“The theory is that if you spend enough money, you can own the idea. Right? Wrong.” — Jack Trout
In the current world, product and price differentiation don’t provide a sustainable edge except for companies with natural “network effect.” A strong brand, on the other hand, can provide enduring advantage to companies that proactively and consciously work towards building it with the right attributes.
Accel portfolio companies have built several market-leading and category-synonymous brands. Most of them have done that in a relatively capital efficient manner. As a result, we felt it will be good to host a brainstorming session for our family of tech entrepreneurs on brand building for new product categories. The idea was to share lessons on brand building activities, which is often ignored in the startup world and also to discuss how digital media can help meet brand objectives even when cash-strapped. One of the topics in the discussion was the implication of the changing digital landscape for modern day advertising.
The session hosted recently at the Accel office, had an enthusiastic audience representing 18 to 20 companies, sharing notes on their branding journey and consulting with the panel of branding practitioners and marketers. The themes discussed in the interactive session included:
When should startups creating new categories start thinking about brand building?
What is the right framework to build a brand?
What is the right way to leverage celebrity endorsements while building a brand?
Should digital media be limited to performance marketing? What is the experience of digital media usage in building brands?
What are the factors to consider in choosing digital media?
Can a brand be built with digital media alone?
How critical are offline media and television campaigns, in building a brand?
How can online brand marketing lessons be extended to campaigns for television?
Some of the observations and learnings shared by event participants that included my colleague Prashanth Prakash, independent brand consultant Srinivas S, Flipkart’s Shoumyan Biswas, Kunal Dubey, and Abhimanyu Shekhawat, BlueStone’s Gaurav Singh Kushwaha, and UrbanClap’s Manu Gupt are summarised below.
“In today’s connected world, a brand is what a customer says it is. Brand positioning begins the day the brand is born. Brand marketing comes into play when the brand perception gets cluttered among customers and there is a need to clear the perception.” — Shoumyan Biswas, Chief Marketing Officer, Flipkart.
Entrepreneurs tend to ignore brand positioning while channelizing their energies towards initial product development. One challenge that seems daunting is to figure out how soon one must launch brand positioning exercises. Shoumyan believes that positioning begins the day the product achieves product-market fit. This is why it’s important to be clear about the brand positioning right from the get-go.
“Be conscious of the impression you are trying to make with the customer because once created, the tags attached to your brand can’t be changed.”- Srinivas S, an independent brand consultant.
Every brand needs to have a brand idea that’s consistent over time. There’s always a laddering of the messaging relevant to the campaign with the larger purpose that drives the brand. So the brand idea doesn’t change, but the execution or advertising can vary for every campaign. If there are many individuals with different notions of the brand, the confusion will show in the campaigns being run. Begin by evangelizing internally, advises Srinivas who has worked with many startups and established brands such as Hindustan Lever, Asian Paints, and TVS Motors as well as several Accel portfolio companies.
As new technologies emerge and media converge, marketing is itself continually redefined. This means that branding requires a great deal of introspection and planning to succeed in this age of surplus economies and free information flow. As customers across age and income groups get smarter and more discretionary than ever before, brands have to strategize on staying relevant to the target customer.
“In some cases, a celebrity can end up overwhelming the advertisement.”- Gaurav Singh Kushwaha, Founder, and CEO of BlueStone.
If your marketing plan includes TV commercials or ad films, Gaurav advised that it requires massive creativity and iterative testing to get it right. One temptation is to build brand by leveraging celebrity endorsements. However, familiar faces in advertisements do not always create the desired impact and, therefore, do not translate to engagement and transactions. Prudent entrepreneurs should consider celebrity endorsements by RoI even if the marketing budget allows for it.
Similar to online campaigns, one can do some amount of “A/B testing” (user testing) of TV creatives using link testing; it gives us early pointers towards possible resonance of the campaign when it is rolled out, says Gaurav.
“If you are still defining your positioning, do not communicate it to the masses yet. Be sure before you do that.” — Manu Gupt, Vice President, Marketing and Growth of UrbanClap.
Manu recommended that it is better to wait until if the brand is figuring out or redefining its positioning. Brand positioning assumes considerable significance in undifferentiated product segments such as soaps, oils, etc. where a distinct positioning is the only way for a brand to stand out.
How do you identify the media that works closest to your branding goals? The level of relevance, personalization, and ROI can guide an entrepreneur while choosing a medium.
Digital media offers opportunities to stay relevant and personalize the message for the consumer. However, as an entrepreneur, you must weigh if the incremental cost of deploying a channel is favorable to your budgets and goals. Also, TV works when you are targeting the masses, while digital helps to go after specific customer segments in particular cities/regions.
“With half the time and one-tenth of the budget it would cost us on TV, we created a huge library of creative assets for the targeted brand marketing on digital channels.” — Kunal Dubey and Abhimanyu Shekhawat, Director, Brand Marketing and Director — Marketing (Growth, Alliances & CRM) at Flipkart, respectively.
The rise of digital media offers unique opportunities to brand marketers and must be considered and leveraged by advertisers.To the marketer, information overflow on the Internet implies that the brands must battle with the entire Internet ecosystem to grab the consumer’s attention. Short attention span on the Internet suggests that we must tweak our messaging to suit the medium.
Leveraging digital channels enabled Flipkart to achieve more precise targeting and, as a result, higher consumer engagement. This is because digital media allows customized communication based on consumer preferences as well as based on other parameters such as their device, location, etc. Flipkart used machine learning algorithms to build customer segments and achieved higher media SOV with better creative cut-through due to personalisation.
Shoumyan added that due to the growth and penetration of India’s digital ecosystem over the last ten years makes it possible to build mass-market brands (that reach out to millions of consumers) via purely digital channels and without using traditional media. Therefore, brands should choose appropriate channels based on where their consumers are.
Kunal and Abhimanyu pointed out that the difference with digital campaigns is that they leverage real-time, automated one-to-one communication while traditional media is forced to use one-to-many, one-size-fits-all campaigns.
Shoumyan added that Flipkart uses message-first approach and leverages the strengths of different marketing channels; for example, primary channel can be used to build equity or deliver reach while secondary channels can be used to complement the primary channel. Digital and television are often considered as the primary channels while radio, outdoor advertising, etc. are often considered as secondary channels.
“Brand journey is not something that can be done in two-three quarters, but it invariably takes four-six quarters to deliver results. Therefore, it is important to work with long-term perspective”- Prashanth Prakash, Partner at Accel.
Prashanth’s observations capture the details that were discussed during the brand marketing session. To begin with, should startups focus on branding at all? The answer is a clear ‘Yes!’ and Prashanth firmly believes that this is especially necessary if your startup is entering a greenfield category. If the brand succeeds to create the category via its brand marketing efforts, it stands a chance to become a household name in that category. Accel has worked with brands such as Flipkart, Myntra, BookMyShow, etc. that are today synonymous with e-commerce, online fashion, and online ticketing, respectively. While running campaigns, it’s essential to choose the right channels, take feedback, set realistic expectations and measure consistently. The narrative and storytelling around a brand is important as well — there are no instant results here and can take anywhere between 4–6 quarters.
Since the exercise of building brands requires long gestation periods, it is essential to set realistic expectations for all stakeholders from your branding investments. “Begin by setting the right expectations for your branding exercises, in particular among your investors,” Prashanth recommended.
To conclude, what gets measured, gets managed. Branding exercises must identify the right digital and business metrics to measure, by incorporating elements of “performance marketing” alongside reliable brand measures while running brand marketing campaigns.