Why are startup brands so boring?

All startup brands are the same.

This was the implication of a Bloomberg article about the rise of what it called “the blands” – the army of VC backed DTC brands you see everywhere exemplified by the likes of Casper mattresses, Harry’s razors, Allbirds, and Brandless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea, so I wanted to expand on it a bit.

I mean you’d have to say the author has a point. For new businesses aiming to build distinctive brands, there is a startling lack of aesthetic, tonal, or conceptual diversity among them. If you read the piece you’ll see it goes into great detail about the characteristics they share – and it may make for an uncomfortable experience as you find your own company’s personality reflected back at you.

This lack of diversity is a key area of weakness for founder-led brands in comparison to their corporate counterparts.

Put starkly:

  • Corporate brands tend to be diverse
  • Independent brands tend to be homogenous

At first glance this probably seems wrong.  Surely it is the corporate brands that are boring and bland, whilst independent start ups are bold and disruptive?  Traditionally this was true – and certainly the greatest brands tend to be founder led – but this is increasingly the exception, not the rule.  Even disruption can become a cliche when it’s always done the same way.

The problem with founder-led brands is that founders, quite reasonably, tend to make brands for “people like them”.  And because founders tend to be a certain type (often young, fashion conscious, premium, ethical shoppers embedded in startup culture), they end up over-serving a small portion of the market whilst completely ignoring the rest of it.

Corporate brands – for all their other flaws – don’t make this mistake.  They instead endeavour to appeal to distinct market segments, thus producing a wide variety of different concepts with different styles and propositions which cover far more ground than typical startups.

To illustrate this point with examples from the UK supermarket – could you ever imagine an independent startup producing something like Pot Noodle?  Or Pepperami?  Or Bovril?  Or Birdseye Fish Fingers?  Or Hovis?  Or Dairylea?  Or WKD?  Or Lucozade?  And I’m not just talking about the products here.  I’m talking about the positioning.  Brands which appeal to bricklayers, old ladies, middle England families, “Mondeo Man”, the working class – essentially anything which doesn’t resemble the typical founder demographic.

To take Pot Noodle as an example, I was stunned to learn that this remains a bigger selling brand in terms of value than Ben & Jerry’s. And yet whilst I often see Ben & Jerry’s held up as a yardstick for young brands, Pot Noodle is routinely ignored (and maybe occasionally scorned).

Such brands rarely have to deal with new competitors despite their massive market size – pretty much because they are too unfashionable for startups to bother with. Instead we see furious competition and innovation in a few trendy pockets of the market for a few over-served consumers, whilst the rest is left to stagnate.

The opportunity for new brands then is pretty clear: break away from the fashionable “bland” playbook, make products that aren’t necessarily for you, and enjoy a more open playing field.

I’m happy to see that this behaviour is slowly emerging.  In the case of grocery products, though most startups still stubbornly gravitate towards ethical and health offerings (nothing wrong with that but there are other things that the market values), they are at least starting to experiment with presenting those attributes in more diverse ways in order to appeal to wider audiences.

After all, just because you’re healthy doesn’t mean you need to act healthy; and just because you’re ethical doesn’t mean you need to act ethical.

Examples of this include Ugly, who mimic the codes of trashy soft drinks; Magic Spoon, who are trying to capture the magic of sugary kids’ cereal in an adult format; and my perennial favourite Grenade, who have blitzed the UK confectionery market with a low carb protein bar which has the least “bland” branding you can imagine.

Such companies, by resisting the seductive lure of traditional startup territories, have the potential to appeal to far wider markets, and build distinctive brands than their more fashionable counterparts.

Ultimately it’s easy to forget that we should not be building brands to reflect well on us, to fit in with the VC crowd, or to look chic in Courier magazine. We should be build distinctive brands for people – and often this means putting our personal prejudices aside.

Frank Zappa said that the reason music was so good in the 60s and 70s is because the industry was run by fat old men who didn’t give a damn about music, they only cared about making money.  This meant they were prepared to experiment with lots of different sounds they personally didn’t like because “hey, the kids are buying it”.  Later, when the old generation was replaced, creativity suffered, because the new executives were so passionate about music that they allowed their personal tastes to guide (and homogenise) the final product.

Just as with the “blands”, passion and care killed diversity, rather than nurturing it.

So although there are so many great things about the world of independent startup brands, it’s important to know when to channel a bit of that corporate cynicism. Be a little less like a trendy 27 year old music producer, and more like an old fat cat.  Because not only is the pay check better; you also end up producing something far more meaningful.

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