OwlSpark | Rice University Startup Accelerator | PeopleWise: Robin Tooms
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PeopleWise: Robin Tooms

Brand is business, and for Robin Tooms, business is branding. Robin, Principal and Vice President of Strategy at Savage Brands, received her undergraduate degree in graphic communications from the University of Houston, and then went back to school to get her MBA at Rice University (‘04). She is passionate about helping companies position their brand, and found her sweet spot at the intersection of creative design and business strategy.

Earlier this #bayoustartupsummer, Robin introduced founders to branding, and we caught up with her this week to talk more in depth.

Branding is a slightly abstract concept, can you elaborate on what it is?

Brand isn’t a product or the logo, these are just small pieces of the larger puzzle. Brand as a concept is your vision of what you want to grow to become. Before you have a product or any experience you have an ideology, an idea about the problem you’re trying to solve, and idea of why you exist. This can become your brand. You may be in R&D for years before you’re ready to launch, but you need to have a solidified vision of your company to share with investors and employees. Your brand gives people something to believe in, something to contribute to, and is a cornerstone of the strategy of your business.

Why do a lot of early stage startups not know about branding, or treat it as a second thought?

When a business is just starting, they’re usually just trying to survive. They have to get the financing, technology, and strategy right. We are taught that everything has to be right and work succinctly to get off the ground, but what they forget is that branding is in that strategy bucket. Branding is business. If we can educate them that brand is an important piece, not just aesthetics, then they’ll see that a piece of strategy is missing. If you don’t have the branding, your core identity, you might miss a great market opportunity, or not connect with the right stakeholders. Your operations and financing may be doing great, but you’ll lack proper direction.

Is anyone capable of crafting a brand for their company?

Definitely! It starts with asking why they’re the people who should be starting the business. Usually startup founders are very passionate about what they are doing, otherwise they’re in the wrong business. They never say ‘oh,  I’m not really interested in solving this problem or creating something new.’ They know there is some personal connection with what they’re building. The branding conversation has to take their raw passion and find a way to articulate to everyone else why they’re passionate, and why they’re the best person to lead the project and bring other people along. Storytelling is a common technique to do this, but first they need to know what they believe before they can find the right story to tell others.

You’ve mentioned that brand is important for employees and investors. Does it also play a role with customers?

When you find the audience for your product they will consider the price point, quality, and features of what you’re offering. They’ll also have other psychographic needs. A well developed brand can reach out and connect with some of these needs. All products must meet a certain quality in order to attract buyers, but if your customer believes in your vision they’ll be loyal, and willing to buy your product because they believe in and want to be associated with your brand. Old school branding used to just be about the value of features, but the new philosophy centers around making an emotional connection with consumers.

Where do you recommend starting when creating your brand?

I’ll start with where I wouldn’t recommend starting. I’ve seen people start with a name and tagline first. They do these pieces that are traditionally created last, and they can sometimes lose sight of the important strategic elements. Creating the final elements first doesn’t put you in a very strong position, you latch on to what you’ve created, even if it isn’t helpful in sharing your true brand. If you go through the steps chronologically the color and logo will come later based on strategy you’re pursuing. If you haven’t soul searched and distilled your passions into your brand, the logo could actually be in conflict with your values. Additionally, what is your litmus test for these types of items if you do them before you’ve set your strategy? To be effective there needs to be meaning, not just a coolness factor. All of these reasons highlight the importance of starting with a vision for the future of your company which we talked about earlier.

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