Creating a superstar startup brand is not a thing to put all your bets on.
Andrew Chen (a16z) has fired shots. I’m reloading the ammo.
Disclaimer: There are few points Andrew has made in his tweetstorm which I strongly disagree with. I will leave them at the bottom of the article.
Andrew Chen’s full tweetstorm here: https://twitter.com/andrewchen/status/1009574582125199360
You haven’t reached Series A funding round yet. So what are your priorities until you get there?
You’re probably perfecting your product. You need to figure out how to deliver more value to your customers than anyone. You need to develop a scalable, predictable growth engine for your startup with what you already have.
Aside from your niche market and a shot of PR coverage you got here and there, no one really knows or cares about your startup.
You’re running out of runway money and every penny you invest must overdeliver in the short term.
That’s the reality your startup exists in. For now.
But what’s the message you get bombarded with, though?
Become a brand people are passionate about, like Apple!
We’ll help your startup build a brand tribe of fans shouting your startup’s name!
We will make the market become emotional about your startup’s story!
This sounds too good to be true… because it is.
You’re being told to build a cannon, when you only have the resources to build a wooden knife just to get you out of the weeds.
The harsh truth is that, even though brands with cult following like Apple exist, and creating such brand does happen, they are outliers. Unicorns.
Getting there takes obscene amount of money, time, knowledge and luck.
For every brand that gets to that superstar status, there are millions of others that don’t. If everyone can be special, then no one is.
These superstar brands are like entrepreneurship — 10 people talk about it, 5 are doing it, but only 1 is successful at it.
The problem I have is how every Tom, Dick and Harry is writing books about these brands, using these unicorns as post-rationalized case studies of what they could do for your own brand, which almost never happens.
Ask yourself — if it were that easy, why didn’t they create an equally differentiated, meaningful and powerful brand for themselves?
All of us, brand consultants and agencies, including myself, are just common people selling our services on the internet.
Let’s be honest with ourselves.
Nobody is talking about me, or the endless amounts of authors on branding. None of us are radically differentiated, or unique, or special.
If there were any, someone would have built a monopoly by now.
It’s an unrealistic benchmark this industry has set upon itself. Like expecting every man to be as strong as Arnold, and expecting every woman to be as beautiful as Megan Fox.
It’s no longer enough to have a brand people remember for something, or having our market share grow steadily — now we have to build TRIBES, BRAND LOVERS, and various other buzzwords.
Building a startup brand in a realistic sense (having people know about you and know you for something, becoming mentally and physically available to buyers) is a long and hard process in itself,
let alone building a brand in that idealized, romantic way (Apple, Harley, Supreme).
It’s not your priority in the early stage of your startup — especially when the core elements of your startup, such as your business model, are questionable.
This approach to startup brand building is like being 18, moving out of your parent’s house, and your dad asks you “What do you plan to do with your life? How will you become independent?”
— and you answer: “I’m going to become a famous rapper!”
Wow. Sure thing Jimmy. Pops will always support your dreams, but you have to get yourself a job to pay your bills, and only then work on your passion in your spare time.
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I get it. This story sells. It appeals to the startup world’s “I made it” narrative. The “David beats Goliath” type stuff.
It resonates with founders.
Nobody wants to hear the story of slow, stable and safe growth. That’s boring. But that’s also reality.
Just like the journey to becoming a rapper, a ball player, or anything exceptional is never impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.
Not something you would bet your survival on.
As a founder, you’re used to having the odds stacked against you.
This isn’t news to you.
Am I implying that building a brand is completely useless for a startup in the early days? No.
What I’m saying is, we need to be more specific on what brand building work means in the context of our startup.
If we’re in the early stage and we attempt to create a brand the whole world will be in awe of, then yes, it’s delusional and pointless.
However — If we aim to do brand building work that will bring about internal clarity, become a tool to attract investors and people who align with our core team, then it’s one of the most valuable things we could do!
If the expectations are set for these kinds of realistic goals, then I support you — whether you do it internally, whether you get help from your accelerator program, or hire a competitor of mine.
