There is a widely held and strong belief among start-up founders, venture capitalists and techno optimists that we are living in a 'post-brand' world.
In which the purity of a product and its innate ability to solve problems needs no artifice or wrapper between it and its intended user. The user-experience pill needs no sugar-coating because it is sweet enough.
The consequence of this belief is that The start-up community even manages to acquire customers without invoking the "m" word at all, hipsterishly calling its method "growth hacking", rather than its more prosaic and accurate name, performance marketing. Often, the chief marketer makes an appearance only when a start-up is scaled, the early money has gone and the competitors have arrived.
That start-ups and their investors don’t initially see the value of a brand as a long-term growth creator is – outside the agency new-business quest – fairly irrelevant. Many agencies have worked with brands that love a short-term fix, rather than a long-term vision.
The real concern is that, by viewing the development of a sense of brand as indulgent and unnecessary, start-ups will miss out on establishing behaviours and values that reach further than marketing. That damages not only the success stats of start-ups, but sometimes, and with increasing frequency, society itself.
Behave like a brand and be less likely to fail
Start-ups often come into existence to solve a burning use case for their founder. While this instils the drive to create the business in the first place, there may be very little validation done to see whether other people have the same appetite for the solution. Good brands and good start-ups understand their target audience, their emotional, as well as their functional, needs and how their products can meet these – they don’t just hit and hope.
Witness the dramatic crash last September of the $120m-backed Juicero. It transpired that not many people wanted an internet of things juicer, something that some time spent thinking about real consumers, rather than theoretical use cases, might have revealed.
Brand thinking drives emotional resonance
It’s tempting to see early conversations with consumers simply as good market research practice, but even start-ups that do scale but don’t think about their users as fully rounded consumers are vulnerable.
As a case in point, one need look no further than Uber. The ride-hailing app undoubtedly delivers on its promise of cheap, abundant, trackable journeys, thereby meeting a real user need. However, consumer love for the brand has decreased, due, in part, to Uber seemingly overlooking that its end users have emotions and opinions that extend beyond a desire for cheap travel; things such as empathy for Uber’s drivers, concern for their employment status and a rejection of the company’s treatment of female employees. More robust brand thinking would have helped forge a stronger connection between Uber and its customer base, while identifying what constitutes appropriate brand behaviour in the eyes of its customers.
In contrast, Airbnb has displayed a finer sense of emotional intelligence that dates back to using its first round of funding to pay for visits to customers through to its recent engaging ads.
The brand is the voice on your shoulder
One senses that despite the abundance of start-ups wanting to change the world, very few have a guiding principle that overrides profit and scale. If they did, the current backlash against the big platforms – valid or otherwise – might be easier to defend.
While "brand purpose" may have been last year’s most over-used term, there is no doubt that having a purpose that everyone feels attached to helps a brand overcome challenges and defend its interests. A brand purpose aligns its commercial needs with an awareness of the outside world, rather than more Valley-esque mission statements, which assume that by solving the "founding problem" – the one the brand was set up to crack – you’ll be making the world better and more grateful.
There is a sense that 2018 will be a year dominated by government and society starting to deal with the unintended consequences of technology. A greater amount of emotional intelligence may help those profiting the most from those consequences to avoid some potentially unfair punishment.
Perhaps it will also be the year that Silicon Valley focuses on what the brand is, what it does and how that is communicated. It is a worthwhile approach, after all.
Lawrence Weber is the managing partner of Karmarama (part of Accenture Interactive) and director of Innovation Social