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Social-First Superpowers: How Corporate Brands Can Fly Like A Start-Up

by Travis Stratford on 04/18/2019 | 5 Minute Read

The rise of the social-first start-up is the business story of our time. Whether it’s home goods newcomers like Casper and Parachute, start-up beauty brands like OUAI and Summer Fridays, or emerging fashion companies like Wholesome Goods and Blenders, there is example after example of start-ups flying from bright idea to global success story.

And it’s scaring the big brands. While these emerging brands are small in terms of market share, their impact is mighty. The media attention, share of voice, and sheer momentum is driving the smartest corporate brands to look at what they can learn from these nimble rivals.

Indeed, if you’re a beauty-sector giant, why wouldn’t you look closely at what OUAI is doing? Launched in 2016 by celebrity hairstylist and social-media maven Jen Atkin, this little haircare brand has delivered some of the fastest selling SKUs in Sephora, garnered swathes of mentions in the press and earned an impressive eight-figures in sales.

Social-First Superpowers

When we’re asked how OUAI did that, we first say—without hyperbole—sheer force. Jen Atkin is the hardest-working person we know and incredibly driven. But a beloved brand is not created by strength and determination alone. OUAI’s superpowers include a formidable triad: knowing its audience, being bold and decisive, and iterating constantly.

From the outset, Jen knew who her girl was exactly and what she was all about. To this day “the girl who buys Zara but wears it like Celine” is the best and most concise target audience profile we’ve seen. Like OUAI, other social first brands are able to start with this super-clear insight because they’re in conversation with their audience all day, every day.

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Knowing your audience at such a deep level enables a brand to make bold choices and quick (but smart) decisions to deliver on their needs as well as surprise and delight them. A little fearlessness helps too. (Oh, hi there, OUAI Pet Shampoo!)  And, the ability to make quick decisions accelerates the path to market so that you’re setting the trend, not following. Where it could take months to get alignment from layers of the corporate hierarchy, these smaller, founder-led brands say, “I like it, let’s do it.”

And off they go.

Finally, because their budgets are relatively small, social-first brands prototype early and focus their product offering around specific outcomes rather than trying to be everything to everybody. Intuition and real-time customer requests followed by quick-and-dirty validation replace extensive and expensive market research and focus groups. They launch quickly and then obsessively monitor how the market reacts, and adapt product and communications accordingly.

Around all this, there’s a tremendous amount of work (and not a lot of infrastructure), which is where grit, determination and well-chosen partners come in handy. While traditional marketing spend is low, building a viral brand is no easy feat. From crafting a compelling brand identity and voice to designing insta-worthy packaging and an engaging e-commerce experience to creating social content and building a killer retail pitch—it takes true partnership and intense collaboration between the brand and the agency.

Playing to Strengths

It would be easy to imagine that social-first start-ups have all the cards, but that’s not true of course. Big brands hold many advantages over smaller rivals. Start-ups undoubtedly have lessons to learn about the rigor of business practices, the robustness of processes and the sheer attention to detail that’s required when you’re launching a new product.

Multi-national corporations have more resources available, for example, to assemble innovation teams to create new brands. The economies of scale and sheer purchasing power enjoyed by larger companies give them the kind of leverage in the marketplace that start-ups can only dream about. They also have access to pre-existing established retail networks that are permanently hungry for fresh, innovative products.

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Towards a New Model

There are many examples of what happens when big brands open themselves to change. Look at the way PepsiCo connected with its customers with LIFEWTR, the bottled water brand that’s associated with culturally-inclined consumers by positioning itself as a platform for emerging artists. The brand has now released six series of label designs showcasing artists, the latest of which features the work of Ji Won Choi, Jamall Osterholm, and Daniel Cloke.

We asked Mauro Porcini, chief design officer of PepsiCo, how his team has done this. "We know how to make great beverages here," he said. "But what the LIFEWTR story revealed is how we can successfully connect with consumers through social media to show a bottle of water as a fashion accessory, an extension of your personality. It’s using the strengths we have as PepsiCo, but learning how to build on them through social.”

Taking the First Step

Of course, it’s not easy for big companies to adopt the start-up approach. Their costs of failure are much higher, so they’re more risk-averse, and making a cultural change can feel like maneuvering a supertanker. What’s more, the sheer scale of their operation makes being nimble difficult— product lead times are too long, and the chain of command too complex.

In the long run, doing nothing might not be an option for big companies. Just look at what happened to The Mattress Firm when Casper turned the sector on its head. People loved Casper’s direct to consumer model and quirky personality, and by the time The Mattress Firm noticed this and launched its own bed in a box in 2017 it was too late—a year later it was filing for bankruptcy. Today, the firm is still on its way back from its 2018 bankruptcy filing. It’s an extreme example, but shifting media attention can also rapidly translate to shifting consumer spend—and which mega brand wants to wait and watch that happen?

While the way in which OUAI uses their superpowers is unique, the powers themselves are not proprietary—as the LIFEWTR story shows. We expect to see more and more established corporate brands asking the question. It’s a challenging time for big brands, but for the ones who seize the opportunity to learn from social-first start-ups and experiment with these superpowers, the future will be bright.