Sometimes to play with the big names, you have to change the game. That’s how middle-market companies — or challenger brands — dominate their industries: by redefining their categories.
Challenger brands are not innovative start-ups or established household names. They don’t want to be. Challengers create their own status by changing the existing conventions of their industry, and they’re prepared to use bold tactics to do so. That’s where agencies like TWIST come in.
TWIST Co-Founder and CEO Mike Ozan has created hundreds of brand strategies to help challengers become category leaders. As a storyteller, he takes advantage of the brand’s challenger mindset to grow brand appreciation — appealing to the rebel spirit in every customer.
In a Q&A with Douglas Guth for Middle Market Growth magazine, Mike shares what he’s learned in his over 20 years of helping challenger companies rise to the top and what key marketing trends are impacting them today.
Douglas Guth: What is TWIST’s role in meeting the branding needs of middle-market companies?
Mike Ozan: Our role for lower-mid and mid-market companies typically begins with brand strategy, brand storytelling, key messaging, and communications strategy. We have an intense focus on mid-market companies and find that so many of these companies are what we term “legacy brands.” They have remarkable origin stories and can often be third or fourth generation of leadership and or ownership. What they require is a brand evolution that preserves the decades of equity and brings it forward to reach a new audience. We have certainly spent at least the past 5 to 7 years helping these clients pivot to a voice and visual impression that a millennial decision-maker will respond to. This is a dramatic shift for many leadership teams in the B2B space who were pre-pandemic very conditioned to dealing directly with a male baby boomer owner or a Gen X executive. The play is completely different today as they work to gain the confidence of a millennial female executive.
Guth: What are some common ways that marketing agencies misunderstand these needs?
Ozan: We often see marketing agencies, brand agencies, or advertising agencies, who are conditioned to think on a national scale, struggle with mid-market brands. Smaller budgets require bigger ideas and resourcefulness that get the client from point a to b while preserving their budget for all marketing expressions. At the end of the day if the client invests in brand but cannot fund media then the brand will not succeed to gain traction with target audiences. At TWIST we often work budget backward with mid-market clients while discussing realistic benchmarks that create sales growth without over-promising. These companies really depend upon their agency partners to know them inside and out and have the experience to foresee and describe the expected outcome of any campaign.
Guth: How do middle-market companies misunderstand their own needs?
Ozan: So much of our work relies upon the CMO on the other side of the table. What I can tell you for sure and without any hesitation, is millennial female leaders get brand. They are not just digitally native they are 21st-century brand raised. They know what brands they love and why. The biggest mistake we see brands make is not investing in the research to truly understand all of their audiences. We see dramatic facial expressions around the table every time we reveal real customer interviews. In the case of B2B clients, we make it a point to speak with customers that had not only selected the brand we also speak with the ones who abandoned it or did not select it.
Guth: What makes middle-market companies unique in terms of how they’re branded compared to large companies?
Ozan: Regardless of the industry, a mid-market brand has one objective: To take market share from industry leaders while fending off more boutique offerings from start-up competitors. This is a tough job for the CMO as they work to find a way to express the innovation of a start-up while achieving the mass appeal of a national/global brand. Startups innovate fast and nationals have deep pockets. In most cases, the CMO’s biggest challenge is that the brand has low awareness as marketing has been traditionally underfunded or inconsistently funded causing its audience to be unsure of the status of the brand and its products/services.
Guth: What else makes middle-market companies unique when it comes to branding, e.g., they may have marketing resources, but lack large marketing teams? What other challenges do they face?
Ozan: The largest challenge an agency or a CMO / in-house team faces within a mid-market company is its internal politics. So often we work through challenging conversations to help clients get out of their own way. This is when real growth happens.
Guth: What are the most prevalent marketing needs for today’s middle-market companies?
Ozan: Mid-market companies struggle with brand awareness and what we at TWIST call Brand Appreciation. Their messages have not been specific to audiences and thus, most customers only know them for what they originally hired them for. In the meantime, the company has grown, services have expanded, tech improved. So many things to talk about with customers but the lack of in-house expertise or capacity inhibits the consistent narrative required to turn the heads of new customers.
Guth: In what ways can a defined brand support the bottom line for a middle-market business? What are the benefits of strong branding in both attracting and retaining customers as well as employees?
Ozan: Brand is personality. It is face, voice, and body language. It is the emotional connection that is critical to gaining consideration that leads to selection. The work of branding is the work of building layers of storytelling, key messages, visual identity, and communications that all stimulate an appreciation for the brand, its worldview, and its values. What mid-market companies must understand is that millennials are in leadership and decision-making positions, and they require values to match with a company or employer. Brand storytelling and visuals instill confidence, impact culture and inspire devotion. Yes, it’s brand that attracts investors and customers, but it is also brand that keeps them buying for years to come.
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