strategy. Against this backdrop, Brandless wanted to build a distinct identity rooted in quality, value and trust. Having a great concept will always be a requirement for a successful venture.

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Product used to be king, but in today’s fast-moving, copycat-filled world of business, a strong identity can be the key to success.

Savvy Startups Like Casper and Brandless Are Investing in Brand Image First -- and You Should, Too

This story appears in the October 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Suppose you’ve got an idea for a great new thingamajig. It could be anything — a luxury candle, affordable college education or a product to prevent male pattern baldness. You can’t get the concept out of your head. You have to bring it to life. But you have no prototypes, and no experience with the intricacies of industrial design. No understanding of production and distribution. No web design experience. No detailed market projections. No money.

In this moment, logic would advise against obsessing over brand strategy — and it would definitely advise against hiring a pricey agency to help you do it. And yet, a growing number of startups are doing just that, seeing great success as a result.

Only a few years ago, product was king. Founders focused on getting a minimum viable product to market, fast — iteration could fix shortcomings. Brand strategy was a back-burner issue, one to address when time and budget allowed.

But today’s tech tools make it easier for founders to, well, produce a product. With design sprints, rapid wireframe and product prototyping, contract manufacturing, fulfillment- as-a-service, web-store design and hosting services, some entrepreneurs can go from concept to first paying customer in a matter of weeks.

That’s a double-edged sword. Those tools that make it easy to rush a product to market? They’re available to everyone, and have resulted in unprecedented competition in the startup world. (According to Crunchbase, VCs closed more than 22,500 global funding rounds last year, continuing a multiyear trend of increasing deal flow and sizes.) Countless entrepreneurs are discovering that their supposedly game-changing idea has already been launched by others, or at best is being copied by nimble competitors.

Take Casper, a name that has become synonymous with the boxed-mattress category. Casper wasn’t first to market — that honor goes to BedInABox, which launched in 2006. Tuft & Needle followed in 2012. Casper didn’t launch until 2014. Today, there are more than 100 digitally native mattress companies fighting for a share of the market.

Still, you hear “bed in a box” and you think of Casper. That’s because in 2013, Casper’s co-founders made a smart decision. They had a solid understanding of the company they hoped to build but faced challenging conditions: Industry sales were slow, the retail landscape was saturated with nearly 10,000 specialty mattress stores, and virtually no one was buying mattresses online. So the entrepreneurs enlisted help from New York branding agency Red Antler.

“We meet lots of founders who can passionately ramble on for five minutes about the innovative aspects of their unique concept,” says J.B….

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