We’ve seen the playbook successfully deployed hundreds of times:
New startup launches with a trendy brand identity, quirky digital and out-of-home ads, and a charming splash site that makes ordering their product—a mattress, an outfit, a medicine or a meal kit—a breeze. In the last decade, a company with precisely the right look, message and experience to match the zeitgeist could expect to grow steadily and find a foothold in the market.
Until recently, VC money was freely flowing and audience attention could still be captured across a few key channels. And brands like Casper and Hims and Allbirds nailed it, growing into household names with little-to-no brick and mortar presence.
But the ground has recently shifted in this post digital ad world for both companies and the venture capital firms that back them through their early ascendence. The economy is shakier, making investors more prone to restraint and founders more cautious with cash flow. And audiences are more diffuse—spread across different platforms, consuming highly-personalized media, and less prone to in-person work or social activity—meaning harder to reach than ever.
The old marketing playbook won’t be the one to grow the next generation of unicorns.
So what do companies really need to grow right now? In our experience, the key is less focus on traditional marketing and a greater focus on strategic positioning. You and your portfolio companies need clarity—knowing who you are and what differentiates you in the market— and focus—really understanding your target audiences and developing products, brands and experiences that address their pain points and reframe their expectations.
This isn’t the first market constriction in our lifetime, nor will it be the last. We’ve noticed that the impulse in moments like this, from founders and VCs, is to double down on what they’re already doing or pull back resources. In short, to resist the call to change.
That’s a mistake.
Companies and VC’s need to adapt to these moments. This means revisiting their go-to-market strategy in light of massive societal shifts to ensure that the direction they’re pointed is the right one. For example, we’ve recently been working with a VC firm, Meridian Street, that specializes in early-stage healthcare investing, led by former healthcare entrepreneurs—a clear market niche that founders and investors both found rather attractive.
But that positioning was quickly complicated by the sheer volume of information they had to share: explaining fund performance and celebrating portfolio company milestones. The result was a muddled positioning that felt reactive and undifferentiated. So we worked together with the head of the fund, Scott Law, to realign their go-to-market strategy around a clear value prop, a distinct identity, and messaging that was laser focused on the perspectives of founders and fund investors.
The resulting repositioning righted the ship, setting the fund up for market resilience and long-term growth.
In this post digital ad world, the companies that know who they are, know what they’re selling, and know who they’re selling to will dominate the market. And the companies built on blanketed digital ads and drop shipping smoke and mirrors will fade away.