Special Sauce

Startup Branding Agencies: What They Do and How To Pick The Best One

Share

Do you want the secret to startup success? It’s not funding or product-market fit. Everything comes down to getting the right people on your team. Talent selection is the most underrated skill in business. 

Your staff, partners, and vendors will dictate whether you end up with a learning experience (aka failure) or a full bank account (aka success). Outside of product development, there’s not a more important hire during the early stages of building a company than your branding agency. Your company name, logo, product positioning strategy, brand message, product packaging, website, and company culture are heavily influenced, if not dictated entirely, by your branding agency. 

That’s a pretty important list if you plan to be around for a while. I’ve pulled together this guide to help you make a more informed decision when picking a partner. Stick with this to the end and you’ll have a better idea of what a branding agency does and what type of branding agency is right for you.

What does a branding agency do?

Branding agencies are experts at building companies. That’s the quick and dirty definition. Take me for example, I’ve helped more than 100 companies launch and grow. I love what I do because my company exists to bring other companies to life. 

I think, “experts at building companies” gives you the big idea, but let’s dig a little deeper to give you a better understanding of what a branding agency actually does. 

Your brand is your reputation. Branding is everything you do to intentionally shape that reputation. A branding agency is a company you hire to help you build your desired reputation within a specific market through strategy and creative execution. The result is a growing company that is the option for a specific group of people rather than an option for everyone. 

Your branding agency will help you focus on the right people and then build a visual identity, packaging, brand message, website, and marketing that connects with those people. Any company referring to itself as a branding agency should have these capabilities…

  • Market research 
  • Competitive analysis 
  • Product positioning strategy 
  • Niche identification
  • Company and product naming 
  • Brand message development 
  • Visual identity design (logo, color system, typography, photography style, etc…) 
  • Copywriting 
  • Brand guidelines 
  • Packaging design 
  • Website design 
  • Go-to-market strategy 
  • Brand architecture 
  • Brand management 

With the evolution of marketing, many branding agencies are also playing a role in the ongoing cultivation of a brand, not just the front-end development. For instance, we transition into the role of the brand and marketing department for many of our clients, but we’re not the norm. Every agency is different. This brings us to our next question. 

Do you need a branding agency? 

Sometimes a full-service branding agency like Special Sauce is overkill. You may be a better fit with a graphic designer that can help you get things off the ground under a tight budget. Unfortunately, money doesn’t grow on trees and that’s a reality in picking the right partner for your project. Let’s go through the options you’ve got available and look at when each is the right fit. 

Graphic Designer 

This is where I point most people who come in our door but can’t afford our services. A graphic designer can help you create your visual identity (logo, business cards, letterhead, packaging design, etc…). A graphic designer isn’t going to deliver the market research, positioning, name development, brand message, copywriting, and marketing strategy services that a branding firm brings, but they’ll set you up with a proper trademark to represent your business. 

Hire a graphic designer if you’re only looking for design. You don’t need a branding agency if all you want is a logo, color guide, and font system for your brand. A good graphic designer will be a more cost-effective solution and can handle everything you need. 

Just be warned, you get what you pay for with designers. You can go for a cheap option, but you’ll get a cheap solution. Reach out to me if you need some designer recommendations. I know designers at all stages of experience and pricing levels. 

Copywriter 

Are you specifically looking for help with your brand message and website copy? Do you have an internal design team? If you said yes to both questions you might be best suited for a copywriter. There are a lot of different types of copywriters (direct response, advertising, content marketers, etc…) so make sure you look for a writer who specializes in what you need. 

An independent copywriter will cost far less than a full-service branding agency. If you’re happy with your brand strategy and visual identity, but you need to freshen up the tone of voice, hire a copywriter. Like designers, you get what you pay for with copywriters. It’s worth paying a little extra for an experienced copywriter with a proven portfolio of work. Again, feel free to reach out to me for recommendations. I’m always happy to connect folks even when we’re not the right fit. 

Naming Agency 

There are some agencies that only do name development. That may sound odd, but it’s an incredibly important element to business that many entrepreneurs blow off or rush through thinking it doesn’t matter. Your company name is the one thing that people will use to describe you for as long as you’re in business. A great company name is an asset that drives your business forward. The wrong company name is a roadblock to success that will cost you money.

Turn to a naming agency if you have everything else in your company dialed in, but you can’t seem to nail the name. If you need more than just a name, you’ll want to keep reading because a full-service branding agency is probably a better fit. 

Boutique Branding Agency 

Special Sauce, my company, fits into this category. Folks like us bring all of the above capabilities under one roof. Pick a boutique branding agency if you want help spotting holes in the market, positioning your company, clarifying your message, naming your company, building a go-to-market strategy, and using creative execution (design and copywriting) to stand out from everyone else. Another example of when to use a boutique branding agency is if you’re a small to midsize company growing rapidly and acquiring other companies. You most likely have brand architecture and rebranding challenges that require both strategy and creative execution. 

Like I mentioned earlier, branding agencies are experts at building companies. A boutique agency is the option for you if you want a true partner invested in what you’re creating. A full-service agency will cost more than individual service providers, but you’ll get more for that money. If you’re a small company or startup that needs strategy, creative execution, and a big idea that breaks you into a competitive market, go with a boutique branding agency. 

Large Branding Agency 

The last but not least expensive option on the list is large branding agencies. Unlike boutique firms, large agencies spend most of their time working on corporate rebrands. They have all of the capabilities for building new brands, but they’re priced well out of range for most startups. 

The benefit of a large branding agency is resources. They typically have big teams with significant talent. The downside of large branding agencies is cost and speed. If you’re a huge company that needs a team with significant resources and big company experience, go with a large agency. If you’re a small to midsize company or startup that wants to move fast and land on something creatively fresh without spending 7 figures, go with a boutique agency. 

What’s right for your startup branding needs? 

That’s really the only question that matters. Every situation is different. If you’re a CPG startup, hiring the right branding firm could be the difference between a breakout success and a complete dud. Finding a juicy niche, positioning the brand properly, nailing the name, creating a unique brand personality, and stopping people with badass creative execution and packaging is often what separates one brand from everyone else. Find a branding firm that can deliver strategically and creatively. Your branding partner needs to understand consumer psychology and packaging design. 

If you’re a SaaS or B2B startup, your positioning strategy is going to be crucial. Design matters, but speaking to a big hairy problem that people will pay handsomely to solve is even more important. You need to find a branding agency that has the strategic chops to put you on the right people with a persuasive message. 

Regardless of what you do, good luck. Feel free to reach out to me with questions.  I do what I do because I’m passionate about helping people launch and grow businesses so don’t hesitate to hit me up for advice. 

Entrepreneur?

I send a Friday email called The Recipe with my best brand strategy and marketing insights gained from growing hundreds of companies.  It'll help you grow yours if you stick your email in that box...