How should my start-up approach advertising? It’s a difficult and important question for start-ups. It’s difficult because, relative to established brands, start-ups do not have the luxuries of a dedicated strategist to plan the advertising or an agency to produce the advertising. It’s important because start-ups tend to operate with a narrower margin for error compared to established brands. If the advertising fails, they are more likely to not have the resources for a second effort. Indeed, the success of advertising for a startup might be the difference between gaining or losing momentum for their business.
The good news is that several strategic considerations can start to help start-ups get more from their advertising.
First, start-ups should ask themselves what the advertising must accomplish. It’s a common misperception, one I have heard even among people with established brands, to view advertising through the sole directive to increase sales. While the increase in sales in one objective of advertising—and one I value tremendously—advertising can support other important functions. For example, advertising can be used to grow awareness, create buzz, foster positive evaluations, or push consumers towards trial. Each of these outcomes can ultimately contribute to sales, but they represent a different focus that can impact how the advertising is developed and evaluated.
For example, some new product innovations have such a strong point of difference that, once people aware the product, consumers’ have an immediate desire for it. I have invested in several ideas on kick starter.com as soon as I became aware of the product; I did not need advertising to convince me of, or help me understand, the benefits. In such circumstances, the primary goal of advertising might simply be to make consumers aware the product exists and/or how to obtain it. In other situations, however, consumers might not understand what the product is or why it is desirable. For example, when Tivo first launched, some people had trouble relating to what it was and what it did. Here, attention did not appear sufficient, advertising needed to further educate, inform, and persuade the individual. One’s goals shifts what the creative execution has to accomplish.
Second, start-ups lack the same insights about consumers as established brands. Put simply, start-ups do not have a massive amount of data on the psycho graphics of their consumers. This can be a serious issue because it makes it difficult to know what to communicate in one’s advertising. However, savvy start-ups can address this concern in two ways.
First, even in the digital age, it is amazing how far a focus group can go in the service of insight. I have had former students of mine report that they learned the most from simply sitting down and chatting with a target; it’s a tool I’ve seen effectively used for small and large brands alike. Of course, the value of focus groups does not mean start-ups should not take full advantage of the digital age. In fact, this is where a second opportunity exists to obtain insights. Brands can use their advertising to test different strategies in a manner to help them learn about the consumer. Specifically, brands can vary their copy to understand the type of messages and appeals that are more effective. For example, if one has two competing ideas about what will be most effective, a clear means to answer this is to provide an empirical test of the executions. Indeed, small scale digital efforts focused on learning about the consumer can provide another benefit to advertising.
Finally, while start-ups find themselves in a different place than established brands, some of the basics of sound brand building still apply. For example, when I work with entrepreneurs, I continue to stress the importance of a sound creative brief. This planning document, when drafted with care and competence, forces strategic thinking for a brand. It’s a situation, in my opinion, where size of the brand doesn’t matter. For example, my own creative brief forces me to think about issues related to insight and positioning. For start-ups, a creative brief can introduce struggle because they don’t always know how to compete. However, with this struggle comes an opportunity to address those deficits, such as insight. Moreover, for start-ups doing the creative strategy in house, the creative brief can help them acclimate to the dual roles of strategy and creative.
The decision to advertise by a start-up can be a big deal. And, whether that first step is a small social media effort or simple display advertising, the utility of that effort will be aided by the addition of strategic structure.
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