Branding Mistakes Most Startups Make

It’s impossible not to think about branding as a modern startup these days. With gorgeous visuals dominating our social media feeds; companies with impeccable designs are popping up all the time. And growing fast! Despite the amount of attention, so many new founders give their brand identities… I see some common branding mistakes that can hold their companies back.

The good news is, developing a solid brand doesn’t have to be as complicated as many folks make it out to be. Here are the three most common branding mistakes I’ve seen startups make during my 13+ years working as a brand strategist—and how you can easily avoid them to ensure you’re putting your company’s best foot forward.

Focusing on Form Over Function

Especially when you’re DIYing your logo, it can be tempting to choose what you think looks coolest. Don’t do that. What is cool changes. What functions is best. Consider their usability more. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen brands design funky logos that are impossible to decipher when they’re scaled down to fit in a social media icon, or choose a typeface that looks cool but is challenging for users to actually read.

Instead, make sure you think about your viewers at every step. Any time you’re making a brand decision, just take a step back and ensure it supports your users rather than you.

Spending Too Much on Branding

If you’re like most startup founders, you’ve probably spent a lot of time fretting over your budget for branding. Most ask themselves should they spend upwards of 50K on branding?

I’m going to let you off the hook and tell you, no, it’s almost certainly not. What so many founders don’t account for when doing this math is just how often early-stage startups pivot as they’re trying to figure out their product-market fit. 

Considering that good design is all about tying your brand to your business strategy (more on that in a minute), you don’t want to invest a lot into your brand until you feel secure in that strategy. If you do, that investment is quickly going to feel like a waste when you realize you need to rebrand to match your company’s new direction down the line.

But you also don’t want to try and create a sexy brand on the cheap. You get what you pay for in the design world, so this usually won’t end up looking as professional as you’d like. Instead, I recommend startups aim for simple branding that allows you a lot of flexibility for future changes. Think of this as a black dress: it’s nothing revolutionary, but it also looks timeless and sleek. 

Not Tying the Brand to a Solid Strategy

Of course, a DIY brand strategy may not work forever. Once you’ve found your market fit, you’ll want to invest in professional design and branding work. But too many startups walk into that process with a mood board of what they want to look like, instead of focusing on what they want their brand to convey.

The best brands aren’t plucked out of thin air—they’re rooted in the company’s business strategy. All of the design elements are carefully selected to align with a company’s mission and to attract its target audience. Above all, to set them apart from the competition.

As a professional creator, anytime a business owner tells me they don’t have a business strategy and just want a quick cheap logo – it’s a red flag.

You need to strategize your brand first. Yes, working through these types of questions is a lot harder and a bit less fun than thinking about your favorite colors and fonts. But doing so will be infinitely more valuable to your brand, and the future of your business. That’s why I include it in my branding process. Take a sneak peek at the first part that workshops one-on-one with business owners on what your brand and business should be in The Art of Brand Naming.


About the Jacquelyn Tolksdorf, Brand Strategist and founder is a Wisconsin-based creative that’s worked with world-class brands like Netflix, Rocket Mortgage, Buffalo Trace Whiskey, and more. As an online wordmark builder that allows startups on tight budgets to create dynamic, professional-looking logos themselves, she’s here to create for you!


Is it time for your brand to evolve?

Refreshing an outdated brand can have enormous power. Which begs the question, when is the right time for you to change?

There is always a variety of motivating factors from functional, such as adapting to new channels, to strategic, like building a brand that supports a social dialog.

What’s more, today’s digital landscape demands you always being “on” brand.

Companies are also being urged to have a louder voice when it comes to social issues, which too, is influencing visual expressions. Whether it’s social reckonings, COVID, or environmental issues more brands are thriving when they show they have a moral stance on something. Furthermore, diversity, equity, and inclusion and philanthropy are no longer tokenism as companies set specific targets in hiring, equality in pay and investment in the communities they operate.

It’s a brave new tech world

The immediacy of digital channels and social media demand brands be in— and of— the culture. People expect to engage with brands on their time. The way of the dodo went rigid marketing strategies and now a much more universally understood set of principles that can be used by anyone, at any level, in any role to showcase the organic nature of the brand is ideal.

As you head more and more into building relationships via digital devices, consumers expect seamless experiences with brands across all devices, whether mobile, watch, thermostat, or smart speaker. And as brands expand their reach, companies must think more universally about their brand voice throughout these mediums.

The new design toolkits must allow for comprehensive experiential language, encompassing visual, verbal, and emotive cues. You can no longer have a cookie-cutter website that looks like everyone else’s website if you want to elevate your brand position.

Ask yourself these questions

  1. Is your brand expressed through an authentic voice? Does it enable you to converse in the moment? Does the tone of voice feel human and relatable?
  2. Is it built for a digital-first world? Is it accessible across media and channels? Are there meaningful interaction patterns? Are there principles for motion and video?
  3. Is it designed to drive the business strategy? Does it resonate with key audiences? oes it express the values of the organization?
  4. Does it inspire your team? Can teams get inspired to do the most with the brand elements?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it might be time to explore an evolution of your brand. While updating your identity can be a big step, it’s crucial for a brand’s success and more important than ever in today’s competitive landscape.

Bear with me while I do the marketing agency equivalent of putting a “My child is an honors student” bumper sticker on my car. But after 12 years of working with brands like Rocket Mortgage, Disney, and more — brand strategy has become so important to me (founder of I’d love to evolve your brand. Learn more at Specialties.