The Branding Gap in #StartupEast

Posted in: Startups, Storytelling

On: February 4, 2014

Marketing for startup technology companies can be a tricky thing.

Startups are usually launched by people with a technology background and, not surprisingly, the dominant focus is on building the product and finding funding. Marketing is generally an afterthought in these early days. That creates a branding gap that can have serious consequences for East Coast startups.

We’re not alone in this.

Recently a smart post from Israeli Venture Capitalist Michael Eisenberg made the rounds. In the post, Eisenberg notes that Israel produces many strong technology companies but they often don’t break out and reach their full potential. He blames this on the fact that many Israeli companies are “inept at messaging, branding and positioning.”

According to Eisenberg, the most successful startups have “great messaging and branding from the start. That great messaging inserts these early companies into key conversations and helps them self-fulfill their destiny. It makes them H O T. Hot companies get talked about and get invited to the right conferences and events and it is a positive feedback loop that helps propel these companies. Solving messaging and how you deliver that message creates a critical foundation for building leading and dominant businesses.”

Eisenberg lays out the reasons why he feels Israeli companies fail at branding. Reading it, some interesting parallels emerge with the East Coast Startup community.

For one, like the Israelis, Maritimers “prefer substance to form.” Put another way, we’re not into “big feeling” people who talk themselves up endlessly. That’s more of an Upper Canada thing.

Whats Your StoryIn the same way, our startups’ branding may not be sufficiently aspirational in its positioning. Founders are in love with their technology and assume everyone else will be too. Yet there are thousands of startups around the world. If a startup isn’t going to blow things up and radically change the way something is done, why will people pay attention? Incremental change isn’t sexy.

Like Israel, in the Maritimes we are limited by geography, with even the short flight to Boston or New York creating a large psychological distance in the minds of many East Coast entrepreneurs. As a result we don’t often play in the echo chamber of buzz that drives conversations in the media and VC boardrooms of the North American tech hubs.

And then there is our “niceness.” Eisenberg writes, quite rightly, that, “Marketing requires friction and pissing some people off.” That runs counter to the more gentle sensibilities of those of us here on the East Coast.  We’re friendly to the point of being conflict-averse. Too often that leads us to settle for the bland rather than the polarizing. But remember, bland is forgettable, and forgettable is a bad thing for a startup.

While most startups don’t need to invest too much time or money in marketing, they do need to do some things right from the beginning. This is mission critical.

It’s easy to spend money in marketing, and in the cash-conscious startup world, every dollar spent on marketing is often viewed as a cost, rather than an investment in the company’s future. That prudence is wise, but it can go too far.

Branding for startups doesn’t mean an elaborate marketing program requiring lots of scarce cash. Few startups require full-on ad campaigns or big ticket sponsorships.

But every startup does need to be crystal clear in who they are and the problem they solve. They need a story. And they need to be relentlessly focused on delivering that precisely calibrated story at every opportunity across every platform.

This is a core strategic business decision, not marketing fluff. It’s one that should be made in the early days and not just when it is time to launch a product or make some other announcement. That brand positioning should be a competitive advantage for the business.

Yes it can be difficult when the product roadmap isn’t fixed and the threat of the “pivot” is never far away. No one said your startup was going to be easy.  But if you don’t tell your story, and tell it well, then it will only be harder to succeed.

One response to “The Branding Gap in #StartupEast”

  1. This is true.

    Strategy first, I say. All too often companies “use-up” their marketing budget, jumping straight to the development of their tools(and costly ones sometimes), foregoing the critical primary step of developing strategy, and tactics.

    If you ever figure out a way to educate the greater community, let me know. I’ve been trying for 25 years to get this message. out.


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