An estimated $75.38 billion was spent in the U.S. pet industry in 2019. $16.01 billion of that went to over-the-counter medicine and other supplies.

Those numbers seem high until you consider that more than 50% of U.S. households, or 80 million homes, have over over 300 million pets. Woof.

Boy-howdy are pets big business! The first time I saw those numbers, I about fell out of my chair.

We were all set to help a local startup in the pet wellness space, and can you guess what happened next?

We continued with our secondary research, and sure enough, dozens of scrappy startups are going after the same opportunity in the pet wellness space. We had our work cut out for us, helping our client stand out in a crowded space.

What I’m going to share with you today are the 11 biggest branding mistakes we noticed and how we helped our client, Breedwise, avoid them.

(You can also check out the Breedwise case study here.)

11 Biggest Branding Mistakes

  1. Chasing design trends and looking like everyone else.
  2. Being a little better.
  3. Having no way to contact customers directly.
  4. Ignoring what wants to happen.
  5. Believing in shortcuts.
  6. Skimping on due diligence.
  7. Being too polite.
  8. Creating crap.
  9. Setting unrealistic goals and timelines.
  10. Going too broad.
  11. Moving too fast.

Branding Mistake #1 – Chasing design trends and looking like everyone else.

One of the first things Balernum’s creative director, Chris Conley, noticed is all the visual identity noise.

The vast majority of the other companies and brands had similar visual identities

  • Bright, bubblegum colors
  • Modern sans-serifs
  • Funky, hand-drawn icons and illustrations
  • Photos of svelte Millennial dog owners gushing over their best friends’ antics
  • Copywriting like the fast, witty banter from The Gilmore Girls

Want to know how to not stand out? Look and sound like everyone else! Homogeneity provides excellent camouflage.

We discarded the youthfulness and playfulness for maturity and a touch of restraint. When all the competitors zig, a smart brand zags.

Branding Mistake #2 – Being a little better.

In his slim, seminal volume, Zero to One, Peter Thiel talks about how newcomers to the market can’t just be a little better. They need to be 10x better.

We knew that differentiating with the Breedwise visual and verbal identity wasn’t going to be enough. We had to find other ways to add value with our brand, experience, and products.

Here are three ideas that made the cut:

  1. Ordering pocket-sized custom tins so that customers can carry a small supply of the Calming Bites, Breedwise's very first product, and leave the larger jar or pouch at home
  2. Sourcing exclusively all-natural and organic ingredients so that our products are human-grade
  3. Emphasis on the founder’s education and credentials (Pharm.D.) and his expertise in biology and pharmacology

Figure out what you have (or can do) that other people don’t or can’t, and go deeper with those differentiators.

Pro Tip: If you’re not quite sure how to innovate, then pick up Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs by Larry Keeley.)

Branding Mistake #3 – Having no way to contact customers directly.

Acquiring new customers is hard work. That’s why we decided to not launch on Amazon.

  • Does Amazon have a gi-normous established audience addicted to Amazon Prime? Yes, they do.
  • Does Amazon take a 30% cut of every sale? Yes, they do.
  • Does Amazon give brands their sales data, including customer emails? No, they don’t.

We view an email list of customers and prospects as one of the single most valuable assets a brand can possess.

Selling on Amazon offers an excellent way to create brand awareness. With the right strategy, Amazon can serve as an excellent discovery tool.

However, as we continue to dial in product-market fit, we need direct contact with our customers. We need to be able to talk to them.

That’s why Breedwise is NOT on Amazon though some of our competitors are.

Founders must strike the balance between short-term needs (exposure and sales) with the creation of long-term assets (product research and email list).

Branding Mistake #4 – Ignoring what wants to happen.

Right out of the gate, we assumed Breedwise would be a purely direct to consumer brand. But then a potential channel partner asked to place a wholesale order.

This surprise customer prompted the team to ask, “Are we doing that?”

