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Making a Case for Brand Marketing in Early-Stage Startups

Lindsey McCaffrey
January 26, 2018

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Kim Salzer, CMO, Ozobot

Kim Salzer, CMO, Ozobot

A start-up CMO faces unique challenges that are very different than those of their Fortune 500 counterparts. One of the most critical challenges we encounter is disagreeing opinions from founders, investors, and board members on how to create and execute a customer acquisition strategy.

During a recent CMO Club virtual roundtable, Kim Salzer, CMO at Ozobot and startup veteran, led a discussion around why she believes creating an executable brand strategy and customer mapping are the first steps in setting up a new company for success – and how to convince your key stakeholders to adopt your strategy.

Invest in branding as early as possible

According to Salzer, startups who want to keep copycats at bay must be willing to invest in a branding strategy and research—particularly in the early stages of the company.

“Any business can focus on features in their marketing, which is easy for competitors to replicate,” she says. “But if you do consumer insight work and uncover an emotional resonance—something meaningful about your product and what it does for consumers—that’s something really unique that another brand can’t copy.”

Salzer credits Ozobot for allowing her to do customer journey mapping research from the beginning of her time with the company. “Not all startups would be willing to invest in that.”

But as a result, this research enabled Ozobot—which manufactures small, smart social robots for kids—to identify key differentiators and audiences for branding purposes.

“Ozobot is about helping prepare kids for a future of collaborating with robots, but also about making technology less scary for parents,” she says. “The challenge is that with kids, we don’t want to talk about the education part—we want to instead tap into their creativity and give them this sense of control and power with this little companion. That’s what makes us unique in our category.”

Making the case for early investment

Despite asking for a “brand marketer,” some startup stakeholders may not fully understand the concept of brand marketing.

This lack of understanding, says Salzer, can stand in the way of doing one’s job effectively—and getting the dollars needed to invest in branding research.

So, to get everyone on the same page, she recommends the following:

  • Testing the waters: If you are interviewing for job with a startup, “probe” all key stakeholders to ensure they are interested in and appreciate your marketing background. “Some startups get so caught up in how great their product is that they believe it will sell itself,” says Salzer. “So try to get a sense as to whether they’ll let you do your job if you join the team—and make sure the chemistry is right before accepting any offer.”
  • Educating: Find a way to educate key stakeholders about all the things that go into a brand—tone, manner, features, attributes, core brand value proposition and all other things. “When I’ve done educational exercises with others, you see a lot of them have an a-ha moment. They see that they have a guidepost to what their product roadmap is going to look like, and how they will talk about their product across all channels.”

Three keys to CMO startup success

According to Salzer, succeeding as a CMO in an early startup comes down to three things:

  • Focus. A lack of focus tends to manifest when stakeholders (often the founder or CEO) chase opportunities for revenue—such as going after new partnerships or new demographics. “Everyone sees the hundred different places they can take the business—and changing directions can lead to frustration all around, especially in a marketing context,” says Salzer. “That’s why a brand strategy is especially critical, so there is some direction.”
  • Speed. “You’re often running a hundred miles an hour in a startup, because competitors are entering the market all the time,” says Salzer. “If you don’t stay ahead of the game, your competitors will catch up. If you want to last the next round of funding from investors, you need to always be ready to act fast and achieve quick results.”
  • Confidence. As a CMO for a startup, Salzer acknowledges confidence may not come right away, but it will come with time. “When you’ve been around the block enough with a few companies, you will know inherently that what you’re doing is right. So bring frameworks and disciplines you’ve used before for other businesses, because they can apply to startups as well, helping you lead your marketing team into the ‘unknown.’”

Hiring the right marketing team

Salzer recognizes that having the right marketing team can also make or break a startup.

“In a startup, every single person counts—not only in terms of work and quality of work, but also the culture,” she says. “So sometimes you have to assess your talent, decide where the gaps are, and make difficult decisions quickly. That’s where focus, speed and confidence come in.”

If possible, she suggests bringing in people you know and trust.

“I have a great network and there is an automatic shortcut and trust there, which you don’t have to take time building—and that can simplify everything.”

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