Why Brand and Messaging Should Be Part of Your Initial Strategy: A Look at Hipmunk

Building your company’s brand and messaging is immensely important as they tell the story of your product and company. According to Stanford, branding is what people say, feel and think about an organization. It’s a set of mental and experiential associations that, when taken together, tell the story of who you are.” Branding done right makes people say things like, “This brand reflects my personality” or “I like the values this brand stands for” which ultimately affects reputation, conversion and sales. Strong brand value gives companies an edge in a crowded marketplace and helps companies to compete on things other than price which leads to a stronger relationship with customers.

For many startups, branding and messaging are often only in the back of founders’ minds. There are usually more important things to take care of, such as the product, than focusing on branding from the start. However, there have been at times, companies who have attempted and succeeded to create a strong brand impression as part of their core strategy. Hipmunk is a company where the brand was conceived along with the idea of the business.

Hipmunk’s advisor and early team member, Alexis Ohanian, said when he first found out about the idea and mascot of Hipmunk, I see this as a huge advantage for us since none of the competition has any character with which to build a connection to their users. When people have a fantastic flight search experience on hipmunk, we hope they’ll associate that with the silly name and the cute logo”. With this mindframe, the Hipmunk founders set out to create a company centered around a chipmunk for users to identify with their brand.


Messaging on your site is equally as important. It is the marketing message and the first line of communication to your potential customers. It’s the first impression, the first part of the process to understanding your brand. People often confuse branding and messaging to mean the same thing. But it is far from the same. To make things simpler, we can use this metaphor: Branding is the mural, whereas messaging is the paint strokes. You need to lay down the foundations of brush strokes (value prop, assets, pic, headline) to ultimately create a beautiful mural (the company, story, characteristics).

Photo Credit: Professor Bop

The 8 Second Test & Value Prop

8 second rule

The average attention span of most people is 8 seconds. We can use this test to determine if a site’s message has been communicated effectively. In 8 seconds, can you understand what the site does? Were you able to effectively communicate your value proposition and offering?

I showed this site to my 12 year old niece, Kristina, for 8 seconds to see if she could understand the purpose of Hipmunk. She answered “I think it’s a website to help you travel better and they have a cute logo”. 8 second test passed!

Above the fold, the viewer can easily read Hipmunk’s value propositions.

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The location and benefit  are just as intended and easily convey what benefits the user will get out of using Hipmunk. “I watch new users interact with the site for the first time and you see these Hipmunk eureka moments or aha moments where they are like, ‘Wow, this is new, this is useful, this is the way it should be.’ When you have got that as a start and you can associate that with a memorable brand, you have got something that is going to stick around a little longer.” says Alexis Ohanian. “We’re building a consumer application, so we really need to build a brand that will win over regular people who are simply looking to take the agony out of flight search.”

The chipmunk mascot gave consumers something to remember that other travel sites lacked. It took a while for the brand to grow its userbase but now, Hipmunk is a common name for travel sites.

A look at the messaging history

Over the years, Hipmunk has evolved to better suit new and returning users. Let’s take a look at how their site has changed over the years using the messaging
framework conceived by Graham Hunter and taught in the Growth Track at Tradecraft. This framework says that good messaging consists of 4 things: explain, emotion, evoke questions, exclude/include. You don’t need to have all 4 elements at once, but ideally should strive for a balance or a mixture of the 4.

Oct 6, 2010

History 1

Hipmunk at the very beginning was very plain and had almost no messaging or any other assets, simply the words “Flight Search” and the chipmunk mascot. The user was left to figure out the product or services this site offered and lacked any connection with the user. A travel booking widget gave a hint that it was for booking trips (flight/cars/taxis?).

Dec 24, 2011

History 2
A year later, we saw some improvement with a Christmas theme and partnership with Rovio’s Angry Bird and social sharing icons for a more modern feel. The messaging had playful emotions especially during the holidays and sought to include a potential subset of users who are familiar with the game. In a way, it’s to align or piggyback (no pun intended) on a stronger brand which conveys a similar message.

May 11, 2012

History 3
In 2012, Hipmunk added an animated video as part of their marketing message. Animation explainer videos were the trend and offered an easy way for companies to explain their solution in a short and simple way. However, the video was located in the top right corner, and getting users to click on the video might have been difficult because the following year, they removed it from their site.

July 28, 2013

History 4
In 2013, Hipmunk completely redesigned their site. The chipmunk wasn’t as big and dominant as in previous years, and the background had a darker tone of blue, going away from the light blue of the early days of Twitter. The search widget was also redesigned for a faster and more simple search experience. The cartoonish clouds evoked a feeling of being sent away which adding social proofs from credible sources provided the user with more authoritative sites that both explained and provided credibility of their service. We also saw a more refined and simple nav bar.  It communicated the services available and allowed the user to jump to what they needed.

Sept 1, 2014

History 5

Little change from the previous year except an addition to their tag line: the fastest, easiest way to plan travel. “Popular destinations with Hipmunk city guides” was added as a way to entice visitors to book. The site continued to play with the emotion of the freedom of travel and evoking questions… specifically “where next?”


History 6
The Hipmunk of today has a vastly different look from when it started. Gone are the cartoonish clouds and social icons of last year; and in their place are images of beaches and palm trees suggesting a more lifelike feeling of summer relaxing. We also see a value prop section, a stronger call to action for their mobile app and top destinations. The Chipmunk makes a bigger appearance in both the search box and value prop section. The 8 second test worked well in my initial test because it seems like the site has become more effective over the years and has now reached that sweet spot for that test. Overall, Hipmunk’s messaging has been consistent throughout the years signaling their value, to help travelers get to the best places in the easiest way possible.

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The chipmunk mascot of Hipmunk has become a beloved icon on the web. Hipmunk has done an incredible job of managing and leveraging the chipmunk to further its brand and get loyal fans to create user-generated content. They even launched several campaigns on social media such as the “Hipmunk Me!” campaign that incentivized users to interact with the company in exchange for renditions of the users with a chipmunk appearance.

Hipmunk’s mascot has been selected numerous times as one of the cutest brand mascots of all time. Using this mascot, Hipmunk has been able to create a lasting impression in the minds of their users and get them talking about their brand. The mascot has become the brand and what the company stands for.

Final Thought

As we have seen in Hipmunk, great branding and messaging does not happen overnight. Building a mural takes a lot of effort and patience. Sometimes you may need to redo a stroke or two but with practice and time, you will end up with a great piece of art. Hipmunk was able to achieve a strong connection with their users and used that as fuel to power their brand. Sometimes you just need to start on that first paint stroke on your way to building a masterpiece.

This article originally appeared on Medium.


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