Startup branding: some pointers from Amazon & Marmite

Jeff Bezos is the man who sold the world back to itself in cardboard boxes and oversaw the digital logistics of the human race. Amazon is nothing if not a mind-bogglingly expert cash-raking machine. It remains a late-stage capitalist play offering a macabre dislocated digital dance of choice. 

Ok, I’m grumpy about some failed Amazon deliveries over the weekend, and whilst Amazon is now a ubiquitous household brand, meaning much more than ordering books online, when it fails to meet your expectations, it reflects on the brand. Sorry Jeff, get off your rocket and have a word with Andy Jassy to sort it out.

In talking with a friend last week, it was clear she has a personal relationship with Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon’s Echo. She talks to Alexa about the weather, films, restaurant reservations and the temperature she wants the house to be. She acknowledges that the more she interacts with Alexa, the more she buys on Amazon, from electronics, deals of the day, to everyday household items.

I’m not that hooked, my guilty pleasure remains iTunes – old tech, I know – but Alexa, in concert with Prime, has become more indispensable to her life than her mobile phone. Through Alexa, Echo and Prime, Amazon created an on-demand, personalised, signature experience and is becoming the world leader in delivering on its brand promise: the Earth’s biggest selection and most customer-centric company.

Amazon is betting that Alexa and Echo will drive consumers to interact with, and ultimately purchase more, from Amazon and Prime. The smarter Alexa becomes at knowing your needs, preferences and behaviours, the better she is at delivering a seamless experience – and the better experience she delivers, the more indispensable she becomes to consumers’ lives. Imagine the levels of customer loyalty it could achieve. Amazon is redefining what my experience should be. Customer obsession is one of the hallmarks of brands that stand apart from the rest – think Apple too – but Amazon is the brand I am obsessing over right now, good and bad.

So how can a startup build a brand like Amazon? Ok, you don’t have deep pockets, so let’s take a step back, way back, and look at how a foodstuff brand forged its own market position and reputation, and combine the learnings from traditional product marketing with today’s digital tools.

Marmite is the brand to learn from – yes, that thick, black, glossy, yeast-based extract – enjoyed with butter on toast, or with hot water as a tea. It has been an iconic brand for over a century. Now owned by Unilever, it’s been in our kitchen cupboards for donkeys’ years, with its reassuringly heavy cauldron-shaped jar, chunky yellow lid and no-nonsense red name label.

Marmite is made from yeast extract that is a by-product of beer brewing. The product is notable as a source of B vitamins. It’s a sticky, dark brown paste with a distinctive, salty, powerful flavour and matching heady aroma. The name comes from a marmite, a French term for a large, covered earthenware or metal casserole dish (pronounced Marmeet).

The product that was to become Marmite was invented during the late C19th when German scientist Justus von Liebig discovered that brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. This lead to the formation of the Marmite Food Extract Company in Burton, where Bass Brewery supplied the yeast. By 1912, the discovery of vitamins was a boost for Marmite, and British troops during WW1 were issued Marmite as part of their rations, along with bully beef, spam and condensed milk.

Marmite’s marketing campaigns initially emphasised the spread’s healthy nature, extolling it as The growing up spread you never grow out of.  During the 1980s, the spread was advertised with the slogan My mate, Marmite, chanted in television commercials by an army platoon. Then marketing agency BMP DDB were appointed to refresh the brand. I remember sitting in my office looking at the brief and saying to Richard Flintham ‘I fucking hate Marmite’ said Andy McLeod, and he said ‘Oh, I love it’. And we both just looked at each other – and the Love it or Hate it campaign was born in October 1996. Where is Marmite today? It’s still on the supermarket shelves but in many homes the squat black bottle slumbers at the back of the kitchen cupboard. Sales tick over at a modest three and a half million jars every year.

So, on one side of this blog Marmite, an established, traditional brand with heritage and longevity. The contrast couldn’t be starker to Amazon, a modern tech behemoth rampaging its way seemingly into any market it wants, using tech and data as their go-to-market weapon. As a traditional brand, how do you innovate (experiment) in new areas while maintaining strong execution on your core business? If you’re a start-up, your creativity, agility, and risk-taking are your hallmarks but you have to invest on building a brand to trust too.

Let’s combine the marketing and brand building lessons of Marmite and Amazon, what are the key takeaways here?

