It’s a lesson that factors prominently in John’s new course on entrepreneurship for kids ages 10 to 17. He shared with Inc. a process he teaches these young students and adult entrepreneurs alike about creating a mission statement that’s clear and easy to digest for customers.
The first step is reaching out to your customers to share the first draft of your mission statement for feedback. If you don’t have customers yet, John suggests querying family and friends who fit the target audience for your idea. Gather your small group, share your thoughts, and have your audience repeat back to you, in their own words, what they understand your mission to be. Pay special attention to words that get repeated. You want to make sure how you’re phrasing your mission truly communicates what you’re intending.
“There are gonna be so many different things to understand the identity and the DNA of your product, service, or brand,” he said. “You’ve got to come up with your two to five words of what you represent. Is there a social cause behind it? Is it price competitive? Is it luxury?”
He also suggests creating a separate value statement by asking yourself the following questions:
What do you want to solve?
What do you love?
What would you do for free every single day and why do you do it?
What joy does your business bring?
What about your business will create unity?
Once you have your value statement and two to five words that your group agrees clearly communicate your values, center your brand messaging on those words, according to John. What makes sense to your customer will give your marketing the strongest impact.
And while the initial steps of building a business can be tough, John says to look at it as an opportunity to lay the framework for something great. “The beginning part of the story is the best part,” he said.
Last year, my internet went down for three weeks. I chatted with customer service agents from Cox Communications, a cable and internet provider which earned more than $12 billion in revenue in 2020, about a dozen times. Each time, a customer service representative told me that they “felt my frustration and anger.” One said, “I hate when this happens, I totally get it.”
The problem is, they did not get it. The reason Cox could take their sweet time fixing my internet was not because life is frustrating and hard, but because they are a monopoly – the only option for broadband service in vast swaths of the United States, and thus have no one competing with them for my money. My internet access was dependent on them, and instead of addressing that problem, they told me they empathized with it.
I thought the experience was a particularly bizarre, but isolated customer service strategy. Until one day I was on the phone with T-Mobile, and the customer service agent said, “You sound sad today, is everything okay?”
Last week, I woke up to an alert from my Chipotle app (sometimes I have a craving for their burritos, don’t judge me) telling me that I should “check in on someone today.”
And the official account for the government of Israel, which recently engaged in a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of Palestinians, tweeted on May 12 that they were having a “difficult night” but appreciated the “messages of support from you guys.” The tweet ended with a heart emoji.
It’s no coincidence that these uber-powerful entities have all settled on language that makes them seem like “healthy living” Instagram influencers. The language of therapy and self help has been co-opted by institutions to distract from their power and sell us on the idea that they’re just like us.
This is not only an attempt to try and get us to forget their misdeeds, it also ruins the language of care built to actually help people, reducing what were once radical tools for survival to a hollow branding strategy.
Emotional branding sells
Corporations use the language of self care and mental health because it makes them money. There’s an entire field of advertising called “emotional marketing” dedicated to helping brands establish personal bonds with consumers. Ads with “emotional pull” are more likely to create loyalty among consumers, and encourage them to buy more.
Emotional manipulation for profit is nothing new. The work of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often considered the blueprint for using psychology to manipulate consumers. He believed that by harnessing psychoanalytic theories of the mind and human behavior, he could subconsciously influence people to do just about anything.
The present-day marketing shift to focus on self care is just a new facet of the emotional branding manipulation corporations use to win over consumer’s hearts – one that matches our era of increased fear, anxiety, and depression.
It makes sense that at a time when depression rates, especially among young people, march steadily higher, and anxiety is present in everything that companies and other powerful institutions would attempt to capture our minds and dollars not through vague concepts of freedom or empowerment, but through the idea of life feeling survivable.
The kids are not alright
Cox and T-Mobile’s faux-empathetic customer service, Chipotle’s “check in on your friends” push notification, and Lululemon insistence that it’s ok not to feel okay hint at the predominant mental problems currently ailing our society: a feeling of constant dread, a sense of isolation and disconnection, and persistent anhedonia – a feeling that, no matter what, even if life feels good on the surface, we do not, in fact, feel okay.
In 2014, the European leftist collective Plan C published a treatise on capitalism and our feelings. They posited that the predominant affect, or feeling, of the mid-1900s was boredom. The hippie and free love movements were a response to this boredom, but so was the advertising created by people like Bernays – exploiting people’s dissatisfaction with a stifling suburban life to sell them the idea of excitement and freedom. Post-2008 financial crisis, according to Plan C, the predominant affect switched to anxiety as jobs disappeared and housing grew precarious.
