The #1 Thing Companies Get Wrong when Creating a Brand

Sonia Hildner
5 min readDec 16, 2020


Creating online-first brands means that we’ve become obsessed with performance marketing and design — so much so that startups, in particular, are mistaking this combination for a marketing plan. And while sexy graphics and data-driven media are important, they aren’t a complete brand strategy. Assuming they are is to your company’s long-term detriment.

It has never been easier — or deceptively simple — to create a brand online. I often joke that it seems all you need to create a brand in 2020 is to string two names together (e.g. “Hammer & Mason), get a graphic designer to mock up a logo, claim your social handles, and call it a day. If there is an element of truth to every joke, the never-ending list of homogenous, tw0-named brands that target me on Instagram is proof that many startups have adopted this approach to brand-building.

And in fact, there’s reason ( and precedent ) to adopt this online-first approach. Many of the newer brands we know have created notoriety out of the ether — seemingly overnight. These companies have either created the first direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand in their given category (Parachute, Bombas, Quip), and/or they’ve created a product or service that solves a real problem (Casper, Capsule).

Once product is established, these companies take some combination of performance marketing and extremely good design to create an initial brand. This is super effective — particularly in terms of cost — in the short-term. Taking visually-stunning images that explain a new product and putting them in front of the exact right consumer is a perfect recipe for getting sales off the ground.

The problem is, this approach is not sustainable for building a long-term brand — especially if there’s any real threat of copycats in your market. Being online-first means it’s easy to skip a key step in the process: determining brand positioning with any real vigor. In other words, it’s not clear who these brands are for, and why — and what emotional purpose or point of view their brand has on the market (other than being the first.)

One of the best examples of marketing misstep can be seen in the DTC mattress industry. Casper did something revolutionary: they created a comfortable mattress that could get shipped to you in a box. They communicated this ingenious product with some strong graphics and effective performance marketing, and pretty soon everyone knew about this miraculous, comfortable, mattress that could be delivered to a front door.

The problem is: it’s pretty easy to copy this strategy — and that becomes particularly problematic as soon as competitors enter your market. You can still buy a mattress in a box at Casper, but now you can also buy one from Purple, Tuft and Needle , Leesa— and what separates a Casper from a Leesa? What kind of person, or sleeper, gets a Tuft and Needle? A quick search of their websites finds brands that look pretty much the same, from their font choices to their 100-night risk-free trial. I’m left to scratch my head as to what a “Nova Hybrid” mattress means, and if it’s much different from a “Wave Hybrid” or “Mint Mattress.”

A quick look at business performance underscores this issue: Casper faces stiff competition from all angles, and hasn’t been able to hold on to the #1 spot in the online mattress category with any consistency. Earlier this year, the company faced scrutiny over profitability and marketing spend.

Whatever their marketing budget was, I’d argue that 100% of it was wasted because it did nothing to differentiate Casper from the competition. Recent ads communicate Casper’s shipment of mattresses in boxes with a 100-night trial — while they’re very cute, they don’t say much that Casper’s competition couldn’t claim as well.

Casper also generated some buzz with their cryptic ad puzzles on the subway, but again these did nothing to differentiate them from competition. (They did, probably, influence top-of-mind awareness and website traffic, which, arguably, is not the number one thing Casper needs help with right now.)

Casper has since pivoted to try and become a “sleep company” which seems like a much higher mountain to climb than being a well-positioned, differentiated mattress brand in the first place. Expanding your scope doesn’t help if you have no brand strategy to back it up.

So, unless you’re a startup coming out with an ingenious, inimitable product (and odds are, you probably aren’t), you can assume your market is going to be inundated with substitutes in a short period of time. The best way to be prepared for this is to start thinking about your brand, and how it’s positioned, early: when your performance marketing and design is getting off the ground. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to do it — consultants or contractors can probably help you, if they’re good. But, ultimately, thinking about brand positioning in the upfront will prevent you from spending a lot of money to back into a point of view later on.

Who does this well? Here are some examples:

AYR: A primarily DTC clothing company whose name stands for “All Year Round.” AYR is focused on timeless, classic staples that can be worn all-year (hence the name) and their visuals, messaging, and targeting support this idea. Neat, tidy, and differentiated within the very-crowded DTC clothing market.

Everlane: This brand’s positioning is based primarily on ethical fashion with supply-chain transparency — from the product line they feature (classic, non-trendy items) and the communications on their site, everything supports this idea. The name Everlane, arguably, doesn’t reinforce its brand positioning, but consistently touting ethical fashion and supply chain has prevented competition from easily copying their strategy.

Frida Mom: A brand for postpartum health that is all about radical transparency on postpartum health. Their content and communications is very provocative and in-your-face, which supports their positioning about being honest, radically transparent, and ultimately helpful for women.

There’s nothing wrong with online-first brands: they’ve upped our design game, gotten us closer to the consumer than ever, and they’re more nimble than traditional CPG brands. But without positioning, you’re left with a shiny title, some good graphics, and nothing to back it up. In other words, your empire has no clothes.

Sonia Hildner has led brand marketing for well-known and loved brands, including Pepsi and LIFEWTR. She currently helps smaller businesses and startups build their own brands at One Wild Goose.