From start-up to market leader – take your brand on a hero’s journey
Published on 15 Oct 2020

Building brands in the 21st century

A more apt title for Byron Sharp’s brand strategy bestseller would have been “How Big Brands Stay Big”. The Double Jeopardy Law doesn’t offer much hope for smaller brands and brands entering a market. Also, the book doesn’t really offer much practical advice on how to grow your brand, other than the key concepts of building mental and physical availability. If you are a start-up, with a limited marketing budget and not much of a brand to speak of (yet), and you are up against established brands that have already entrenched themselves in people’s minds with heavy media spending, it would seem that you haven’t got a chance in hell. That is, if you play by conventional branding rules.


But then, if you are a disruptive start-up, you’re not going to play by the rules. That is the point Charly Ebdy makes in his article “The Hare and the Tortoise”. He presents 6 new principles for 21st century brand building. These are based on how several brands have become hugely successful in this century (see a short summary of these rules for ‘Hares’ below). They take a very different approach from the brands that were established in the previous century (see rules for ‘Tortoises’). If you are a start-up brand strapped for cash, these Hare principles are more likely to increase your chance of building a strong brand in your first years of existence than following the conventions of incumbent brands.



  • Short term recruitment: focus on volume, not margin
  • Focus on performance: quickly judge whether a brand asset helps recruit, and if it does, stick with it
  • Perfect the product experience: emotional advertising is the last thing you do. It is a reminder of your value, years later
  • Proprietary assets: break through by creating and embedding technology-backed proprietary assets into the brand, and then reminding with distinctive assets. Distill your brand experience to its essential elements and create legally protected technology to turn those elements into tangible advantage
  • Sector focus: begin by dominating one smaller sector. Breadth is the ambition, not the strategy. First impressions count, and they stick
  • Eventual media support: get as much benefit as possible from owned and earned channels. Heavy media support should be the last thing your brand needs; increase your incentives, improve your accessibility, but slow your appetite for paid media.



  • Improve long term margins: the main benefit of a brand is that it reduces price sensitivity
  • Consistent behavior: maintain a consistent brand identity over time
  • Emotional appeal: at its core a brand identity should have an emotional appeal for more effect
  • Distinctive assets: maintain the identity by continuously exposing consumers to your distinctive brand assets, preferably in close association to category entry points (moments and motives when consumers could think of the product or service category your brand is in)
  • Broad base: appeal to as many people as possible. Growth comes from light users. Penetration is key.
  • Heavy support: be present in media as continuously as possible to maintain consumers’ memory of your brand.



Scale-up phase is the pivot point

However, eventually you will probably have to start playing by some of the established rules. In his article The Wrong and the Short of It, Tom Roach shows that there shouldn’t be a trade-off between the performance-based focus preferred by many start-ups and the long term brand-building view of incumbents. As brands mature these approaches need to be integrated as he demonstrates in the graph below. Focusing on activities that have direct sales results will only get you so far. At a certain point you need to start building your brand to ensure and increase your sales for the longer term. The question is when and how.



In the development of your brand from start-up to mature brand, maybe even market leading unicorn, the scale-up phase seems to be the pivot point. It is in this phase that you need to make a decision to start playing by some of the ‘Tortoise’ rules. This brings to mind Nike at the time that it made the transition from an athletic sportswear brand to a lifestyle brand. Nike had exhausted the possibilities to expand further within the existing brand mindset and needed to evolve the brand to continue to grow its business. The briefing to Wieden + Kennedy was “widen the access point”. Which, in the terminology of Byron Sharp, means “make us relevant across more category entry points”. This briefing led to the first “Just Do It”, which has become one of the most distinctive brand assets on the planet.


Scaling up your brand

If we were to consider a scale-up set of principles, these could be something along the lines of:


  1. Manage towards a price and quantity premium. Monitor base sales and price elasticity in your main category. The key value of a brand is the fact that it can demand both a price and a quantity premium. That is, people keep buying you at a higher price, regardless of market and competitor pressure. Lodish and Mela show that price and quantity premium can be determined fairly easily in markets with enough data and some modelling. Once you see these premiums emerge in your main category, you can then start defending them whilst simultaneously attracting a wider audience and/or entering into new categories or markets. As Amazon has been doing practically since its inception.
  2. Evolve and expand brand assets Keep on evolving and expanding the portfolio of brand assets that are working, that are attracting customers, and see what sticks. When you see how even distinctive brand assets like Nike’s swoosh and McDonald’s arches have evolved over time you really shouldn’t be worried about making changes, adding assets and losing others along the way.
  3. Develop the brand narrative Frame these assets in a coherent brand narrative. For the simple reason that it makes it easier for people to remember these assets. But also because a story is a powerful device to convey the role your brand plays in people’s lives. With this narrative the brand often leaves behind the origin story of the company. To attract a larger group of consumers it needs to have a wider emotional appeal that taps into universal human drives and motives. Again, the best example here is Nike when it introduced “Just Do It”.
  4. Base the narrative on the emotional appeal of the brand experience. Make sure this emotional appeal builds on the now well-known product experience as a sort of anchor. Consider ‘Amazon. And you’re done” that was supported by all the innovations in customer service provided on the e-commerce platform. Think reviews and recommendations and 1-Click shopping.
  5. Expand relevance of the brand across CEPs and audiences Why tap into something universally human? Because it allows you to widen your brand relevance to more audiences, category entry points and even other product categories.
  6. Move to paid to leverage and complement earned and owned Leverage and complement earned and owned with more paid media, targeted at a broader audience, making all media more effective, giving a bigger bang for the buck.


Obviously, this transition is an iterative process, which will require testing and learning and adjusting, but that should come naturally to brands that have growth hacked their way into existence.


The hero’s journey for brands

In each of the phases – start-up, scale-up, maturity – the brand story needs to evolve. In the start-up phase the brand story will be about addressing a market imperfection or convention that the new brand is disrupting for a better consumer experience and better value. It’s an electric car that is actually fun to drive (Tesla), it’s groceries delivered to your home (Picnic), it’s seamless online payments (Adyen), it’s a cheaper and more immersive way to spend time in another city (Airbnb). In the start-up phase the brand story will be close to the origin story and the market disruption the brand represents.


In the scale-up phase, when you are trying to widen the emotional appeal of the brand, it helps to start thinking more explicitly about what psychological or societal wrong your brand is trying to right. Just like the hero in a story it should be clear what your brand is fighting for, and what it is fighting against. That makes it easier for people to remember who you are and how you can provide meaning in their lives. To get the brand story straight and to link it explicitly to human psychology we use brand archetypes, as they provide us with human goals and psychological foes to battle (see previous article where we apply them in a corona setting).


In the mature stage of a brand, it is all about updating the narrative and keeping it relevant. This is what Nike is doing – when you look at it from a brand management perspective – when it reinvigorated Just Do It by supporting Colin Kaepernick and female athletes with the Dream Crazy and Dream Crazier campaigns.


Your brand strategy starts with a good story

Building your brand is challenging regardless in which phase you find yourself. But where there are several pointers to be found on what to do in the start-up and mature brand phases, there is still little evidence about what works in the scale-up phase. As Cheryl Claverley, CEO at Eve Sleep, a scale-up that sells mattresses online, notes in Campaign. However, as it is a well-considered mix of Hare and Tortoise approaches, it seems just the sort of challenge any ambitious brand marketer should rise to. Finding the sweet spot with your brand story, one that appeals to a wider audience, would be a good place to start the transition.