April 2, 2020

How Startups Can Use The Brand Operating System to Build Their Brand

by

Laura Harker

Startups often struggle with brand-building. We interviewed branding expert, Sean Ironside, who gave insight into his Brand Operating System, the challenges of being a brand marketer and talked about how you can utilise branding in every unit of your company.

When it’s time to learn more about branding, we know who to turn to. Sean Ironside, a branding expert with experience in various verticals, from fintech to ‘apptech’, has a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share. He has extensive experience working with brands, especially young startups that need to take their very first steps into the world of branding.

Anyone working in brand marketing would kill to pick Sean’s brain. So, we thought we’d do it for you: we recently sat down together to have a chat about his work, especially his very own branding strategy, which is extremely beneficial to startups. This is what we learned.


Branding: Overcoming The Big Challenge


Any brand manager will know that there are a lot of challenges to overcome. What’s the main one Sean has identified in his work? It has to be trying to get startup bosses and CEOs to agree to allocate budget to branding.

Most startups will have very tight budgets and need to justify every single dollar that they spend. This poses a problem when brand and marketing managers try to pitch the importance of branding to their bosses, as not many CEOs and startup founders know and understand the value and importance of brand, and how to measure its ROI.

The Solution: Sean’s Brand Operating System

Sean knew that many organizations struggled to justify investing money in branding. To help overcome this, he developed his Brand Operating System, a framework that encourages startups to build, implement, and operationalize their brand. He explained how the idea for this came about while working at Liqid just a few years ago:

“I started thinking about this during my time with Liqid in Berlin about 4 years ago. Liqid is a digital wealth manager and has a very complex subject matter, and a very brand-heavy component to it because we helped investors from €100,00 and up to invest their money, globally diversified across all the markets. A conversion where you ask someone to give you €100,000 is a very hard one and so trust played a really big factor, and that’s something that we tried to tackle through brand.”

By following three steps - brand strategy, building assets, and working on the brand OS - he found that trust quickly followed. 

It’s not just about trust, though, as there are many other notable benefits for brands. One of which is creating a minimum viable brand. You won’t be left with just a simple logo. After using the framework, you’ll have the complete 3D brand that will help to shape and define your organization better.

As well as that, the brand becomes operational across the whole organization, not just the marketing department. It will support several departments. This means that no one in the entire company will be left in the dark over branding. Whether you speak to someone in accounting, HR, or sales, they will all have a clear idea of what the company style, tone of voice, and color pallet should be. The whole team will be on the same page, so there’s no risk of the brand message getting lost or ignored.

How Brand Managers Can Use Sean’s Framework


The issue is that there is often no immediate return as there would be with performance marketing, so organization leaders can often shy away from allocating any of their budgets to branding efforts. How can you overcome this?

For Sean, it’s all about using the storytelling funnel; specifically, these four steps:

  • Awareness
  • Need
  • Trust
  • Act

“Awareness is knowing that something is out there; need is proving relevance to the person who is supposed to buy from you; trust is conveying to that person that your company is the best to deliver that specific product, service, or solution; and act is the ability to then persuade that person to pull the trigger.”

With performance marketing, we see the first and last steps taking place. An audience is made aware of a brand and is then prompted to act straight away. Branding, however, fills the gap. That’s because your brand will answer the following questions that many consumers have: “Why is the product relevant?” and “Why should I trust you?”

branding fills the gap in the storytelling funnel
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash


Brand is, ultimately, an outcome. It’s not something that you “do”. In order for a brand to be successful, you need to build it up and then market it. Through his work with his branding framework, Sean tries to bring about the final outcome at an earlier stage than most startups would be able to on their own. To do this, he helps CEOs and bosses understand the impact of a brand and convinces them to continue down the path of brand building.

“Often there’s a buzz, people want to do something around the brand topic, they invest something but there’s not an immediate, measurable ROI. And then they move away from it or reprioritize other items in the context of their budget. This is where the Brand OS idea comes in.”

