Bigger is not always better for startups that are often cash-strapped for brand promotions. Choosing the right medium that will deliver the message to the right people could make all the difference
In its initial years, when Google had not yet become the everyday verb that it is now and was trying to differentiate itself from other search engines – ‘Don’t be evil’ was its informal corporate motto. It was a way to inform its users that not only were its search results universally accessible and useful, but it also made sure that Google search results were not cluttered with advertisements or pop-ups. In addition to PageRank (the primary algorithm that powers Google Search) and top-notch technology, the don’t be evil-mantra played a crucial role in shaping up the various features and products that Google eventually launched. That wasn’t the only role it played. It was, in some sense, a branding strategy that Google adopted in its early stages. It was a simple motto that earned the trust of its users. It differentiated Google to its early-adopters.
Often, a bold move that catches the attention of a user base can help a startup distinguish itself from the rest. But the novelty has to begin with the idea. “Every entrepreneur needs to ask himself a simple question before he starts reaching out: ‘what is the need for my product?’ Half the work is done when you have a brilliant idea,” says Anand Halve, co-founder of Chlorophyll, a brand consultancy firm. According to Halve, many ventures fail because they blindly follow the herd and heed market demands.
Sunil Alagh, founder and chairman of SKA Advisors Pvt. Ltd. that specialises in marketing and brand consultancy agrees. “Pinpoint your unique selling proposition. How are you different to your customers?” asks Alagh, who serves on the board of companies such as United Breweries Ltd. and GATI Ltd. Choosing the right medium to promote your brand is the next important step. “Word of mouth (WOM), product experience and direct communication are usually the modes if one does not have deep pockets,” says Alagh. “The medium, however, depends on the sector: WOM works well for an information technology driven company. A FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) company could do a combination of product experience, mass communication and outdoor advertising,” he adds. An out-of-the-box approach helps get the job done. When most mobile phone suppliers targeted metros, Micromax Mobiles built its base in Tier-II cities before approaching metropolitan cities. By sponsoring a national cricket tournament, it was seen as a credible brand which currently engages Akshay Kumar as its brand ambassador. “They had the means to spend, but what matters is that they chose the most effective way to do it,” adds Halve.
Take the field
First-hand product experience was what New Delhi-based MapmyIndia.com (MapmyIndia) relied on to help reach out to its customers. From concentrating only on B2B (business to business) since its inception in 1992, MapmyIndia started targeting end-user consumers in 2004. “When we came out with the GPS navigator – our first paid product in 2007, we set up a kiosk in a movie hall as both the founders and I wanted to interact with people directly,” says Rohan Verma, head of marketing, MapmyIndia. “It has always been our philosophy to engage with end consumers. It is foolhardy to expect to create awareness about your product if you’re not out there in the field,” he adds. The company that now has 80 per cent market share in paid GPS products also relied on positive media coverage in its later years to fortify its image of a reliable brand.
It is this direct engagement that Manish Sharma, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Bengaluru-based Printo Document Services Pvt. Ltd. (Printo), a printing company that offers print products to small and micro businesses, values. “Each time a store is launched, we have our store team and senior managers engage in neighbourhood walks. This is lead by a senior manager (at times the CEO) and the city manager, and involves covering each business in a one kilometre radius,” says Sharma.
It goes without saying that a ‘first mover’ advantage is quite significant. With no money for marketing back in 1996, Just Dial focussed on creating a “wow” user experience. “Our objectives were clear and we always focused on our brand delivery rather than building a personality around the brand and trying to communicate or spend a lot of money on advertising,” says V.S.S.Mani of Mumbai-based Just Dial. His belief was ‘start small, think big’. “We never gave advertising much thought, so we focused all our energies on getting the accurate data and processes in place. We mainly relied on WOM and on the sales side, we used to have a simple mechanism of demonstrating our service to our potential advertisers or customers. The actual experience of using this service would convince them to take a small risk because we had priced it aggressively,” he adds. Just Dial now has a fan base of over four lakh users on Facebook and in its current status as an established player, has invested in mass media advertising to reach out to a larger audience. Today, the company has signed on actor Amitabh Bachchan as its brand ambassador.
