How to Brand a Pipe Dream

  • by Lauren Wong
    Associate Strategy Director
  • December 10, 2019


Rooted in SF since 1999, we’ve grown up alongside Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystem. So in addition to legacy brands and household names, we’ve welcomed dozens of founders through our doors, each eager to define their category, tell their story, and create something that’s never existed before.

And over the last 20 years, we’ve learned a simple truth: building a brand from the start is different than evolving an established base. For us, that difference starts with six questions we ask founders—questions that look beyond the company to see the people and the ideas willing something new into existence.

Where did this idea start?

The beginning of a company is never the beginning of the story. It starts as a thought or an observation, sometimes years before. It lives a few different lives before taking its current form. It looks and feels different depending on who we talk to. Going all the way back helps us see the essence of what inspires and motivates the founders in front of us, and involves actively listening to whoever is willing to share.

We listen to the excitement in their voices when they talk about the brand, the unique phrasing they use, and the way they build the arc of their narrative. If there’s more than one founder, we listen for moments when they can’t wait to build off each other, or when they go out of their way to reinforce each other’s point. When we talk to stakeholders, we listen for patterns in the way they describe the brand, the team, or the company. We transcribe interviews so we don’t assume the exact way they worded something, and we share notes so everyone can start steeping in the idea from all the different inputs—interviews, client documents, external press, community social posts.

Pro tip: Don’t trust memory. Active listening requires your full attention, so record or transcribe rather than trying to capture insights on the fly.

Why you?

Working with founders means working on someone’s pipe dream, passion project, or life’s work. It’s personal, and understanding who they are is critical to understanding the “why” of the brand. So we work to ensure that our kickoff sessions and first round presentations are in person. We grab drinks with them and invite them often to our offices. And it’s in those little conversations between the meetings—in a story they tell or a way they speak about their team—that we get to know our partners and what is right for them.

One of our clients is Kate McAndrew, a Principal at the venture capital firm Bolt. She puts this best, “At the earliest days of a startup, the founders are the brand and the culture. We explicitly look for founders who are on a mission to build something they’re deeply connected to and have an enlightened self-interest in that mission. If you’re a company of two or four people, everything is built from the founders out.”

Pro tip: Savor small talk. Take advantage of moments before meetings or during breaks to have informal conversations with the team.

Who is this for?

Some of the founders we partner with have extensive market research, audience segmentation, and qual/quant research they give to us. Other times, they’re the target audience and tell us personal anecdotes that embody who they serve.

Wherever we start, we use the language in the positioning to explore the brand’s relationship to its audience(s). Are they speaking to “every person” or “us all”? “Yours” or “ours”? “His,” “her,” “their,” or taking out a pronoun altogether? It’s more than just semantics; it’s getting to the simplest articulation of who they’re building for. These questions don’t work well without something to react to, so we show them language to spark an emotional response. A single pronoun can carry the entire relationship between the brand and who it serves. It also lets you have discussion about future audiences—not just who they might be, but how they might identify.

Pro tip: Interrogate pronouns. Use intentional pronouns in a brand purpose or brand narrative to ignite discussion about the audience.

Why start this now?

Founders live and breathe their businesses, and it’s this intense focus that helps them be unequivocally themselves. But it also can point their concentration inward. We bring an outside perspective; one that digs deep into “Why this?” without forgetting about “Why here?” and “Why now?” To do that, we look beyond the immediate competition to explore the cultural landscape. We look for patterns of tension, absence, and change. Where does the brand challenge commonly held assumptions? What cultural ideas does the brand champion or push against? What conversations are urgently needed today, and which ones do we want to lead?

We worked with Colleen Cutcliffe, CEO and Co-Founder of Pendulum Therapeutics, to build the brand’s strategy and naming around a core bias. For Colleen, it started by disproving assumptions around science: “[Bacteria has] always been thought of as the bad guy. We said, well actually, that is a missed perception and could actually be good for you. There’s this idea that science has to be chemicals and labs and small molecules and drugs. That those are the only things that have efficacy and that natural things are sort of hokey. But in fact, our future holds a world of products that are as efficacious as a drug with all of the safety of something natural. The most potent crystallization of bringing together the precision of science with the movement of nature was the name of the company, Pendulum.”

Pro tip: Surprise yourself. Hunt for moments in your research that surprise you or subvert your assumptions. Don’t accept commonly held truths; push deeper to see what lies underneath them.

What are you in the business of?

Founders already know what problem they’re trying to solve, but they don’t always have the right words to capture it. They come to us because the language they’ve been using doesn’t fit the new ambitions of their brand, or because the way they articulate the brand isn’t as compelling as the idea they know they have. In many cases, they’re creating an entirely new category or playing in a landscape a little differently than any other competitor. We work on category definition with them through questions that create space between what they do and what they don’t.

When we ask them what they’re in the business of, we have them write their answer down separately before any sharing happens. Then we take a look at what they’re saying. Do they use any words in common? What’s the distance between the functional description of their product category and the emotional territory of their brand? How can we find language that feels distinct to the new space they’re carving out yet intuitive? Only then can we get together as a group and start to work through the words that truly capture what they’re trying to accomplish.

Pro tip: Separate answers. Ask stakeholders to write or think certain answers separately, so you can use those individual data points to see larger patterns in vision, scope, or language.

What’s the legacy you want leave behind?

For founders and their teams, working with us to build their brand is one of a million different demands on their time. Whenever we talk with them, we try to allow them to take a breath, to take a moment to look beyond the immediate present or past pitfalls. This means asking questions that create visual analogies—situating their legacy as something they could see in their mind. By telling us what that looks like, it helps us see the scope of their ambition and makes them even more excited about the brand’s future impact.

If their legacy was a headline, what would it say? And what publication would we find it in? What kinds of implications or initiatives could come out of it? What’s the forum for how they’d tell their team or employees, and how would the crowd react? Through these exercises, we are able to ensure that we build for the biggest and often diverse futures of the brand, not just for what’s happening today.

Pro tip: Visualize futures. Find ways to make futures tangible through analogies or visualization exercises.




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