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3 Customer Engagement Secrets From Startups

I’ve worked for iconic brands, inspired startups and struggling institutions. From my first job at PepsiCo to my current role as president of a startup marketing agency, something unexpected happened along the way. I used to think that small, struggling brands should look to the “big guys” to learn how to market their products or services successfully. Certainly, many global brands are creating campaigns that are the envy of Madison Avenue, but a shift has happened in recent years.

Trust in traditional brands is at an all-time low, and customers are demanding greater transparency and authenticity. We care about where our food is sourced. We stop buying from beloved brands because of poor labor practices. We try a new company because it gives back to charity. Corporate CEOs have become celebrities. In August, The New York Times wrote an exposé on the cutthroat employee culture at Amazon, and Amazon boycotts rapidly followed. Brand values are more important than ever.

Enter the rise of the startup. By their nature, startup companies are driven by passion, fueled by a belief in a better (or faster or more ethical) way. This passion comes through in their work, and achieves what many established brands are finding difficult to emulate: a values-based connection. Here’s what marketers can learn from startups about establishing emotional connections with customers:

1. Have a mission. As Simon Sinek famously said, “It starts with why.” And your “why” can’t be to sell more widgets, cupcakes or gadgets. Your “why” needs to be a mission, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and fuels your desire to succeed. It needs to be more than the sales chart moving up and to the right. Ask yourself, How can I change the world? The answer is your mission.

2. Question everything. Entrepreneurs typically have everything on the line. Budgets are small and leeway is non-existent. Make like a startup and take a hard, unflinching look at every campaign, tactic and line item in your marketing budget. Ask yourself (and answer honestly), If I were a customer, would I care about this? Or ask an even more revealing question: Would I share this? If the answer is no, then you need to shake things up and develop a more effective marketing strategy.

3. Align with your customer’s values. Quick, tell me about your customer. Did you tell me about his or her gender? Age? Income level? That’s fine. Those are all good to know, but demographics alone won’t take you to the top. Here is the secret that many startups instinctively know: You need to tap into the magic place where your company’s values and your customer’s values intersect. Our values, more than any other factor, influence why we buy, what we share and what we recommend. We want to do business with brands and companies that share our values.

By telling the world about your brand values—by communicating loudly and proudly with your “why” in mind—you will be speaking right to the hearts of the people who will become your best customers. That is the secret to success, not only for startups, but for any brand that wants to thrive in our increasingly connected culture.


Julie Lyons is president and COO of values-focused marketing agency Zenzi Communications, based in Encinitas, Calif.