We are now likely in a new age, one of disconnection and dissociation, spurred by the isolation and overwhelming nature of the internet and the pandemic. We have yet to see what the social response will be to this, but we can already see what advertising’s response has been: to sell us the idea that in an age where we all feel alone, scared, and unable to connect to each other, perhaps our friends at Lululemon, or Cox, or Chipotle can help.
“An act of political warfare”
Beyond the cynicism that this corporate cooptation of care inevitably breeds, it also erases the radical roots of the language. In the 1960s, the concept of care was used by radical Black activists like the Black Panther Party (BPP) to center the wellbeing of people of color in a world that was, and still is, actively hostile to their bodies and minds. The BPP thought taking care of one’s own body, mind, and self image was a necessary response to living in a racist country. In 1988, the Black feminist Audre Lorde wrote that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
A company – or country engaged in warfare – taking these concepts and using them to their own end disenables us from using this language in any kind of productive way. The phrase “it’s okay to not be okay” might be a good way to view mental health recovery – I had to learn how to apply it to my own life after PTSD wrecked my productivity a few years ago – but now it’s also forever associated with a leggings company, diluting its power.
Corporations tell us it’s okay to not be okay when they are, in large part, the reason we are not okay.
Unfortunately, this corporate version of care has trickled down into how we speak to each other on a daily basis. When the Black Panthers and other radicals preached self care, they did so as part of a toolkit to fight against the material realities of racism and capitalism. Now, concepts of care and empathy float around with no root: Instagram influencers preach self care as they sell us beauty products; Twitter memes tell us that the problem with men is that they simply do not go to therapy, that it’s okay to break plans, and that it’s encouraged to deny people your time and energy when they need help.
We tell each other to take care of ourselves without acknowledging the reasons we need so much care in the first place – the isolation, anxiety, and depression caused by living in 21st-century America.
All of this does not make the very concept of care meaningless, but we must purposefully work to return material meaning to it. And I have no doubt we eventually will.
Bernays realized that people in the mid-1900s were craving freedom and used that realization to sell cigarettes. But then people realized that they needed to truly escape the boredom of the 1950s, and that purchasing things was not the way out. A real movement for Civil Rights – a movement against the white stasis of mid-20th-century America – blossomed. Today, corporations realize people are craving care and connection. They’ve tapped into a real need; but I have to believe it’s only a matter of time before we all see that real need and build a solution to it with our own hands.
I can already see it happening on social media: The language of self care has been re-radicalized, positioned against corporations and capitalism. Accounts like The Nap Ministry are teaching people that their own care is not politically neutral, but a necessary bulwark against productivity-culture burnout. But we now need to take this rhetoric and turn it into action. That could mean forming free-therapy collectives, doing teach-ins about mental healthcare, or providing free meals like the Black Panthers did so families feel less isolated from each other.
At a small scale, these things already exist, but we need to make them a more central part of any radical practice. Otherwise, we risk repeating a daunting cycle of being exhausted, overworked, and made to feel like automatons, leaving the solutions to the corporations and institutions least interested in actually solving them.
Entrepreneurs already understand that getting media attention helps with user acquisition, customer traction, making a mark in the space where you play, and attracting investors. If an angel or VC sees that you’re already getting getting press mentions, they’ll be more likely to think you’re in demand, because reporters are true trend hunters and understand what consumers want in an intuitive way.
This is the obvious benefit of talking to media: It’s social proof. Sure, investors want to be able to say that they were responsible for discovering the next great startup founder, and so you may think getting press would work against that perspective. But highlighting media attention up front on your deck shows VCs and angels that you have been already vetted by influencers and trendsetters. If a journalist is interested enough in your story and product to want to write about you – particularly an influential one – you’re already way ahead of the game.
But there’s another secret benefit you get when you talk to media, and entrepreneurs often find out accidentally, when they’re in the middle of fundraising.
It’s the fact that when you start finding the angles that work with reporters – those pitches that actually get them to respond to your email, and to write articles about you – you are actually learning how to talk about your product with your target audience and also to investors, who need to know your value up front.
Here’s how pitching to media will help you pitch to investors.
You’ll find your narrative arc
An arc is the sequence of events in a plot, with peaks and plateaus in the narrative. A PR campaign is really just a fight to figure out what arc works for your audience. It’s almost like finding the missing puzzle piece – what’s the one angle that writers will love?
For example, let’s say you are trying to get press for your beauty brand. If you find out that editors are responding really well to the story that is all about one particular ingredient that no one else uses in their formulations, you know that’s a winning strategy, so you expand that storyline as far as you can take it. Or you realize that your founder storyline is getting the most attention – so you want to use that narrative to death.
