The top five post-pandemic brand strategy tips for digital startups
A well thought through brand strategy can be the difference between success and failure when you’re starting out. And that’s been amplified thanks to COVID-19. So what steps can you take to drive success and give your startup the best chance?
There’s been much talk in the media over the past year about recession, unemployment and business failure. But another, more uplifting story has been unfolding at the same time. As consumer practices and attitudes shift, there’s been a marked acceleration in digital take-up, from ecommerce and payment systems to entertainment streaming. As a result, countless digital entrepreneurs have been spotting opportunities and bringing new products and services to market.
The UK Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reported pre-pandemic that entrepreneurial activity was up from 7.9% to 9.9% in 2019, the highest surge in 20 years. COVID-19 has accelerated that activity. According to smallbusiness.co.uk, 835,494 new businesses registered in 2020, up 12%. The competition is different, established businesses have fallen by the wayside, and many more companies will fail when government subsidies eventually dry up.
So, whether you’re still in the planning stages, or you’re building back up after a difficult year, the following guidelines will encourage you to be brutally honest with yourself and ensure you’re ready for whatever the future holds.
1) Find your voice
When it comes to brand development, a temptation for new businesses can be to focus solely on how they look across all platforms. That’s important but it shouldn’t trump what you say. It’s relatively easy to look good. It’s much harder to develop verbal communication strategies that will resonate with your potential consumers. Your point of view and tone of voice, what makes you different, that’s how you create real stand-out and connect with audiences.
EdTech startup, Zero Gravity provides a case in point. It’s a free online platform that connects state-school students with undergraduate mentors to help them achieve places at top-flight universities. Unlike similar platforms, it sidesteps schools and goes straight to the heart of social media, which is where the Gen Z audience it’s targeting spends a lot of time. It’s tone of voice challenges society’s perceptions and misconceptions of state-school students, enabling young people to realise their potential. It positions Zero Gravity as a breath of fresh air – an authority in the sector with a clear purpose and point of view. It challenges branding clichés in both the education and charity sectors.
2) Think emotion over function
So many startups prioritise digital function over human benefit. Most people aren’t that interested in how your tech works, they want to know what it’s going to do for them, how it will make their lives easier.
When classical music streaming startup, Primephonic approached us for help with its brand, it wasn’t a huge surprise it felt bitrates, file formats and metadata should be key selling points. Classical music constitutes less than 1% of all streaming services because its specific search requirements aren’t properly accommodated. But that ignored the human benefit. We persuaded the team that ‘Life on an epic scale’ celebrated the journey classical music can take you on, and the sense of awe it can bring to the ordinary moments in life. That’s what provided the foundation for the new brand.
3) Escape the echo chamber
Closing yourself off to the power of transformative branding because you think executives and investors have bought into the current strategy can be a mistake if they’re not your audience.
Scaleups often get buy-in from senior management and investors quite early on and so are reluctant to move away from the ideas that attracted those people in the first place. Those ideas are developed and approved within an inner circle and people become wedded to them. It’s easy to see why this happens. But remember, echo chambers are the enemy of strong brand development. Always put your audience first.
Cost is often cited as another reason for a constrained approach. It can be as costly to tweak a brand as it can be to be transformational. So we always recommend being brave and pushing boundaries. Telling yourself that you’ll revisit in three years’ time, or after the next round of investment, is another avoidance tactic we come up against. Get it right today and it will last beyond tomorrow.
4) Start off thinking big
Being a startup is a lot about having a particular mindset. It takes bravery and vision to get behind a concept and give it everything you’ve got. We get that. But what being a startup should not be about is ‘beginner thinking’: ‘We’re still a small operation.’ ‘It’s not about making money right now.’ ‘We don’t need robust practices and strategies in place at this stage of our growth.’
Even if your business is small, it’s time to think big. Plan for growth, innovate, and don’t think you can do it all by yourself. Being small is no excuse for fragile internal processes or approaches, both of which can limit potentially pivotal brand development.
5) It all begins with your name
These days, it’s essential that your name reflects the personality and ambitions of your brand, so don’t be afraid to change it if necessary. Again, this is about stepping out of the echo chamber and being honest with yourself. In its current form, does the name make that essential human connection? Does it reflect your personality and ambition? It’s not a crime to admit that things could be much better.
In point 1, I talked about Zero Gravity. That started out life as Access Oxbridge. It did what it said on the tin, but it didn’t speak to its Year 13 audience about defying convention, realising ambition and challenging the perceptions of state-school students. There was no emotional driver or brand attitude.
Primal Roots is another brand that had the guts to change. An outdoor wellness startup, it set out in life as Nature’s Gym. Nothing wrong with that. But Primal Roots speaks of getting back to nature, of responding to an atavistic human need to connect with our surroundings.
If success hinges on bonding with target consumers, your brand needs to resonate on a profound level, and sometimes that means being tough on yourself.