Which Type of Marketer Does It Better—Startup or Corporate?


I have spent my career running marketing organizations both large and small.  Regardless of the size of the business, marketing serves a critical role.

But what type of organization does it better?

Marketing organizations at large corporations certainly have the budgets, resources and talent to win in the marketplace. But small, focused startups with their scrappy sensibility, their test and learn approach, coupled with growth hacking capabilities tend to seize and capitalize on opportunities quickly.

There are no bright lines, but in my view, each type of organization has a center of gravity that forms the basis of their strengths.

Understanding the customer

“Effective marketers know the difference between a customer data point and a customer insight.”

– Robert Candelino, GM of skin care, Unilever

In a million-channel world, only the organizations that understand a customer’s wants, needs and desires can win.  Why do some brands resonate and others do not?  One success story is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. The first video, “Dove Evolution,” has been viewed more than 25 million times.

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The underpinning of the successful campaign was, according to Candelino, “Rooted in being relevant and credible to the target audience so that we can speak to their actual needs.”

Accordingly, startups are told to do their customer development homework and talk to people.

This is sage advice and it is necessary, but it’s often insufficient. Many entrepreneurs don’t know how to ask a question that won’t bias results, and more important, distinguish between customer data versus insights. Big brands do this really well.

Candelino describes the difference when developing Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign.

Through painstaking research, Unilever realized that only two percent of girls 8–17 used the word “beauty” to describe themselves. But 70% felt pressure to be beautiful. Both were good data points that led them to the insight that, according to Candelino, became the core of their idea: the difference between how young girls saw themselves and the pressure to be beautiful stopped 60% of young girls from doing things (such as attending school, going to the doctor or giving their opinion) because they did not feel beautiful.

This insight became a motivating driver to broaden the narrow definition of beauty.  The Dove team began featuring everyday women (size 4 to 12) from every day vocations (students to coffee shop baristas).

At the end of the day, data points are interesting, but insights are inspiring and provide the basis for forming a differentiated advantage. Why? Because your brand is speaking to your target in a completely different, but utterly relevant way.

Verdict: The big brands win here—learn from them. Cull the data, but look for the insights that get at the heart of what your target really wants.

Forming a strong brand promise

“To win in an every changing world, you must identify the constants. This strong point of view forms the basis of building your brand.”

– Mark Baynes, Global CMO, Kellogg Company

The average person is exposed to more than 3,000 marketing messages per day.   The new currency is attention. This is what Lenovo’s marketing VP Ajit Sivadasan refers to as “attention Darwinism.” So how do you stand out in the crowd?

Big brands, especially CPG companies, understand that the starting point is to develop a strong brand promise rooted in solving a customer problem and establishing an emotional connection.

A brand is the sum of your customers’ (and users) perception of every interaction, your reputation and customer service.

Brand managers are trained to develop a deep understanding of what their brand stands for and document it using a positioning statement so that everyone understands what your product or service stands for.

Verdict: big brands pick up another win here. Before startups enthusiastically jump into lean, test-and-learn agile development-based marketing, they need to stop, pause and codify what the brand stands both rationally and emotionally.

Market testing and execution

“Throw the spaghetti against the wall. Test, measure, adjust your aim and throw it again. Measure.  Adjust. Throw. Learn. Repeat.”

This is my advice for any aspiring marketer. The best product in the world means nothing if nobody knows about it. The great news here is that there are literally hundreds of marketing tactics at your disposal.

The bad news: there are literally hundreds of marketing tactics at your disposal.

Agile startups understand that consumers make split decisions to click or abandon a site. While big brands are developing six-month marketing calendars, scrappy startups are changing their messages every day—every hour, in fact—to get the message right. Most effective startups are fielding 15–20 tests to yield .025% improvements. Over time, these improvements add up to more effective user acquisition and retention.

Verdict: startups get the win this time. Big brands must become more agile. In response, companies like Merck and Kimberly Clark have started to revamp their campaign development process. The goal is to shorten lead-time and respond quickly to changes in the market.

Efficiently scale for growth

“Usually, you are lucky if you grow so fast that you run a risk of alienating users. You’re talking about the danger of overeating, while most startups die of starvation.” Paul Graham, Co-Founder Y Combinator

Startups understand they will not be in business if they don’t grow—and grow fast.

Josh Sookman recounts Zynga as a great example of this. The online gaming company ran thousands of A/B tests to find a business model where the cost of acquiring a customer was less than overall lifetime value. Once Zynga figured this out, it scaled quickly. The company spent so much on acquiring customers that it’s rumored that Zynga accounted for nearly 30% of Facebook’s revenue in 2009.

Big brands struggle with this concept. To win they must learn how to scale quickly. Even if they do figure out lifetime value of a customer and the right model to acquire profitable customers, they’re handcuffed by the budget approval process.

Verdict: Startups win because they can move so quickly. Ben Legg, former COO of Google Europe and current CEO of Adknowledge, says it best: “To win in the marketplace, brands need to figure out the LTV of their customer and when they find a successful playbook, uncap the budgets to acquire as many customers as quickly as possible.”

High touch in a high tech world

“Make use of digital interactions, but don’t lose the face.” Vala Afshar, CMO, Extreme Networks

So much of marketing is focused on acquiring customers, but the holy grail of customer marketing is retaining your most profitable customers.

The high tech world of social media is the perfect place to practice “high touch marketing.

Big brand Chipotle has adopted a one-to-one engagement model for its social media platforms. A 2011 study from Nation’s Restaurant News reported that Chipotle responds to 83% of Facebook posts and 90% of its Twitter activity is responding with @-mentions. Startup Mighty Handle has adopted a similar strategy, but through eCommerce.

Founder Ben Rendo writes a personal thank you note to every single customer who buys his product on Amazon. This approach enables a level of customer intimacy that was unheard of five years ago. These interactions deepen the emotional connection between consumer and brand, creating a positive experience that encourages word of mouth and reinforces loyalty.

Verdict: this one is a draw. Learn from companies, both large and small. Talking to as many of your customers as possible, learning from them, and surprising and delighting them is what will create the most valuable type of marketing there is: Tell a friend.

Anita Newton is a startup advisor and VP of marketing at Adknowledge. Her experiences include:

  • Working with start ups including CMO at Zave Networks (acquired by Google)
  • Advising Trellie, Mighty Green Solutions and Kauffman Foundation
  • Coaching robotics and mentoring young women in technology
  • Running sales & marketing at Procter & Gamble, Sprint and AMC theaters

Schedule a call with Anita to talk about digital marketing, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

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  • Munro Richardson

    Anita, as usual a very insightful and useful post. My only comment is that for some startups settling on a brand message too early might be hard. The cycles spin so fast that the brand message/promise will naturally evolve over time. (They will discover it, but granted only by intentionally looking for it.) I think there probably is a big difference before and after product-market fit. But certainly by the time you’ve figured out your repeatable sales roadmap and start to scale you’ve got to help users/customers understand what you stand for and the benefits they will receive from using your product or service. As you suggest, developing and testing hypotheses early (along with some good old fashioned A/B testing) will help pave the path. Great advice!

  • Inzamam Pasha

    The post you provides is really informative.I liked the whole conept of comparing start ups and corporate.I would say that its easier for both to understand what pubic needs and then fi themslefs to the market size.It might be a hard task for startups to brand up themselves and i would not recommend the doing os i early stage.
    Ye ,making use of digital interaction which is the social interaction and non face interaction is necessary and would lead to good growth of any business but they should also focus on direct interaction.