Startup Branding and Selling to Martians

12/05/2012

This week I read a couple of blog posts on the topic of Branding for startups that bothered me. Both posts tried to make the same 2 points about startup marketing:

  1. Branding is THE most important facet of startup marketing
  2. Branding is about how your offering resonates EMOTIONALLY with the buyer NOT the benefit you provide. The example used was home cleaning products where the benefit was “cleaning the house” where the “branding” focus should have been “creating more family time”.

This a classic example of advice that would be very good for a company in an established market but disastrous for a startup.

Positioning in an established market is very different from positioning in one that isn’t. Startup prospects are starting at a different spot on the purchase path. If you are selling soap, you don’t have to worry about defining what soap is, what it does or why you might want to buy some. The biggest worry the soap seller has is differentiating themselves from the other soaps out there. Since soap is all pretty much the same it’s going to be hard to do on technical merits (although there are loads consumer products that attempt to do just that such as dishwasher soap with “breakthrough multi-chamber technology” and  toilet paper that doesn’t leave little bits behind) so getting to the intangible stuff right away might be your only hope.

Most startups don’t operate in established markets – they are either breaking ground in new markets, operating at the intersection of markets, or trying to re-define a market. Selling in markets like these is a bit like trying to sell soap on a planet where nobody uses soap or really understands what it is. Selling Martians on the whole family time thing is nice but they aren’t going to buy if they can’t figure out what the heck soap is in the first place.

You can think of it like a cascading set of questions like this:

Questions Your Marketing Must Answer1 Startup Branding and Selling to Martians

In a well-established market you can skip the first 2 or 3 questions. Startups have to start at the top.

That doesn’t mean that the focus should be on features. Coming back to the soap example, telling Martians about the percentage of phosphates isn’t going to make much sense (unless they are rather scientific, which could be true). You have to start at the beginning. What the heck is this thing? -  Soap cleans things! Is this for me? – This is soap for removing Martian red dirt! If I never talk about that Martians would be left scratching their heads trying to figure out just exactly how is this stuff going to help them hang out with the family. I’ve seen the equivalent of the branding first approach used at startups and what you get is a lovely home page filled with vague platitudes that nobody understands and doesn’t convert.

I am not saying that branding isn’t useful and powerful and important for some companies at some stages of their growth. However I think early stage companies first have to figure out how to survive before they (and their markets) get established enough where branding can be an important differentiator.