5 Lessons Big Brands Can Learn From Startups

Taking risks and channeling their inner-beginner can yield positive results

Big brands can take a note from startups and unlearn some of their habits. Getty Images
Headshot of Joanne McKinney

Show me an established category, and I’ll show you a startup that’s disrupting it (or about to). The trusted rules of the road for managing and marketing brands simply don’t cut it on the fast and furious freeways of the startup world where change is everywhere. Established categories and brands have been upended overnight. In fact, big brands and agencies have been on the losing side of disruption as young, nimble companies have transformed entire industries. To navigate change and grow, brands will have to start thinking more like beginners instead of experts.

Recently, we explored the disruptive influence of startups brands on established categories with a panel of distinguished marketers and entrepreneurs at an AMA panel we hosted. Key takeaway? There are a lot of things big brands can learn from their disruptors.

Turn defense into offense

Big brands are known to play it safe as fear of failure has fostered a culture of risk mitigation, and brand leaders aren’t exactly compensated for taking chances. Typically, testing and data are used to validate instead of iterate. However, such conservatism might leave them vulnerable to an even greater risk: the risk of not doing anything at all.

Conversely, startups don’t usually have the option of inaction. Fear still exists, but they are able to turn it into a driver of progress.

“It’s so important to go outside of your comfort zone, says Heidi Messer, co-founder and chairperson of Collective[i] and co-founder and former president and COO of LinkShare Corporation (aka Rakuten Marketing). “If fear of change stops you from evolving, your whole organization suffers.”

Somewhere along the line, the wisdom of failing quickly and often and learning from that process has gotten lost among big brands. It’s time to turn defense back into offense and start playing to win like a startup.

Integrate, don’t isolate, entrepreneurship

To navigate change and grow, brands will have to start thinking more like beginners instead of experts.

A successful startup demands that an exploratory mindset runs through the entire company, whereas many big companies build separate “entrepreneurial” divisions rather than letting the culture of innovation pulse through the entire company. Big brands need to work to re-create this more widespread and inclusive culture of adventure that demands the exploration of fresh ideas from every corner of the organization.

“Some companies will try to add bravery by acquiring small brands, but then make the mistake of isolating them,” says Tawana Burnett, global group lead of Facebook. “Bravery can’t be bought. It needs to touch decision-making, creative development and leadership.”

Streamline internal process to impact external market

Because younger brands are generally less mired in procedure and layers, they don’t have to spend as much time selling ideas internally and navigating internal paths or the corporate framework. Startups tend to follow a more iterative process of brand development, offering greater flexibility and promoting a healthy learning mentality and a fast-to market-result.

“Often, having a ‘B’ strategy with an ‘A’ execution beats having an ‘A’ strategy,” says John LeBoutillier, president and chief executive officer of Harvest Hill. “It’s OK to take 100 shots on a goal if three go in.”

Of course, process is essential for integrating the roles of visionaries with those less-glamorous functions. But big brands should try to focus on removing unnecessary shackles. They have the resources to hire the most creative people, but their processes can often obstruct that same creativity and can get in the way of nurturing big ideas. Protocols that are rigorous and structured can sometimes punish early thinking and creativity and focus everything inside the organization rather than outside with the customer.

Stop validating, start collaborating

Startups are intrinsically closer to their audiences and use consumer feedback to inform their angle of approach, not to endorse hesitation and temper progress. Big brands sometimes need reminding that, today, brands are what consumers say they are, not what brands say they are. It can be dangerous to assume otherwise. Established brands need to run with this notion and get closer to the consumer.

“The hope is to delight people, and the fear is to not know people well enough to do it,” says Judd Harner, former evp and CMO of S’well Bottle. “You make a product because you believe there are consumers to buy it, and so losing touch with them is a big concern.”

Brands should also avoid the trap of thinking that testing leads to a universal truth. People evolve, tastes evolve, beliefs evolve, trends evolve. It’s an ongoing exercise. Some big brands could take a page out of the startup playbook and view testing as a pivoting exercise, not as an identifier of a one-time “truth.”

Mix experience with youthful exuberance

One of the biggest forces in the startup world is the inherent attitude of its disruptive young leaders. And in truth, big brands could use an injection of millennial impatience.

The good news is that experience is still valued among brands, and many see potential in blending seasoned campaigners with young upstarts. “The marriage of experience and youth is very powerful,” says Bart Adlam, president of Siggi’s. “Experience can add perspective and context to fresh ideas and help to make them happen.”

If big brands want to stay relevant as innovators, they will need to adopt more of a beginner’s mind. Of course, mistakes made by established organizations are generally more costly and consequential than those made by young companies. But a greater risk still may be in not taking one.

And as a former Kraft CMO once said, “You can get fired for doing something or for doing nothing. At least if you get fired for doing something, you’ll have a story to tell.”


@jomckinney Joanne McKinney is chief executive officer of Burns Group.
{"taxonomy":"","sortby":"","label":"","shouldShow":""}