One of the most critical exercises a start-up (or any business) must tackle is defining their brand. The brand isn’t the just product, or the logo, or the marketing communications – though the brand strategy should guide all of those. Rather, your brand is the set of choices you make about what you want to stand for, and how you will create meaning for your customer. Defining your brand strategy means articulating exactly who your customer is, what need you are fulfilling for them (or problem you are solving), and how you are different from any competitors or substitutes – so essentially it is your business strategy.

But strategy becomes tricky when organizations (of any size) are forced to make decisions – to focus on a specific consumer target, or a particular set of goods or services…and to walk away from others. But if you are trying to be everything to everyone, you don’t have a strategy. One of my favorite quotes from the academic and strategist Michael Porter argues, “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”

In my experience, many organizations are too easily tempted to chase opportunities outside of their core, whether because it seems on-trend, competitors are doing it, or because they don’t want to pass on the incremental value of some relatively small opportunity. The tendency to extend too far, too fast is often found among entrepreneurs – whose vision, energy, and passion can sometimes make it hard to say “no” (at least for now) to opportunities that aren’t at the core of their idea. But when they take on too much, too early, they lose their meaning and differentiation.
At last year’s Camber Outdoors Pitchfest*, “focus” was a common theme in the feedback from the expert judges. They frequently urged the finalists to get more specific on their audience, find a unique and scalable opportunity, and be realistic about when and how to extend the brand. So for those of you preparing for this year’s Pitchfest – and all of the other entrepreneurs out there – ask yourself these three key questions:

  • Who is my core consumer, the one for whom I am designing this product or service?
  • What need or problem am I solving for this consumer?
  • How is my solution unique and better than the alternatives this consumer currently has available to them?

While seemingly simple, these questions will articulate a clear value proposition – as long as you are being specific and making tough choices to focus on your core. Done well, this will help you create a cohesive & consistent brand experience that is easy to communicate. And once you are ready to expand, your brand strategy becomes the compass that keeps you on-track and on-brand, whether creating new products, brand extensions, or marketing messages.

* This article originally appeared on the Camber Outdoors blog in June 2017, in preparation for Camber Outdoors’ annual Pitchfest event supporting innovative start-ups in the active-outdoor industry. For more information about Camber Outdoors and Pitchfest, visit www.camberoutdoors.org.