Understanding what narrative arcs or storylines work best with media – the ones that have them beating down your door – should be an aha moment for you, because this is also the angle that investors will be drawn to. If you can take your VC’s and angel investors through that same narrative arc, they’ll connect the dots more quickly and have the same aha moment themselves. Painting this picture is very important.
You’ll learn more about your competition
Investors like to say that when a founder says they have no competition, that’s a giant red flag. That’s because there’s always a competitor not too far behind – or at least someone who is doing something similar. But the flip side is that if there truly is no competition, it means that there is likely no market for your product. If no one is solving the problem you’re solving, then how do you know it’s an important problem to solve? Overall, a founder should find at least some form of competition to talk about in their pitch to investors.
There are two ways that getting media will help you understand your competition. For one, the more you dig around the web for information about how to pitch your brand to press, the more you’ll find articles about competitor’s stories. You’ll learn how reporters are talking about them – what they’re highlighting, what talking points they may have crafted, and what stories are most important to them.
Second, when reporters ask you the hard questions about your competition, you’ll have to dig deep and come up with thoughtful answers – how do you truly differ from them? You’ll come out of these interviews with a better idea of who your competition is, how to differentiate yourself from them – and most importantly, how to talk about this with investors. Because, trust me, investors will ask you about competitors. Make sure you don’t say the wrong thing.
You’ll stress test your central thesis
Reporters will at some point in your career start asking you tough questions, not because they want to see you squirm, but because they want to write a really great story that their readers will love. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a result, they will likely be the first person to see gaps in the central thesis of your value proposition. They are on the outside looking in – whereas you’re on the inside, and have been living and breathing and creating your product for many months, maybe even years. Reporters and bloggers will see things you don’t.
The beauty of this is that the questions they’ll ask will likely be the questions an investor will ask you during an email exchange, a Q&A or an actual pitch. Even better, if you proactively answer these hard questions in your deck or pitch you will stand head and shoulders above other founders. The VC will see you as someone who is extremely thoughtful around the market and the problem you are trying to solve.
You’ll stress test yourself
There is nothing more nail biting than talking to media for the first time. That first interview is challenging because you don’t know what to expect, what questions will be asked, or the kind of impression you will make on the reporter. When you are thrown into the Zoom or Skype call, you’ll have to think quickly on your feet and know how to respond to difficult questions, as well as how to create good rapport with the person you are speaking with. When you have several interviews under your belt, you’ll feel more comfortable meeting with investors and answering questions succinctly and effectively.
There are the obvious benefits to sharing your story with media but there are also those that will make your investor pitch stronger, more thoughtful, and more effective. Treat it like a crash course on learning how to talk to angel investors and VC’s, and show them your value.
As a business consultant, I often have to remind small-business owners that their marketing needs to be more interactive, versus the traditional “push” model, where you broadcast your message to as many people as possible.
New generations of customers respond better to the “participative” approach, where they get to provide input via social media and the internet.
It started a few years ago with email satisfaction surveys after an online purchase, but now includes interactive internet ads, as well as custom requests for input on the design of future products and influencers on social media. It seems that everyone these days wants an experience and a relationship, and is willing to become your best advocate via word of mouth.
Some call it a move from always “hunting” for new customers in the wild to “gardening,” or nurturing loyalty and value from the ones you already have.
In any case, the new approach is important to all businesses, and embodies some new marketing rules that you need to focus on and learn:
1. Make your marketing exploratory and dynamic
The days of big-bang long-term campaigns that never change are over. You should be constantly trying new approaches via social media and online, and asking for feedback and input from influencers and customers. Scale quickly on good feedback, and move on if you get little engagement.
A step in the right direction is to take advantage of the new tools available at very low cost, including sponsored podcasts, blogs, visibility in online communities, and Twitter influencer support. Sometimes it’s as simple as updating your website format and videos.
2. Use experiments versus designing the ideal ad
Trends and customer interests change quickly, so use small experiments to find something that works today, and use innovation to push the envelope, before your competitors can copy and overrun you. The key is to be able to measure your return, adapt quickly, and learn from your efforts.
According to the Harvard Business Review, e-commerce companies that conducted ad experiments saw 2-3% better performance per experiment run. An advertiser that ran 15 experiments in a given year saw a 30% higher ad performance.
3. Motivate customers to participate and engage
Reward customers for their advocacy and engagement with discounts and coupons, keep the interaction dynamic, and encourage their return. This requires a sense of urgency on the part of your team, and a culture of accountability and focus on the customer. Marketing must be everyone’s top priority.
