How to Uplevel Your Startup’s Messaging to Compete with “The Big 4”

Perhaps never before in history has it been easier to launch a startup. While that should be a major source of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, it’s also true that it’s never been harder to scale and standout.

While access to technology has made zero to launch more achievable, even if you’re able to build something that’s differentiated from your startup competitors — big technology leaders like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are quickly expanding their impenetrable walls and moats around seemingly every industry.

This makes standing out and gaining a foothold with customers — quickly! — more important than ever before. As we’ve heard from many VC’s that have worked with our portfolio companies — it’s not good enough to do something incrementally better than the big four. You need to do something 10X better while also illustrating unique differentiation to the masses. If not, you could find yourself a victim of the Series A or B Crunch.

And just because one of the big four isn’t directly competing with you today doesn’t mean that they won’t be tomorrow. With one small move on their end, your fiercest startup competitor will look like a kitten.

Taking on Goliath

We all know the story of David & Goliath. The tale of a brave young boy who takes on a terrifying mighty warrior and defeats him against all odds, effectively saving his people from annihilation. Or at least we think we do.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book by the same name turns what we think we know about the tale completely on it’s head, changing the way we understand all together. As he said during a TED Talk, “Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem. And sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.”

The story of David and Goliath, particularly the way Gladwell explains it is a great lesson for startup founders. While on the surface it may seem impossible to compete with the behemoths of Silicon Valley, even the smallest startups have weapons capable of defeating them.

One such weapon is messaging.

Here, we’ll explore how to uplevel your messaging in order to take on the Goliaths that stand between you and success. We’ll shed light on how to find your authentic voice, illustrate why you’re better than your competitors, and how to create company messaging that leads directly to growth.

Come Correct or Don’t Come at All

It’s important to understand that once your message is uncovered that is who you are. There’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. I can probably count on one hand the number startups that successfully rebranded after using flawed messaging with their launch.

Finding messaging early on that resonates with customers, members the media, and your industry as a whole isn’t easy. To help, it’s become a popular to mark yourself as the “Uber for X”. While these analogies can be useful in the very early days, they don’t really convey the uniqueness of your offering. And in the startup world ambiguity is a voracious drain on resources.

This type of comparison can also belittle the value of your company as you scale. For messaging a good starting place is getting your current offering into a single line descriptor. In the marketing world we like to call this a Customer Value Proposition (CVP). The CVP is exactly what its name implies:

CVP Formula: For (type of specific customer) our (product/service) is a (simple descriptor) that (solves what problem?).

Here’s an example of a CVP for a fictional, but long overdue startup in the airline industry:

For every type of traveler, Breeze Air makes the process of  flying a breeze, leaving you smiling well before you reach your destination.

March to a Mission, Not a Market

With the Big 4 having bottomless coffers to develop new technologies, already established user bases, and endless marketing resources, competing with them head to head to win a market is nothing short of foolhardy.

For that reason, startups should also develop messaging that focuses on a mission rather than a market. Lyft has done a masterful job of this allowing it to take on Uber,  the goliath in its industry.

Along the way, the company’s messaging always ties back to their mission of bringing people together. Recently, this was put on display in their response to Uber’s PR disaster around the Trump administrations travel ban.

An example of a newer startup that’s coming right out of the gate with mission-driven messaging is Empower, a company looking to help millennials better manage their finances. The company’s mission is to “make money pain free”.

While  Empower hopes it will one day replace your bank’s app, the startup has wisely focused on their mission to solve very real problems, rather than attempting to take on the well defended personal finance market like a bull in a china shop.

In a blog post for the company’s launch, founder, Warren Hogarth, writes, “Many of us know we can do better with our money, but find the process of figuring out how to be complex and intimidating. We hope to change that, and in the process, make our lives better and simpler.”

No one is going to delete their bank app today and replace it with Empower. But with their clear, mission-driven messaging that begins with the utterance of their name, they are giving users and prospects the hope of financial freedom — something we can all buy into.

In a market replete with heavily funded startups and institutional Goliath’s, focusing on mission versus market may be one of Empower’s greatest weapons.

Empathize with Your Base

As Growth Marketer, Ruchi Thukra succinctly put it in a recent Medium post, “Knowing your customers deepest desires and anxieties is paramount to acquisition success.”  In the same post, Thukra uses the following quote to paint the picture:

“In the factory we make cosmetics, in the store we sell hope.”

— Charles Revson, Founder and CEO of Revlon

Understanding who is choosing to do business with you over your bigger competitors, or most importantly why, can enable you to build better personal relationships with them, increasing loyalty and advocacy.

As marketers, we’re taught to segment our customers into buyer personas in order to truly understand who we are marketing and selling to. The Design Thinking approach to understanding customers through In-Depth Interviews (IDIs) is one of the most effective ways to create personas that you can use to hone your messaging.

IDIs allow us to truly understand how different customers feel about the problems we are attempting to solve and what solving those problems really means to them. Here are some tips on conducting an effective empathy interview from Stanford’s d.school.

Build Authenticity

Brand authenticity is not a new thing. It’s long been known that companies that are perceived to be authentic have an edge over those that aren’t.

However, today’s savvy digital consumer can often sniff out true authenticity in less than 140 characters. What is authentic? Bob Lefsetz summed it up pretty nicely recently in channeling his inner ‘mad man.’

“You can look it up in the Oxford Dictionary and find it’s ‘of undisputed origin; genuine,’ but really it’s something you feel, it’s a resonance, deep inside, that what you’re encountering is human.”

Unfortunately, while large companies have taken note and do their best to put a human face over their automaton structure, they often end up tripping over their messaging in the process. Case in point: the United Airlines debacle where their award winning communicator CEO issued three awkward statements, each of which fell short of its mark.

There’s no question that the unfolding of United’s crisis messaging was negatively influenced by the companies lawyers and only pushed them further down the black hole of negative narratives.

Because larger companies tend to operate in silos, it’s harder for them to deliver authentic messaging that isn’t watered down by legalese and risk mitigation. Herein lies another advantage for startups: the ability to communicate with your customers in a much more raw, unfiltered way.

It’s for this reason that research firm Mintel found that roughly half of American consumers trust small companies to do the right thing versus 36% who say they trust large companies to do what’s right.

As Don Draper once told Kodak, “Technology is a glittering lure. But there is a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product.”

Unlike much of the startup world, your messaging is something that you control entirely. Wield your power wisely and you have a chance to stand up to the biggest of giants, and maybe even win.

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