Beyond having an amazing product, nimble engineering, and a great team of people, marketing excellence is the next big differentiation factor that startups should focus on. And within marketing, a smart brand strategy is one of the biggest levers available. Ignore it at your own peril.
Sadly, the typical marketing books that we are still relying upon were mostly written during the era of large company marketing, and focused on established brands. If you already have a market position, own some market share, and are releasing one product after another, the kind of marketing you need is very different than when you’re a startup with nothing to begin with. Marketing an existing brand is very different from building and growing a new one. And if you hire a marketer who has always worked with established brands, their experience will not include what it takes to create a new brand.
In part, the recent explosion in “digital marketing” has overshadowed our activities and understanding of marketing practices. In reality, marketing has 2 sides: a quantitative/measurable one, and a non-quantitative one that appeals more to the mind, perceptions, expectations, experiences, feelings and emotions of the market. This non-tangible side of marketing is the most difficult to understand by a startup CEO who is typically either an engineer or a product-focused founder who has never experienced, witnessed, nor worked with great marketers and understood the how, what and why of marketing. That non-quantitative side is also harder to measure, and rather is the impetus to a trickle down effect with results that become visible much later.
Overall, startup marketing is different. In the same way that your product evolved from being an embryo (starting as a Minimum Viable Product), to a more mature version, marketing also needs to evolve and grow with your startup evolution.
Marketing’s Role Changes Based on Your Stage
We could break-up marketing’s role into three different phases of evolution, each with various needs and activities according to the following table:
MVP Iterations Hacking growth
Looking for Product/Market Fit
Quantifying and systemizing growth
Expansion via Repeatability
Most startups figure out what they need to do in the early and growth stages, and that type of marketing is very focused, specific and rather quantifiable. But things get more tricky and difficult in the later scaling stages when you need to let marketing become an effective weapon that differentiates you in the market. In the scaling stage, working on your brand becomes a key aspect that needs to be developed proactively. And it starts with a strategic brand assessment and positioning development exercise, with the goal of developing a comprehensive brand messaging architecture that can be deployed in the marketplace.
Enter Brand Strategy Development
Brand strategy is a soul searching type of work that you do in order to find your unique brand position as it should be amplified into the market. Few people do brand strategy well, as it takes a trained eye to pick out the needed insights, and it is typically done from the outside, by a brand strategy or marketing professional expert.
A common pitfall some startups fall into is to hire a brand agency who will sell their “branding capabilities”, but these types of projects typically fall short of providing anything of strategic value, as they will gravitate around the brand visual identity, which is one the last tactical steps of brand strategy. Here’s an example of what a brand agency sees in terms of “brand strategy”, and you must avoid this type of work because of its low value: 7 Components of a Powerful Brand Strategy.
A brand is a lot more than a stylized name, color, sound or logo.
Another mistake is to assume that the internal marketing department can figure this out. Unless you have a marketing CMO or VP who has had experience with real brand strategy, you will fall short, and undoubtedly land in the realm of the first pitfall category. A third type of mistake is to fumble your way via A/B testing of marketing slogans on the website landing page, and take that as an accurate brand messaging test.
But you can’t short circuit a proper brand strategy development.
When you start developing the brand strategy, you need to interview several customers, prospects, and partners; conduct a competitive assessment, a market assessment, a review of what analysts or experts are saying about you; and then you can start to develop some hypotheses to determine your key differentiators. You need to extract your single most powerful differentiator, the one idea that you should be identified with,- that one promise that you must make and keep to build your business.
Marketing is telling your message very clearly and simply to a segment of the market who has never heard about you, with the goal of making them want to interact with you (by buying your product/service or using it). You don’t just market to your existing customers or users with the hope they will relay their enthusiasm and advocacy to their peers. You need to do more than that.
A brand architecture includes the following elements:
- Brand Attributes (a series of qualities and strengths your brand possesses)
- Brand Position (and its key statement)
- Brand Messages (customized by audience segment)
- Brand Communications (via customer touchpoints, living it internally and physical environment/sensory)
- Brand Visual Identity and Standards (the design, styles, and guidelines that will govern the visualization of your brand)
If you have a strong brand, the perception and the reality are close to each other, because your promise and your delivery are total in sync.
Branding is how you transcend and project your values into the customer mind, and the memories you leave them with, each time they use your product. It could have little to do with the product features, but rather everything to do with how the customer feels after they interact with your product.
Branding is how your prospects think about you before they experience your product.
Simplicity and clarity are part of a strong brand messaging. The message must be easy to understand. There is a genius behind crafting a memorable message that sticks in the mind of your prospect, as a smart position that matches what you are really about.
Starbucks’s promise is not great coffee, but rather comfort in a place that’s not your office and not your home.
Here’s how Brunello Cucinelli, the CEO/founder of the company sporting his name, a world leader in the cashmere products, explains his brand in an interview reported by Om Malik. It is a case where he clearly associates his company’s purpose- “dignity” with his brand. For Brunello Cucinelli, his brand is that catalyst that unites the inside of his company to the outside market that consumes his products. “I wanted the brand to have my face. I wanted the product to convey the culture, life, lifestyle, dignity of work. I wanted a profit with dignity. Because the press all talk about the moral ethics of profit. Why can’t we have a dignified profit then?”
Better Growth and Higher Valuations
A strong brand has two key beneficial aspects: growth and valuation.
A strong brand creates pull in the marketplace, because it lets your mindshare be larger than your actual marketshare. When a large number of business prospects know about you, you render your sales people’s job easier because the prospects they encounter will have heard about you and already have a favorable opinion of you. That way, the salesperson can focus on their job without an uphill battle, or time spent trying to explain who you are. And in consumer markets, a larger mindshare means more users will eventually decide to try your product.
Startups that don’t focus pro-actively on building their brand are making it harder on themselves to command a higher valuation in the venture or capital markets. As much as users and engagement contributed to your early valuation, brand and its strength are an amplifier of your market value. It is like a premium that the market or investors bestow on you, as a reward for having penetrated their minds and the market at large.
Grow your brand in order to grow your startup.