Figuring out the creative process and its execution is far from easy for a startup. “My recommendation for startups is to invest in a brand mentor rather than in an advertising (ad) agency. Most startups understand their businesses better than anyone else who might be hired to promote their business,” says Harish Bijoor, brand consultant and CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. Alagh says, “A savvy in-house team can execute branding promotion, but it does help to rely on a consultant or a brand mentor even if it doesn’t come free. Every startup has to factor in expenses for marketing. An e-commerce company may need anywhere between Rs 25 lakh to 50 lakh while FMCG companies need up to Rs 2 crore as a marketing budget.”
Adhil Shetty of Bankbazaar.com (Bankbazaar), an online financial services company, relied on a marketing advisor to promote his brand. “We understand our brand the best. About 90 per cent of the work was done by the in-house team. However, we did consult with a marketing advisor,” says Adhil Shetty, co-founder and CEO of the Chennai-based companny. With about 30 per cent to 50 per cent of its annual income allocated for marketing, Bankbazaar targets its Internet-savvy urban customers through online advertising and innovative campaigns to help spread its message of easy loans at lowest rates. Both MapmyIndia and Bankbazaar leveraged the ubiquitous auto rickshaws in their cities to help spread awareness of their products. While MapmyIndia used the medium to communicate the brand’s message of detailed and accurate travel directions, BankBazaar chose business-centric areas where these vehicles plied to make sure the mobile message was seen by its target audience.
Spread the word
Everyone agrees that WOM is not only the most powerful tool but, the most cost-effective as well. “WOM is the most believed form of brand promotion, it happens automatically when a company earns the trust of its customers,” says Halve. Bijoor believes WOMs can be engineered. “Consumers trust other consumers, just as long as they know these are real consumers and not bought-out souls. WOM needs to be engineered, but it should never ever look engineered and that’s a tough line to tread. Most startups are however greedy and kill the golden goose when they use it first,” says Bijoor. It does help when companies encourage the spread of WOM through referrals and incentives. “We provided our customers incentives for recommending us to their friends. But that would work only if they’re given a great product experience and we constantly work towards that,” says Shetty.
Printo considers WOM as the only effective tool. “Our audience of small and micro customers forms a long tail and hence it is difficult to find platforms that reach out to such a diverse population. We find conventional marketing quite a waste. Our awareness is organic and primarily through WOM. We served 3,50,000 customers last year and they are our most potent tools for spreading awareness. Our marketing is focused on understanding our existing customers better and seeking similar customers in new locations,” says Sharma. For Just Dial, simple efforts such as improved user interface or product demos to potential customers lead to a viral spread and a positive WOM.
“A savvy in-house team can execute branding activities, but it does help to rely on a consultant or a brand mentor even if it doesn’t come free. Every startup has to factor in expenses for marketing. An e-commerce company may need anywhere between Rs 25 lakh to 50 lakh while FMCG companies need up to Rs 2 crore as a marketing budget.”
Alagh adds that companies should also make the most use of other cost-effective strategies. “Get to where the product sells, position sales people to talk directly to customers or circulate fliers at target locations or by tying up with newspaper vendors,” he says. Although social media is another cost-effective tool, Alagh, cautions entrepreneurs of its use since in India he has seen it spread “more destructively than otherwise”. In his opinion, Indian users are prone to sharing negative feedback online rather than positive experiences. “Compelling products such as health-related products might gain through social media, but not so with products that are bought impulsively,” he adds.
Once a brand’s value has been established, it is necessary to sustain it for the company to grow. “People require change so, constantly reinvent,” advises Halve. According to Alagh, keeping your product relevant, sustaining a balanced price – value relationship and innovating will build lasting space. But as Bijoor concludes, “A brand cannot ever exploit its customer. And just don’t work too hard to push the brand message. If your message is good, it will find its own way. Give it a nudge in the beginning for sure, but then, let it be!”