How to build a scalable impact-driven brand

I believe it’s easier to make a sustainable brand big than a big brand sustainable. But sometimes impact entrepreneurs and sustainable startups get hung up on turning their innovation into a product or service and they neglect a core element of their business: Their brand. In this post, I will take you through the fundamental pillars of building a brand around your sustainable solution and why it’s essential to take your startup from MVP to investment-ready.

[This is an excerpt from my first publication Impact Brand Building: How To Build A Scalable Impact Driven Brand which you can find following this link]

Are you building a business in line with the Sustainable Development Goals? Or perhaps you have an idea for an innovative solution that will challenge business as normal and create the foundations of a sustainable economy?

Then I’ve got one word of advice for you: Build a brand. After helping over 20 sustainable startups scale their impact, I’ve seen one thing over and over again.

The difference between an impact-driven brand that scales and one that doesn’t is that those that scale, embrace the commercial side of their business and build a brand, not just a product or service.

A brand can be defined as the reputation you (as a founder) and your business has in the market you exist in. Tangibly, it’s your visual identity, tone of voice and your website, etc. Intangibly, it’s your purpose, vision, position in the marketplace, your ability to lead, your mentality, your ability to attract and retain talent and your understanding of sales.

All-in-all, your brand is your commercial potential: A tangible demonstration of your business acumen.

Why is this important for impactful brands and sustainability startups?

Because the thing that kills most startups (regardless of whether they’re sustainable or not) is a lack of access to capital. And the main standing between sustainable startups and access to finance?

According to a 2017 research paper by Linda Bergset, there are two factors that contribute to challenges financing sustainable startups:

• A lack of business qualification
• A lack of market orientation

“For sustainability-driven startups, there is a need for continued professionalization”.

“While sustainable entrepreneurs/teams who are more motivated by their contribution towards sustainability than by earnings may have thorough knowledge of social or environmental issues, a very pertinent academic background and may be highly qualified, they may lack business qualification.”

“One consequence of this may be that aspects like marketing strategy and financial plan are given too little prominence in investment proposals and business plans.”

And as a result? They lose out on finance opportunities to their less-sustainable rivals.

The thing is that it doesn’t matter how groundbreaking your idea is… The only way to create a sustained, positive impact is by convincing the right people to help you build it.

And when you consider that our future depends on climate-positive ideas becoming reality and disrupting business as usual, then it’s imperative that you build a brand that exemplifies both your commercial acumen and business qualification.

So what exactly is an impact-driven brand?

A brand showcases a startups’ potential to grow and to create a significant positive impact. A strong brand highlights a thriving business. It can help you protect your long-term market share, and investment in it now indicates you’ll take this matter seriously in the future. A brand will also help you weather an unpredictable future, which as the Corona Crisis has demonstrated, is going to be stranger than you could have ever imagined.

Why?

Because investors don’t invest in a product or service, they invest in brand equity. Brand equity is a term that describes a brand’s value, which is in turn measured by perception of that brand, and experiences with that brand and that brand’s potential to grow. For companies with higher brand equity, it’s easier to gain more clients, increase market value, and attract investors.

When you or your startup has higher brand equity and people trust you to do what you say, they’re willing to part with their money and pay you to do it. And if your primary business function is creating a positive environmental impact, your impact can scale. Essentially, it’s your ticket to creating impact at scale.

The perception of your brand also determines the behaviour of potential partners or investors. Thought leaders attract more media coverage, they can build stronger relationships with organizations and they’re more likely to be a trusted recipient of investment. And if you’ve made a solution to a global problem, you’re going to need access to capital.

From Charity To CSR To Impact-Driven Entrepreneurship

As a society, we have moved away from philanthropy and charity a key mechanism for creating seismic shifts in the state of our society and economy. Sure, they still have a place in delivering impact, but they can’t be relied upon to save us from the looming climate disaster.

As a vacuum became apparent, for-profit businesses — and especially entrepreneurs — have stepped into the ring. But in this new era, the way we used to build businesses has also changed. It used to go something like this: Build a product, advertise it, sell it, scale it, and profit…and then maybe impact if they were feeling generous. Today creating impact can’t be an afterthought. It’s not that simple.

As a result, entrepreneurs the world over have started doing things differently. Impact or purpose is beginning to be put before profit. We’re beginning to see a new wave of businesses tackling global problems with innovative and profitable new solutions.

However, many impact-driven for-profit businesses (businesses tackling one or more of the SDGs with their primary business line) still hold on to many of the strategies and approaches listed in the playbooks of nonprofits.

So how do you make sure that your for-impact business stands out amongst the crowd? How do you ensure your business is the one receiving impact investing capital?

The answer is to build a brand, not a product.

With these changes in the way we build a business, we’ve reached a point where we can no longer rely on sustainability as a defining feature. We live in a world where we need to move beyond the colour green for our logos and images of polar bears on melting ice blocks for our imagery.

If you want to build a company that can go on and play a role building the sustainable economy of tomorrow, then we have to move away from our roots and create a modern brand that will attract investors. To do that, we have to start with the way we present ourselves, the story we tell, and the way that we communicate.

