Reading: Why should you even exist, and 4 other questions to build a brand that lasts9 min
Why should you even exist, and 4 other questions to build a brand that lasts
Having a product doesn’t mean that you’ve got a brand. Seedcamp’s Natasha Lytton’s biggest worry is that founders don’t realize this until it’s too late.
“There’s this idea that we should be positive about toilet paper, toothpaste… get a grip! There isn’t a need for that.”
Expect to learn:
- Do you have a brand when you have a product?
- What should you think about instead of purpose, mission and vision?
- How much to invest in brand and what to measure?
- What European startups get wrong about branding?
Natasha Lytton runs brand and marketing at Seedcamp, a European seed fund with a portfolio of over 320 companies, including the likes of Revolut, TransferWise and UiPath. This trio alone has gone on to raise over $2B following Seedcamp’s early investments.
Before jumping onto the funding side of things, Natasha earned her wings running marketing strategy and operations as CMO in fast-growing, consumer-focused businesses such as Savse, one of the UK’s top-selling smoothie companies. An operator at heart, she continues to advise Seedcamp’s portfolio companies on all things growth – be it creative storytelling, positioning or rebranding.
Great, you’ve got a product, but have you got a brand?
You can’t be everything to everyone. But you can be something great to someone special.
“My biggest worry is that founders deprioritize branding until far too late in their journey,” Natasha says. “If you are marketing your product without any idea of where you sit in the market, what you’re running up against, or why what you offer is better than that of other players in the market, you don’t stand a chance. Products don’t speak for themselves, at least not in the long run, and just focusing on functionality is a problem,” she continues. “We’re not purely rational, us humans. You need to understand the conflict between emotional and rational – every decision at every point is critical.”
Why do people choose Apple over Samsung? They choose a brand they want. Samsung’s phone might be technically superior, but you don’t love it. You want the iPhone – you want its culture, its brand, the feeling and the thought that Apple invokes in you? If a product doesn’t speak to the emotional, people won’t talk about it – they don’t want it.
There’s a reason why the customer curve looks like it does, why the early adopters are where they are. People want to feel a certain way. They need to be able to say: I identify as that. So, this is for me.
“Even if you are in B2B, this still applies to you,” Natasha says. “Not just in terms of how you speak to customers, but across every single touchpoint with them. It’s in every single line of code you write, and in every single person you interact with. It is in anybody that works with you or invests in you – branding goes far beyond the product.”
Your product will evolve a lot when you’re still in the early stages. A strong brand makes communicating this journey easier to the people who’ve taken a leap of faith for you.
Beyond purpose-vision-mission thinking
Natasha encourages companies to go beyond the traditional purpose-vision-mission thinking of what they are as a brand. Flip the whole thing around. Don’t be afraid of ruthless self-criticism.
- Why should you even exist?
- What would be different if you didn’t?
- What is something that you would never do?
- Why should you, or anyone, devote their energy to this and not something better?
- Why would anyone tell anyone about this?
When it’s still early days, use your time, not your money. Don’t buy expensive decks from external brand agencies or pour money into paid acquisition. Think about your pitch over and over again. Is it easily understandable? Do people get a grasp of what you’re talking about quickly? If your pitch isn’t easy to get a hold of, you’ll have a hard time attracting people to work with you – let alone invest in your business.
She sees a lot of early-stage pitch decks from founders across industries, and the positioning typically mimics the tech giants of our time. “Everything is Airbnb of this and Uber of that. But the brand needs to evolve as market trends evolve,” she says.
Simply – if your thinking is static and rooted in how others have positioned their brands, your brand can only ever be as strong as those brands. Markets evolve, and things can change overnight. Your brand is never finished. You should constantly be thinking about whether the foundation remains real and relevant, and adjust with evolutions in macro trends and your own product roadmap.
“Your brand needs to remain relevant, so you need to evolve authentically. You learn more about your products, how each works and which one works the best. When you fine-tune your direction, new opportunities might open – no business should just sit still.” Competition is fierce and ever-fluctuating. You start with a number of dominant players. People get annoyed at stagnant oligopolies and launch new initiatives. Then, suddenly, there are too many options, so people go all Marie Kondo, and then it’s back to square one again. We’re in a constant tension of oscillating between these things. “Lots of brands at the moment are all about ‘thoughtful, conscious consumption,’ as people latch onto trending ideas.
Measuring your brand-building efforts
How you should measure your success depends on the stage you’re at. It doesn’t make sense to spend too much money early on if you’ve still got a lot of deep brand thinking to do.
