Four ways internet-first companies build their brands

A look at how companies like Monzo and Warby Parker take new approaches to classical marketing tactics

Warby Parker take April Fool’s seriously. Ish.

We call them “new world” companies: businesses designed for the world we live in now. Brands like Monzo, Asos and Warby Parker, who use the technology we have in our hands, the rapid distribution networks ecommerce has built, scaled platforms like cloud infrastructure and the burgeoning venture capital finance scene to create brands that grow rapidly, at scale.

So how do they do it?

Having started our careers at Google, Tim and I have some familiarity with the pressures and demands of the VC-funded growth curve: ludicrous time scales, massive demands on ROI for spend, and an almost iconoclastic approach to “traditional” marketing strategy. Or so it feels — but after 12 years’ experience in internet-first marketing, it’s now clear to me that what works is in some ways quite textbook (if you’re reading the right textbooks, of course), enabled and superpowered through modern technology.

Here’s four observations we think any marketing manager — whether your brand is a year old or a century old — should consider.

  1. Create heuristics to build mental availability

In How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp explains that brands need to create mental availability alongside physical availability. It’s not good enough to be on the shelf in front of the supermarket shopper; you need to be present in their awareness. Many new world brands aren’t on any shelf, so in many ways, this becomes all the more important: don’t confuse being on the internet as being physically available.

Heuristics are simple mental notes, things and ideas that are easy to remember and put to use; often easier to remember than the brand name. When we worked for Beryl (then called Blaze) on their laserlight for bikes, we didn’t explain the statistics behind how invisible bikes are in the blindspots of vehicles; we illustrated the problem by putting a whole brass band in a blindspot of a bus. It’s an easy to remember note-to-self, and you’ll never look at a bus the same way again.

2. Create salience through art direction

There’s not many orange brands in the UK. The most famous one, of course, was absorbed into EE several years ago; can you now think of another, except Fanta, Penguin Books (sometimes) and the Dutch football team?

This empty space has proven fertile territory for Monzo: a flash of orange seen in bars, cafés and shops up and down the country. Monzo themselves call the colour “hot coral” (which makes me think of a sad David Attenborough watching the seas rising), but whatever, it’s a symbol of what Monzo means — a new kind of bank, one that wants to stand out in a mis-trusted industry — and whose sheer visibility drives word-of-mouth right there at the bar.

Differentiating through art direction isn’t new, but what these brands often do so well is flow a unique art direction forthrightly through every touchpoint of the brand — whether it’s a new design for slippers (Mahabis) or consistently beautiful product shots (Moo.com — who also brought us the rounded-edge card). These visual elements delight owners and create memory hooks in potential customers, accumulating over time to build that all-important mental availability.

3. User experience is a marketing tool

Companies built on the web, who sell only through ecommerce and mostly or entirely through their own site, have an advantage over brands sold through retail — they own the entire customer journey, from first contact through purchase and on to CRM and loyalty. These touchpoints — more so than advertising — communicate concrete attributes of the brand: easy to use, useful, attractive.

A great, useful UX can lead to long-term repeat purchase (like subscription services for FMCG goods, like Dollar Shave Club) and turn loyalty into a product feature rather than a marketing task. Advances in UX, created digitally, can happen quickly and with few resources — we recently profiled Trivago upgrading their mobile site to a progressive web app, with only a handful of engineers, allowing offline functionality:

Of course, lots “offline” brands own the purchase journey, and have used it as a communication tool: think Apple stores. But for new world brands, this not optional; it is the default. “Everything is media”, as Lee Clow said.

4. Share your personality with the world

Warby Parker’s “hush mob” at the New York Public Library, as covered by Vogue

It’s one thing saying “we’re a new kind of company that does things differently”, or writing Innocent-drinks style kookie copy. It’s another to put your beliefs and personality into every single thing you do. Brand purpose and quirky tonality might be everywhere now, but when they work they reinforce all the points above: building salience, and creating or reinforcing memory structures through activating positive associations.

Warby Parker are a new kind of company that does things differently in the eyewear space: this was their promise. They were differentiating against a basically nameless massive corporation (Luxottica) who operated hundreds of glasses brands, including almost any you can think of. Warby Parker competed through price and a great customer offering (UX, again) of trialling five frames by post with free returns. They reinforced this, and drove word of mouth, by sending a free pair of glasses to those in need every time you bought one, and having fun with with the brand at launches and April Fool’s. Suddenly that nameless corporation seems boringly out of date. Warby Parker is now worth over a billion dollars.

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