Communications Challenges For Impact Entrepreneurs & Sustainable Startups

As impact entrepreneurs, we find a strong bond with the idea of creating good in the world. For everyone and not just ourselves. Yet these tendencies also hold us back.

So many early-stage sustainable businesses communicate to convince the general public why we need to act on climate change. They tell stories of melting ice caps, and endless CO2 emissions, and plastic in our oceans. They tell us about the necessity to “act now”.

The problem with these messages lies in their misguided intention: To educate the general population. Every day, I hear someone tell a general audience that they have to minimize negative impact on the planet. Why does this matter? Negative impact actions = negative messages = inaction.

Then when it comes time for an impact entrepreneur or sustainable startup to answer the question, “What do you do”, we usually preach to the converted, by:

  1. Speaking in overly complex industry jargon. Many of those who dedicate their life to solving the greatest challenges of the day are undoubtedly some of the sharpest tools in the shed. You’re more likely to be an academic or scientist and on the other, you’re an inherently social human being. But it’s likely that their target audience lives outside our impact-bubble and have little to no idea what you’re talking about when you say stuff like “We are an AI-driven multidisciplinary innovation ecosystem leading the systemic transition to a planet-inclusive circular economy through Industry 4.0 technology”. BUT WHAT DO YOU DO?? The scientific or academic route is a classic impact entrepreneur character trait: It’s a complex subject and you want to show that you’re qualified. However, this often drives us to speak to our peers, not our target audience. Essentially, it leaves us preaching to the choir. And when you speak in complex industry jargon to investors or partners, they simply turn off.
  2. Leading with negative social messaging instead of value. When you’re a social-first communicator, you often forego speaking about what you can do for your clients and customers and focus solely on the problem at hand or the global-level actions/challenges we face. “Think of the polar bears,” or “Plastic is bad for the planet,” or “Stop eating meat”. This is relatively pointless from a communications perspective because a) your ideal customers are already concerned with this subject so you don’t need to convince them, and b) you’re not adding anything valuable to the conversation. For this group, the main thing which hinders their communications is their goal. In both instances, it comes down to communications theory. It’s easier to appeal to yourself than to others. But that’s simply not how ideas spread. And if you have an idea — or an innovation — that’s going to build the foundations of the impact economy, then you have to go beyond social issues and bring value to the table.

Brand equity is more of an art than a science to measure. It’s for this exact reason that many impact entrepreneurs find it difficult to commit resources to.

In tangible terms, a brand is simply visual. A logo, a colour palette, or a design that people associate with a company. However, a successful brand is much more than that…

It’s the potential to grow exponentially. The potential to create impact. The potential to solve customer’s problems. And your ability to deliver on all of the above. That potential is what you should communicate.

To get a rough idea, we must start with a brand’s value and work backwards. And brand value, on the other hand, is easy to measure: How much is another company willing to pay for your company?

Your brand’s equity is the value of your brand minus all of the hardware and IP. What’s left is your potential. Your potential to enact your vision. Your potential to change the world. Your potential to make a significant profit. Your potential to disrupt industries. These all have value in them, even if it can’t be seen explicitly. A successful brand brings them to life.

To successfully communicate value and potential, we need to build a brand and not a product.

Over the past year and after creating branding strategies for 20+ climate positive startups, I’ve researched, reached out to multiple industry experts, and defined a six-step methodology to help early-stage impact-driven entrepreneurs and sustainable startups to take their brand from minimum viable product to investment-ready.

