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Big is beautiful

Why think like a startup? There are far more benefits to having the resources of a mainstream brand
I propose three seminal steps to reawaken the true spirit of big brand marketing.
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The average marketer is every bit as perverse as the next person. Given the brand assets and challenges they happen to have, they want the ones they don’t have. They yearn to be in the opposite position from where they are right now.

So, the marketer of a small, niche brand will covet the scale, swagger, budgets and sheer presence of the market leader. What must it be like to have that kind of muscle, to have pockets that deep, to be able to fund big ideas, not just come up with them?

While envy is never pretty, at least in this direction it makes a kind of sense, since it mirrors the trajectory that underlies all commercial endeavour. Growth is what business is about. ‘Small’ and then ‘middle’ are meant to be stages on the road to ‘big’. Imagine if our tiny brands were all content to remain that way – no growth please, we’re happy. The country’s economic situation would be even more dire than it is.

The other way round, though, where the big envy the small, makes no sense whatsoever. Yet it is common. Marketers of mainstream brands look with craving at the speed and flexibility of the minnows. They go green-eyed at the way niche brands can be all pointy and polarising, with less of the need to worry about alienating people.

And mass marketers will often find themselves traversing a market share plateau, where every unit of gain is hard won. How much more thrilling it must be to be riding a bucking upstart, a cheeky challenger, where doubling brand share in a matter of months is by no means out of the question.

It doesn’t help that this is a reverie many chief executives are happy to indulge. Noting what they perceive to be a creeping paralysis in their marketers, they challenge them to ‘be entrepreneurial’ and to ‘think like a startup’.

This makes as much sense as asking the occupants of a mansion to imagine that they live in a tent. It can’t be done, because the everyday reality will scream the opposite. The reason entrepreneurs think creatively, take risks and act fast is down to what they are unmistakably feeling: the icy draught of running down the cash.

So, rather than the artifice of persuading well-resourced teams to pretend that they are not, or to invoke a culture of risk-taking that doesn’t exist, better to encourage them to ‘think like a mass marketer’. Only do it better. How might they achieve that? I propose three seminal steps to reawaken the true spirit of big brand marketing.

1. Love your customer

Well, that’s easy to say. It’s one thing to show love to a customer when you’re a niche brand, where you can get to know them, where there is some specificity to work with. Much harder to put your arms around a big, heterogeneous mass that includes diverse backgrounds, beliefs, habits, lifestyles, hopes and fears.

Yes, it is harder. But the rewards for success are orders of magnitude greater. The skill is to seek ways to bring a sense of unity to your engagement with your mainstream consumer without falling prey to a one-size-fits-all approximation.

At the substantive level, McDonald’s has always been adept at extending its appeal across a wide societal sweep. It backs this up with sassy, sometimes edgy, communications that show affection for its mass consumer without patronising them or straying into bland generalities.

The 2023 ‘eyebrows’ spot, where office workers abandon workstations in their hordes to head for a McDonald’s, smartly observes the quiet subversiveness that lurks in every big employee pool. It achieves human connection at scale. You can’t not buy in.

2. Wear your purpose lightly

Leading with purpose can help with standout but is polarising. For niche brands, willing to turn off as many as they attract, that may not matter, but the stakes are higher when your share is 50 times bigger.

Who’s got time for this stuff, anyway? The mainstream will include vast pools of consumers who have other demands on their attention: putting dinner on the table, navigating the kids’ drop-offs, managing a job, dealing with councils, schools, tax, the dreaded DVLA. Yes, they want to feel they’re doing the right thing in their purchase decisions, but they really do not need another cognitive or guilt-filled burden in their lives.

Unilever’s enthusiasm for purpose at the product brand level may be at the heart of its sluggish performance over recent years. It certainly provoked the ire of its activist investor Terry Smith, and rightly so. Hellmann’s mayonnaise became about food waste, Lux became about rising above sexist judgements, and consumers became perplexed.

New chief executive Hein Schumacher has opened the door for Unilever’s marketers to stop force-fitting social and environmental themes to all its individual brands and get back to classic marketing, leaving the corporate brand to do the heavy ESG lift. It’s a good call.

3. Innovate

It’s easy for niche brands to bring excitement and fizz to the marketplace, and easy for mass brands to rest on their laurels. The best don’t.

Cadbury is about as mainstream as it gets but is using its 200-year anniversary to introduce a whole suite of ‘new creations’ to the confectionary aisle, from an orange trail mix to a hazelnut and caramel chocolate nougat bar that manages to weigh in at under 100 calories.

Where big brands really have the edge, though, is in the financial ordnance they can deploy to completely change the dynamics of the category.

For years, Microsoft played the game of upgrading existing products. Now it has stepped up a gear to pioneer the fusion of AI technology into search, through its partnership with ChatGPT. It could challenge the hegemony of Google, and bring a revolutionarily improved experience to users.

The rewards of scale

None of this is the work of a moment and, to be fair, any single element is beyond the scope of just the average marketer.

But get it right and you reap the extraordinary rewards that cascade when capability collides with scale: share gains where a single percentage point can be worth tens of millions, innovations that enhance the lives of the many, not just the few, and employees just that little bit prouder to show up for work in their thousands.

Big is beautiful. So, when a marketer of a sexy, niche brand lets you know that they envy your resources, influence and heft, you can quietly say to them: “Yeah, you’re right to.”