Simple measures are what you should be focusing on before paid activities. If your content story isn’t there when your company starts spending on paid acquisition, the numbers won’t look right. “You can invest all the money you want, but it’s nothing without a story,” Natasha says.
By investing in a compelling story and its creative, thorough execution, you increase the customer lifetime value. “We live in a world of immediacy. We focus so much on short-termism, which leads to not setting our businesses up in a sustainable way. It’s becoming harder to plug into Facebook and Instagram to get that organic growth than it used to be some five years ago,” Natasha explains. “People underestimate the time, energy, and money it takes to build a community, and particularly, doing it sustainably to make it genuine, real and engaging. Performance marketing only works if the brand story does. That’s why it can never be a tradeoff.”
Building brands in Europe, for Europe
Seeing the poor performance of European consumer brands compared to their mighty American counterparts makes Natasha sad. What are we doing wrong as brand builders?
“You cannot ignore the facts,” Natasha says. “We’re looking at so many countries and languages. It’s not as easy. There are so many nuances that relate to building a brand. There are different trends, different market sizes, and different cultures”. Because of that, UK-based brands often don’t launch their second DC2 market in Europe, but in Australia. “It’s a good testing ground – one language, one unified proposition,” Natasha explains.
Australia? Check. How to launch in another European country, then? “You should send over someone integral to the core brand to build a local team, ecosystem and understanding. A good example of this is Stripe – the most valuable private tech company right now. They launched their NYC office recently, having sent someone over there already two years ago. They spent this time building an understanding of the market dynamics out there. That’s a luxury you have when you raise enough capital.”
Natasha highlights another difference between European and American markets: consumer optimism. “As a Brit, I can say this,” Natasha laughs. “We are well aware of our own cynicism. There’s this idea that we should be positive about toilet paper, toothpaste… get a grip! There isn’t a need for that.”
“From the investment perspective, there aren’t a lot of funds focused on D2C in Europe”, Natasha adds. “However, a lot of D2C brands shouldn’t be venture-backed, either. I’m not convinced every D2C brand needs to go down the VC route,” Natasha says.
“First and foremost, I’d question what type of business I want to build, and then, what the best funding route to help me achieve that is? VC is great if you’re looking to deliver outsized results back to investors and you see a $1bn+ opportunity ahead. But there’s nothing wrong or shameful in building a lifestyle business more sustainably. Native Deodorant was sold to P&G for $100M back in 2017. They’d raised only $500k in funding and the founder still owned 90% of the company. I’d say that’s a pretty great outcome!”
Quickfire Q&A with Natasha
A good example of a successful brand reframe?
It’s easy for me to talk about brands that I’ve been directly apart of. I was working on a brand called Savse. When we launched, the brand image was soft, bland, and directed at mothers and family. It wasn’t standing out from either a verbal or visual perspective. We then did proper brand mapping and positioning – what does the market around us look and sound like? Where’s our opportunity to play?
We went for a playful personality, joking about the pronunciation of the brand name. We did this reframing early on, and we went up from no major distribution to being in almost every supermarket in the UK after two years in existence – reassessing the brand early on proved a huge shortcut.
Favorite European DC2 brands?
I’m loving Fiit, as their software-hardware blend speaks to me as a fitness lover. It gives you the power to choose how and when you work out. Their retention rate is excellent, as people genuinely love the product.
We focus so much on the acquisition and how many customers we have. Cool, but how many of those are active? How many just dropped off after their first purchase? You need different behavior from your customers for various businesses and financial models.
Another good example is Spoke, which fits men’s trousers. The targeting is incredibly smart, directing their product towards a large bunch of guys who care about fashion enough to not just go to the Gap, but who, on the other hand, don’t like shopping. It’s a go-to-brand, speaking well to a dominant type of consumer, who gets the same product in different colors. They have identified a genuine need.
Last time you changed your mind about something?
I’ve totally reframed my own thinking around targeting. Demographic targeting was seen as this new frontier and a way to demonstrate our relevance and penetration among certain groups. This is exacerbated by platforms such as Facebook, where we get trapped in this cycle of targeting people based on basic principles such as gender, location and age. I think this is lazy. We’re now in an age of psychographic targeting, where we have to think more holistically about the tribe we’re targeting and what unites them. To me, it’s about targeting people who share a belief system, rather than an age, or gender. This is how we should be thinking about building our brands.