Branding for start-ups – why it’s deeper than just clever packaging

Colourful Design Strategy’s Emily Penny looks at how start-up companies need to consider the deeper impact of branding and invest in it from the start.


Recently I’ve been speaking with a number of start-up businesses about their branding. Design consultancies love working with start-ups because they’re energised, innovative and bursting with potential. There’s everything to play for. And we can make a huge difference to their future, which is rewarding for everyone.

Entrepreneurs are of course passionate about their product. Last month I met some food start-ups at Enterprise Nation’s Food Exchange event. There were people brandishing weird and wonderful sauces, snacks, and drinks, many fresh from the kitchen at home and at the beginning of their journey. It’s impossible not to admire these people’s skill, dedication and belief in their product.

For a lot of start-up businesses like this, packaging will be the key expression of the brand – but branding itself is far deeper than simply a nice pack.

Brand energy

To create a successful brand, a great product is a must. But a brand is not based on product alone. A brand is bigger than that: it’s an attitude, a personality, a particular energy, and an experience. In the early days, it’s what gives your product presence in a room and invites retailers and consumers to give it a try.

Packaging for the London Chocolate Company
Packaging for the London Chocolate Company

Jay Rawal founded the London Chocolate Company and describes its guiding philosophy as “fun”, something that differentiates the brand from serious chocolatiers.

I find it helpful to think of the brand as a person and the packaging and communications as their clothes. So, while the essential personality traits stay the same, the brand can dress up or down for different occasions and keep up with trends too. If you’re clear about who your brand is, dressing it becomes much easier.

Brand assets

Imagine a poster for your product with the product completely absent. Instead, consider: What’s your brand’s motto? What’s your advice for customers? How can you show that you understand them? How can you make them smile?

All brands need a range of images and messages over and above the product and its packaging. They’re called “assets”, and for a good reason: they’re a hugely valuable part of your business. You’ll need digital communications and point of sale advertising that offer more than simply a repeat of the label. And you’ll need a design concept that can adapt with the seasons and across new variants while staying true to the brand. Retailers like Joules and Starbucks constantly create fresh content around their core theme to bring a whole lifestyle to life.

All of this stems from the core energy of the brand, so it’s more than helpful to capture this in a set of values or a brand narrative.

Packaging for Moral Fibre
Packaging for Moral Fibre Food

Jenny Moloney, founder of Moral Fibre Food, worked with young designers Dan Carroll and Owen Evans. She says they captured the personality of her brand – strength, innovation and quality – through working collaboratively to explore market segmentation and brand identity.

Brand narrative

Consultancies often liken the branding process to coaching or therapy in that we offer an outside view to help structure your thoughts. An entrepreneur pitches their product to people from day one, starting with their partner, family and friends. We listen and question but also challenge and develop that pitch.

More often than not, a brand’s ethos evolves directly from its owner. As things grow in complexity, the narrative needs writing down – and stress-testing. It’s important to look at where your brand sits in relation to the competition, and how you can draw on trends that might be happening in other categories too.

Bear in mind that it’s not just about the visuals. If you are launching a tangible product, you’re inevitably launching some sort of intangible service too. (And vice versa. Notice how brokers of intangible insurance services have create tangible products in the shape of meerkats and robot toys.) So, as a food brand you do need to think about experiences: in-store, online, customer service, events and promotions. Savvy consumers don’t buy into brands purely on face value so experiences are hugely important ways to connect with customers and make an impression. Your brand narrative can shape them all.

Insight and innovation

The single most important thing that will drive your branding is your understanding of your audience. Who are they? What do they think? What do they need? It’s much better to have a defined niche proposition than to target ‘everyone’. Never target everyone. The pond may be smaller, but once customers discover you they’ll love you and tell all their like-minded friends too. Simple things like how you bundle your product or present it as a gift or an experience, depending on the needs of your market, can make all the difference.

Return on investment

Business owners are quite rightly anxious about the cost of branding. But, with so much invested already, can you really afford not to do it properly? Jane Stammers of Tipple Tails makes rich fruitcakes packaged in tins, so that they work perfectly as gifts. She told me that she was acutely aware how important branding was from the start and made the decision to invest a good chunk of her start up budget in the branding and packaging designed by Tonik.

Packaging for Real Handful
Packaging for Real Handful

Joe Taylor founded trail mix snack brand Real Handful and believes that the design delivered by agency Truth brings to life the personality of their brand: bold and natural. His advice for start-ups is to spend time building as clear a brief as possible and to invest in working with a design agency you trust to get the right result.

Packaging for Tipple Tails
Packaging for Tipple Tails

Packaging is an important part of branding. It requires great skill to ensure good shelf presence, clear messaging, and an appealing look. But getting your packaging designed is not the same as creating a brand. Be sure to think about the core brand and not just its clothes. Done effectively it will open doors, give your business a fighting chance, and sustain it for the long-term.


Emily Penny is co-founder of Colourful Design Strategy.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Zamzam Ali May 13, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Great article!!

  • Mahbir Thukral May 14, 2015 at 10:34 am

    Fantastic article! A must read for all start-ups, even for those in the digital/app start-up scene too!

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