Opinion: A startup’s success playbook for category leadership

One thing that turns startups into category leaders isn’t always a better business model or a more compelling product. It’s the stories they make and tell, explains the author

Jul 12, 2022 04:57:00 AM | Article | Aman Dhall

Think Google (for search), Facebook (for social), Dream11 (for gaming) or boAT Lifestyle (for wearable devices). What do they have in common? Sure, they are the top-notch players in their category. But there’s one more thing that has led these companies to become market leaders. Great story making and storytelling.
 
In a fast-paced world of startups, compelling brand storytelling is central to engaging and educating the masses. Story making is an art, and storytelling via influencers makes the art provide returns as a powerful science. It is the backbone of an early-stage startup and now more important than ever to present your brand to the world.
 
Remember, it’s important to align your messaging strategy across various channels to create visibility and push it to consumers. Simply publishing a press release on product updates just doesn’t cut it anymore. An inspiring narrative through campaigns can create more buzz about your business, start conversations and lead to more pull-driven sales. That’s what startup founders need.
 
A strong brand story that not only conveys your message effectively but also resonates with customers. For instance, social media is such an effective tool nowadays. Having your C-level suite provide company insights on LinkedIn can create a large impact. A CTO or CEO who starts meaningful conversations and engages with customers or potential investors can go a long way in building a consistent brand.
 
Of course, data and financials matter a lot when pitching to investors or business partners. But more than numbers, you need to add a relatability factor and a human dimension to all the data for leading the market. Stories do just that. 
 
Let’s look at the different kinds of stories you can make and tell:
 
Your origin story: Some of the biggest ventures in the world have origin stories that speak to our hopes and ambitions. They usually tell us what role the founders played in them. Your audience will always want to know how your company originated and what was the idea behind it. When founders present all of this as engaging, persuasive stories, they can showcase authenticity with a bit of emotion.  
 
The story of your solution to the customer’s problem: Talking about a day in the life of your customer is a great way of showing that you understand their problems and their journey. You can then go on to say what is your solution to it, how it works and how it's more effective than the existing solutions. Simply showing the emotional benefits and how it impacts someone’s day-to-day life makes for a great story.
 
The story of how you envision the future: Showcase how your solution or product can create a better future and how your business thinks long-term in a strategic manner.  
 
Here’s how good storytelling determines the steps to becoming a category leader:  
 
Enhances brand awareness
 
So you thought the story-first approach is to be taken only when you’re market-ready? Not quite. You could start taking steps to send the word out even if the final product is not in place. Let’s say you have only a demo ready, even then you can still plan a video shoot or a podcast around it. This will help prospects understand the product and give you feedback on the idea behind it in the early stages. The clearer the brand tone, USP and positioning, the easier it is to get a top-of-mind recall. This greatly helps in enhancing brand awareness.
 
Improves brand positioning
 
Positioning your company is all about good storytelling via influencers, which can be your target journalists, your business partners in the ecosystem, your customers or even your employees. It is through a brand story that customers get a sense of what your startup is all about. What should a story do? It should say who you are.
 
Your positioning determines your ability to sway the consumer’s perception of your brand in comparison to your competition. So, does your product help you win? The answer is no. When done right, brand positioning helps your company thrive, beat out superior products and ultimately lead your category.
 
For example, the fantasy sports platform Dream11 launched ‘Dream Big’ stories to bring out untold stories of eight unsung heroes who have made a difference for cricketers in India. Available on YouTube and social media, this series is an extension of the brand’s Dream Big campaign launched last year. The eight-video series reveals the human side of these heroes and aims to inspire people to achieve their potential.
 
Essentially, this form of storytelling serves a dual purpose: a) Strengthen Dream11’s dominance in parallel to the IPL and b) Position Dream11 as a global brand for fantasy sports beyond cricket. Dream11 has already grown from a startup to becoming the world’s largest fantasy sports platform with 110 million users.  
 
Creates positive brand associations
 
While telling a story consistently across all channels can get your brand all the attention, the real power lies in how you tell your story. It’s all in the words. As long as it doesn’t get technical, the real goal is to let people know about your products and services while also ensuring that people are connecting. Interacting with brands is like meeting and interacting with new people. How similar are we? Do we have shared interests? Do you stick to your core values? These are some of the questions that your startup’s identity, design and content should answer and reflect to create a positive and consistent association with your brand.
 
Builds customer loyalty
 
How to keep the audience interested across all channels? By being transparent in your messaging, actively encouraging consumers to share their own experiences and having a solid multi-channel storytelling approach. Be it your website, social media, product packaging or retail outlets- every channel adds a new perspective to your story. This ensures that all your individual stories are interwoven to create a brand experience that results in brand loyalty. 
 
Storytelling, when done effectively across multiple channels, makes sure people are already paying attention every time you launch or sell a product. When you create stories to connect or entertain, there is sustained attention and engagement for a longer period. People trust your brand and develop an emotional connection. This way you not just build loyalty but also maintain it.  
 
Taking this to the next level is boAt Lifestyle, the top-notch brand for earphones in India. BoAt has been able to build a community comprising 2 million loyal customers. Whenever a customer buys a boAT accessory they become part of a community called ‘boAtheads’. Being part of this ever-growing clan gives a feeling of belongingness to buyers.
 
Another advantage of the community is that loyal consumers can connect and also give feedback on e-commerce websites, eventually contributing to product development at boAt. A strong brand story, using the boAThead community and campaigns backed by influencers and celebrities, has let boAt build a strong category leadership narrative.
 
The final word
 
Gone are the days when traditional positioning strategies merely stated product features, price and capabilities. The world of startups has changed quite a bit since the pandemic. With an expanding online customer base, more and more categories are being disrupted. A new window of opportunities has opened up for new brands to take on category leadership. Today, storytelling via different stakeholders has become an integral part of the positioning strategy for startups. Besides setting you apart from the competition, a great story enables you to not only drive higher brand equity but also lead your category.
 
The author is founder, CommsCredible