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Startup branding: how much does it really cost?

[Editor’s note: This article is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.]
A brand is far more than logos and colors. A consistent brand identity not only communicates your company’s purpose and values to customers, but it also shapes your product development cycle and corporate culture. A branding project can help you figure out what and how to communicate your company’s story, but how much does it cost?
I’ve been a designer for over a decade (and a marketer before that), working with organizations ranging from tiny startups to the Fortune 500; this piece will give you a general idea of branding costs, with the knowledge that these broad numbers may not be applicable in every single case (in fact, you’re likely to find exceptions).
Bootstrappers and pre-seed startups
For most startups at this stage, your goal is to establish a proof of concept that can show product/market fit and bring investor dollars. You may only need a logo, website, and basic brand positioning. Isla Murray, Creative Director and Cofounder at Lama Six, also recommends investing your money in designing a beautiful deck: “It will set you apart and allow your message to shine through.”
Brand strategy and positioning
Positioning involves understanding who you are as a company, how your product fits the marketplace, and how you communicate your company’s values. This is the most important piece of the branding puzzle and one that’s worthwhile to begin on your own – when you have more funding, your original strategy work will give you a base for conveying your identity to professionals who can take it further. Two suggestions that designers commonly recommend are Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout and Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler, a primer on brand design.
Approximate cost: Your time.
Logo and visual identity
A brand is a relationship with your audience, and you’ll want to make sure that every interaction with them communicates your message. You’ll almost certainly need to hire a designer for this work. Sites like Fiverr and 99designs offer cheap logos, but independent consultants like Pablo Defendini advise that if you can find a small budget, you’ll get far better results by hiring an experienced professional to create a more polished logo and simple usage guide.
Approximate cost: $100-$3000.
Website
As a UX designer and front-end developer, I often recommend that young companies not spend their limited dollars on building a website from scratch – pre-built, templated websites like Squarespace can get you up and running for minimal cost, and you can buy domain names from a registrar like Namecheap. Customizations will be minimal, but you can’t beat the price.
Approximate cost: $10-30/month, plus $20/year per domain.
Early-stage, funded startups
Once you’re paying for experienced help, finding a good fit with a designer is crucial: Trust is the most important factor in a designer-client relationship, and design is ultimately a collaborative process. So take the time to find a contractor or firm that you respect and feel comfortable with.
Another option: If you already have a strong designer in-house, you might consider setting aside time for them to focus on your brand identity — they’ll cost less, and they already have intimate knowledge of your company values and audience.
Pricing comes in a wide range depending on your needs: Defindini says he’s worked on identity projects ranging from $5000 for a standalone logo to $200,000 for a complex identity system with multiple brands. Costs are also driven by scope and time. When you receive proposals from firms, be clear about your needs and transparent about what you can afford. Murray says that if clients don’t have a full budget, she’ll look for ways to scope down projects, which might involve reducing deliverables or going through fewer rounds of feedback and iteration.
Many designers will charge project rates, but if you’re paying by the hour, expect to spend $100-$150/hour for an experienced consultant and $150-$600/hour for a firm depending on their size and location.
Brand strategy and positioning
Brand strategy and positioning should drive most of your business decisions, so it’s worth taking the time to do this right. With a smaller budget, a consultant might spend a few days with your company leadership figuring out your core values and how to articulate them. For a larger budget, expect design teams to do more research and a competitive analysis, resulting in deliverables like a communication strategy and voice/tone guidelines for your marketing team.
More expensive projects may also include things like trainings to make sure your staff correctly and consistently implements your brand. In general, pricing is determined by how many people are working on your branding project and the complexity of your deliverables.
Approximate cost: $5000-$20,000 (freelancers and small firms), $30,000-$80,000 (large firms).
Logo and visual identity
Visual identity is the result of independent research, visual moodboarding, and rounds of feedback and iteration, says Murray. At the end of the process, you’ll typically receive a logo, typeface, color and design elements, and visual brand attributes. Larger-budget projects will typically involve detailed guidance on specific illustration and photography styles, iconography, and more – Murray suggests also including social media visual strategy and Instagram post templates.
Pricing here increases the more logo variations you need, the more brands you have, and the level of detail required in your visual guidance. Rounds of feedback and iteration add cost, as does the size of the team you hire.
Approximate cost: $5000-$15,000 (freelancers and small firms), $15,000-$75,000 (large firms).
Website
This is the branding piece with the greatest variability in cost, with projects getting more expensive as they require more user research, prototyping, content creation, and engineering work. Pricing is largely dependent on the complexity of engineering requirements and the number of iterations you want to go through.
Generally, you have static marketing sites on the lower end, websites built on lightweight content management systems (i.e. a custom visual design built to run on WordPress) in the middle, and web applications managing heavy databases or a more robust CMS like Sitecore or Drupal on the higher end.
Approximate cost: $2000-$20,000 (freelancers and small firms), $30,000-$200,000 (large firms).
Company name development – for more mature startups
Many startups find themselves at a stage where they’re well-funded but have a name that no longer fits – what feels right when your company is a month old and bootstrapped with your savings account may not feel the same two years later. A naming agency will develop names that work with your brand positioning, do a competitive analysis to research the tone, strength, and messaging of these names, and pre-screen them for trademark availability. (Note that you’ll typically need to hire a legal team to register the trademark once this is done.)
Approximate cost: $15,000-$75,000 (naming firm).
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution
You may hire one of the top branding agencies in the world or you may have a family member who’s an experienced designer and willing to give you an incredible deal. But no matter who you choose to work with, branding is a vital part of your business that will help you both understand and communicate who you are.
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