4 learnings from startups to refresh your thinking

4 learnings from startups

Startups are top of mind for consumers and marketers alike. With fascinating growth stories, looking at how these companies achieved success can serve to inspire and refresh our own thinking.

Whether it’s Uber and AirBnb, Revolut or lesser-known challengers like Realisation Par and the insta-friendly Museum of Ice Cream. There are some golden nuggets to be found in their bold, non-traditional approaches.  

While all paths to success are unique, here are a few learnings from startups that help you hit refresh thinking when tackling your next marketing challenge.

1. Don’t create a customer, involve them.

2. Welcome to the niche nation

3. Shake up the marketing mix

4. Make it instantly recognisable and unavoidable

1. Don’t create a customer, involve them.

According to Peter Holten Muhlmann the founder of the TrustPilot, for brands - it’s not what you say, it’s what they say. This is ever more relevant today where consumers have more platforms to voice their opinions on brands and just about everything else.  

Transparency is key in a world where there are no secrets - consumers want to know the good, bad and ugly of the brands they choose to invest in.  

Peter Holten Muhlmann’s suggestion is to live up to this lesson by inviting consumers to be part of the feedback loop in a transparent way, showing how the company is human.

An insta-brand involving their fans is ‘The Museum of Ice Cream’ founded by Maryellis Bunn in 2016 with an estimated revenue of $20 million in two years (Marketwatch 2018).

For their next phase of growth, Museum of Ice Cream have created a private invite only Instagram channel called @moicmakers for their super fans. These fans ‘work’ for the brand, supporting with everything from innovation ideas to product design feedback, helping shape the future of the business. Fans need to apply to be given access to the Instagram page.

Brands like Glossier do this very well. Known as the fastest-growing millennial makeup company, Glossier will surpass $100million in revenue in 2018 (Bloomberg 2018) – they must be doing something right.

Making products consumer want and need is key for Glossier. Their new Lash Slick Mascara was co-created and tested with their consumers – working through 248 variations over 18 months. The Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser, one of Glossier’s best-selling products, was launched after asking Into The Gloss readers to ‘describe the facewash of their dreams.’

Development of these fan favourites was driven by organic consumer demand, involving them at ground level in product development.

Traditional advertising practice is to create personas and think through these lenses helping to understand who we are marketing to. However, with real consumers out there, ready and willing to connect with us. Don’t just build personas, get out there and speak to the people we market to.


2. Welcome to the niche nation

Amber Venz Box is the founder of rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it. The invitation only platforms have driven over $1 billion in sales in 2017. Venz Box has changed the way over 30,000 influencers and content creators monetize their work and how 4500 retailers across 80 countries can tap into m-commerce.

rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it, founded in 2011, have been driven by behaviour, iterating the product to align with how consumers interact on their core Social platform: Instagram.

The LIKEtoKNOW.it app started out by sending links via email to purchase items when a user double tapped (liked) a picture on Instagram. LIKEtoKNOW.it soon shifted to initiate sending referral links when a user took a screenshot. The reason? Liking on Instagram became very transactional – people began to do it because they liked the person not the dress. Screenshots, however, ‘show purchase intent, we wish our lives looked like our screenshot folder’ says Venz Box. In 2016 the team acquired NYC based ‘Chappy’ for this screenshot technology to swiftly adapt to this insight (Forbes, 2017).

The most interesting insight behind the success of rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it is that the highest conversion rate and m-commerce sales are driven by their most niche influencers. 

As a result, Venz Box believes we are living in a nation of niche. As she said at StartUp Grind Europe in June 2018, ‘there aren’t massive tidal waves anymore, brands that do well on the platform are specific to a core target group where the products can make waves within these pools.’

The less data marketers have the more expensive it is to reach your audience. rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it collect data on their platforms and across influencer campaigns to identify niche audiences driving a higher marketing impact.

A figure to help quantify this impact, four out of five of Nordstorm’s website visits were from referral traffic. In 2017, 79% of this traffic was driven by rewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it (Forbes, 2018).