One of the big problems that Sean has come across is that people invest in a brand but get disheartened when they don’t see any immediate ROIs. They move away from funding the branding efforts and reprioritize their budget.

So, what are the steps a brand manager needs to take to persuade their boss that branding is worth the investment?

It’s all about providing a clear definition of the brand as well as taking a strategic approach to building brand assets. Sean knows this work and has even developed workshops to help marketers and startups get to grips with this.

“But essentially, it’s up to any brand leader to come up with a sequence of exercises that pulls in cross-functional leaders across the company to work on defining: What were the biggest challenges we overcame in the past? Where are we at today? Where are we going tomorrow? And then articulating around that: Who are our customers? What are the things that drive our customers in their personal lives and careers? And then developing what I would call ‘triggers’ or ‘hooks’ that we can use to create relevance within those specific people. That is basically the first large deliverable.” 

Next, brand leaders need to move on to create a statement regarding what the brand is, what it does, and what it can offer. This is step two. There are three teams that can help here: product marketing, content, and design. The product marketing team can decide how to articulate the positioning of products within the brand product architecture in light of what came out during step one. 

The content team can create an appropriate tone of voice and can help decide who the brand is when speaking to customers. As for the design team, they can explore corporate identity, e.g. the color pallet and font.

Finally, step three is all about the Operating System. Now, the organization should have tangible deliverables and assets. These can be used to “codify” how we make brand decisions across the entire strategy and organization. It should also help with goal setting. 

On top of regular operational objectives, it’s also beneficial to create brand objectives for each department. For instance, defining a value system based around brand values can help with recruitment as it ensures you find the right people who are culturally a good fit for the organization.

Every unit within the organization needs to make measurable goals that pay into an overall brand objective. Sean created a metric to help measure this: brand life score. It measures how on-brand different parts of the organization are. This helps the brand become a decision-making framework that guides how the organization makes decisions based on brand identity, as well as overall identity.

How Much Time Should Be Spent on the Brand OS?

The length of step one depends entirely on the organization. If the organization already has a brand or marketing team that has a good understanding of target markets, etc, then this step can usually be completed in 30 days. However, if there isn’t an experienced branding team on board, then it could take anywhere between 30 and 90 days.

So now we’re within a quarter. At the end of that quarter, you should be able to go into the different parts of your organization and start to discuss what some of those brand objectives could look like as you look to codify the brand across the organization.”

Preparation should take you up to a quarter if needed. Then the next quarter can be dedicated to getting the minimum viable brand in front of your customers and rolling out the brand life goals to the different departments in the organization. Finally, you’ll be able to test. All in all, this should be an agile process. For startups, the 90 days that all this could take may seem like a very long time indeed. But there’s no need to feel under pressure, especially when working on rapid-fire campaigns and trying to prove that brand is important to bosses, as shown above. 

I think it’s all about articulating those deliverables and what value they have. So, you start to make it tangible. You’re not going to say, ‘well, we’re going to start thinking about strategy and then come up with some messaging.’ You really want to say ‘this is where we are going to be in 30 days; this is where we’re going to be in 60 days, and this is how we’re going to apply what we’re learning and what we are building to those rapid-fire campaigns. Then you are tying deliverables and learnings of insights from your progress on the brand project and tying them to some of the marketing performance objectives.”

Having a clear message and articulating in a consistent and catchy way can really connect with a brand’s target audience. Following Sean’s strategy with this should help to improve the performance side of marketing as well.

convince your bosses to invest more in brand
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash


One other question we put to Sean was whether telling bosses that there will be proof of these efforts’s effect could give brand managers more time to work on things. Does the promise of data and numbers help bosses buy into branding?

Again, Sean reiterated that brand is an outcome. To get to it, there are other metrics that need to be observed. Think keywords, organic traffic, social media performance. By looking at these metrics, you can see if the brand is performing well enough to achieve the final outcome. You need these short term performances to create a stage on which the brand can operate. Another way of thinking about it is this: if we want our brand to achieve X, we need our marketing, content, etc, to do Y.