For those of you in the seed and pre-seed stages, this is the wooden knife analogy of brand building work you should be doing.
This can be done very quickly, in a matter of few days.
It doesn’t do miracles, but it does set the tone for the startup brand, on which you can iterate on later.
It’s scrappy, just as everything else in your startup is at this stage.
Now comes the “BUT” moment.
The problem is that there are too many consultants selling you these quick “wooden knife” brand workshops, with the promise of delivering the outcomes you see in superstar brands in the world, such as Harley Davidson.
The “People will love you, your brand will become the talk of the town, your story will move their hearts, you will charge a premium, blah blah blah.” nonsense.
If that also sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
If you believe a consultant can just waltz in, schedule a 3 day workshop sequence with your team, without doing any market research whatsoever, where you do fill-in-the-blanks exercises of some noncontroversial, politically correct brand attributes such as “innovative, passionate and caring”,
and have that result into your startup becoming the Supreme of tech,
then you’re being lead astray.
I’m not hating on anyone, I feel like it’s my duty to say this because this stuff is venturing into the snake oil salesman territory.
Be vary of this. Make sure the expectations are set straight before you engage in doing this type of work.
So when should you start investing your energy into aiming for the superstar brand status — or in my analogy, replacing the wooden knife with a cannon?
Do it when you have a lot of time and money to fully focus on it, usually happens around Series A or later.
During a period when you’re not putting out fires under your feet, and you have the luxury to commit to something for the long haul.
Don’t go “lean” on this.
Even though there’s a strong chance you might never get your brand to the level of Apples and Supremes of the world, you will still reap fruits that will crush your competitors… but that’s a story for another time.
If you’re still reading, this final section of the article is where I want to address the points Andrew has made about brand building with which I strongly disagree with.
Andrew’s first argument:
Traction can only come from measurable, short term ROI producing activities.
What I agree with: Startups, in the earliest days, should prioritize quick wins in order to stay afloat because they may never live to see their brand grow.
What I disagree with: That these quick wins create long term traction. They don’t, here’s the proof:
Now, onto Andrew’s second claim:
Brand marketing is useless because it doesn’t create instant ROI.
Doesn’t create fast ROI? True.
Useless? Absolutely not.
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Andrew is comparing apples to oranges.
Brand marketing was always meant to be long term.
Brand marketing is all the work you’ve been doing to get uninterested and out-of-market people to hear about you, notice you, figure out what your value is, how to purchase your product and why should they care.
That podcast episode you published? That’s brand marketing.
That blog you’ve written? That’s brand marketing.
That educational content you’ve been sharing on social media for months? That’s brand marketing.
All those things take long time to reap fruits, and they will never directly be attributed to someone’s purchase — they will create a domino effect that compounds.
That’s why judging them by short term ROI makes no sense (and why most quit doing any form of brand marketing few weeks in).
Brand marketing is about warming people up, the ones who are not in the buying mode today, but will buy at some point,
as opposed to activation, which is reaching small amount of people who are actively buying today, and converting them to sales.
The former creates long term growth, the latter creates instant sales spikes.
This ties into the third and final point Andrew has made:
Brand doesn’t matter for consumers.
I don’t know what Andrew meant by that. (This, once again, proves how “brand building” is such a broad term that people use for everything and nothing.)
If Andrew is skeptical about buyers turning into raving fans, tattooing your brand’s logo on their chest, then he’s right.
But if Andrew is skeptical about brand not being relevant to consumer as it relates to startup’s long term sales growth?
Dead wrong, for reasons I listed above (on brand marketing).
All of this is based on scientific evidence (source: Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science, and Institute of Practitioners in Advertising).
If you wish to go deeper into the brand marketing vs activation debate, I’ve written a LinkedIn post on that:
Haris Spahić on LinkedIn: Brands need to reach non-buyers.
If you ever saw a single video from Chris Walker and the fine people at Refine Labs, you would have understood this…