Startup Brand Marketing

Andrew Chen, one of my favorite marketer and essayist, argued yesterday in a Tweetstorm that startup brand marketing is almost useless. You can read the entire story (around 15 tweets) here:

With the Cannes festival going on right now there's a lot of discussion on the value of brand marketing and the incentives in the industry. I agree with Andrew directionally. I think he hit the nail on the head with this:

If this seems contrarian to you, it’s because there’s a vast ecosystem of consultants, agencies, and other middlemen who are highly incentivized to have you spend $ and effort on non-ROI/non-performant activities.

Here's the punchline. Great brand is a lagging indicator of success. But it is confusing for founders and early-stage entrepreneurs because, on top of badly incentivized actors who want to "help you with marketing for X$", you see a lot of successful companies who have great brands. I've blogged about imitating consequences before. It's a very tempting thing to do.

It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation: If you’re starting a consumer startup, you see successful late stage cos with fawning media coverage, amazing conference speaking slots, celebrities on the cap table, etc., and think that’s what caused their success: Great brand. But great brand is the lagging indicator of success. The buzz is created by the hard work that the entrepreneurs put in: Finding product/market fit, hiring a great core team, finding acquisition channels that scale.

If anything, brand marketing is more about everyone else than your customers. 

Where brand marketing does matter, especially outside of consumer: Recruiting a great team. Raising money. Partnerships.

I'm adding a tweet by a fellow planner (Stefano Augello) that I think is extremely on point. Let's not confuse everything here. Brand > Brand Identity > Brand Advertising, etc. There are different components in a brand – not matter what lingo you use. And not all parts should be treated equally.

The takeaway here is that if you're startup and you're still looking for product/market fit, you should not overspend of brand marketing.

Hiring a PR agency for 5K to get 2 press mentions in a niche media won't help you survive the next quarter. Spending 75K for a rebranding by the top design agency in town won't help you in the short term either. Spending 45K for a series of events that reach influencers that will never engage in consider buying your products is also a bad idea.

But you can take a day with your team/co-founder to think about the kind of organization you want to build – and what the brand should stand for. You can do the 3-hour brand sprint developed by Google. It can be a straightforward Vision / Mission / Values / Strategy statement. It can be a paragraph or a 2 pager. You can develop a brand identity around that with an affordable designer/agency. But do the 20% that covers 80% of your needs. Not the other way around. Because you'll run out of money real quick otherwise.