An evolving communications approach for every stage of growth

When you work with clients ranging from the most established brands to early-stage startups – and each stage of growth in between – you get a unique perspective on the many different communications challenges businesses can face as they evolve over time. Last week, I spent time with a mix of clients at various stages in the business lifecycle, and I’d like to use today’s blog to provide a refresher on how to prioritize different communications approaches when companies are in different stages of growth.

In the early startup days, the primary goal is to build awareness and credibility. This can be an uphill battle, given that the brand and the core product are still being defined. However, there is the benefit of being the new kid on the block, and media generally respond well to the narrative of the underdog taking on an established industry. Startups also benefit from the tendency of the press to prioritize new stories, new ideas and new products. At this stage of the business lifecycle, we recommend that companies focus on communicating the innovation they are bringing to table, how that disrupts the market and how it sets them apart. By doing so, they can build a solid reputation as an “up and comer” and “a company to watch.”

The novelty of newness wears off quickly, however, and this is where many startups first trip up. As companies evolve, media and influencers are looking for a clearer articulation of value, a roadmap of innovation and a longer-term vision. At this point, observers are much more likely to ask, “Do the facts match the hype that the company generated in its early days?”

Not only does a company in the post-startup phase need to have a solid product/platform/service portfolio, they need to be able to demonstrate they are scaling at the appropriate rate – whether that’s measured in funding and burn rates, staffing increases, customer retention and acquisition, or some other criteria that analysts and observers have identified as crucial indicators of potential success in the industry. Tons of startups have landed softly in initial media coverage, only to fall short when it became apparent their business model was no longer sustainable.

Funding rounds. Just “getting your name out there” is no longer sufficient. The goal at this point is to generate coverage that tells a visionary story of growth – with an emphasis on key metrics – that will resonate with potential investors and customers and with experts and analysts. In communications terms, companies that get this transition right, move from an interesting startup in the minds of media to a key market player.

The next stage of a company’s growth is often a significant leap – from key market player to serious leadership challenger. At this point a company should have a clear and compelling vision, healthy market share, an ambitious and demonstrably sustainable innovation roadmap, and an established narrative and reputation with media and influencers.

Interestingly, we often see companies decide to rest on their laurels in terms of communications at this stage, redirecting energy and resources to activities like demand generation, product marketing and new customer acquisition. Certainly, these are vital areas of focus, but they shouldn’t be pursued exclusively at the expense of communications. It’s important to sustain coverage momentum, and here’s why:

A company at this stage of the business lifecycle no longer has the benefit of being an underdog or upstart or challenger. Instead, it is viewed as well-established and, often, less interesting. The risk of slipping quietly into irrelevance (from the perspective of the media) is far greater than before. Demonstrating effective, articulate thought leadership is critical at this stage. We consistently recommend to companies at this stage to communicate their story in a broader industry context. What are customers and partners in this industry looking for? What are the most relevant industry trends, and how are we addressing them? What will the industry look like five years from now? What key challenges and opportunities should leadership be thinking about and preparing for? On-stage speaking opportunities, opinion pieces, bylined articles and industry insight are now among the core tactics in the communications campaign.

Finally, we reach the pinnacle of a company’s growth lifecycle, when it is in a position of market leadership and occupying rarified air with a small group of competitors who dominate the space they operate in. There is strong brand equity, a clear value proposition, a broad customer and partner base, and solid financials. Thought leadership at this stage ought to be easier, right? Yet the communications challenges at this stage are unique and they are formidable. Popular wisdom says that once you reach the top the only direction to move is downward. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Powerhouse companies can (and must) remain respected thought leaders by consistently telling their story with clear, unique and thought-provoking angles. Their leadership is more closely scrutinized by press, and they must continually demonstrate their value and their edge. Any crisis is likely to make news headlines, impacting share price and reputation.

Effective communications at this leadership stage is just as vital as it was when the company was at Series A and seeking to build awareness. But the consequences of a misstep are arguably more severe. After all, there is a fine line between thought leader and perceived dinosaur.

All companies evolve through a growth lifecycle, so it makes sense that communications objectives, strategies and tactics should evolve as companies move through different stages of growth. A good communications partner will understand and appreciate this, and will have the knowledge, experience and smarts to assist you along the way.