Brand building from the inside out

We spent 18 months at a successful tech startup. This is what the experience taught us.

In 2018, to the surprise of our colleagues, friends and families we left our jobs at a brand consultancy called Prophet to join a small but fast growing startup called Plum Guide. Until then we had created brands but never managed them. It was only once we began working with the Plum team that we fully appreciated the challenges of brand building inside a startup.

Reality shock

Most startup brands are skin deep because time and budget is slim. A typical big brand with an established customer base can afford to apportion three quarters of their sizeable budget to brand building and a quarter to sales activation. Startups don’t have the same luxury so tend to flip the ratio in favour of activation. It means brand ends up with a small slice of an already small pie. 

On top of that, startup marketers are spread thin across multiple channels. At Plum, the two of us managed emails, organic and paid socials, SEO, partnerships and PR for two audiences: guests and hosts. It didn’t leave much time to create award-winning campaigns. 

In spite of those limitations, it’s possible for startups to brand build from the very beginning. Here are three lessons we picked up from our time at Plum that inform how we work with clients at C+G. 

Lesson #1: Decide what you want to be famous for

Before joining Plum we naively believed that one big idea will make you famous. Just look at Monzo with its salmon coloured card! The truth is Monzo stumbled into infamy. For most startups it’s a long game. 

Having said that it helps to have a good hook that grabs people’s attention. Plum’s hook is the Plum Test. Conducted by a Home Critic, it’s a set of 150 criteria measuring everything from shower pressure to WiFi speed and design credentials. Just 3% of homes make the cut. It’s a powerful story because it quickly communicates the idea at the heart of the Plum brand which is obsession. 

A good hook gets results. The Plum Test helped win features in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Harpers Bazaar and plenty of other top publications and contributed to  building awareness with a discerning crowd of target customers.

The key is focus. It’s natural to experiment with different signature stories and marketing moves at the start, but the sooner you invest time and energy in one hook, the sooner you’ll gain cut through. 

Lesson #2: Optimise the brand for your biggest channels

Different startups brands come to life in different ways. A typical b2b brand might live through its people, in editorial content and the occasional event. A b2c brand might be expressed through its product, social media and PR. 

Brand agencies have a tendency to over-index on the channels that sell their own work rather than their clients'. Browse any agency website and you’ll see beautiful billboard ads showcasing the visual identity at its very best. It’s what sells identities and Cutler+Goddard is as guilt as anyone. 

The reality is most young brands don’t run big campaigns, certainly not outdoor ones. People’s perceptions of Plum Guide are shaped mainly by the booking platform, emails, socials and PR so the brand was optimised for those channels. 

Plum’s obsessive attention to detail was brought to life in home listings on its booking platform: detailed floor plans; ‘home truths’; and a curated selection of neighbourhood attractions. With emails and socials, beautiful property photography and a characterful tone of voice communicated quality. PR benefitted from a compelling hook, which we covered earlier.

When creating a brand at C+G we start at the end. We think about where the marketing lives and impacts customers. Then we build the brand for that medium. 

Lesson #3: Set the direction for the brand

If you want long-term growth you have to change people’s minds. 

Les Binet – Group Head of Effectiveness at adamandeveDDB and a leading researcher on marketing effectiveness – has said thatYou've got to build up memory structures that will bias [people’s] behaviour into the future and that's a much more difficult and long-term job, because it involves training people's responses in such a way that you not only influence behaviour now, but you also influence behaviour tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and on into the future.”

To build up memory structures brand activity should reinforce the same ideas again and again across touchpoints. That is achieved with the help of a brand positioning, a framework summarising how you want the brand to be perceived.   

Plum’s positioning set the direction for all of our brand marketing, from what goes beneath the fold on the homepage to the content of the latest campaign. Without it people wouldn’t know what the brand stood for. 

Now when we work with a startup to activate the brand on their website and elsewhere in marketing, we always start with the positioning to maximise the effectiveness of the brand. 

Thanks for reading. 

1. Binet, L. (2020) ‘Les Binet on why long-term marketing matters in the age of short-termism’, WARC.