Branding, Identity and Why Startups Need Both


This is the first part in our month long Startup Series. Check out the second part in the series: Startups: Know Your Audience.

There is a common misconception between branding and identity, especially among startups and entrepreneurs. The purpose and importance of these tools are often confused and it’s not unusual for people to assume branding and identity are the same thing: a logo and a set of colors. In fact, branding and identity are two halves of the same coin and equally important for a new company seeking to start off on the right foot.

Tip of the Iceberg: Branding Vs. Identity

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between branding and identity and the purposes of each. Identity is typically the things you see and hear that represent the company. These might take the form of logos, slogans, colors or other distinguishing elements. Identity is symbolic, a representation of much larger idea. The purpose of identity is to establish recognizability and familiarity, an important thing for an unknown startup entering a crowded space.

Branding, on the other hand, is everything under the surface. If you imagine the idea of your company as an iceberg, your identity (the stuff people see) is the very tip of the iceberg. Below the surface is everything else which constitutes your brand. This includes your company values, your personality, your company culture, your tone and voice and everything that makes your company unique. It’s these ideas and values that fuel your identity and puts meaning behind the symbols you choose. Since a brand is really a description of who a company is and what they do, it helps you live up to the promise your identity communicates to your customers, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Weak Identity: Symbols Without Stories

So why do startups need both branding AND identity? It’s simple. One is very weak without the other. If you have a slick logo and stand-out color scheme, you’ll make an impression, but do your salespeople follow through with a consistent message? Does your product reflect the values your tagline promises? Branding helps you follow through on your claims with a unique experience. It’s not unlike bad movies where you’ll see foreshadowing with no follow through later—the setup becomes meaningless without the payoff!

Weak Branding: Personas Without Faces

Likewise, you can have the best company culture in the world and the most perfectly crafted positioning statement, but what value does it have if not communicated to customers? What good are brand pillars if new employees don’t know they exist? Imagine a novelist with pages of backstory, setting notes, character likes and dislikes and other such materials. It’s a vast amount of information, but it’s inaccessible and unorganized. What people want is a logical story with meaning. An identity is just that. It forces a company to articulate and hone their message into the simplest form possible, to cut away the fluff and focus on what matters.


For startups, it’s important to understand the difference between branding and identity, but also to understand you don’t need an international agency an a team of brand managers to do it right. Even with a great agency, companies don’t just become Apple or Nike overnight. It takes years of refining the brand and identity to achieve those unique experiences. But startups take heart! By starting small and finding a good agency who can help you articulate your story in a simple, cost-effective way, you can be the next Zappos, Target or Nordstrom’s.