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Understanding the Brand Strategy Challenge and Taking on Incumbents


Meeting the CMO Startup Challenge: Part 1

Written by Sharon MacLeod, an Advisor at Portag3 Ventures and Sagard Holdings.

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Startup CMOs face once-in-a-corporate life challenge — creating a brand strategy, defining the CMO leadership role and developing the relationships and processes to effectively execute the brand strategy.

It’s pioneer work wrought with hidden challenges — a journey greatly aided by the counsel of fellow travelers and a map.

In this article, I cover:

  • Understanding the Brand Strategy Challenge
  • Taking on Incumbents with your Challenger Strategy

Understanding the Brand Strategy Challenge

The greatest asset for any startup is its founder CEO. The person who has nurtured the product or service from concept to reality. Fostering the original insight through all of the development stages. Meeting with potential investors, clients and customers, and developing and adjusting the brand proposition to meet the needs of stakeholders.

By necessity, the brand strategy is fluid in the conception and early stages of development. The brand lives as an extension of the founder CEO and alters as concept becomes reality.

While agility in adjusting to both the market and the technical challenges of scaling a product or service is an asset in early stages, fluid brand identity is a detriment to executing great marketing.

Startup CMOs face an uphill challenge in creating a brand strategy. In the early stages of establishing the business, agility was a key component of success. Developing a permanent brand identity, locking down on the brand proposition and market, can be seen as detrimental to growth.

Just as the CEO was the driving force behind transitioning the product or service from concept to reality, the CMO must be the driver of a transition from a fluid brand identity, owned by the CEO, to a concrete brand identity guiding the entire team.

In effect, this transition is the final step in making the CEO’s vision real. Taking the brand that has been developed and refined in the early stages and developing form and structure to transfer brand ownership to the corporation and stakeholders.

Successful brands have attributes easily identified by a wide range of stakeholders. Defining and executing on those attributes is a core function of the marketing team.

A strong brand strategy defines the brand’s mission, the values your brand stands for, your core target and addressable audience, the insight that drives your consumer or customer, the emotional and functional benefits your products uniquely deliver and ideally, your brand’s role in sustainability. Taken a step further, a product strategy comes out of the brand strategy, defining key principles the core products and innovation must have, such as superior performance versus competition on key attributes, while parity performance on other non-core attributes is acceptable.

Your brand strategy is a roadmap, guiding what the brand will do in terms of product development and communications, and what we decidedly will not do, in spite of an initiative’s ability to drive growth, because it doesn’t live within the brand strategy.

Key Insights

  • The CEO of a startup usually owns the brand proposition and identity (in some cases they are synonymous).
  • The CMO role in a startup is to create a brand strategy that allows the brand to be “owned” by all stakeholders.
  • This is maturing in the development of the company.

What you can do

It is critical the entire leadership team understands the importance and sponsors the development of a brand strategy to guide the entire company.

Proposals make progress, a successful startup CMO will:

  • Articulate and share the value proposition of a brand strategy, with an openness for counter-proposals and feedback.
  • Propose brand investment programs in terms of people and financial resources to align with the strategy.

The successful CMO seeks endorsement and sponsorship of the executive team.

Taking on Incumbents with your Challenger Strategy

Startups are born out of being different from incumbents, capturing an addressable market with a product or service that serves a new role in a sector.

CMOs can be distracted by what the incumbents in the market are doing, typically investing big budgets and building awareness through equity advertising. This is not the startup reality.

The startup CMO must have a relentless focus on the advantages of being (relatively) small, technologically advanced, new and agile. Incumbents are in awe with startups — their product or service concept, agility, ability to create brilliant content, connect with influencers, use of social media and the ability to act, unencumbered by legacy systems and businesses.

Stick with your point of difference and leverage it to the most.

What you can do

Create a Challenger Strategy. Be honest about what your competition does better than anyone in the market. Be very clear about your brand proposition:

  • Do you address a weakness of the leader?
  • Are you using technology to surpass consumer expectations of the whole sector?
  • Are you serving a consumer niche or a geographical area that the sector has ignored because it was small or required a unique offering?
  • Are you able to communicate with content more effectively than big companies because you have a founder with a compelling story and strong following?

Ultimately the answer to these questions define your point of difference in the market and allow you to carve out your unique space.

Keep doing what you do well, beat the incumbents with your game, not theirs.

I’m looking forward to sharing ideas on how to execute the brand strategy in the next article.

We empower and invest in visionary financial entrepreneurs. Learn more about Portag3 Ventures at

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