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The Startup Brand Fallacy: Why brand marketing is mostly useless for consumer startups

Brand marketing is mostly useless for consumer startups. Startups build a great brand by being successful, finding product market fit and scaling traction, etc. But it’s not a real lever. Let’s not mix up correlation with causation!

If this seems contrarian to you, it’s because there’s a vast ecosystem of consultants, agencies, and other middlemen who are highly incentivized to have you spend $ and effort on non-ROI/non-performant activities. Early startups should opt out of all of this

It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation: If you’re starting a consumer startup, you see successful late stage cos with fawning media coverage, amazing conference speaking slots, celebrities on the cap table, etc., and think that’s what caused their success: Great brand.

But great brand is the lagging indicator of success. The buzz is created by the hard work that the entrepreneurs put in: Finding product/market fit, hiring a great core team, finding acquisition channels that scale. Brand marketing is great, but it should be layered on later.

The greatest consumer products in recent years slogged through years of obscurity. The overnight success of Uber, Airbnb, Instagram, etc were actually multi-year successes driven by hard work and multiple pivots.

Working on press mentions, conferences, etc can be a good way to get an initial hit of traffic. It’s great! But it’s not enough. Here’s an article from a few years back: After the TechCrunch bump, there’s life in the trough of sorrow.

Anyone who’s been on the homepage of TechCrunch, AngelList, Hacker News, or even in the NYTimes knows that it’s a increase to your dopamine but not so much your customer acquisition :) It’s great for the early days, but you need a lot more to scale.

Furthermore, the metrics-driven argument is obvious. Ultimately, the engagement in every product can be deconstructed into a series of user cohorts that join and decay over time. How does brand help these cohorts? My observation: They don’t help much.

One argument is that brand marketing can create buzz and word of mouth. OK if that’s the case, why does every brand-driven commerce company have >60% of their customer acquisition happen through paid marketing? Why do they have to buy all their customers?

If brand marketing helps make acquisition ultimately cheaper, then why does every startup’s paid acquisition become less efficient over time, even as the company becomes more well known? The same arguments apply to startups’ re-engagement efforts.

It’s true that a strong brand can confer defensibility in a noisy space – but it’s brittle, hard to create, and hard to sustain. Hard to bet on that in the early days of a startup.

Where brand marketing does matter, especially outside of consumer: Recruiting a great team. Raising money. Partnerships. These are all small targeted audiences where you can reach them with more touchy feely efforts, and it can work! So put your emphasis there.

For early consumer startup efforts, it’s better to focus on the basics. Understand your users, deliver a great product to the market that grows by itself, built moats, monetize in a user-aligned way. Grow your team, work with the best advisors/investors/etc. The basics.

Do all that, and your product’s brand will take care of itself – and then you can layer on more brand marketing efforts to 10x the effect. Just don’t do the steps out of order!

[Originally tweetstormed at @andrewchen]

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