You don't need to work in venture capital or graduate from Stanford business school to recognize that we're in the midst of a consumer startup revolution. Scroll through your Instagram feed, and you're more likely to see a beautiful, compelling ad from a brand you've never heard of than you are to see an old favorite. The barriers to entry for launching a business get lower every day, which means new brands are popping up at a whack-a-mole velocity. The old gatekeepers no longer exist; you don't need to be able to afford a TV ad or get a place on the shelf at a major retail chain in order to get in front of people. Every category is up for grabs, and traditional leading brands are seeing their businesses slowly erode as hundreds of small companies encroach on their territory. As category after category gets disrupted, as competition gets fiercer, it's no longer enough to have a great idea, or a better price, or faster shipping. Founders need to be thinking about brand from 'before' day one; it needs to be embedded in their culture from the very start. They need to build a brand that people will fall madly in love with at first sight, and they need to do it before they even launch.
It wasn't always this way. When I graduated from college in 2001, I took a job at a large global advertising agency to work on huge, established brands, many of which had been around for literally a century. Our role at the agency was to create new TV campaigns every year that would generate renewed excitement and energy for old, familiar things. I learned a ton about how the world's oldest and largest consumer goods companies approach brand building, and the rigor that goes into defining a target audience, sharpening a consumer insight, developing a clear and succinct brand strategy, and then using that strategy to guide all communications. I loved my job, and I met some of the smartest and most creative people I've ever known.
But after a few years, I grew frustrated. TV advertising was becoming less and less dominant, and we were tasked with coming up with new messages about brands that simply didn't feel relevant, with no power to affect the brands or products themselves. I started to describe my job as "what new thing can we say about yogurt this year?" (The answer: not much.) I felt that we were solving the wrong problems.
I was looking for a change, and my friend JB, eventually my cofounder, brought me on to help him run the New York office for a New Zealandbased creative agency. It was 2006 and the startup scene in New York was just gaining steam. Because we were small, we started meeting entrepreneurs, people who had amazing ideas for businesses that could fundamentally transform behaviors—people who were using innovation to solve real problems.
They didn't need advertising, at least not yet, but we discovered in our conversations that they knew very little about how to build a brand, or even what that really meant. We saw an opportunity to take everything we had learned working with large global brands and apply it to launching and growing new businesses that we wanted to see in the world.
Our belief was that brand is an engine that drives business growth, and the sooner businesses incorporate brand thinking, the more set up for success they'll be. We struck out on our own and founded Red Antler in 2007 to test that hypothesis by partnering with founders to help them embed this perspective from day one.
Years later, Red Antler has grown to over a hundred people, but we still mostly work with startups. We've played a key role in launching some of the most successful and exciting new brands in the world, helping create billions of dollars of value. In fact, half of our clients are "pre-launch," which means that we meet founding teams before they've launched their businesses, and help them to create the entire consumer-facing experience through the lens of brand.
When we first started Red Antler, many people questioned whether founders should invest in brand before they've proven product-market fit and started to gain traction. But our philosophy is "brand early, not often." This directly contradicts the "lean startup," "test to success" approaches that many earlier tech companies embraced. Today, it feels like a new company launches every second, and you can no longer get an idea out there, see if it has momentum, and then iterate on your brand as you would on a set of software features. If you're launching a particular business, you can be sure that someone else is too. This phenomenon plays out in Hollywood, where you end up with two almost identically themed movies coming out in the same year. (Or with kids' names—you think you're so creative, and then there are four Marlows on the playground.)
The same cultural forces and gaps in the market that lead one founder to launch a direct-to-consumer contact lens business are leading someone else to do the same. And the time frame for a trend to demonstrate itself has only gotten more intense—it used to be that over the course of a year, we would notice that more and more people were launching businesses in a certain category. Now, within a month, we'll sometimes meet with three different teams launching nearly identical ideas. Because it's so much easier to get things off the ground, and because technology has lowered the barriers to entry for everyone, the difference in success largely boils down to brand.