A Six-Step Methodology To Build An Impact-Driven Brand

  1. Brand Foundations. Impact-driven entrepreneurs are the opposite to most other businesses: We know why we do what we do, but we can rarely explain how we do it or what we do. We’re are prone to believe our methodology or their solution can compete because it’s “more sustainable” or “more comprehensive” than anything on the market. We believe that we stand out from the crowd, perhaps because we’re sustainable. Maybe it’s true, for a while. But if we can learn anything from modern economics, it’s that a competitive advantage doesn’t last. Every solution can be replicated. Every innovative business model can be copied. You might have the solution to solve a specific problem now, but what happens when someone solves it for cheaper? And in the current climate, sustainability won’t be your competitive advantage for long. That’s why it’s important to spend time and craft your purpose carefully. Construct a mission and a vision that’s bigger than you and that will differentiate your business. These concepts are called brand foundations and creating clarity in them is integral to your future scaling efforts. It’s easy to skip this part and move on to the more exciting stuff like web design, social pages, etc., but in reality, without a clear understanding of who you are and what you stand for — beyond environmental sustainability — you’re holding yourself back in the long run.
  2. Market Segmentation. Crafting your niche is one of the things that we have traditionally struggled with in the impact ecosystem. As impact entrepreneurs, it’s easy to think that we’re all alone out there in this pursuit to create a better world. But in reality, we’re not and the ecosystem is growing. So how do you make your idea cut through the noise? How do you differentiate yourself from your competition? Sure, there may be no one out there with the same idea, technology, methodology or service as you but there are surely others walking along the similar line. Similarly, we tend to believe that because our problems are global and they will affect everyone in some form or another, that everyone would benefit from our message. However, the opposite is true. By segmenting our market and carving out our niche, we can identify a profitable market for early traction, tailor our message to that specific audience, position our solution for success in that market and create value for those potential customers within our content.
  3. Strategic Messaging. Strategic messaging is literally another name for giving something away for free in exchange for the right person’s attention. And storytelling is an essential part of strategic messaging. Why? Because the human brain is 22 times more likely to remember stories rather than facts. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and It’ll live in my heart forever”. Effective messages are both simple and valuable. Whenever you communicate as a brand or an individual, how you frame your message will determine whether it will be successful. When a message is framed well, it carves out a piece of your target audience’s mind and lives there. If you’ve just started your business, then you’ll essentially be targeting a problem which your ideal target market holds. You want to become known in your position as an expert and be able to get your market proposition across as value-driven. That’s your first aim. Once you have a foothold in their mind, you want to give them stories — or strategic messages — that empower them to share that value proposition with their immediate network. In this way, you can rely on those whom you’ve served well and those who stand behind you to share your message for you.
  4. Brand Platform. Every time anyone has an interaction with your company, it leaves an impression. The only thing in your hands is whether you take ownership or leave it up to chance. By taking control over these interactions you can communicate your value — and potential impact — both consciously and subconsciously. This is especially necessary when you’re interacting with potential partners or investors. When a decision is being made on whether to work with your company, branding can be a differentiating factor. If you say your solution “is the most forward-thinking and innovative X” that there is, but if there are two other companies offering similar services, how does the purchaser choose? What if your website looks like it comes from 2010? “We’ll get to it later.” What if you all use the same colour green to signify your eco-ness? What if your logo looks like it was made on paint? How is that forward-thinking or innovative? This kind of disconnect is especially a problem when it comes to impact entrepreneurs who think their methodology or innovation will carry them further than the way that they present themselves. Having each of these assets in place and in a form that represents your potential for creating impact is essential to show potential investors and future partners that you’re a future-oriented organization.
  5. Thought Leadership. Building your personal brand is key to giving your sustainable innovation the best possible chance at getting funded and scaling your impact. I know, you’re much more likely to be a computer scientist, an academic or an engineer than a marketing guru, but the fact is that a large portion of your brand’s reputation rests on the shoulders of its’ founders. And most of your personal brand is online: LinkedIn, your blog, or Instagram. Your website, social channels, and Google are the first places an investor will look when deciding whether to invest in your company or not. Why? Because people inherently want to interact with other people and investors invest not only in ideas but in founders…and you get to choose what they find. What you post, what you write and care about, insights into your ability as a leader will all be on display. The only thing you know for certain is before they hand over a cheque with 5, 6 or even 7 zeros on the end, that they’ll look. So you’d better make it sure as hell that what they find says something positive.
  6. Public Relations. Just like an investor will look into your personal channels, they will also look at your public record. What have you written and if it’s been published as well as what has been written about you is an indicator about how you’re going to work as a leader.
    Why? Because social proof sells. Media coverage demonstrates public interest in your company and shows legitimacy in your product. Why do you think Amazon is so gung-ho on reviews?
    Good press can put a face to your company’s name which builds credibility beyond your product and can give important context to your start-up’s story. For instance, are you as a leader a thought leader in your industry? Have you been featured in Forbes, Fast Company or Inc? What about in smaller blogs or industry publications?
    Or do you not value these types of trivial pursuits? Press can show that you understand how the media game works and your ability to play along and thrive in an ecosystem outside of your own is a positive character trait in itself for entrepreneurs.
    Besides, leveraging public relations can be a great way to attract new partners and investors. Bill Gates started his journey focusing on sanitation in the developing world after reading one news article. Similarly, the partners that you’re looking for are out there, but whether you leverage this mighty medium to reach them or not says a lot about how you’re going to act as a leader.

If you’re laying the groundwork for tomorrow’s sustainable economy, build a brand, not a product.

A brand can be 2x, 5x, 10x or even 100x the value of a product. A brand competes with stories. A product competes with features. As the First-Americans proverb goes, “Tell me the facts and I’ll learn, tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

Potential customers, clients, partners, and investors don’t want to be bombarded with facts and figures. Stories create clarity in complexity. They cut through the noise. So tell a story and build a brand, don’t just rely on the features that your product brings to the table.

By focusing on each one of these concepts, you’ll be able to build your brand and communicate your value to investors, partners, and potential clients, giving your solution the best chance possible to turn your potential impact into a reality.

Want to learn more about how to build a scalable impact driven brand?

You can get your copy of Impact Brand Building by following this link.

About the author. Joseph is an impact branding strategist, author of Impact Brand Building, and founder of The Impact Economy, a podcast, online magazine and global community for movers and shakers in the impact space.

Writer, entrepreneur and impact branding strategist with one foot in the sustainability bubble and the other firmly in reality.