2015 promises to be a year of both challenges and opportunities for startups. The diminishing barriers to enter the marketplace and increasing avenues for reaching and serving new potential customers means that there is more potential for a startup than ever before.
However, an abundance of opportunity means an abundance of competition.
In an already crowded marketplace, setting your startup apart will be crucial to its survival and success. The four recommendations below represent strategies that have already proven successful for startups and that reflect trends currently developing in branding and consumer behavior.
1. Start telling stories
Humans are natural born storytellers. We are also naturally wired to listen to stories. In fact, Spanish researchers demonstrated that stories not only activate the brain’s language processing center, but also activate parts that would be active if we experienced the story ourselves.
It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to see the power of stories to invoke emotion and stick in people’s memories. Teachers, authors and politicians (to name a few) have understood this for years. In fact, storytelling has also served as the backbone of nearly every successful marketing campaign in one way or another.
While an important part of branding is to tell a story about your brand, more and more marketers are taking an alternate approach. Instead of telling stories about their brand, they are branding themselves as storytellers.
A great example of this approach is OkCupid’s consistently incredible blog. Each post takes the reams of data OkCupid collects about their users and artfully weaves these insights into a fascinating story about how their users behave and what this says about dating as a whole.
Instead of just telling its customers a story about itself, OkCupid decided it would be much better to develop its voice by telling customers a number of different stories. Nobody likes that guy who just talks about himself, and the same thing goes for brands.
The very act of choosing what stories to tell and how to tell them does more to develop your brand’s personality than trying to construct it from a singular narrative. Instead of trying to brand itself as a data-centric dating site, OkCupid figures that posting about the statistically best questions for a first date will create the same image more convincingly and will also provide something useful to your customers in the process.
As more brands enter the landscape clamoring to tell potential customers how they want to be seen, defy the trend by simply telling customers stories they want to hear and that reinforce the overall branded story you hope to tell.
Or, to borrow phrasing from the previously mentioned OkCupid blog post, the stories your brand should be telling are the ones that “are easy to bring up, yet correlate to the deeper, unspeakable, issues [your customers] actually care about.”
2. Take a stand
Although many members of the older generation feel that millennials are apathetic and selfish, almost all the data suggests the opposite. Multiple studies show that this key consumer demographic actually has a very real affinity for philanthropy.
In fact, what might be mistaken for apathy is simply cynicism. Due to the increased exposure of this generation to marketing messages, millennials have just become more discerning and less trusting of much of the “cause-driven” marketing being done.
The reality is that cause-driven marketing is dead. If your company’s mission statement is “to maximize shareholder revenue” or even “to provide business solutions” your cause-driven marketing seems disingenuous.
Instead of doing cause-driven marketing, millennials expect you to be a cause-driven business. This doesn’t mean you need to be a not-for-profit. Making money is not a bad thing, it just can’t be the main thing -- at least if you hope to capture the attention of millennials.
One of the most effective examples of this strategy had no grand, world-changing plans in mind, but they did want to solve a problem and do so in earnest. Harry’s is a monthly subscription service that delivers affordable high-quality razors.
The company began when co-founder Andy Katz-Mayfield went to buy razors and was shocked at how expensive and uninspiring the product he received was.
The company does not have a grand mission. It simply wants to give customers a better option for razors. The result of taking such a simple stand but sticking to it wholeheartedly has resulted in a business that consumers trust to be genuine in other ways.
So, when Harry’s partnered with the prostate cancer awareness initiative Movember (that encourages men to grow out their mustaches to raise money for prostate cancer) not only did this cause-driven marketing improve the company's reputation, it caused a 360 percent lift in traffic to Harry’s website.
3. Defy expectations
Part of taking a stand means setting yourself apart from the mainstream. With so many competing offers, one clear way to make your product stand out is to defy certain conventions within your industry.
Which conventions you choose to break and to what extent you defy them depends on your industry and your core audience. For the purpose of illustration though, let’s pick an incredibly extreme and very recent example.
Cards Against Humanity is a party game with a highly irreverent attitude and fairly raunchy sensibility. Even bearing in mind its reputation, the company's approach to a Black Friday “sale” still managed to shock nearly everyone and generate a great deal of interest online.
While almost every company under the sun attempted to capitalize on the post-Thanksgiving rush by slashing prices and pushing products, Cards Against Humanity’s website looked very different on Black Friday.
Its flagship product was nowhere to be found. Instead the one thing for sale was a box that simply offered “Bulls**t.” Within hours all 30,000 units had sold. At $6 apiece, Cards Against Humanity pocketed a cool $180,000 on that product alone.
However, the real win was in the amount of buzz generated. On a weekend where nearly all media was covering big discounts, Cards Against Humanity almost managed to steal the show.
While I definitely do not advocate anything this extreme unless it absolutely fits your brand and audience, this ridiculous example should serve as proof that defying expectations can be a powerful method to drum up interest in your brand.
4. Focus on great design
Another way to set your startup apart from the crowd that is becoming increasingly important is to focus on good design and to make products or experiences that are remarkable.
Making things that are beautiful or at least look nice is certainly not a new strategy, but great design doesn’t necessarily equate to beauty in the traditional sense. As many products move towards software, looks cease to be of central importance. The real important thing for interactive products is the overall user experience.
An unlikely example of a product that succeeded largely due to great design is Tinder. Now, Tinder is not exactly the most elegant or beautiful piece of software. In fact, it is unapologetically crass and blunt. Most people equate great design to subtlety and charm, and Tinder possesses neither.
Yet Tinder is a marvel of wonderful user experience design. Its simple, intuitive interface not only made the service incredibly addictive, it perfectly communicated the company’s casual approach to online dating.
The example of Tinder is actually a fitting place to end this discussion because it embodied a number of branding tactics that will become increasingly effective in the coming years. Beyond focusing on great design, Tinder also took a stand. The company claimed that online dating could be as natural and casual as a bar, and in doing so, defied expectations.
These guidelines can help better brand your startup, but only if you apply your brand’s unique twist to them. None of these strategies can truly differentiate your brand or make your product unique on their own, but if used correctly they can help more reliably and effectively communicate what makes your brand special. And in an increasingly crowded landscape doing so will be key to your brand’s success in 2015.