The Breedwise leadership team, on which I serve as brand manager, decided to pay attention to what wants to happen. Your brand’s go-to-market strategy and early traction may look different than your long-term growth strategy. That’s okay. Be married to the outcome, not the strategy.

We ended up saying yes to the channel partner, and now we’re exploring whether we can turn that edge case into a repeatable process.

Branding Mistake #5 – Believing in shortcuts.

Brands aren’t built in a day, and staying true to the mission and core values becomes increasingly difficult when business and brand goals seemingly come into conflict.

  • Should you cut corners on customer service and boost profit margins?
  • Should you try to save money on packaging?
  • How do you tell a horrible, unreasonable troll apart from a fan-to-be having a bad day?

We have had to take these situations on a case by case basis.

No blanket advice can bring clarity. We instead return again and again to the Breedwise brand strategy and ask, “Is this what we set out to do? Is this decision consistent with our mission, vision, and values?”

Using brand values as decision-making principles offers a surprisingly effective way to navigate the complexity of building a business.

So far, this brand-first mentality has served us well. We have taken a “no shortcuts” approach to building the brand. Sometimes, the best way around is straight through.

Branding Mistake #6 – Skimping on due diligence.

When everyone is excited, it’s easy to skimp on research and due diligence. Yet, the fundamental premise of branding is standing out.

You cannot differentiate if you don’t know who and what you’re differentiating from.

We expended significant effort on finding competitors and digging into their messaging, visual identities, social strategy, and products.

The internet is a glorious thing. Fifty years ago it would have been difficult to know what a competitor’s customers are saying about their product or what ingredients it contains.

Aside from crucial insights, research equips you with the target audience’s desired benefits, both functional and emotional.

  • What does the product need to do?
  • How should the product make people feel?
  • What do prospective customers need to believe in order to see value in the product?

Do enough research, and the performance gap will become obvious.

Branding Mistake #7 – Being too polite.

Don’t get me wrong… I think kindness is a competitive advantage. So when I mention being too polite, I’m talking about with vendors and suppliers.

Various folks were very slow to respond to our questions and emails. We had to strike the delicate balance between communicating real urgency and being pushy and overbearing.

We certainly value those relationships, but we cannot afford to work on their more relaxed timelines. The opportunity is now. History is being made now.

It became important for us to have systems in place so that we remembered to send polite follow-up messages, request updates, and, through dogged persistence, keep our projects and needs a high priority.

Excellent vendors and suppliers can become part of your brand’s secret sauce. There’s a reason your list of relationships is a part of your startup’s intellectual property!

Show kindness to your vendors and suppliers, but meanwhile, but don’t expect them to share your urgency. You can protect the relationship and be the squeaky wheel.

You cannot expect other people to care more about your project and your timelines than you do. Be kind. Follow up often.

Branding Mistake #8 – Creating crap.

In Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard talks about how he only created products that he himself wanted to use.

His earliest products included rock climbing hardware, which meant he had to entrust his life to them.

Your product or brand may not involve life-or-death situations, but I still think “Do I love this?” is a good question to ask.

If you do love what you create, your sincere passion and enthusiasm will show.

Breedwise founder Kendrick Smith formulated an effective, all-natural recipe for anti-anxiety treats for dogs.

His family uses Breedwise Calming Bites to help Rosie, their high-strung Goldendoodle, relax. Kendrick loves and uses his own product, and it’s hard to imagine a better marketing and business development strategy than a passionate founder.

Branding Mistake #9 – Setting unrealistic goals and timelines.

Jim Collins’s classic book Good to Great gave us the concept of Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAG). Collins makes a very compelling case that great companies have BHAGs.

  • What about early-stage startups?
  • What about online creators and influencers launching digital products?
  • What about direct to consumer brands their first foray into physical products and packaged goods?

A BHAG is usually a bad idea. Its magnitude can bring crushing discouragement.

Jon Acuff’s book Finish (and my own experience) have made me a believer in taking a different approach during the early and growth stages: creating momentum by setting smaller, more modest goals.

