The former startup Chobani just became the most popular yogurt brand in the U.S., beating out General Mills-owned Yoplait. Airbnb is the new synonym for travel accommodation. As startups dethrone existing brands, there is a new openness and urgency, to learn from startups on how to do marketing.
We randomly asked marketing colleagues what comes first to mind when thinking of startups. Responses ranged from being cool to fast to unconventional. Out of all replies, one expression kept resurfacing: being scrappy. Just based on our admittedly non-empirical survey the title of this blog could have been “scrappiness is the new black in marketing.” But based on our work with startups and large corporations, being scrappy is not the ultimate answer. It’s just the spark, the ignition for a new marketing approach that is not afraid of the unknown and the uncontrollable. This approach is not reserved for risk-taking market contenders; it is applicable to companies of all sizes. They just have to be bold enough to go where no company has gone before.
Here are some pointers along the way.
1. Toss the playbook
Rethinking marketing starts with ditching the good old best practices playbook. Communications programs don’t have to start with the traditional way of “how it should be done”. Instead of lining up a drumbeat of press releases, the event management app zkipster weaves a network of influencers from the event industry with a clever blogging and content marketing program. Traditional media relations, albeit still important, are reserved for major news announcements and feature story development across key global markets.
2. Go off the beaten path
Startups often don’t have the resources to compete for attention across all marketing channels, unless they are “uber-funded”. It is the perfect justification to go the path untraveled. Tweets can break corporate news. Product launches can happen via Facebook Live. Tesla founder Elon Musk got the world’s attention without a press conference when he tweeted a 100-day plan to fix Australia’s energy issues with an energy storage plant (installed for free, if he missed the deadline).
Flix Premiere, a new pay-per-view online cinema offering movie fans an alternative to Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, got attention from Hollywood’s biggest producers by making a splash at the movie industry’s largest event, the Cannes Film Festival. The company had strategically placed cover stories in key industry trades. Flix Premiere is also using subway and taxi ads to reach millennials during their commute.
3. Be bold
After moving to the U.S., we learned about the art of sugar-coating, carefully wrapping negative feedback in motivational messages. Primarily used in internal meetings, sugar-coating can be applied to all meetings, including media interviews. The side effect of sugar-coating is that the messages can become unmemorable. Some of our best media interviews were with CEOs of startups, especially from foreign companies. They don’t mince their words. A few years ago, we were working with the CEO of a Swiss digital rights management startup. The CEO’s bluntness and willingness to make bold statements offered reporters an authenticity for their stories that would have gotten lost in glossed overstatements. The media found his views refreshing and memorable. To that point, TechCrunch recently implemented an invite-only contributions policy to keep the authenticity of submitted stories by executives.
4. Get more social
While some of us are still hanging on to our emails for collaboration, social channels like LinkedIn and Twitter have become good tools to connect with influencers. The German start-up tado° effectively uses LinkedIn to build media relationships globally, including in markets where they sell smart meters but don’t have a local communications team onsite. Snapchat is a good way for larger companies selling to millennials to practice moving to a less “controlled” and predictable communications environment. Taco Bell celebrated Cinco de Mayo with Millennials on Snapchat with a sponsored lens. The campaign got over 224 million views.
5. Think like an incubator. Startups thrive on the energy of the founding team and their network. It’s the diversity of ideas and the unjaded views on the industry that allows them to succeed. Many startups spend their early days in incubators and co-working spaces like WeWork. This allows them to have a vivid exchange with companies from different paths of life – all sharing ways to build, run and market their business. As companies mature they tend to confine the mingling to their own industry. Large companies can recapture the spirit by encouraging employees to maintain a startup-like network of contacts across industries. Those interactions can lead to hard business results. Beth Comstock, formerly at GE, initiated FastWorks, an incubator designed to shorten product development. The GE incubator builds early imperfect versions, tests them with customers and adapts them as needed.
The concept of scrappiness helps companies rethink their marketing approach. The points are meant to serve as an inspiration, not a prescription of how it should be done. This is a world without static marketing playbooks. Only use what makes sense to your company, skip the rest, and invent what you need. Tactics and channels change, only the need for authenticity and originality stays.