12/11/2014

By James Lynden, Brand Project Manager, Added Value


The pace of change that now exists in the modern world of marketing places many new demands on marketeers and brands alike. One such demand is the need to disrupt and to be disrupted. Gone are the days when brands can stand purely for consistency. Instead, brands need to be coherent yet evolving entities, which can rapidly iterate and embrace change. Successful start-ups are doing just that. At the forefront of tech innovation, many are pioneers of brilliant brand thinking.

Start-ups need to learn how to scale a sustainable business. This means taking a lean, experimental and data-based approach to generate evidence for “validated learning”. Maximising validated learnings helps create the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – the concept of a product with the highest return on investment versus risk, widely expressed by Eric Ries. But start-ups are also applying this lean approach to their brands, creating minimum viable brands as much as they are MVPs.

In doing so, they are rapidly creating brands consumers instantly love, and equally, rapidly evolving or discarding brand strategy that fails. That’s why we believe there are some lessons we can learn from brand building in the agile machine of start-ups big and small:

1. Start-ups know their vision but they are not confined by it.
It’s this vision which venture capitalists invest in at the early stage. It’s a purpose at the centre of their brand to drive a fundamental change in the world. It’s a rallying cry which drives momentum within the organisation. But critically it often allows for both adaptation and experimentation at the same time. In short, start-ups have a clear picture of where they want to end up, but often no rigid path defined as to how they will get there. Paypal has always had the vision of disrupting how payments between people happen. However, at its conception in 1999 it was envisaged as a way of “beaming” money between the rudimentary mobiles of its day. Perhaps too ahead of its time. Despite changing its model, it has achieved its vision, becoming the most well-known and used brand for making payments online. From 2010 to Q3 2014 Paypal gained an increase of US$35.24bn in total payment volume and 72.6m active registered user accounts. In the US, 79% of digital wallet users preferred PayPal as of June 2014.

2. Start-ups stick to a well-honed target.
They often begin with a razor sharp definition of their target audience in order to test their hypotheses. They tend not to fall into the trap of targeting everyone and are often as clear about who the brand isn’t for as who it is for. It is this razor sharp focus that provides the greatest opportunity to learn. If it doesn’t work, then they test a new hypothesis and change the business model accordingly. For example, YPlan’s success comes from designing themselves uniquely around the particular needs and attitudes of the city slicking urban, professional young adult.

3. Start-ups aim to address fundamental needs in their audience.
This is often driven by gut feel, and then evidenced through the real behaviours of users rather than claimed attitudes and behaviours of respondents in traditional research groups. Having discovered the needs they address, they then have a single-minded focus on delivering against them – as ultimately, it’s the only way they attract, convince and retain users. For example, early on in Instagram’s creation its founders decided to focus single-mindedly on creating the best mobile photo application, losing many other gaming and location-based features they originally started with. They knew that beautiful photography was the fundamental benefit they needed to give their users.

4. Start-ups think about carving out their own category rather than entering categories that already exist.
They are looking to disrupt rather than differentiate. Driven by a healthy disregard for the rules and ‘norms’ of established categories they focus on tackling customers’ problems in their own, radical way, often re-framing or defining the category as something else altogether. They tend not to spend too much time and energy studying the competition – and if they do, it’s to define what they don’t want to be rather than what they do. When the global hairstyling giant ghd hair first launched they re-defined their category as hair-beauty rather than haircare as they knew that their focused audience was more concerned with the look of their hair than the health of it. International payments start-up Transferwise have gained massive traction amongst their target audiences through stripping out banking fees in their offer, coupled with irreverent and attention grabbing advertising completely out of character for the financial industry.

5. Finally, start-ups place as much emphasis on form as function – and in some instances it is the form that defines them.
They express themselves in beautiful and distinct brand identities built for the digital age. These identities are coherent across the experience, but created so they are capable of constantly evolving and adapting from the start. The brand is fluid and capable of raising the bar with each new step and modification. See Tinder, which has made casual dating an attractive mobile experience with its beautifully designed identity, but one that it constantly growing and improving with each upgrade.

In essence, start-ups are developing great brand strategy but pioneering a more iterative, flexible and discovery based approach. This means start-ups create brands built to disrupt industries but also agile enough to survive disruption themselves. They keep on learning until they create impactful propositions which land with the customers they care about.

Bigger brands are well aware of their need to disrupt or risk being disrupted. That means more than keeping the innovation pipeline brimming. Thinking about their brand strategy in a more disruptive way is key to achieving the kind of growth that start-ups do. It’s time to be courageous brand builders in order to survive in a turbulent world.