Published //
November 2, 2020

Marketing is a machine that requires the harmonious dance of many intricate parts. And if there’s something that we can all agree on, it would be that branding is definitely one of the most important gears which ensure that a marketing campaign runs smoothly and effectively.

Unfortunately though, If you look at the startup ecosystem, you will find that the most innovative and disruptive companies out there are run by young, enthusiastic founders who get blinded by their hunger for success, and start focusing on numbers—losing sight of the bigger picture.

Almost all of these startup founders are trying to make a change in the world. Needless to say, big ideas and grandiose goals come with some challenges. In this article, we will try to understand why some marketing campaigns, that look great on paper, can turn into disasters simply because they are off-brand. 

1. It’s Not Easy to Do Good

I bet Pepsi executives can still taste the shame three years after their failed campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. I don’t think though, that we should sit here and debate whether or not the goal of the campaign was to do good by promoting peace and love. Let’s just give Pepsi the benefit of the doubt and say that money was not their sole motivator.

Now imagine that you were in their shoes. You get a great idea of a campaign that can reach a large audience, promote values that no one would disagree with, and sell a ton of product as well. It all seems great so you rush to pull the trigger without realizing that something crucial is missing. A throughline that connects this specific campaign to your startup’s brand as a whole.

If we’re being honest, the message behind the campaign was dumb. No one believes big issues can be solved just by handing out cans of soda. But that’s not what caused the backlash. People were mad because the message came from nonother than Pepsi, a giant corporation that usually sticks to platonic ads to sell their product. We call this the Black Sheep Effect, which you can read more about in a previous article. 

2. The Ruthless Fight For Attention

With millions of business—big and small—competing for attention, whether that’s online or elsewhere. It has become very difficult for B2C companies, especially startups, to gain recognition. This has lead to a disproportionate number of marketing campaigns that are simply disastrous.

When under pressure, your targeting is very likely to be hit or miss. Unlike branding, where knowing your audience well is what makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful brand, marketing can sometimes be focused on KPIs, which might distract from the ultimate goal of appealing to a specific audience. This is when you find yourself selling, but just not to the right people.

With the constant fear of losing relevance hanging over the heads of startup founders, it’s easy to seek instant results rather than long term growth. The problem with that type of strategy is the huge margin for error. Topics or themes that are trending are not always going to be relevant to your specific audience.

3. Lack of a Unifying Brand Vision

Think about it, if an increase in sales is the only thing that your team can celebrate after a marketing campaign is over, do you really expect them to care about what means they use to achieve the goal they have been given?

To combat this problem, you have to encourage your team to come up with solutions that will bring your startup to one ultimate goal, and that’s having an identity. Building up your startup’s brand to be strong and memorable is a lot more valuable in the long run, and it’s not worth risking over a temporary spike in sales that is not guaranteed to last.

Making sure you do that though, is difficult. It might even seem counter-intuitive to your team at first. But you as a founder and leader have to align them with your brand’s vision. 


Is an increase in sales really worth risking your startup’s brand reputation? Pepsi, whom we used as an example, is arguably still fighting to win people’s trust back. Sophie Lewis, chief strategy officer at WPP-owned agency VMLY&R, speculates that Pepsi’s slogan change back in 2019 was to distance the brand from the ad’s controversy, showing just how much the campaign hurt their brand. If you’re curious, this Wired article talks all about it.

By looking at how even big companies with enormous budgets can sometimes be tone-deaf, we can start to see just why the rate of failure in the startup world is so high. Running a business is difficult and success has no room for the incompetent, which is why setting your priorities straight is your best bet at making it in this coming decade.