When a brand new company launches a brand new type of product, that company faces a unique marketing challenge. The marketing messaging not only has to quickly sell the customer on the product, it has to first educate that customer on what the product is and exactly what problem it solves.
Traditional marketing methods often fail to do this.
Regardless, startups tend to fall in love with these methods, especially branding. When startups think marketing, they usually think Coke, Nike, or Apple — companies that have spent decades branding themselves as purveyors of aspirational products to multiple market segments.
But the reason why startups often fail at branding is that they lean on it way too early, and wind up skipping the entire education process. For an unknown product from an unknown company to achieve product-market fit, the marketing has to be far more educational.
The difference between branding and education
There are two scenes from the sitcom Silicon Valley that distinctly explain the difference between branding and education when marketing a new product.
The first scene comes when the mega-tech-company — and obvious Google clone — Hooli sets up a focus group for its new Hooli Phone. The focus group moderator asks each participant in turn how the product makes them feel. The responses are all negative because the product just doesn’t work.
The second scene is when the startup Pied Piper winds up in the same focus group setting with its competing product. This time the responses are negative because no one understands what the product is supposed to do or how it is supposed to do it. The CEO bursts into the focus group room and spends hours explaining the product to the focus group, eventually winning them over.
Both products are going to fail. The first will fail because all the strategic branding in the world can’t save a subpar product; the second will fail because all the tactical education in the world isn’t going to sell that kind of complexity.
Strategic vs tactical marketing
Marketing is a tricky thing. It means different things to different people. But at its heart, marketing is the first step to closing the sale. When the product has become a known commodity — or when it’s well on its way — strategic branding becomes a crutch.
It’s a proactive way of influencing the customer’s buying decision. I’d speculate that no one ever needs a Coke to quench their thirst, my Air Jordans aren’t going to make me any better at basketball, and that the days of the $1,000 flagship phone are all but over.
Coke makes me feel accepted, Nike makes me feel fit, Apple makes me feel smart. I want those things, so I want to buy them.
Tactical marketing, on the other hand, is about educating a customer base and positioning a product. While branding is the hammering home of how the company and the product make you feel, positioning is the hammering home of what the product is and does.
How strategic and tactical marketing get misunderstood
Strategic marketing is traditionally described in simple terms like increasing market share, decreasing the cost to acquire the customer (CAC), or increasing lifetime value (LTV). These are not strategies. This is like saying a strategy for starting a business is to make money instead of losing money.
Tactical marketing is often misinterpreted as well.
- I’ve seen tactical marketing described as creating messaging that shifts the image of the product to a new demographic or segment. This is not tactical marketing, this is branding.
- I’ve seen tactical marketing defined as developing plans for SEO, ads, content and so on, based on the aforementioned strategic goals. This is not tactical marketing, this is advertising.
When that kind of tactical marketing follows that kind of strategic marketing, you can expect disaster. You’re asking the marketing plan to make the customer fall in love with something they don’t yet understand.
So let’s put the horse back in front of the cart.
Start with a tactical approach
The misunderstanding of strategic and tactical marketing has turned startup marketing into a tale of two camps: branding and advertising. This excludes about 90 percent of what can make marketing effective in selling a new product.
The effectiveness lies in educating the customer. Marketing doesn’t have to send prospective customers a user manual, but there are effective approaches to education that should be the foundation of the messaging.
Going back to how that new product from that new company achieves product market fit, the messaging should quickly cover what the product is, what problem it solves, and why it solves that problem better than all the other existing solutions.
This is much easier to do by being reactive instead of proactive with the messaging. In other words, stop telling customers what you are, and start addressing who they are, what their problems are, and why those problems aren’t being solved.
Some tactical educational scenarios
Education also means different things to different people. There are a number of paths you can take to get your customers to understand, quickly, what you are and why they need you. Here are just a few of them.
- One of the best ways to get a customer thinking about new solutions to a problem is to highlight a new, but growing, problem. As an example, porch package thieves weren’t a thing just a year or two ago. Now, with the explosion of eCommerce, the problem has become mainstream. Security cameras have been around forever — but only for a niche consumer with a lot of money and a lot of stuff to protect. Ring doorbells and similar companies used this new problem to bring a new solution to a new market.
- If you don’t have a new type of problem, you may be able to address a new type of customer. Uber didn’t just replace airport taxi rides with independent contractors, they defined a new type of customer that would hail a ride more often for different reasons than the traditional business traveler. They began marketing to the young, affluent urbanite who was ready to ditch their own car if they hadn’t already. This tactical approach not only worked brilliantly, it spawned the entire scooter industry, for better or for worse.
- The entire SaaS segment was built around an evolution in process. Instead of software being developed and sold to huge companies that needed thousands of licenses perpetually, the messaging around most SaaS software, to this day, is the ability to buy only what you need and when you need it. The educational messaging around SaaS focuses on pricing, convenience, and portability — not quality, massive feature set, or being a “one-stop-shop,” tenets of marketing messaging that used to be required in traditional software.
- It also helps if you can pick on a stumbling incumbent. But this can be tricky. Direct-to-consumer companies have had varying success trying to educate the consumer on the benefits of subscribing to everyday products or skipping the retail purchasing model for high-dollar purchases. But the approach is correct — educate the consumer, change their habits, replace the incumbent.
As advertising channels have consolidated, branding has become more difficult, especially for startups. Yes, you can still use now-traditional methods like digital advertising and keywords and re-marketing to get the product into the customer’s head. But why would they use it?
Tactical marketing with a strategic approach is far more effective. When both are done properly, with the horse in front of the cart, the chances of a new product from a new company finding its place in the market increase substantially.