Startups may not be a brand’s creative agency, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in working with brands.
Taking actionable and productive steps towards establishing partnerships is a key indicator of success for young teams. And it’s often a daunting one, if you have never worked in brand management, advertising, or media buying. And while the interest in the topic is clear, there are few resources for founders to draw on for concrete examples of how to take the first steps.
I’ve laid out 10 steps to demystifying the brand-startup collaboration as it is possible for savvy young business development leads at growing startups to find champions at large organization and execute on partnerships that add value to both sides.
1. Understand the brand team’s structures
While every organization is unique, many similar types of teams exist across all organizations. Understanding what team is best suited to your startup and what their responsibilities are is the first step in establishing a relationship.
Take the time to learn about different types of teams and their responsibilities, and where you might fit in. For many consumer facing startups the inclination is to “go to the top” and straight for the chief marketing officer with the intention of securing “advertising dollars.” Keep in mind that CMOs oversee multiple types of budgets (not just media dollars) and rarely make the day-to-day decisions of what gets spent and where.
Consider who is appropriate and what budget might be best suited to your partnership. Don’t let your ego drive you in finding your first advocate, as not all dollars will be appropriate for your startup. For instance large advertising spends often to go through procurement (the team that typically oversees all purchases by a large corporation) who require justifications for spends that your company might not be able to hurdle.
If your product optimizes something, consider going after a direct marketing team or ecommerce marketing manager that has to show dollar for dollar ROI. If your startup has a very engaged but small audience that is well suited to a brand’s core demographics, approach the brand teams that are responsible for positioning. Is your startup particularly novel? Consider approaching the public relations teams about something that will generate buzz in the press for them.
2. Learn which budgets are spent when
Many startups make the mistake of assuming that there exists magical unallocated brand dollars just waiting for a good idea. While some brands do set-asides, this is quite rare, particularly at publicly traded companies that are obligated to disclose their marketing costs and when they plan to deviate from past spends.
Learn when your chosen brands spend the most and target them ahead of time. Interested in alcohol? Pitch them in the spring when they are planning their big summer campaigns. Want to partner with a retailer? Approach them in the summer as they plan holiday. Interested in sports gear? Get ahead of their back to school planning.
Don’t expect a brand to have leftover dollars in late November. They’ve already spent their Q4 budgets but chances are you can start talking to them about the new year!
3. Understand how your startup serves your partner’s KPIs
Think like your developers and remember that your inputs determine your output. Mutually decided upon KPIs are critical to success and will vary wildly depending on your product, the behaviors of your audience, the brand’s core values, and the campaign elements. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that all brands are looking to tie your campaign to selling a product directly. There are many KPIs to consider from reach to sentiment. Take the time to discuss the most critical ones with your partners and be honest if your product doesn’t serve them.
Don’t force a fit just because you want to work with a brand. Which leads us to our next tip.
4. Stick to your product roadmap
Nothing annoys your product team like selling in a feature that isn’t ready! Be careful about agreeing to features that may not be in your immediate roadmap even if your brand partners are willing to pay for it.
5. Help your brand partners be your advocates
By understanding your brand partners’ KPIs and the teams they have to sell to you can help them advocate on your behalf. One of the first things you should ask your brand advocates is how they partner with other teams and what potential areas of concern they have with their internal partners.
Perhaps a media team is dealing with a procurement team that believes a spend is too large? Show how they can justify it based on their brand goals. Is the marketing team trying to convince skeptical PR team that believes partnering with you might be risky? Help them mitigate possible risks by showing the upsides to your product.
6. Understanding external and agency relationships
Oftentimes agencies or media buyers will bring startups to their brand clients. This can help you get incredible exposure and the best agencies understand that this increases their value to the brand. However not all agency and brand relationships are are created equal. Agencies of record set strategies for brands while many brands do one off relationships for campaigns. This distinction is critical so when you go for a meet and greet with an agency makes sure to understand what their relationship is to the brands they list on their website and if you are being pitched for a business they haven’t yet landed. This will help you judge the best use of your time if a campaign you are involved in isn’t already in motion with an agency of record.
But fair warning, there are many toxic agency-brand relationships, and startups cozying up to the brand teams can be viewed as a threat by account teams eager to protect access to their client, if it is a longstanding agency of record situation. Agencies can throw a young startup under the bus if a campaign doesn’t turn out as planned to preserve a retainer.
Pay attention to these relationships and work to show both agency and brand how you and your startup achieves their shared goals.
7. Understand your value and price accordingly
Just because you are looking to land a partnership doesn’t mean you should undersell yourself. Familiarize yourself with pricing around your product or audience. Ask around about what partnerships have cost in the past and get a sense of what sort of media budgets your target brand spends.
That said don’t oversell yourself especially if KPIs might be misaligned. A very engaged audience is a valuable thing, but if a brand is looking for eyeballs, recognize your audience might not hold a lot of worth to some.
8. Project management and campaign execution
Recognize that working with a brand might require skills your current team lacks. You likely have product managers but account teams and project managers are critical to dealing with brands, particular if you have an established scope from which you cannot deviate. Brands do not do well with seat-of-the-pants executions, and their expectations may be for meetings and documentations to be far more buttoned up than you are accustomed to in your own internal teams.
9. Brand standards matter
Brands have invested millions of dollars into their look and feel. A brand’s identity is codified by a creative team and can often be quite granular. So always ask for a brand book so you know the basics of what font treatments, logo usages, and color preferences.
Nothing turns off a brand creative team more than seeing a logo you pulled off a Google image search!
10. Be patient
Brands and startups can have uneasy relationships that require seemingly endless patience. Small teams and evolving products make it difficult for brands to develop partnerships at young startups while long decision-making processes and multiple stakeholders strain limited startup resources.
Buy-in is often a weeks if not months long process of managing up for teams, so be deliberate. Ask what you can do to arm your brand partners to better sell the campaign in. And don’t despair if a project is killed. There is always another quarter and another budget refresh three months down the road!
That said be careful about wasting your own time. Projects can get killed for political reasons that are opaque to outsiders and it is critical to weigh the ROI of the campaign (whether that is the value of the name attached to the partnerships, the actual dollar amount being paid, or how it adds values to your users) against the amount of time you and your team spend in endless meetings at brand HQ.