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Is marketing a dirty word for startups?

Marketing was surprisingly absent at Slush 2016, even though startups have a lot to gain from purposeful content, targeted outreach and persuasive storytelling.

Northern Europe’s biggest start-up event, Slush, took Helsinki by storm last week. Although it was great to see global business and technology leaders in town, the absence of marketing in the two-day agenda was striking. Out of over a hundred keynotes and fireside chats, there was one mobile gaming specific speech on brand building and an investor point of view on the importance of branding and design. Did CMO invites get lost in the mail?

Somehow engineer-driven companies are still inclined to see marketing as simply advertising or customer acquisition. There’s more to it. From naming and value propositions to positioning, social media and packaging design, there’s a lot marketing can do to bring out the best in a startup’s offer, spread the word, and increase credibility.

Remove obstacles with how-to content

A Finnish food start-up called Gold & Green Foods shared their impressive ‘pulled oats’ story at Slush. Consumer demand for the new product has been unprecedented and batches have sold out in minutes after hitting the shelves. Enthusiastic buyers have even created a Facebook group to track down packages.

There was an interesting contradiction in CEO Maija Itkonen’s speech, when she first said she doesn’t believe in marketing and then shared how they have created recipes for their website to ‘remove obstacles’. Even with her marketing resistance, I applaud her for knowing exactly what they want to achieve with the content they produce. However, wouldn’t it be great if the brand could use marketing to harness some of this initial excitement and build long-lasting relationships with their customers?

Reach out to an existing community  

I would love to say Tinder shared their marketing best practices at Slush, but unfortunately they seemed to have had collective amnesia. The company’s Head of Product, Brian Norgard, and VP of Product, Ankur Jain, said start-ups should follow in Tinder’s footsteps and not spend money on marketing and advertising to grow because it doesn’t work. In their view, startups are better off fine-tuning the product experience for user delight and word-of-mouth.

This sounds great, except that Tinder is an influencer marketing success story. In the early days, they took pages from the Facebook playbook and reached out to cool kids on college campuses to make the app popular. This type of smart marketing can be cost effective but it shouldn’t be dismissed or forgotten just because it’s not a huge expense.

Tell stories to motivate your supporters

Crowdfunding platform Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann had another great example of how startups can benefit from marketing, even if the word marketing was not mentioned. The company initially assumed their customers were only interested in making a profit but soon realized there were three additional motivations at play: perks, passion and supporting other people. This allowed the brand to connect with their followers by telling inspirational stories.

Storytelling can help startups with promising innovations energize their audience and create a movement that can shift public opinion toward more favourable regulation. For companies like Indiegogo, Airbnb and Uber, which are looking for growth is areas that defy regulation, influencing skills come in handy, even if you don’t believe in marketing.