“Have you ever wondered why 92 percent of people fail at their goals?” Acuff asks. “Because we tend to set goals that are foolishly optimistic. Scientists call this ‘planning fallacy,’ a concept first studied by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. They described this problem as ‘a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.’ Study after study has confirmed that we are prone to fall prey to planning fallacy.”

How can those of us launching brands avoid the planning fallacy’s foolish optimism, unrealistic goals, and ridiculous timelines?

Acuff’s research turned up several important insights:

“When my researcher sent me his report on the 30 Days of Hustle, one result stood out: Those who cut their goal in half increased their performance from past similar goal-related challenges on average by over 63 percent. Not only that, 90 percent of the people who cut their goal in half said they had an increased desire to work on their goal; it encouraged them to keep going, and it motivated them to work harder because the goal seemed attainable.”

Here’s the punchline: You dramatically increase your chances at success when you either double your timeline or make your goal more attainable by cutting it in half.

We grew the Breedwise Instagram following from 100 to 1,000 in 31 days—a whole month sooner than we originally estimated.

Guess what? When you hit a target sooner than expected, you will feel fantastic.

Branding Mistake #10 – Going too broad.

The importance of a narrow niche cannot be overstated. Yes, you’ll find blue oceans of opportunity out there. The bigger the potential market, the more money you can make.

However, the riches are in the niches, my friends.

The best way to start is with 1,000 true fans. The economics make sense, and once you reach sustainability, you can move to the outer circles. You can expand your focus and extend your reach later.

Can you identify a hungry crowd and solve their specific, painful problem better than anyone else? Think in terms of concentric circles. The smallest circle at the center is your go-to-market strategy.

In our early Breedwise conversations, we decided to focus exclusively on dogs. (Sorry, Cat Parents.) And within that huge swath of people, we drilled down further to focus on a single sliver: dogs with anxiety.

This question guides our marketing strategy: “How can we sell just 100 jars of Breedwise Calming Bites to dog lovers with anxious or high-energy furballs?

Messaging and marketing have been easier to execute because we know who we’re talking to and why.

Branding Mistake #11 – Moving too fast.

Festina lente means make haste slowly. That sentiment has perfect application for brands.

If you move too quickly, you fail to observe what wants to happen. And if you move too slowly, then the opportunity may simply vanish.

Right-sizing your goals—100 initial customers to further validate product-market fit; 1000 Instagram followers before we reach out to influencers and recruit affiliates—ensures that you’re nudging your brand’s flywheel.

Meanwhile, you’re looking for a sustainable pace. No one benefits if the founder burns out. And everyone suffers if a key team member gets frustrated with insane timelines or unrealistic goals and quits.

Building a real brand takes time, and strategy, and passionate people.

You may need to move quickly at times, but keep two questions in your back pocket:

  • “What is the speed for?”
  • “Where is the urgency coming from?”

An incredible partnership or distribution deal may require a timely response. Just as often, fear and anxiety are the real drivers behind continual kowtowing to speed.

Check your motivations. Speed may yield results at first and ultimately cost you the true harvest: a passionate, committed team in it for the long haul.

All that to say...

Building a real brand ain’t easy, folks. At every turn shortcuts will promise faster results, and detours will masquerade as breakthroughs.

If you want to avoid the biggest branding mistakes and build a brand that people love, find a group of people to love. Look for ways each day to remove friction from their lives.

People love the brands that love them back.

At this point you may be nodding your head but still not sure what to do next.

  • Maybe your messaging isn’t unified across all your platforms.
  • Maybe your untold brand story is much better than the one on your website and socials.
  • Maybe you’re bumping up against a ceiling, and more growth isn’t realistic until your brand has a fresh look.

Send us a note and tell us 1) where you lack clarity related to your brand, and 2) what the dream is. What do you want to see happen over the next 3, 6, 12, 18 months? We’ll email you back and set up a time to chat.