Should brands start thinking like start-ups?

Should brands think like start-ups?

My buddy Kevin Dugan was looking to stir the pot on Friday when he asked Tim Schigel (CEO of Share This) and me what we thought about the recent Ad Age article “Marketing Chiefs: Think Like a Start-up.”  Since I’m always up for a little healthy debate, I thought I would answer in a post vs the 140 characters of Twitter.

At first glance, I agree wholeheartedly with the article and the premise that brands need to start thinking like a start-up.  In fact, I’ve often said that “Brand Managers need to start acting like a VC” by placing bets with their marketing.   In this new marketplace, you need to spread ten marketing bets across the table in order to succeed more often than you fail.  And on that note, I have no real issue with the five basic strategies that article recommends for brands.  I would even go as far to say that point #4 is must listen to advice:

  1. Tell consumers why your product is important.
  2. Sweat the samll stuff to maximize teh customer experience.
  3. Create leverage with every move.
  4. Bo bold.  Be fearless.
  5. Embrace the inevitable

But with that I said, I think the author tripped up with two seriously misleading statements.

To survive in this new-world disorder, brands will have to dig deeper, move faster and execute perfectly the first time, every time.  Just like a start-up“: Agreed that the heart of a start-up is moving faster than the next guy…especially the big brand.

But what start-up executes perfectly the first time, every time?!?

It’s not about getting it right the first time because no one is perfect.  Instead it is about having a mentality of failing fast and fixing the mistakes.  That is what Big Brands need to learn from start-ups.  We operate in a world of ready, aim, aim, aim, aim…maybe fire.  A start-up is aim, fire, adjust… aim, fire, adjust.

Consumers aren’t in the mood to be amused; they want to be reassured“: Really?  Then how did the “Free Doritos” ad in this year’s Super Bowl get the #1 spot in the USA Today Ad Meter?  Yes things are tough in the economy right now… no one can argue that.  But when times are tough, it does not mean we should retreat into our homes and stop laughing.  In fact, maybe we need a little more laughter instead of the constant reminder of doom and gloom.  Maybe we need more brands trying to bring a smile to our face instead of talking about how bad it is out there.  And on that note, lets all promise to never use the words “Depression 2.0″ ever again like they did in this article.   I’m serious… stop it before it starts.

So what do you think?  Did the author of “Think Like a Start-up” get the heart of the message right but miss the point in his details?

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  1. says

    Author is completely off on executing perfect the first time–you don't. You correct course as you go and react fast, but go for the gut. The Herman Miller Chairs had to put it on the line, so did other innovators. The dilemma is out there.
    I posted some thoughts akin to this at A guy recently said something so striking to me about entrepreneurs, "entrepreneurs learn through failure, we (in corporate jobs), manage to objectives. The greatest asset to the entrepreneur is failure." I was taken back by the statement.

    You're right on, the essence of "Think Like a Start-up" is right on the money though. Details, not so much.

    • says

      Marty – Great thoughts and thanks for the link to Famine City. I'm now following it via RSS. Good stuff.

      I love the comment of “The greatest asset to the entrepreneur is failure.” That is a really tough thing for us corporate guys to think about. We're taught and trained to aim for consistency…for small victories and continued success. You aren't suppose to go for the home run because when you are swinging for the fences, you might just strike out.

  2. says

    "…having a mentality of failing fast and fixing the mistakes." Exactly.

    Most big companies don't do enough to encourage and celebrate failure. Without a corporate culture that is able to embrace failure there will always be a risk/reward asymmetry that punishes anyone who might dare to fail. The entrepreneurs that succeed just iterate faster than others. They iterate faster by figuring out the potential points of failure and putting resources against getting to those critical junctures as quickly as possible. Managers in big companies tend to, either subconsciously or consciously, avoid reaching those same critical junctures. Gathering more information is a classic stalling technique risk-averse managers can easily defend as prudent management.

  3. mcmilker says

    The classic phrase "intrapreneur" is used to encourage big company innovators to act more like entrepreneurs and in the right environment – this can be effective. Big companies do have an advantage in that they CAN use what we used to call, at a Fortune 250 company at which I worked, the portfolio or baseball approach. Work on 5-10 new product ideas at a time. Plan on getting one single, one double, a triple and a home run – the rest will be outs!

    This is very similar to the investing strategy that VCs take- as you point out and tends to work well. And this is where big companies have the advantage of resources- they can take risks on a number of products at one time.

    I agree the age of the one big new product launch maybe be over – instead of swinging for the fences, a better approach is to spread the risk and grow incrementally.

  4. says

    I agree with you on some level that big brands don't have to get it right every time. But, sometimes mistakes can be made that cannot be overcome. Big brands can't afford to make those big mistakes as too much might be at stake.

  5. David E says

    As the article's author, I appreciate the lively discussion Wish I had seen this when it was current, but I thought I'd take a shot anyway. Re: perfect execution and start-ups: The start-ups that succeed execute the marketing part flawlessly the first time. They have no other option because by the time they've figured out what was wrong, they typically run out of capital. The idea of aim, fire, adjust is fine when there is sufficient runway–few start-ups have that. I'd know, I've launched more than 100 companies in the past 15-20 years.

    As for the tonality of creative-fun always works and is welcome, especially in hard times. Edgy, overtly aggressive and irrelevant campaigns, like the recent spate of tone-deaf luxury and beer commercials just add to the irritation level. In my view, recent campaigns from Sprint, Apple, Hyundai are state of the art advertising.

  6. Tophour says

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