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5 Small Business Marketing Lessons From Billion-Dollar Brands (Paypal, Gap, Google, More)


June 14, 2017

By Kate Harrison

Small businesses often strain to look big and grow big. Big businesses have a different problem. They may have to struggle to retain the essence that made them appealing while adapting to stay both relevant and competitive. The creative firms that work with these giant companies are on the front lines of this endeavor. They are tasked with helping to bring new products to market while keeping big brands fresh. The following are some key lessons a few of these creative agencies can offer, based on their experiences working with the most successful brands in the world.

Lesson 1: Know Thyself

“For brands of any size, it all comes down to the maxim ‘Know Thyself,’” says Ruth Bernstein, Co-Founder and Chief Strategic Officer of YARD, a strategic image-making agency. The company works with La Mer, Athleta and John Varvatos. “A brand needs to have a strong sense of who they are internally before they can communicate that identity externally to the consumer. To do so, they need to develop a strong brand platform that encapsulates what the brand stands for today, while leaving room for growth in the future, under a clear and unified vision.” She adds that with that foundation, a brand can cement its promise to the consumer, and as long as they deliver on that promise as they expand to new categories, they will retain both their consumers and their identity. “When Casper launched, they had a very clear, singular focus — to make the best mattress possible. Just one model,” she gives by way of example. “Now they’ve expanded their offerings to include bedding and pillows. While it might seem like a natural extension, it’s not something we’ve seen the more traditional mattress makers venture into. Because Casper has a clear sense of what they offer — their motto is ‘better sleep for all’ — the new product lines fit seamlessly within their brand.” Having a clear but open-ended mission allows you expand your offerings while preserving your identity.

Lesson 2: Stick to Original Principles

“Any business that has a philosophy or set of deeply rooted values must remain grounded in their foundation,” says Travis York, CEO & President, GYK Antler, an independent marketing agency. They work with brands like ESPN, PayPal, Bauer, Sweet Baby Ray’s and Harpoon. “These underpinning values will allow the business to adapt and change their tactics or product mix without straying from their original vision. Across all of our businesses at GYK Antler and all the companies we choose to invest in or acquire, the root stays the same: we want to give people the opportunity to have creative outlets to express their passions. This is the key with all companies that are built on philosophy rather than just pushing a product or following a static business model.”

York continues: “The same philosophy that built Starbucks could have been applied to any product; it just so happens that coffee became the vehicle to personify a set of values, an ethos. We advise our clients to do the same. For example, we believed that PayPal was focusing too much on the ‘pay’ side of things and on their product. We encouraged them to embrace the ‘pal’ side of PayPal again and focus on the relationship and friendship side that they were rooted in.” Ask yourself how you can connect more to the values your brand represents and brainstorm with others who work with you day after day.

Lesson 3: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Brand

“Startups underestimate the power of brand and design when they are in the very early stages of business development. The race to get to market leaves little time to think about branding or positioning, especially when it is not intuitive to many founders to consider these issues,” says M.T. Carney, Founder and CEO of Untitled Worldwide. Unititled Worldwide is a creative business partner to Gap, Tommy Bahama, Glossier, Oscar Health, Spotify and others. “Bigger companies, when they are launching new brands within their portfolio, don’t just focus on the market opportunity. They also prioritize the brand persona that is going to fill that opportunity. Startup founders would be wise to think early in the process about how they can develop their brand alongside the business. When underpinned with values, it’s easier to be clear about design, tonality, and brand behavior. They need to understand how these forces intersect to help establish and grow their business, even as they are meeting with investors. Great examples of this approach are Oscar, Glossier and Warby Parker. Warby Parker was not an afterthought but rather a concept that ran throughout the business model, and wow, has it paid off.” By spending time to define your brand before you leap forward, you will be on more solid footing when you land.

Lesson 4: Adapt to the Changing Landscape

“The point of change came for my company when the iPhone first launched,” recalls Victor Essnert, Product Director & CTO, ustwo, a digital product studio. The company works in virtual reality and wearables for Google, Adidas and NBCUniversal. “As long-term fans of Apple and as product creators ourselves, we saw an opportunity. We saw that we could put our skills to work by creating products for ourselves that we could grow into something new for the studio. Since then, we’ve branched out by creating our own games and apps, such as Monument Valley. We’ve continued that direction by evolving into ventures and investments like, ustwo Games, and ustwo Adventures in London. The strategy worked for us, not only because we launched successful products, but also because it made our original business offering – our client work – even stronger.” Scan the landscape for new and interesting opportunities and fill niches as they open. Be aware of trends and on the lookout for new ideas for products and services your company could provide.

Lesson 5: Take Smart Risks

Building a business towards a technology or market that has not yet matured is another way to become a leader in your field – albeit a longer and somewhat riskier play. When I founded my company two decades ago, I baked into our foundation a vision for a new kind of production company — one that takes risks to develop bigger, better capabilities and more industry-rattling creative work,” says Erich Joiner, Founder and Director of Tool of North America, a commercial production company. His clients include Airbnb, Netflix and Ford. “For example, years before the digital revolution as we know it today, I invested in a digital practice, a big bet knowing that ROI wouldn’t be immediate. And while I knew it might take years to be profitable, I believed digital would transform the marketing industry. We took a risk that continues to pay off in significant dividends. With that same spirit, we launched our VR division last year and continue to pursue ventures in new media like AI and AR. Because evolution is in the company’s DNA, these expansions are what our clients expect from us, and what we’ve come to expect from ourselves.”

By considering these five lessons, even small companies can position themselves for big growth in 2017 and beyond.