Finding the Whale and Other Ways Big Brands Can Learn from Start-Ups

27 June 2019

Start-up companies possess a disciplined yet creative mode of thinking and planning which large companies can learn from. This includes brand building and taking a product to market – from building prototypes to marketing and communications strategy – and big brands can benefit from using this same disruptive approach.

Big brands build consistency and reliability across many markets and many product lines. Disruption can be tough in an environment where protecting the brand is job #1.

On the other hand, when it comes to image and reputation, the start-up is ruthless. Having worked in both large and start-up companies, I believe start-up strategies could energize big company branding efforts in four ways: establishing objectives and key results (OKRs); following the 80% rule of prototyping; finding the whale, and having an entrepreneur mentality for change.

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)

The practice of establishing OKRs has recently been revived. OKRs help drive teams towards established objectives aligned with the entire organization. Staff at start-ups look at objectives as a unit to prove a product-market to investors, acquire customers and gain market traction. Whereas, bigger brands have different divisions where one portion of the company might be driving 80% of the profits and the entire company might not wrap around one objective.

OKRs are as beneficial for big brands as they are for start-ups to get everyone in a division or product team on the same page with objectives until a product is launched successfully. Instead of looking at overall company objectives, a big brand might treat each product line like a start-up. When everyone, from key leaders in marketing to IT staff, aligns with the goals, vision, and mission, regardless if they’re with a big company, a smaller division of a large company, or a start-up, an OKR exercise will be achievable.

Finding ‘the Whale’

In marketing, a ‘whale’ is a superuser with a disproportionate voice on a brand. The term comes from the gaming world where a gamer takes over and others follow. Whereas big brands are more interested in influencing the influencers who make noise on social media or other feedback channels, smaller brands are seeking that whale, someone whom the company can nurture and work with to build future sales and product reputation. Whereas start-ups can turn any good customer into a hero of their product or service, a large company must manage reputation and has less leeway when it comes to that approach. Big brands will sometimes use (famous) influencers to act as the product superfans, but this can be perceived as disingenuous especially by the younger generations who crave authenticity.

The Entrepreneurial Mentality for Change

Start-ups are proficient in executing strategic priorities in the midst of the whirlwind. They are agile and decisive, making the necessary changes for rapid growth that disrupts a market. Established brands tend to have a discipline of purpose – a vision, mission and key values that serve as the ‘North Star’ driving company decisions. While this approach creates feelings of unity for a company, adhering so closely to intangible ‘values’ can limit innovation. Big brands must foster creativity and be able to embrace changes that drive the organization forward. This may be a complete 360 or merely a slight pivot, but understanding when it’s time to change and executing on the decision will allow big brands to remain innovative market leaders.

I have come to realize that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in big companies. More big brands are establishing roles typically seen at a start-up, such as chief innovation officer. The culture of a big brand is changing to intrapreneur.

A great way to accomplish the recommendations outlined here is to consider hiring entrepreneurs from the start-up world who could act as ambassadors for change. They should cherish these intrapreneurs and give them space to experiment over and over. The entrepreneurs learned how to fail fast – and many times succeed faster – in a cut-throat, start-up environment, and they could teach their more traditional peers some valuable lessons.

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