Success can depend as much on branding and savvy storytelling that wins over a loyal customer audience as it does on technology, products or services.

When it comes to launching a business, the “Eureka!” idea is essential—as is the capital to get off the ground—but every startup that achieves liftoff needs a steady fuel injection of branding and marketing to stay in flight, something that many entrepreneurs can lose sight of along the way.

“A lot of entrepreneurs believe their idea will speak for itself, but really, you need to speak for your idea—wrap your product or service in a narrative that will resonate with your customers,” says Alice Vilma, Managing Director and co-head Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab, an in-house accelerator supporting early-stage tech and tech-enabled startups led by multicultural and women entrepreneurs.

Indeed, the questions of “who,” “why” and “how” can get overlooked in the initial rush to raise money, give demos, launch a product or service, and staff for everyday operations, a gap that the Multicultural Innovation Lab strives to bridge with an immersive and comprehensive curriculum designed to prime the entrepreneurs in residence for success. “The Lab provides companies with an abundance of resources, including access to subject matter experts who can offer actionable advice,” explains Vilma.

This year, these experts included Mónica Talán, a brand and communications advisor, and Rochelle Stewart, an Engagement Director at the consulting firm Affinity Advisory. Both have worked with startups, small businesses and big established brands, and they presented the experience they’ve gleaned to the founders at two separate “Curriculum Days.” Their aim: Offer a primer on branding and marketing, then work 1-on-1 to address the specific needs of each founder.

Here are a five of their key insights:

1. Start With Your Value Proposition

A value proposition answers the question, “What do you bring to the market that differentiates you?” and serves as the foundation on which you will build your brand, says Talán. To arrive at your value prop, gather your team and ask yourselves the following questions:

  • What do we offer?
  • Who is our target audience?
  • What are their key pain points?
  • What are the key benefits for this audience?
  • Why us?

Look at the value propositions of successful companies for inspiration. Remember that this is a unified message that must appeal to investors, customers and employees. It’s usually not a quick and easy process, so plan to spend some time hammering it out. 

“I’ve worked with at least 20 startups and, while the majority had great concepts, most had trouble articulating why they are doing what they are doing,” says Talán.

 

2. Nail Down Your Mission and Your Values

Brainstorm with your team and come up with a mission statement—a sentence or two that encapsulate why you’re doing what you’re doing and what your core values are. For the latter, start with a long list of a couple dozen, then whittle it down to no more than six—fewer if possible. Some values may be obvious, such as integrity or excellence, says Talán. But others may be less so. “For instance, one of your values may be ‘having fun,’ ” she says.

These values, along with your value prop and mission statement, will be the lens through which you view your brand and marketing strategies. Make sure everything is in sync. Talán cites a former client whose mission was to democratize education around the world, but whose company name didn’t translate beyond the U.S. “The first thing I told her was to change the name,” says Talan. “Her mission was global but her name and brand were not.”

3. Keep Things Focused

Make your value prop and mission statement simple, precise and targeted. “While it might be tempting to go after every shiny object, that’s not a good business strategy,” says Talán. A focused value prop and mission statement and a clearly defined set of values will not only help you deliver your message clearly, it will ensure that you don’t waste time and energy on prospects that don’t align with who you are as a company.

4. Build Your Brand Narrative

“Every brand has a unique narrative,” says Stewart. “That narrative begins with you. What does your brand believe? What is your brand’s core purpose and why does it matter to you? How will you deliver on your brand promise?” Adds Stewart, “A brand narrative should be a smartly integrated reflection of your personal story and values, your product or service, and your company’s mission or aspiration. In order to evoke the emotions you want to inspire in your consumer, your brand story must allude to both the value proposition and the reason to believe. The 'what' and 'why.' "

5. Remember: Traction Comes Before Growth

“It’s about finding your first customers and experimenting with different acquisition channels before investing in those that will scale,” says Stewart. “The real growth happens after you’ve cemented product-market fit and accumulated key learnings from your first customers and early marketing experiments.”

Such advice has already clicked with the members of this year’s Multicultural Inclusion Lab cohort.  

Says Carolyn Horner, who, with Eve Ackerley, is a founder of Jenzy, an e-commerce platform with innovative sizing technology intended to help busy parents find and buy right-sized shoes for their ever-growing kids, “After running a large survey with Jenzy app users, we realized that many people view Jenzy as just a shoe sizing tool, rather than a shopping platform. [Talán] had us relook at core parts of our brand identity to create a clear description of who we are and what service we offer busy parents.”

“The sessions with both Monica and Rochelle were spot on,” says Justin Zhou, co-founder and President of BLUEWAVE Technologies, Inc., a health-tech company that makes a device used to quickly sanitize and deodorize health-care items. “As a startup founder, you have so many things going on that you can’t afford to spend a lot of time testing branding and marketing concepts that may not work. To get a crash course on how to best represent your company was extremely helpful."

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