1. Segmentation, targeting, positioning  Amazon uses demographic and psychographic data to segment its markets, based on actual purchase behaviour, with micro-level segmentation on each individual customer, enabling them to convert web site visitors into long-term, high-value repeat customers. From the start, Marmite was heavily advertised through campaigns that tapped into the mood of the public. It was British and the company worked hard to make sure it was a food of choice of the army – it was patriotic and nutritious. Marmite was cannily marketed as a food that could make everyone healthy.

Takeaway: Be clear with your purpose and connect with people as individuals, crafting a brand message that resonates with your vision.

2. Customer analysis Amazon’s target market is people who use e-commerce and comfortable with online shopping. The majority of their customers have busy lives and find it convenient to purchase online rather than visiting a physical outlet, to save time and money. Marmite rivals Bovril to be a staple for hundreds and thousands of football supporters up and down the country, gulping down steaming hot cups of the brew, easing the chill of a winter’s afternoon and sometimes the pain of conceding a goal, after all, it’s what the good old Thermos flask was invented for. This widened their customer base and generated repeat business – each Saturday afternoon.

Takeaway: Answer one simple question – What’s the special thing only YOU can do that your customers will miss out on if you never existed? Understand your customers’ problems and how you can solve them, then ensure you provide enough touchpoints for repeat purchases, building customer retention and loyalty.

3. Distribution strategy Amazon understands that the most important thing customers want is the quick delivery of products ordered, and has more than 150 fulfilment centres in the UK – this does not include Amazon’s ‘under-the-tent’ strategy of using existing vendor warehouse space for consumer-packaged goods to quickly serve customers. Their strategy of improving their distribution lines enables Amazon to connect with more customers.

In Marmite’s case, by 1930, over 3,000 grocers were selling the product, and it became so popular that an electric advertising sign was erected in London’s Piccadilly Circus. However, advertising was only part of the story. The company needed to source vitamins, which meant working with overseas suppliers, with shipping lines and hundreds of retailers. The Marmite company was adept at building networks with people of influence.

Takeaway: Ensure your startup has clear routes to catalysing a market, enabling rapid, simple and quality connections that reach both your customer audience and suppliers. Create a brand promise and experience, create a real tone of voice that energies your network.

4. Build Brand equity From being an e-book provider to emerging as the second largest e-commerce company in the world, Amazon has steadily made its brand stronger. Amazon broadcasts using television commercials and billboards, online advertising networks and search engine marketing. Bezos had this in mind when creating the company, deciding that it should start with an ‘a’.

For Marmite, inventor von Liebig also enjoyed publicity – advertising connected Marmite to the fashionable and popular physical culture movement by getting sporting celebrities to endorse the brand. One of these, the world’s strongest man at the turn of the C20th, an Adonis-like star called Eugen Sandow, had developed his rippling muscles so that his body resembled a classical sculpture which he showed off to enormous crowds in the music halls – claiming Marmite game him the physique.

Takeaway: Build your brand reputation, and illustrate for engagement. Differentiate yourself and create your image – but go beyond a logo.

5Product Amazon initially started with books, and became the largest book seller in the world. Now, it is a multi-product gregarious feeder on consumer demand for everything. Marmite has also been produced as a ‘special edition’ product – Guinness for the Rugby Six Nations, Marmite Champagne flavour for Valentine’s Day, and in 2010, a super-strong blend called Marmite Extra Old, abbreviated as XO, was launched.

Takeaway: Great brands have great products, they stand for something that they extend as a ‘promise’, and they’re consistent about their values in everything they do

6. Promotion Amazon can be seen to rely on the best source of promotion there is – word of mouth. We all extol about the convenience and timeliness it provides – we all marvel at the next day delivery – even on a Sunday – but alas, not in rural north Wales. For Marmite, it used to be marketed using symbolism of Britishness, but today its advertising taps into the Love it or Hate it contrasting consumer preferences and uses this to create a distinct brand positioning.

Takeaway: Show your identity, and be memorable. Effective branding builds reputation and trust. Determine who you want to be, create a narrative, be authentic but defy expectations. Keep your product thinking agile and relevant to future markets.

Andy Jassy took over from Bezos as Amazon’s CEO in July, continuing the forward-thinking strategy that makes Amazon one of the world’s top brands, maintaining the customer-centric concept from its original foundations in every part of its business model. It is the entrepreneurial eye for customer innovation, and scaling the execution, that are Bezo’s legacy for other entrepreneurs to admire.

For Marmite, reflect that people don’t necessarily buy just what your product is. They’re buying into your story, the values you have and the experience you will give them. You’re not just buying a foodstuff that they’ve had for years, they’re buying interactions with you.

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