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Laying the Foundation: A Marketing Toolkit for Startups (Part 1)

“We’ve built the product. It’s a smart solution to a real problem in a big, dynamic market. We have enough evidence of early traction that we just raised a sizable round of funding. Now we have to think about marketing. Where do we start?”

This refrain is a common theme in the halls of many startups. Often, the idea for a new business originates from founders with a product orientation, and they do amazing work building a prototype, experimenting, and iterating in search of product-market fit. This process can lead to the validation of early funding and a mandate to start thinking bigger. Typically, the public’s attention focuses disproportionately on these early events and on the newsworthy ones that happen later, when the stand-out companies have big exits. There is far less fanfare, however, surrounding the messy sausage-making that happens in between these milestones.

One of the under-appreciated challenges occurs when the company begins to stand up a marketing function. In the past, startups could afford to postpone this step while they methodically evolved their product and built a defensible competitive moat. Today, however, that luxury no longer exists. The decline in cost to build new products and the proliferation of marketing technologies and platforms have lowered the barriers to entry for new competitors and equipped the most nimble startups with the ability to scale their brand awareness and customer acquisition in record time. A breakthrough new idea in a category almost always leads to an arms race among a fierce group of competitors intent on winning the same market. Look no further than ride-sharing and grocery delivery for evidence. In short, companies need to start building effective, fully functional marketing capabilities and teams earlier than ever before.

So where do you get started? In my experience both as a startup CMO and as an adviser to businesses at various stages of growth, I often find myself talking with executive teams about the complex question of what to do first in building marketing capabilities. There are so many different components of what a fully functional marketing organization covers that it can be tricky to know what to prioritize and how to make intelligent financial commitments to new hires, campaigns, and the underlying technologies to support an effective marketing machine.

There is never one formula that works for everyone, as the business model, growth ambitions, and company mission/culture all play a role in shaping what a marketing strategy and team look like. That said, some common themes frequently emerge across startups. Looking at the companies that have been the most successful at cultivating impactful marketing capabilities and know-how, I see four primary pillars on which a startup can build:

  • Pillar #1: Start with the mission

  • Pillar #2: Get the efficient, measurable things working ASAP

  • Pillar #3: Invest early in engagement and loyalty

  • Pillar #4: Hire selectively and surgically

This is the first installment of a four-part series. Let’s kick off with the first of these four pillars…

Pillar #1: Start with the mission

When we first learn about a new product or service and want to learn more, we often discover a company website that’s rich in detail about what the team has built, how it works, and all the bells and whistles that make the offering unique. The team has labored to get from idea to launch, and is justifiably proud of what it has created. If you want to learn about the people and mission behind the product or service, however, you may come up short.

If you look at startups that have built iconic brands — such as Warby Parker, WeWork, Slack, Allbirds — all have gone to great lengths to articulate the underlying mission and values of the company. As a nascent brand, how do you bring this ethos to life then?

  1. Connect your “Why” and “Who.” When I meet a founding team for the first time, we often shift our dialogue from discussing the product itself to the company’s basic purpose and why its employees are doing the hard work of trying to build one of the rare brands that stands the test of time. It’s critical to acknowledge that when we want to motivate consumers or businesses to put their faith in an unfamiliar company, we’re asking them to take a big leap. We need them to trust us, but it’s easy to lapse into a defensive posture in these situations, trying to justify why the technology or feature set is better than the competitors’. That’s a hard argument to win, though, especially when going up against entrenched, deep-pocketed brands.In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek brings to life the importance of clarifying the core purpose behind a business and explains how that approach has enabled Apple and other standout brands to distinguish themselves from a sea of competitors. Also important, in my view, is the connection of “Why” to “Who.” The more crisp a company’s mission, the more success it has in attracting employees who buy into that endeavor, and the greater the chance for the public to relate to the real people behind the idea. Prospective customers are more likely to take a chance on a team whose values they share than put their trust in a faceless institution. Don’t be shy about letting the public learn about the team behind the brand!

  2. Go on offense. Once a team has alignment around its mission, it’s important to expose who you are as a company and the values you live by to prospective customers. Display these principles on your website for all the world to see, put them in ads, share them with the press and publish them in job postings. This transparency regarding your “Why” and “Who” can be a difference-maker in the early stages of a brand’s life, when your target market will be more inclined to try a new product or service if they believe in the company’s raison d’être.For example, REI took the bold step of closing on Black Friday, risking millions of dollars in potential sales during the peak shopping season in service to the company’s mission of getting people to “Opt Outside.” In a brutally competitive retail market, REI used this opportunity to reinforce its team’s core beliefs in fostering the connections that come from experiencing the outdoors with friends and family. Regardless of what products they sell, they told us what they value and who they are. As a result, they reaped strong sales growth and differentiated their brand in a meaningful way.

  3. Own your mistakes. It’s entirely possible — in fact likely — that somewhere along the way a company will make a significant mistake. A product will be late, it won’t work as advertised, or a billing error occurs on a subscription renewal. In these situations, it’s best to own up to the error and reiterate your underlying purpose. Consumers who believe in a brand’s mission are more likely to grant that company a mulligan when things go wrong, because they know that behind the imperfections lies a team of well-intentioned people whose mission resonates with their own values. That’s how Apple recovered from the Maps fiasco in 2012, and how Dollar Shave Club can overcome the impact of the occasional missed order or service glitch.Developing and sharing a clear message about your mission and the people on the team who are making this a reality is a “table stakes” requirement for startups that want to build lasting brands and effective marketing machines.

Stay tuned for more insights and be sure to follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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