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[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles that we’re writing about branding for startups. It’s part of our latest initiative to find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.]  

When designer Ryan Hubbard joined Intercom, a SaaS unicorn that makes customer engagement tools, he knew that he would be working at the forefront of brand design. The company’s leadership empowered its Intercom Brand Studio to help Intercom stand out in an increasingly crowded field.

“I always look to figure out what is possible or push expectations,” Hubbard says. “There’s a more traditional view on brand design — the idea that people are there to create order and make rules. And that’s valid, but it’s not how I look at it.”

Now a senior designer at Medium, Hubbard has a lot more to say on how startups should approach branding to make a memorable impression.  

The essential principle of branding

“The one thing you should probably have buttoned up prior to investing in brand is some kind of clear point of view about who you are as a company and what makes you different,” says Hubbard.

While the elements of a brand are primarily visual, brand identity is based on foundational values and attitudes that define a company.

That’s why it’s essential to start with your company’s unique story. Those who approach branding as an exercise in defining and expressing their core ideas will find it much easier to create a striking and memorable brand.

Intercom has a compelling origin story about friends in Dublin longing for online customer service to mimic the welcoming atmosphere of the coffee shop where they liked to work. Accordingly, Intercom’s brand focuses on values like approachability, personality, warmth and helpfulness.

Those values translate into the brand’s visual language: a smile-like logo, joyful colors, quirky illustration.

“You could start with, ‘What is the story you’re telling?’ ” says Hubbard. “The stronger and better you can be with your story, that’s a really strong foundation for a good brand.”

How to define your look and feel

The basic elements of visual branding include logo, language, colors, imagery and typography. A strong brand is one that can be distilled down to the most basic elements and still be recognizable. Even a single word written a particular way can convey volumes.

“There’s a lot you can communicate with just typography,” says Hubbard. “The best identity systems I’ve seen — not just in tech — are all brands that are really strong with typography.”

Free-flowing creativity is key in experimenting with these elements. You’ll be holding on tight to your brand identity as you refine your story and identify your values. But it’s important to be open to all kinds of creative expression when you start designing.

“Don’t be too precious with exactly how you want everything to look,” advises Hubbard. “You can’t have a predetermined direction in your mind when you’re going into it.”

Get ideas and images out onto the page quickly. Then identify which draft elements light a spark and develop them. It will soon become obvious which connect most strongly.

How to deploy your branding

Once you have a brand identity system in hand, the next step is deploying it consistently. Your brand must be consistent across touch points, both inside and outside the organization.

But don’t mistake consistency for rigidity. If your brand is built on ideas and not just on a simple collection of visual elements, you can be consistent and creative. Allow your brand to have a life of its own, anchored by its core values and principles.

“It’s really easy to create a brand system that gives you no flexibility for expression, so you wind up putting the same thing over there over and over again,” says Hubbard. “If you don’t give yourself any room to do new exciting things with your brand, you’ll get stagnant and forgotten.”

That’s a death knell for any company, but a strong brand identity system will keep your brand at the forefront of customers’ minds.

Help us find the best startup brand designers and agencies in the world — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

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