What happens when ten Boston-area startups meet ten of Boston’s best creative agencies?
Brandathon, that’s what.
The Ad Club President Kathy Kiely admitted in her opening, “we’re not supposed to pick favorites… but this is our favorite event.”
And I totally get it.
This event checks every box. It’s a pure celebration of the sheer work that goes into brand building, the creativity behind well-loved marketing ideas, and the strategy and research required to deliver a message that is both relevant and remarkable.
But, perhaps the most entertaining piece of this evening is the art of the agency pitch.
Imagine if Don Draper had access to Photoshop and embedded .gifs in PowerPoint slides. Then, add puns. Brandathon’s audience is given front-row access to see the type of performances that win these agencies global name-brand accounts. A truly remarkable experience.
This annual Ad Club event (now in its fourth year) includes 10 marketing teams who work for 72 hours to develop a new brand for 10 of Boston’s most promising startups.
It’s a coveted position to be in, as evidenced by the swell of applicants this year. 150 companies applied for ten spots. These startups, many lacking dedicated marketing resources of their own, know the competitive advantage of a strong and well-conceived brand.
For example, a 2016 Brandathon startup Tranquilo took the new branding work developed by 36creative all the way to Shark Tank, ending up with a deal from Robert Herjavec, and going on to grow “from 5 figures to 7 figures in less than a year” according to CEO and founder Melissa Gersin.
This year, Arnold took the top spot for a hilarious rebrand of Kulisha chicken feed. (Yes, really, chicken feed.) In second place was 36creative for their work with OatShop, and finally, Genuine Interactive secured third place for their meaningful revival of CommonWealth Kitchen.
Other participating startups this year included WA11.ST, HipChip, Janji, Nomsly, Sheprd, and Solstice, receiving new brand design and ideas from creative teams including Forge Worldwide, GPJ Experience Marketing, Racepoint Global, SapientRazorfish, Small Army, and W-9.
This was a night of creativity and humor, but also a reminder of startup branding basics:
1. Branding goes beyond packaging
When you think of branding, you may consider a website, logo, business cards, and of course the packaging a product may come in. But, we were reminded this evening that a brand is truly comprised of all the touchpoints a customer may have with an organization.
Agencies tonight presented each startup with ideas to bring their brand recommendations to life far beyond the initial website or package design, well into the lifecycle of a customer. Many entrepreneurs forget to consider that their brand is the sum of an experience a buyer has from before the purchase to after the sale, not only the wrapper to their product.
2. Customer-centric branding wins
Many startups describe what it is that they do in terms of the products or technology they provide.
But, as each brand makeover demonstrated, product-centric branding is only so effective. When a startup is ready to for real growth, their brand must reflect customer-centric ideals.
This begins with the audience being served, and working backwards to design an identity and a message that speaks directly to them - in their language, and addressing their problems, first.
3. Simple and approachable is best
For many of these startups, the biggest change to their original messaging came in the form of simplification.
These agencies know through their work with consumer brands worldwide that less is often more, especially when a consumer is faced with a new brand for the first time. Buyers (and all humans for that matter) make a split-second judgement call. That moment of truth is where the power of a good brand comes into play - and where the danger of complex, confusing branding creates problems.
Throughout the evening we saw taglines shortened, websites streamlined, and jargon/buzzwords banished. Each agency helped to make their startup clients more approachable, their mission and value clear, and their relevance to the buyer easy to understand.
4. Startups need a cohesive brand narrative
Many startups will cobble together their initial attempts at branding using an affordably-made logo, accessible Wordpress template, and whatever free stock imagery they can access. (Resourcefulness is the name of the game for early-stage businesses, right?) But for those companies seeking to grow, a cohesive brand narrative is a paramount component of building a business.
Each pitch tonight featured a narrative that reflected the brand’s founding story, values, personality, beliefs, and identity. The art of articulating all of this in a set of imagery, colors, and copy is exactly what makes this profession so difficult - and what made each pitch so impressive.
Brandathon 2017 was special - the energy and passion of both brands and agencies were on full display. Nearly every startup here knew the biggest problem they faced in this nascent stage of their businesses was creating awareness, and for each of them, a cohesive brand is an invaluable gift, as it serves as a launch pad for all future growth.
Diane Hessan, Brandathon Committee Chairperson summarized it best, sharing in her introduction, "when I founded my own company, the idea that I could have this level of access to the great, creative agencies of Boston was simply incomprehensible.”
This was an event that really could have only happened here in Boston, reflecting this city’s unique mix of entrepreneurial strength and world-class marketing fortitude.
See you in 2018.