From our partners at Microsoft Advertising.
As the founder of a start-up business, the chances are you’ve got a lot of advantages to play with: an innovative product, hunger and agility, something new to say in the market. Your focus is on turning these challenger advantages into immediate growth.
When you do so though, you’ll be coming up against one, big advantage that your larger competitors enjoy. It’s called brand power – and all of the advantages of wide awareness, scale and familiarity that come with it.
Why brand marketing can feel like a luxury
The problem is that traditional brand marketing isn’t really accessible to you as a start-up:
The traditional approach to building brands takes time, so you have to invest now to see a return in five years
The traditional approach to building brands has to involve mass reach marketing with lots of potential waste, so you won’t necessarily be advertising to people who are ready to buy now
If you’re focused on the immediate demands of getting a business off the ground, building up revenues and servicing the customers that you have, these aren’t investments in time and money that you can easily afford to make. It’s the equivalent of locking money away in a pension when you’re struggling to pay the monthly bills. You know it’s going to be worth something in the long run. You just don’t have the time and money to do it.
Another factor to bear in mind is the timeframe in which you operate in as a start-up. With any luck, you are growing quickly – and probably changing quickly as well. Talk to founders of successful start-ups and they will often tell you about how important direct customer feedback is to helping them refine and pivot their offer. As a founder you’re often very tuned into your market. You’re agile and responsive. Your offer and your proposition is probably going to evolve. And while your business is still taking shape, pouring investment into a brand that has to be consistent over several years doesn’t necessarily make sense.
The innovator’s brand dilemma
This is why start-ups tend to face what the Harvard professor Clayton Christensen called The Innovator’s Dilemma. When you’re an innovative business growing quickly, it makes sense to focus on the growing you’re doing right now rather than investing for the long term and something that might happen in the future. When that growth naturally slows and competitor offers come onto the market is the moment when you need a strong brand to lock in your gains and make growth sustainable. The dilemma is that, at this point, it’s now too late to start investing in building a brand.
It’s difficult to see a way out of this dilemma if you insist that brand marketing is something that has to stay separate from other marketing objectives like targeting likely customers, generating demand, driving conversions and revenue. If you insist that it operates on a completely separate timeframe and can’t be linked to immediate results.
But that’s now how brands actually work – and it’s not how your customers experience them.
Meet the Missing Middle – it’s where your brand is taking shape
In the traditional marketing funnel, we’re encouraged to focus on either ‘Long’ brand marketing that isn’t immediately measurable or ‘Short’ response or activation marketing which is immediately measurable – but doesn’t do anything else. But this is to ignore the huge swathe of the buying journey that takes place in between. It’s what we at Microsoft refer to as ‘The Missing Middle’.
The Missing Middle is where a huge amount of brand experience takes place. It’s where your potential customers will encounter your start-up business – and it can be home to marketing that both builds your brand and drives demand. A start-up strategy for the Missing Middle involves designing marketing around both short and long-term needs and connecting them to maximise the value of both:
Taking an inclusive view of what your addressable market is – but focusing your budget on people who can deliver a return in the timeframe you need
Targeting that market with ads that have an action, but which also aim to have memorable impact
Connecting your different touchpoints so that you are able to leverage every element of interest that you generate and respond to signals of intent
Recognising the power of experience in building your brand and designing marketing around this
Addressing audiences’ demand for purpose that drives both their emotional and rational responses
Finding metrics that can give you an actionable view on the type of brand you are building, which means you don’t have to wait years to see a return
Brands that mastered the Missing Middle
The last few years have given us plenty of examples of fast-growing businesses that have built their brands through these types of connected, Missing Middle experiences – and succeeded in establishing awareness and fame before they started to embrace traditional brand marketing tactics like TV advertising.
Amazon may be a Super Bowl advertiser now, but it delayed investing big money in traditional brand advertising until after it had built momentum and scale – and when it had a clear offer in the market. In the meantime, it built its brand in the Missing Middle. Netflix did something very similar, building its brand awareness almost entirely through direct response advertising in its early days – starting with trial, focusing on changing behaviour, building experiences and then building a brand from there.
And you don’t have to be a tech company to master the Missing Middle. Look at the story of Kiehl’s, which has grown into one of the world’s most valuable skincare brands through a marketing strategy that leans on widespread sampling, investment in customer experience – and word of mouth.
However, all of these businesses that establish their brands in the Missing Middle have something in common – a command of data and technology and an ability to use these to connect up customer experiences worth talking about.
As Microsoft, we don’t believe that this ability should be limited to a few businesses. We believe the role of technology is to democratise opportunity – and in this case it can democratise the ability to build brands. It can make building long-term brands and sustainable, long-term growth plans available to start-up businesses as well as established ones.
Solutions for the Missing Middle
Here are some of the tools that we’ve made available to help businesses do that:
Help audiences to move between brand and demand experiences by…
Retargeting with demand content based on engagement with video and display ads
Nurturing with brand ads based on engagement with demand campaigns
Serving brand ads in intent-filled environments, mentally closer to the point of purchase (eg. Search Engine Results Pages)
Punch above your weight by expressing a sense of purpose that’s relevant in both brand and demand terms…
Make your story and values visible and discoverable
Put purpose front and centre on owned properties (website, LinkedIn Page)
Integrate thought leadership into the Missing Middle
Track mentions and reputation through search queries and incoming traffic
Use data to map the Missing Middle and track how your ads are delivering in both brand and demand terms…
Use Share of Search as a real-time indicator of awareness and mental availability
Analyse search trends to identify opportunities – and the context shaping audience experiences
Capture and segment signals of intent across digital environments
Map the interaction of brand and demand over extended timeframes, to benchmark the speed at which impacts can be seen
If you would like to find out more about search advertising and Microsoft Advertising please feel free to get in touch here.