For example, Dunkin’ Donuts did this through a photo contest, rewarding discounts to those who submitted a photo with the brand’s handle and hashtag. Other companies highlight live experience and happy videos, submitted by customers, on their website and promotions.
4. Partner with others to create blended offerings
A very successful marketing effort created by a restaurant near me during the pandemic offered a carryout from multiple sources – to combine flowers with food and drinks, all from different establishments, packaged creatively together. Everybody wins, and it spread quickly on social media.
People remember and endorse you as the primary brand that created the blended offering, as well as the other “endorsed” brands. The hybrid approach is also effective as an experiment if you are exploring ways to expand your own brand into new segments.
5. Market solutions as an experience or an event
Advertising more features, or even a lower price, is not as memorable to customers today as a great experience or a unique event. These may be live or immersive online experiences. Use social media to build anticipation and highlight successes, to get people talking and coming back for more.
The message here is that big blockbuster campaigns and big marketing budgets are no longer the key to results in the new customer environment, where participation and relationships are key.
Now is the time to ask your customers and partners for participative ideas, do some experiments, and scale up the ones that work. Be prepared to make frequent updates as trends change.
Marketing is no longer a one-way conversation, whether you are a startup or a legacy business. How long has it been since you changed your marketing strategy? Are your costs going up and the returns going down? Try listening and learning, more than talking and pushing.
Every startup needs a branding strategy. Your brand strategy gives you an outline and a plan to work through, making sure that your company hits all the goals along the way.
But choosing which strategy will work for your startup depends on the details.
What is a branding strategy?
In the most simple terms, a branding strategy boils down to the plan you make for actions that will grow your business. It includes your brand personality, how you interact with your customers, what you offer to consumers, and brand identity design elements including your logo and print materials.
A good branding strategy utilizes your brand as a cohesive whole so that each aspect of your brand will work with the others, creating growth synergistically.
Obviously, the exact strategy you choose will depend on your company and what has the greatest chance of success. And your strategy may change as your company grows and develops.
Key branding strategies for startups
A branding strategy for an established business will differ greatly from startup strategies.
For example, a business that is already running may choose to branch out in a line extension strategy, creating new products to capture a further audience or to fill a need that their current audience has. That could be a strategy that you choose later down the line.
For a startup, however, it’s a matter of getting the brand launched and building a core before you start branching out too much.
Here are some important startup branding strategies that could potentially work for your own new business:
New brand strategy. This strategy creates a brand around a central product. It enables you to launch with your product at the center of the brand, connecting your brand with that product in the minds of your audience. This strategy also works for companies that are already established but which want to create new products and garner new audiences.
Flanker brand strategy. If you’re looking to gather the widest audience possible, this is a good possibility. To establish this strategy, create product variants that appeal to different consumer groups. For example, you may create a tech product that is higher end, with a stripped-down lower-end variant to appeal to those who may want something more affordable and don’t need all the bells and whistles. The high and low end products can be launched under the same basic brand, but should be differentiated by name or designation, ie. iPhone 8 versus iPhone X.
Attitude branding strategy. For a startup, it’s less about leveraging brand loyalty and more about projecting a personality. Attitude branding pushes attention to marketing a lifestyle, feeling, or emotional connection, rather than just a product or service. Nike is a great example of this; their branding promotes a healthy, athletic lifestyle, which is represented by their individual products.
Competitor brand strategy. At times, a company already enjoys a share in a niche market, but wants to pull above against their competitors. If that’s the case for your startup, you may want to focus on a competitor brand strategy, which means going after an existing audience rather than seeking a new one. Ultimately, the advantage of a competitor brand strategy is that you already know there’s an audience for your product. You just need to determine how you can rise above the existing competition and secure a bigger market share.
How to choose a branding strategy
Before you make a decision on which branding strategy you’re going to adopt, it’s important to identify the core concepts, values, and promises that make your brand unique.
Take the time to pinpoint these details:
What is your target audience?
What promises does your brand make to this audience?
What values is your brand built on, and how do they play into the messaging?
How do you tell your brand story?
Who in your business is involved in implementing your branding strategy?
The last question, ideally, should be answered with, “Everyone!” Even hourly employees should be aware of the branding strategy and willing to whole-heartedly support it. Remember that customer service is also deeply involved in effective branding – everyone involved in the startup needs to be a team player, and remember how their actions and words reflect on the brand.
Along with these, the visual aspect of your branding, such as your logo, color palette, and website design, should all be taken into consideration.