Ultimately, this makes the brand more of a DNA. Brand is no longer isolated on its own and becomes impossible to detach and throw away.

Starting Out with Branding: Sean’s Recommendations


When it comes to starting out with branding, we wanted to know whether Sean could recommend any channels or campaigns. He replied that it entirely depends on the type of service being offered by the brand. 

One tip he did have, though, was that a squad or cross-functional team should be created. They can meet and spend a couple of hours setting expectations for the brand. This should always be a shared task between departments.

Another benefit, if the startup has the budget, is to bring in a consulting agency. However, if an organization goes down this route, it’s important to be prepared. Make sure you understand who you are and what you are trying to achieve, otherwise it could end up being a waste of money. It will also help to come up with a narrow brief and scope, so they know exactly what you want to achieve.

Taking a Closer Look at the Liqid Example

We then asked Sean if he could give us a more specific example of using his brand operating system. He reminded us of Liqid, the digital wealth manager, where the main issue was building trust. While working with the team, he focused on creating an in-depth magazine that offered fresh perspectives on investments. 

To help with this, he made use of various content metrics. By looking at metrics like newsletter opens and click-through rates, the brand found it easier to expose people to their content. They even surveyed people who were exposed to the content to make sure the message was getting through and resonating with them.

Did Sean ever struggle to implement any of his branding ideas at Liqid?

No, as the head of branding he was largely free to do what he thought best, although he did have to justify his spending to the executive leadership. He was able to do this by having clear deliverables. Showing them something that was tangible put them at ease when committing to it.

We were also intrigued to hear whether Sean could pinpoint any good successes as a result of his work at Liqid. Was there something that would have otherwise been unachievable had he not had his system in place?

One clear success for Sean was the magazine, through which they articulated the brand’s message and expertise.  Before they started with the magazine, 30% of Liqid users said they had no previous experience of wealth management. At the end of the 12-month campaign, this had increased to 50%. More people with no experience had joined Liqid. This is all thanks to the brand creating trust associated with the magazine and newsletter. What’s more, this success was easy to prove because they could see exactly where a customer had come into the funnel. The campaign Sean created ticked all the right boxes: firstly, it had multiple touchpoints, including a digital presence, magazine and print campaigns, and relevant landing pages.

But you want to know the fun part? The overall hook was a goldfish!

brand building goldfish example
Photo by Ahmed Zayan on Unsplash


The goldfish swimming in its bowl was used in the materials as a representation of the investors’ money. The fish was often shown looking lost and swimming in circles, and it would also be portrayed in different scenarios. One showed the bowl on a psychiatrist’s couch, with the tagline “Is your money stressed?”

This image was used to catch consumers’ attention. However, it also immediately took them straight to the “need” part of Sean’s storytelling funnel which he previously explained: the problem that Liqid solves for its customers.

This was just one of the touchpoints in print that then pulled people to Liqid’s digital campaign and newsletter. Once subscribed to the newsletter, they were nurtured with further information on the benefits of joining the platform. The message was constantly driven home - Liqid gives fresh perspectives on how to manage my money. Once nurtured, investors felt a lot more comfortable with giving financial information over to Liqid, and telling the platform what they wanted from investments.

Right now, Sean works for a B2B2C company, eGym. The company sells gym equipment to gym owners, but it’s the public who eventually train on it. This means that Sean is now tasked with marketing a product that will be bought by a buyer who needs to present it to someone else and persuade them to use it.

So, it’s not just Sean who needs to understand the brand’s story: so do the gym owners so they can, in turn, sell and promote to the final user. And the Brand OS system helps everyone involved correctly market and publicize the products. 

Let’s have a quick recap of Sean’s branding system:

  • Step one is to create a defined strategy and deliverables. This helps to make a roadmap that you can use to show branding efforts are bringing outcomes.
  • Step two involves getting as many people in the organization involved in the topic as possible.
  • Step three is to create measurable goals and define key results across various parts of the organization that pay into the overall brand outcome.

Sean’s way with branding is certainly successful and we’re sure that many other brand managers can use his methods within their own organization.

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