Strong brands – why the Founder’s DNA matters

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Brands / Customer Experience / Founders / Innovation / Luxury / Start-ups / Strategic Marketing

Ada Masotti, otherwise known as “Golden Scissors”, was a meticulous and talented pattern cutter with an eye for beautiful fabrics and couture embellishment. She launched the premium lingerie brand La Perla in 1954, now known around the world as the byword for luxury lingerie. You’ll never find a La Perla store anywhere but the best global luxury fashion destinations. Creative credentials are often borrowed from art and adopted to provide showcase events like the retail installation above. The La Perla brand experience is a controlled, rather authoritarian elegance, an aloof “we-set-the-standard” approach which loyal luxury customers must follow.

The premium lingerie brands that came later also visibly demonstrate the Founders’ DNA running through them. Joe Corre launched Agent Provocateur in 1994. The brand borrowed the salacious side of London’s Soho and elevated it to premium fashion status. In many ways Agent Provocateur’s roots could be traced back even further than Joe Corre to his mother, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whose own designs were sold in her first shop Sex, defining the punk aesthetic of the era and uniting a community. Today Agent Provocateur stores are always found a little off the beaten track, and rather than chandeliers, red lanterns more akin to the kind you’d find in the Shanghai opium dens of old can be glimpsed from the street.

Rigby and Peller was acquired by June Kenton in the 1980s, but had been around since the 1930s. Until recently by Royal appointment, it was renowned for expert bra fittings, conducted by kind, down-to-earth women at quality, conservative London retail locations. In atmosphere Rigby and Peller feels very practical and caring, more like your favourite Aunt or a nice Devonshire cream tea than the serious end of lingerie.

What unites all of these distinctive brands is their Founders’ DNA. Enshrined in the mission, values and entire operations of the company each of these brands is unique and attracts a very specific cohort of consumers. Consumers who will pay for that experience, identify with and want to be part of that community. So why care about building a unique brand? Marketing expert Seth Godin, puts it this way ‘A brand’s value is the sum total of how much extra people will pay, or how often they choose, the expectations, memories, stories and relationships of one brand over the alternatives.’

I recently attended a discussion hosted by a boutique investment bank where a lively debate took place about why investors in the start-up sector were increasingly averse to backing companies targeting consumers. Promiscuity and sheer cost of acquiring customers in very expensive search and social channels were just some of the risks highlighted. As the debate raged on I was struck by the fact nobody was talking about the power of creating a unique brand. The decades-old principles of a strong brand, well-executed strategy and its power to raise barriers to entry seemed to have been forgotten…and this is a shame; for consumer-focussed start-ups it’s vital they can give investors confidence B2C companies can be an attractive place to put their money.

As I’ve done an increasing amount of advisory work within the London start-up community, it’s clear we have some of the most talented founders and teams anywhere in the world. They are courageous, take calculated risks, move at speeds that corporates can only imagine and nobody does agile development and data-driven decision making better. However, there often isn’t a deep understanding of how to translate the passion and mission that has driven most Founders to launch in the first place into a strong brand DNA. Much of the work I’ve found myself doing with start-up Founders has focussed on defining unique brands that resonate with consumers.

Brand DNA or core brand value is often taken to mean logo and marketing communications; that is one of the areas it impacts on, but this is not the whole story. A strong core brand value is about something truly profound, secret attributes that are enshrined in the brand’s operations, making it harder to copy and crucially raising barriers to entry in a way that no search or social marketing campaign ever can. Building a strong brand tells your customers, but also your team, what you stand for and what sets you apart in the world. As Seth Godin says, “When you speak to everyone, you speak to no one”. If you know whom you’re talking to and how you’re really trying to help them you will attract customers who value you, will stay with you longer and will pay you more for what you do, something investors will love.

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