What’s your brand?

As a senior in college I was in the final rounds of interviewing for a coveted job at a New York investment bank when I was asked the question, “Why do you want to work here and not across the street?” I replied instantly that my decision was less about here (pointing to my head) and more about here (pointing to my heart). The panel smiled and nodded their heads. I got the job.

I didn’t realize it at the time but I had responded perfectly to the bank’s brand identity. They had effectively projected a unified spirit of who they were and how they operated. Based on what I saw, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

The concept of brand identity has been leveraged within financial services for decades, more so within institutionalized sectors such as accounting, brokerage and investment banking. Only recently has the venture capital industry begun to embrace brand identity as being critical to success. This phenomenon is evidenced by the growing number of full-time marketing professionals being employed by U.S. venture firms. And while some partnerships have been focused on this for a while, most are just beginning to understand what it means to build and defend a brand—and how those efforts add value to the firm.

Brand identity is hard to define. Most understand that it is more than the firm’s logo but are hard pressed to describe it further. Brand certainly includes how you present yourself “on paper”—but it is so much more. In many ways it is taking your corporate culture and projecting it outwards. It’s what you say about your firm, but more importantly, it’s what your LPs, portfolio companies and co-investors say about you. And these impressions are based on more than a website. They are built based on how you interact with these stakeholders each day. Building a brand is a living and breathing effort. It requires a hard look at who the partnership wants to be, how stakeholders perceive you and then a strategy to fill the gaps.

Roadster or wagon?

If half of your firm thinks you are a Porsche 911, the other half thinks Volvo station wagon, and your entrepreneurs think you’re a Lincoln Towne Car, some work needs to be done.

Emily Mendell, VP of Strategic Affairs, NVCA

For those considering such an endeavor, try this simple exercise. Ask every member of your firm—including partners, professional staff, associates and administrative support—the following question: “If our firm was a car, what would it be, and why?” Then dedicate some time for everyone to hear and discuss their answers. It is unlikely that everyone will name the exact same vehicle, but if you have consensus on the same attributes you are in better shape than most. For those who are truly brave, ask the same question of your LPs and portfolio companies. And while you are at it, ask them if the car they liken you to is the car they actually want.

This is in many ways a “stupid human trick” and only goes so far in diagnosing whether your firm is “brand challenged.” But, if half of your firm thinks you are a Porsche 911, the other half thinks Volvo station wagon, and your entrepreneurs think you’re a Lincoln Towne Car, some work needs to be done. First get your partnership on the same page, then develop the plan to bring everyone else along. Often, hiring a consultant is the best way to go as they are better able to develop consensus and make strategy recommendations.

The result of an effective brand management program is that all of your stakeholders get the same feeling about your firm and you are in a better position to develop and perpetuate relationships with others who share and embrace your identity. Most importantly, it effectively differentiates you from others in an increasingly crowded market. Brand identity programs put the firm squarely in the driver’s seat on the path of perception. You just want to be sure you are all driving the same car.

Emily Mendell is Vice President of Strategic Affairs and Public Outreach for the National Venture Capital Association. She can be reached at emendell@nvca.org.