Ultimately, the goal is to choose a branding strategy that matches your brand to better reach your customers and communicate with them on a meaningful level. Align your branding strategy with your brand personality, and you’ll create a plan that will help you to reach each and every goal.
Zaheer Dodhia is a serial entrepreneur and creator of DIY logo design tool Logo Design. He works with small businesses and startups on affordable branding solutions. Connect with him onLinkedIn orTwitter.
In 2020, clothing brand Faherty had a standout year, according to its twin cofounders Alex and Mike Faherty.
Alex credits one thing that helped keep his company afloat during this time: having a diversified business model and supply chain.
When the company first launched in 2013, the founders made it a priority to have a diverse business, which saw the brand sold in retailers throughout the United States. Its supply chain stretches from South American to Asia, and the company has stores in various geographic locations, such as the Soho neighborhood in Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard.
The eight-year-old brand’s women’s clothing business is up about 100% year-over-year, and its annual compounded growth for the company these past four years has been 64% according to documents viewed by Insider. The men’s side of the business isn’t doing too bad, either – it counts actors Neil Patrick Harris and Matthew McConaughey, in addition to country star Thomas Rhett Atkins, as fans.
The brand is sold in over 250 stores throughout the world and currently has 16 locations of its own. It’s planning to open another 15 this year, and most recently launched in the new markets including West Palm Beach, Rosemary Beach, San Jose, and on Abbot Kinney in Venice, CA.
In an interview with Insider, Alex talks about how a diversified business model and supply chain worked for his company during the virus.
Alex made it a priority early on to build a business model that didn’t depend on one channel for revenue
Early on, Alex said, he focused on diversifying the company’s business model, so that it did not depend too much on revenue from one medium.
The company started off by establishing an online presence, then built a mobile beach house that traveled throughout the country. In 2014, the company expanded into wholesale by launching into retailers such as Nordstrom and Barney’s New York. By 2020, the brand was sold in 250 retailers throughout the world.
Alex said the company made sure to carefully select locations that varied geographically and in population size, to both sell and manufacture Faherty clothes. It was this diversified supply chain that helped the company survive the pandemic, he continued.
The company’s supply chain spans Europe, South America, North America, and Asia. When Asia saw the first shockwave of the coronavirus in early 2020, the company was able to lean on its European, South, and North American channels.
When the Asian markets opened back up, the company was able to shift back to its manufacturing over there, as its supply chain was taking a hit in the European and American markets in mid-March.
Even domestically, Alex said, the team was keeping a close eye on migration patterns.
For example, when physical retailers began to close last year, the company shifted to e-commerce. As people fled New York City, their Soho store emptied out but their locations in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard saw an increase in sales.
“It’s been a challenging keeping up with the calendars, keeping up with the factories,” Alex said, giving the same advice another small business told Insider about how it was able to whether the pandemic: “It’s about being nimble and flexible, and having a diversified supply chain.”
Faherty has been rapidly expanding into the digital marketplace
Despite the fact Alex prepared for a diversified physical business model, he said the company is still playing a bit of catch-up when it comes to the digital market pace. “Fortunately, e-commerce really accelerated for us,” he said. “So once the shut down happened, we were able to scale our customer acquisition and introduce ourselves to a lot of new people.”
Alex’s wife, Kerry, who is in charge of social media, is helping the company expand its presence on the digital marketplace. “I’m always thinking about how we are showing up as a brand in the world, and that means both in the physical space, the tactile space, and the digital space,” she told Insider. “When people think about Faherty, we want them to feel a sense of warmth, trust, and inclusion, and we will keep making strides to do that across all avenues.”
The company currently has over 100,000 followers on Instagram and doesn’t use any Instagram influencers. Instead, the company depends on organic interactions with customers, some of whom become unofficial brand ambassadors. Alex said the team started to increase the amount of content it was producing and went on a hiring spree during the pandemic to bring on content copywriters on the marketing side to further develop the storytelling of the brand.
Before the pandemic, the company used to host live concerts and events, and it took that virtually, hosting “sun sessions” on Instagram which highlights different artists such as musicians and chefs each week. The company has also partnered with a few podcasts to help expand its reach.
Its expansion into the digital marketplace is only set to continue, even as vaccinations continue.
“At the same time, you know, we have some retail stores right now that are performing incredibly well,” Alex said, adding that the pandemic’s impact on real estate provides them with an opportunity to open more stores throughout the US.
“In the right areas, where people are still safe, they’re still shopping in physical retail,” he continued. “We’re looking at lots of different opportunities in the next couple of years to really grow our retail cards as well. And take advantage of an attractive real estate market.”