One of the biggest strengths of brand marketers in homogenous verticals is that they are experts in understanding consumer behavior and brand-building. Toilet paper, laundry detergent, shampoo, and pet food are stable categories with fierce competition. Parent companies like Unilever or P&G wouldn't be where they are now — $84 billion in annual sales — without knowing how to run a profitable business and giving people what they want.
At the same time, marketers can and should learn from a wide array of industries, categories, and job functions outside of their own world. This is how they stay sharp and relevant — this is how they evolve with their customers. So what can marketers at global multi-national corporations learn from startups?
The best marketers are familiar with their customers, so they have a baseline level of empathy that is a starting point for estimating what the user feels, needs, and wants. The key is to stay humble and continue asking questions to validate those assumptions using facts. Once you do, it's a powerful combination to have intuition, insights, and data that guides you to a recommendation and eventually to action.
In most cases, brand marketers already test their hypotheses. They identify their target segment, find relevant insights, and build products that will appeal to customers. They track sales on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, seasonal, and yearly level to see which products are performing above or below expectations. They figure out which items to put on promotion or markdown in order to optimize inventory levels and retail sales dollars.
If marketers are already familiar with testing and tracking results, what can they learn from startups? Speed.
The difference with digital marketing is that it speeds up the cycle that begins with intuition and is followed by research, testing, and iteration. It's now faster and easier than ever to see what your customer responds to and to update your marketing accordingly.
It's easy to move quickly when your company consists of seven people sitting together and less than a few years of history under your belt. It's harder when your company has thousands of employees across several continents that run highly-specialized functions under the general umbrella of marketing.
And yet, several major corporations have taken notice of small startups that have popped up from nowhere to capture market share and the attention of established companies that have traditionally had a stronghold on a category.
These larger companies have adapted, as they have for decades, to the new technological landscape and to customer expectations. Companies like Gatorade, P&G, Forbes, and Charles Schwab, among numerous other examples, are realizing that the old cadence of marketing is too slow and too late.
These companies have learned from startups that speed is important. Testing is important. Constantly listening to the customer is important. Responding quickly is important. And leveraging online tools that help you to do this is important.
At first, the rapid growth of technology startups can seem like a different world for marketers in consumer package goods, retail, or other tangible-goods verticals. But the best brand marketers are preserving the valuable brand equity that often takes decades to build, while simultaneously borrowing from the methodologies of startups in order to evolve and grow.