You always want to impress your first users with crisp design, unique logo and overall corporate theme. Most of the time you will be lucky to have a team member with great artistic skills. You will have to outsource or hire people with great graphic design skills. With financial constraints at the beginning, it could not be always affordable for start-ups to have branding services. I am wondering when is the right time to get serious with product or service branding. Should we do the branding before the launch of our product or should we wait for some traction? I would appreciate to hear your experience or opinion.
Branding is not a logo. Branding is a vision, mission, and ambition that tells everyone, internally (critically) and externally what your company and service stand for. Amazon is about customer first. Apple is about elegant design. Google is about information at your finger tips. These are not logos, they are Brands. If you are serious about Branding, read Martin Lindstrom's books. If you are only concerned about logo, then try 99designs. If you are serious about Brand, then you have a lot of work, with your entire team, to establish that vision, mission, and ambition. That is more critical than any logo you will create.
You're asking a question in my strongest skill, so here's my simple advice. Everything you do contributes to your brand. The way you answer the telephone, the appearance of your collateral and web site, the vocabulary used to describe your product, the color palate associated with your packaging, even the way you dress at the office all contribute to the brand.
Graphic design is only one element. And likely, you will evolve the graphic elements that represent your company over time just as you evolve and sharpen the direction of your company.
While you may not want to spend a lot of money at the beginning to develop materials that will stick around for a long time, what you will want to invest in is the time to write down your vision for the company. Many people mistake vision for mission. But vision is a description of the ideal experience of your company with the ideal customer. Remember that you have both internal and external customers and your vision should include both. You must put it in writing, and it is best when it's concise, maybe five sentences.
What this does for you is give you a measuring stick for EVERY decision made afterwards. You can ask for each decision, "Is this moving me towards the vision of our company's future that we have described?" If no, don't do it. If yes, do it. Your brand develops as you manifest all those things that contribute towards your vision. And if you stick to that vision, you will know when your choices of color, words, and where you can be found are right or wrong for your brand image. You will also know when spending money will move you towards that vision, and how much it will do so.
Branding is not product. It's not logo. It's not a service. It is how you live and breathe as a company. If you need help expressing your vision, start with Doug Hall's book 'Jump Start Your Business Brain' which will teach you about how to think critically about your business and why, not so much what to think. It's not a branding book, those are by Seth Godin, and you can get to those later.
Yes, you do want to make a good first impression, but I'll tell you that most new companies quickly realize that a full-color business card or fancy letterhead isn't changing the bottom line. When you pick the things that take you a clear step closer to your vision, you spend efficiently.
I will give you a specific personal example. When representing a trade association for bar owners, I created a business card on acetate. It both reminded people of glassware and it never got wet or ruined in a place where there's always liquids on surfaces where it might get set down. For these reasons it was memorable visually and showed and understanding of the customer's environment too. It has been an effective branding element highlighting knowledge of the industry for years and cost only a tiny bit more than paper business cards.
The point is, be smart about your choices, but be clear about your intentions before you get started making decisions that will leave an impression with external (or internal) customers.
You should think about the whole package when it comes to branding. It is about the overall experience that you will be providing to your customers. Your website, logo etc will help you communicate your company's vision, mission and value prop. But branding encompasses much more.
Think about your customers and map the various touch points. Then work towards enhancing customer experience at each touch point. Each interaction - visual / experiential - should communicate your brand's purpose, values and commitment to build the desired perception of your brand among your customers.
Take Amazon for e.g. The Amazon flywheel is an example of how customer obsession is at the center of everything they do. It is mandatory for employees to take service center calls for a few days every year (or every 2 years) in order to understand the importance of customer service. The responsiveness of their customer service execs, speed of delivery etc. communicates the company's customer-first approach.
And you don't need to wait till you get traction, but can start investing in great customer experiences today.