The most successful products are not always the first to market or the best technical solution. The products that succeed are the ones that present themselves to customers in the most compelling way. Marketers inherently know that, and it’s why I tell the startups I mentor to include a marketer’s input into the pitch from day 1 (unless the CEO is also a marketing whiz, and many are). To me, sidelining the marketing strategy–including brand, design, and messaging–is like saying, “I know I need to go the interview, but I’ll decide what I wear after I arrive.”
Apple, for example, repeatedly launches new features to its products, sometimes long after the concept was launched elsewhere (think iPod vs. MP3 and Palm Treo vs. iPhone). But it always does so a little better and promotes it more clearly. And don’t forget about Friendster and MySpace. They predate the often frustrating but enviable rise of Facebook, which capitalized on a singular marketing focus and clean design in order to attract users, and values experience over maximizing revenues.
To prove my point to my mentees, I found early pitch decks for some major category killers (hat tip to ProductHunt). These companies–ranging from well-known consumer players like Airbnb and Uber, to lesser-known B2B startups like Crew (formerly Ooomf), Bliss AI, and AdPushUp–have evolved a lot from their first rounds of funding, but there a number of similarities their pitches included to raise their first $1 million in capital. Here are a few commonalities:
• The best examples had a strong brand image and design in their seed stage pitch: Whether it’s a business or consumer brand, the decks for those companies that became household names or business success stories started with a strong, clear image they were trying to promote. Many retain a similar look today as they did in that early round, and the ones that have changed stated that as a specific marketing challenge up front. Notably, Eoghan McCabe, CEO of Intercom, called out visual design as his key skill. Joe Gebbia, co-founder and chief product officer at Airbnb, was listed for his visual and design credentials above now-CEO Brian Chesky’s business development edge. They met, of all places, at design school.
• Funding for marketing is explicitly called out in use of funds in the seed or A round: Many early-stage companies focus on the product, operations, or engineering team. Those are all valid. But when brand and marketing take a backseat, the customer need and product/market fit get left out of the early pitch concepts. That leads to weak positioning and unclear metrics to define business success. Those that tell the story right include not only the groundbreaking technology or business model, but also the explicit growth metrics, projects and costs required to reach a sizable audience, a sustainable sales model, and a lifetime value model for customers acquired.
Of course, startups need a solid go-to-market plan. But too many entrepreneurs (unlike those above) believe the power of the idea is enough to convince investors and early customers to sign on. Then, as I have experienced, the scramble to get the story right becomes a late-night debate between founders and the team and never really feels grounded.
Does this apply to C-level marketers at big companies? Yes. Every new brand, product, or service has to go through the same scrutiny via PowerPoint or Keynote slideware as a startup pitch deck. CMOs, along with their product and tech colleagues, need to launch new corporate ideas the way a startup would, with:
• Tight, direct storytelling: This can be tricky for CPGs in a digital world. How do they tell a story about detergent in a six-second online or TV ad? The root of the story needs to be memorable, engaging, and unique. Think about the last story you heard that you remember. It probably was all of these things, and the slightest trigger helps you remember the full spiel. A good pitch, even at a corporate level, should be captured in less than 10 compelling slides.
• Clear marketing advantages: While marketers go deep searching for data scientists and growth hackers (warning, that link is full of marketing tricks), they have to remember that today’s marketing effort doesn’t work using the standard playbook. The go-to-market must appeal to the target segment, and that means developing experiences that don’t fit a mold and are more complicated to discern, yet are key to a compelling launch. Compare the launch of the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 5-blade electric shaver vs. Dollar Shave Club, and you’ll see the stark difference.
• Intuitive interpretation of the data: The startup CEO probably works off of 90% intuition and 10% guts. The corporate marketer today relies so heavily on data and “what we did before” that he’d practically remove the logo from a product if that’s what the data said. But interpretation depends on intuition, and marketers at large companies need to think like startup CEOs to keep intuition alive. How do they do that? By getting their hands dirty with tools, reading through customer data with a creative lens, talk to real people about their opinions, then sit back and describe gut reaction to it all.
Which is the blind spot you face? Is it putting the marketing function into the early pitch deck? Or are you overloading the pitch with too much information and getting turned down for innovation dollars? As startup businesses continue to capture consumers’ dollars and eat up top business talent, taking a startup stance can help big company marketers get the funds they need to compete.