Branding as a Growth Strategy

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Branding and its siblings, messaging and advertising, don’t get enough cred from startups in my opinion. I think that’s because it is more difficult to draw a clear line from “branding” to “customer acquisition” and anything that isn’t easily measured is usually pushed down the priority order. While that’s understandable – you can’t do everything all the time – I believe branding is a growth lever that needs to be examined more often by founders and marketers alike. Here’s how to start framing that process by combining word of mouth marketing principles with competitive market analysis.

Pretty much every startup or new company is a challenger brand by definition – you typically don’t begin from Day One as the category leader, but rather play from behind. I was reading about challenger brands recently and came across this guide from eatbigfish that I found useful, particularly this section (emphasis mine):

The first step is to understand that there is likely to be a dominant narrative in your category. By and large, competitors will all tell a similar story about their role in the world because that category has historically leant into a certain positioning, and over time this has become the accepted strategy. For example, automotive brands will tend to adopt a ‘Next Generation’ strategy because cars are largely about technology and cutting-edge engineering. Beer brands tend to be playful ‘Irreverent Mavericks’ because beer drinking is sociable, and the leading brands have found success with this approach in the past. The consequence of this of course, is that if a challenger really wants to cut through the noise in an already bustling market, the last strategy you want to take up is the one that the leader and those fast followers are already using.

In their blog post, Brand Marketing Is A Growth Hack, the 500 Startups crew pontificates further:

However, there is an important ‘art’ to growth that can often get lost in the science – the art of storytelling. This delivers emotional results that are very difficult to metric, yet are often crucial to traction.

Here’s where classic word of mouth principles come in to play – you have generally accepted concepts and beliefs (“dominant narratives”) that offer an opportunity to be seen by choosing a different path (“cut through the noise”). From top-line brand messaging to individual campaign copy and design, startups have a real opportunity to identify expectations and find meaningful ways to disrupt them while staying “on brand.”

So does that mean I should look at the Top Dog in my industry and do/say the complete opposite of what they do/say, Dave? No, not necessarily. It’s a bit more nuanced than that. Look at a few examples:

Geico’s ‘unskippable’ youtube ad campaign

Expectation: Billions of videos are watched on YouTube every single day, many of which are preceded by your typical “pre-roll” advertisement, a brand commercial that pitches a product or service. Most of these ads end up being skipped a few seconds into them when that wonderful “SKIP AD” button appears.

Disruption: Geico decided to directly acknowledge this skipping behavior and basically taunt consumers with ridiculously short (and funny) ads designed specifically for this medium.

That branding campaign won all sorts of awards. It almost makes no sense in that it doesn’t even remotely look like any other type of ad. At one point in time, a user copied and uploaded this video to YouTube and it garnered over 15 million hits (it’s since been taken down). That means millions of people sought out an ad and voluntarily watched it! Geico was one of the first insurance brands to go the humor route in its brand positioning and I’d venture to say it has worked.

KFC’s EVER-CHANGING spokesperson

Expectation: Brands that choose spokespeople typically do so over long periods of time in order to build up equity in the consistent messaging, particularly when they involve an historical founder figure like Frank Perdue.

Disruption: Enter Kentucky Fried Chicken with a surprising campaign in which it took its traditional Colonel Sanders character and contracted talent on short-term deals to fill out the uniform.

Branding startups

It’s a relatively new campaign, but I’ve seen more positive press coverage for the brand since it began than I can remember over the last few years.

T-Mobile’s Un-carrier position

Expectation: Mobile phone companies are tightening their grip on consumers as of late. Data ceilings, contracts that are impossible to get out of, overages without warning, and so on.

Disruption: T-Mobile saw a chance to essentially take all those crappy things users complain about and do the opposite.

boomboxFM and reddit

Expectation: Redditors are notoriously advertising-averse and my former startup, BoomboxFM, didn’t have much success with our digital ads on the platform. Those first ads promoted the product and its benefits and suffered from a low clickthrough rate.

Disruption: Go against all advertising best practices by not even mentioning the brand or product value props. Oh, and swear pretty loudly.

This ad/landing page combo was BY FAR the best campaign we’ve ever run on reddit, and we’ve run a lot. Traffic to the page and conversion rates were at least double our averages.

Next time you’re brainstorming brainstorming growth strategies or searching for ways to optimize your implemented plans, consider the potential for branding to play a larger role.

Bonus time! Here’s an hour-long training session from 500 Startups on branding for growth:


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