What can enterprises learn from startups about brand messaging?

Profile picture for user barb.mosher By Barb Mosher Zinck November 12, 2020
Enterprises have much more complicated branding challenges than a typical startup. But can enterprises learn from startups about the power of focused messaging? At Buffer and Wistia's Built to Last audio conference, we explored the possibilities.


Enterprise organizations can learn a lot from startups about brand and messaging. The key is to understand what works and figure out how that translates to a bigger company. One area to think about is your brand message.

I listened to a talk from Emily Heyward on the Built to Last Audio Conference by Buffer and Wistia. Heyward is co-founder of Red Antler, a brand company that helps startups bring their vision to life. She said that she's often asked the question, "How do I create a brand by pre-launch that is bigger than what it is today?" The idea is that a company launches with an offering that is only a piece of what it expects to create and provide down the road. So how do they give the appearance of a greater brand at launch to support that bigger picture?

Heyward said it's important to come out of the gate right but to not lock yourself in too quickly. She mentioned MailChimp as an example of a company that locked itself into an idea of who it was and struggled to get people to think of it as something greater than email marketing. 

She recommends companies be clear about what they stand for and who they are and build a simple, straightforward offering on that idea. The opposite of doing this is to spend all your time talking about the details of your product. We know that's a bad idea because, as Heyward said, consumers have more selection, information, and power, and are caught up in choice overload. Talking about your product doesn't help, especially when there are other products out there like yours with sometimes minor differences.

Heyward talked gave some examples. Casper (a client) launched with only one mattress. They focused their messaging around getting a better night's sleep. Their brand wasn't about mattresses; it was about sleeping better. Today, it has the same message but sells multiple mattresses, pillows, bed frames, and more. Away's (not a client) brand focus was about facilitating a trip when it launched with only one style of a suitcase. Heyward said that even when they did add more products, their focus was still on making travel easier. 

On the enterprise tech side, she talked about Slack, pointing out that chat was not new when it launched. But it focused only on making chat more fun, useful, and engaging, and that was what helped drive its success.

When you take the approach of these companies, you are resonating emotionally with people. And it's often the first set of people who fall in love with your product that becomes your greatest advocates, she said.

Her point was that you need to have a clear definition of who you are and who you sell to. You then build your brand and your messaging around that audience and what's important to them. She said that the most powerful brands connect when people see themselves in the brand identity; when there is a shared ethos. 

At some point, a brand does need to scale and reach a wider audience, but you don't have to be everything to everyone out of the gate, Heyward said. When you try to do this, "it waters down what makes you special in the first case." The key is to avoid what keeps you from evolving.

Applying focus in the enterprise

How can you apply the idea behind the power of focus to the enterprise? If you think about a tech company with multiple product offerings reaching out to customers from mid-to-large enterprises, it's hard to figure out how to create a brand that's focused on one specific thing.

The process here is to pull your brand above your products and think about why your customers love you. What is it about your products that make your customers' lives easier, or richer, or makes them more successful?

Adobe's brand message is a good example (this is my example, not Heyward's). "Create better together. Wherever."

Adobe offers products for creative design, digital experience, and enterprise content management. It's tough to think about a message that works for all these product lines, but "create better together" works (although to be honest, I think this message is meant specifically for Creative Cloud). Every product in Adobe business is about creating something - an image, a website, a document. The "wherever" speaks to Adobe's cloud - you can use its products no matter where you are.

Alyce, a gifting platform, has a message that rises above its product: "Stop sending. Start bonding." They don't call their solution a gifting platform, but a "personal experience platform" that enables Sales and Marketing to build relationships.

Drift is another good example. Drift is a chat platform, but you don't see it refer to itself as a chat platform. Instead, it's a "revenue generation platform." Many other "chat" solutions are also rebranding themselves away from "chat," which carries a reputation of old technology. 

Figuring out a brand's primary message when it sells multiple products or a complex offering isn't easy to do, which is why so many turn to the standard of talking about the product itself. There's also the question: is an enterprise customer the same as a B2C consumer or customers of small B2B companies? Would the same kind of messaging - messaging that isn't about the product, but about a sense of achieving some state of being work?

I believe it would; it's just a little harder to figure out. The key is to think about the people within companies you are selling to. Marketers spend a lot of time building personas, understanding pain points, and challenges. And content marketing is focused on telling stories using that information, but not talking about the product. The thinking is there; it just requires marketers from different teams working together to think more broadly. In an enterprise company, that may be the hardest part.