2020 has been quite the year, especially for startups. We’ve had fires, floods, pandemics and mass unrest. It’s been a year in which we’ve all pledged to consume less, do more, listen more carefully and unlearn what we have previously been told.
As businesses, we’ve watched on the sidelines, guessing when it’s appropriate for us to contribute, call-out or add value to the conversation. How do we speak passionately and with purpose on those matters that we truly know? And what is our role as businesses to create change?
And overarchingly, do our efforts as small businesses even make a difference? Often it can feel easier to simply throw our arms in the air, declare it’s all too hard and futile and fall into the more comfy, less challenging position of apathy and instagramable quote-tiles.
We absolutely understand. It’s hard, and it’s getting harder by the day to know what the position of a business should be in a crisis. But it’s important to note that as startups, we are in a better position than the big guys to speak passionately and with authenticity on matters of impact.
Most of us don’t have shareholders, complex chains of approvals or big leadership teams to consult with, so the good news is that you are free to contribute to whatever conversations matter the most to you. You have the unique and powerful opportunity to use your platform and communities to inspire the change you’d like to see in the world.
But with limited resources, a harder than ever P&L to balance and climate of uncertainty, how do we pool our precious efforts as businesses to create lasting impact as opposed to just reflex actions prompted by the daily news cycle?
Truthfulness and trustworthiness are the core of any connection, and in order to inspire response in our communities, we must adopt these same human principles.
Here are 7 things to consider when marketing for impact as a startup:
1. Embed in your DNA with what you value
Pick one fundamental value and make it not only part of your marketing strategy, but part of your business plan.
Before Compass Studio was a business, we sat down and wrote our values – who we were, the imaginary clients that we represented, and what was encouraged and discouraged for the team (that we didn’t at the time have!)
By creating those values early, we set the blueprint for our internal and external tone of voice. Decisions are easier when they are run through this filter, and we’re lucky enough that this informs everything from our hiring policy, to what we post on social and where we pool our collective efforts.
For us, this makes it easier to authentically connect on what we’re passionate about, the change we represent in the world and the action we are aiming to inspire.
Placing your business’ values at the heart of your brand is the best cheat-sheet to creating a coherent marketing strategy as content pillars, partnerships and general messaging are all a lot easier when you have a central orbit to work from. And the best news is that as a startup, you are in the perfect position to do this. Think: it’s easier to start right than reinvent the wheel.
The flip side of this, of course, is that you can’t pick up and put down when you want to support a particular cause. We see a lot of brands fall from extreme outcry to sudden silence as their appetite for impact isn’t built into an integrative business plan, but instead manifests in a series of desperate reactions around key highly publicised events.
Once clear on your value set, you are able to better articulate, educate and inform on what you are passionate about – both in real life and in your comms strategy.
2. Put your principles into practice
We all know the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ and nowhere is this truer than now. Your values, which we spoke of earlier, cannot just be a nice set of words on an office wall, a website’s about page or a weekly Instagram post, but they need to be applied as a filter for your decision making.
This is the crucial difference between public performance and private integrity. Avoid coming across as inauthentic by speaking on only what you do right now, not what you hope or plan to do.
This means that if you’re still unclear on your position in a crisis, revert back to your values. Does the topic feed into those values? Great, tick. Before you post about it on social media, what actions can you take within your business to ensure that you are practicing what you are preaching? Your community is more likely to be responsive and supportive of a stance that you have put thought, time and action into.
3. Start small
Music to every founders ears! Too many causes or directions can dilute your efforts and make communications seem overwhelming and hard to decipher. And worse still, aligning or jumping onboard with everything can make it seem like you’re trying to compensate for a lack of substance.
Your actions as a brand are where it counts. As both humans and marketers, let’s live by the rule of ‘do it before you say it’. The best way of minimising obstacles to this, is by starting small. You don’t need to find the answer to global hunger – just take action or raise awareness on one specific issue that you truly care about, are well versed on and can articulate truthfully and persistently.
Build positive engagement and opinion from there, and scale your efforts accordingly. Speak about what you know, as you lose power the moment your audience doubts your rigour.
4. Tell the human story
Qualitative researcher and best-selling author, Brené Brown, suggests, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
When it comes to marketing, we often fall down because we’re attempting to communicate issues and emotions in numbers and graphs and charts. As anyone who has tried to recall a random stat off the top of their head knows, these methods are neither compelling or easily comprehensible. Stories however, they stick.
Don’t give people a number to share over dinner, give them a narrative. At the end of the day, we are all but humans wanting to connect with other humans, so build this into the centre of your marketing strategy. This makes it your challenge as a startup to ensure that your community knows the human story behind the brand, your why and overarching purpose.
And another good news tidbit? This is immensely easier for a startup founder to do than a CEO, and it’s never been more important to build trust and loyalty within your communities…so own your story!
5. Know your audience*
*A caveat here: This is not necessarily your current audience, but your desired audience. And unlike a lot of marketing, we don’t mean the demographics that make up your advertising spend (age, income, location etc.) but the psychographics that reflect their collective mindset.
In terms of the various audience groups in the sustainability space, we tend to classify them in three segments: Deep Green, Mid Green and Red (which we go way more into in our eBook, The Business of Good Business)
Once you’re crystal clear on who you are for, and who you are not for, your communication all of a sudden has much greater cut-through and clarity.
After all, marketing at its essence is audience management. And many issues that we face as a society right now are marketing problems. Right now, not enough people are being persuaded or tempted to make a change. We are supposed to be professional persuaders, so it’s up to us marketers – whether you’re an agency, a brand or a profile – to make it desirable.
Whatever space you are trying to create impact within, divide your audiences into 3 segments: converts, opportunists and disconnects. Once you have this established, how does this change your marketing strategy, how you speak and where you spend your efforts?
6. Expose yourself
As Anne-Marie Bonneau, the zero waste chef said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.
This same principle applies very much to businesses too. It’s not about perfection, it’s about committing to be better both internally and externally. But in the commitment comes responsibility, and in that responsibility you are most likely going to have to cast light on the shadows and make clear both what you can-do, but also what you can’t don’t.
7. Reframe your sense of ‘purpose’
You can decipher your sense of purpose by asking yourself, what are your business’ non-negotiables?
What will you always prioritise?
What are you willing to stand-by under an amount of pressure and under any examination?
For us, it’s to support world-bettering brands in the pursuit of a more thriving planet.
Does this mean we lose clients? Yes.
Does this mean that we never have to reexamine our ethics? No.
Does it make it easier to set our marketing strategy, objectives and overarching business plan in times of crisis? Absolutely.
It means that we’ve paved the path that we’ll continue to build on in the years to come – so that hopefully when we are no longer a “startup” but a big(ger) business, the reason why we started are still clear and actionable on a daily basis.
- Natalie Dean-Weymark is the co-founder and Director of Compass Studio; a boutique PR & Marketing agency that specialises in conscious brands in a bid to ‘do good work, for brands that do good.’ Before founding Compass Studio, Natalie spent a decade in publishing and partnerships. You can follow her on Instagram at: @compass_studio and @nat_deanweymark