3. Shake up the marketing mix

Revolut – a European fintech unicorn as of April 2018 with revenues of £12.8million and a user base of 1.3million (increasing from 450,000 in 2017) took a non-traditional approach to their early marketing tactics.


The founder, Nik Storonsky, has discussed Revolut’s initial growth marketing strategy from 2015. Not having the spend for traditional marketing routes they had to explore a low-cost tactic to achieve exponential growth.

For Revolut, the tech community was projected to be their core audience segment and early adopters. Looking to guerilla marketing the team invested a significant amount of its marketing budget on the Revolut packaging and design - turning the product itself into an ‘unboxing experience’.

Combining the niche tech community’s current behavior (unboxing tech products) with the Revolut package design, the marketing team gave this audience an experience they were familiar with.

Instinctively consumers knew what to do and the ‘unboxing’ of Revolut cards became a trend with consumers creating YouTube videos and content of this. The shareable packaging became a unique source of reach for the fintech company. The learning: high reach is possible through non-traditional channels.

This tactic to target early adopters and drive unconventional reach is reinforced by Seth Godin’s theory in Purple Cow: early adopters should be the primary audience as they do the marketing for you.

“The old rule was this: create safe, ordinary products and combine them with great marketing. The new rule is: create remarkable products that the right people seek out.” Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable


4. Give your consumers an identity 

A final impressive startup success to inspire a refresh is Realisation Par (‘Made by, styled by’ in French), now said to be the Internet’s favourite fashion brand. Founded in August 2015 by designer Teale Talbot and blogger Alexandra Spencer (4th and Bleeker) the brand is known for its feminine dresses and season-less pieces.

While Realisation Par has a flawless influencer marketing strategy, making sure every ‘it-girl’ of our time is seen wearing their products they have made this work even harder by focusing on single recongnisable, ‘must-have’ products. The ‘Naomi –Wild Things’ skirt was the single must have product of Summer 2018 being worn and featured multiple times by various influencers on their page highlighting the wear-ability and inspiring copycat products.

Calling those who wear Realisation Par ‘Dream Girls’, @realisationpar then take this content and feature it on their Instagram, website and in newsletters – across their whole consumer journey.

Some of the ‘It-girls’ hold a lot of weight for the brand, with the likes of Kaia Gerber and Emily Ratajkowski which has helped massively but mid-tier local influencers also feature on the ‘Dream Girl’ list. The brand says the women seen wearing the clothes are doing it because they genuinely want to be. Suggesting that this is not paid content – difficult to manage with today’s influencer advertising regulations.

In the age of influencers and sponsored posts, Realisation Par has found a seemingly authentic way to develop their recognisable product and story through influential people and sharing this everywhere across all their owned marketing channels.

The latest fast-fashion brand to adopt a similar approach is Mango with their digital influencer strategy building their own community of ‘#MangoGirls’. Re-allocating their print marketing budget to digital spend, the group of influencers selected to become #MangoGirls represents a niche list that is far-reaching, diverse and inclusive of both micro and macro influencer ranking - from cities like Manila, Istanbul and Tehran. Mango’s online sales increased by 15% in 2018 with sustained growth over the past five months (Drapers 2018), this approach has also improved perceptions amongst both consumers and the fashion industry – inviting people to question their high-street associations according to WhoWhatWear.

There is no way to escape the power of influencers but with consumers becoming increasingly skeptical, authenticity it is all the more powerful and necessary. Capitalising on this and using influencers for extended time periods, as well as pushing this content across owned brand marketing channels can help drive brand recognition and association.

While there are many startup success stories and even more failures, these brands have scaled; seeing high growth and revenue generation in short time periods. They have challenged larger brands and corporations for market share pushing businesses across multiple sectors to rethink their approaches.

Everyone in the advertising and marketing industry can admit to having fallen into a traditional thinking trap at times. When this happens, we can and should be inspired by the unique marketing approaches and product development of disruptive startups and brands.

Are there any effective marketing strategies or tactics you have been inspired by?

By Ashley Krupnik, Strategy Director, Ogilvy London