The Guide to Getting Brand Awareness, No Matter Your Startup’s Size

March 10, 2020

By Lorna Garey, executive editor at Brainyard(opens in new tab)
 7-minute read

In short:

  • When trying to boost your brand, page rank matters only if the searcher’s intent aligns with your offering. Otherwise, you’re just noise.

  • Young firms can start with a quick and cheap plan then work their way up to a holistic content strategy. 

  • Some guerilla social marketing can jumpstart your branding campaign, too.


Young companies short on brand awareness(opens in new tab), domain authority(opens in new tab), backlinks(opens in new tab), content volume and mature social media profiles face an uphill battle in terms of popping up in potential customers’ search(opens in new tab) results. But is striving for any old Page 1 Google placement really the best way to become more visible to buyers and generate high-quality leads(opens in new tab)?

No, says Jessica N. Levenson, a digital strategy and SEO expert and regular speaker at marketing events like Folio(opens in new tab). I had a chance to interview Levenson in response to a question from a startup founder who needed help balancing paid ads versus other approaches to building brand recognition.

She says it’s time to stop using generic placement on search result pages as a success metric: “Gaining a ranking that doesn’t meet a business goal equals low ROI."

She often fields questions from startups finding it tough to break through, like, “What can we achieve organically(opens in new tab) through SEO best practices(opens in new tab)?” or “How do we generate content that’ll perform well in search?”  

Hopefully, as part of your business plan, your brand leaders have identified a set of problems(opens in new tab) buyers or users are trying to solve and built the product or service as a clear solution. Once those targets are solidified, topic research(opens in new tab) and competitive analysis(opens in new tab) will inform your strategy. You will eventually need multiple pieces of content -- articles, videos, social posts -- that target every stage in the buying journey(opens in new tab), from casual Google searcher to actual purchaser of your product.  

“The real answer to brand and website traffic growth is a holistic strategy that blends organic and paid(opens in new tab) efforts,” says Levenson. 

The question isn’t which of these to undertake, but when to tackle each of them. You don’t have to do it all at once.

Below, find a game plan based on the amount of time and resources you can spend on boosting your brand. You can start fast and ramp up as resources allow.

The quick & cheap strategy: 
Co-marketing or co-branding relationships and partnerships with influencers

First, some definitions and examples: 

  • Co-branding examples include Nordstrom or Costco issuing a branded AmEx or Visa credit card, or Burger King and KFC working with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat for a vegetarian version of a Whopper or fried “chicken” sandwich. In short, two brands are marketing a product together. 
  • Co-marketing is less integrated; maybe a subject-matter expert on your team does a webinar that’s promoted by a more well-known company that can market it to the type of customers you need. You do the content work, the partner provides reach, you share the leads. Startups that have angel, accelerator or VC relationships(opens in new tab) may be able to take advantage of complementary companies in the investor’s portfolio. If you don’t have an investor to broker a co-marketing deal, try a local meetup -- whether through the actual Meetup site(opens in new tab), your local startup association, wherever -- or the r/startups(opens in new tab) page on Reddit.

 The idea with co-marketing and -branding is to get your name out there without sweating too much about metrics. The goal is to create general awareness of your brand name and product.

Burger King's partnership with Impossible Foods is an example of co-branding.

“All startups need to grow their presence,” says Levenson. “A co-branding or -marketing relationship might end up benefiting both of you in ways beyond visibility.”

You might also appear as a guest on a podcast or offer to speak to journalists looking for expertise you have. Anything, within reason, to raise awareness. 

Small companies might also work with micro- and nano-influencers to promote products with organic posts (read: free social media posts from another human) instead of sponsored ads (read: those Instagram ads you pay for). Micro-influencers are people (or photogenic animals(opens in new tab)) with 10,000-100,000 social media followers, while nano-influencers(opens in new tab) have fewer than 5,000 followers but are seen as experts in their niches. To get started, do some research to figure out who is influential in your market on Twitter, Instagram and/or LinkedIn.

“Getting folks to promote your brand isn’t rocket science,” says Levenson. “It’s hard, time consuming and tedious, but it’s not impossible to reverse engineer. Say you have a SaaS (software-as-a-service, or cloud software) product. Searching for ‘top SaaS influencers’ brings up several well-curated lists.(opens in new tab) Look for analysts, journalists and corporate evangelists from companies you buy from. Or look at who companies similar to yours are amplified by.”

“Getting folks to promote your brand isn’t rocket science. It’s hard, time consuming and tedious, but it’s not impossible to reverse engineer."


If you see that an influencer regularly posts “advertorials,” indicated by the FTC-required #ad hashtag,(opens in new tab) you could message and ask for rates. If mentions seem more organic, cultivate a relationship by following, sharing, consuming and commenting on the influencer’s content. Then reach out with a query on how you might work together.

LA Collective built a multimillion-dollar business(opens in new tab) on influencer marketing by partnering with celebrities to not only create clothing lines but also sell those lines on its own site.(opens in new tab)


The medium-term strategy: 
Paid digital advertising and impactful content 

“For businesses that have a marketing specialist, PPC [pay-per-click] or paid social is going to be the answer,” says Levenson. “The choice of one or the other or both is largely dependent on where your audience congregates.” 

Once again, some definitions: 

(opens in new tab)When Wendy's replies to fans' tweets, it uses a consistently snarky brand voice.

Developing buyer personas(opens in new tab) from your initial business plan is important here. Our suit seller, for example, might think about where his customer goes for entertainment and news. Who influences him from a fashion perspective? What are some pain points, like high cost or needing to be in a major metro area to visit a showroom? Now you know where to buy ads and how to address objections your prospect might have to buying your product.

Display ads(opens in new tab) are also an option for startups with design resources. The goal is to continue raising awareness of your brand and acquiring customers, now with the ability to measure success.

 This advice for nonprofits(opens in new tab) looking to enhance their digital storytelling, like using video and social media monitoring, is applicable to other companies.

Again, a consistent and brand-appropriate voice is important.

“Some fun and even snark are good, but think about your customer,” says Levenson. “Not everyone will respond to a moldy burger(opens in new tab).” And make sure you monitor paid social with a listening service or tool(opens in new tab) so you can respond to customer comments.

Aim for content that’s highly impactful: Answers a question your customers have, is in-depth and authoritative, is not promotional and is presented where and how your customers want to consume it.

A few years ago, security consultancy Bluebox (now owned by Lookout(opens in new tab)), did a security review of 12 cheap Android tablets(opens in new tab) available from major retailers and released it right before the holidays. This was a brilliant piece of content. It was not hugely expensive — all the purchased tablets were around $50, and the analysis was done in-house by the company’s engineers. It was launched at the ideal time, when people were shopping for gifts, and it provided valuable advice. It highlighted the company’s expertise and product, and the analysts promoted it to their journalist and influencer contacts. Not surprisingly, it was picked up by a number of major, mainstream media sites. 

The longer-term strategy: 
A deep content strategy that’s mapped out and consistent

As far as search and social are concerned, organic reach(opens in new tab), or getting folks’ eyes on your brand, means content. Many guides have been written on developing a content strategy(opens in new tab), and an explanation is beyond the scope of this column. Anyway, by now, you probably have a marketer on board, and she likely has a content philosophy.

“SEO success is a long-term effort that requires investment in quality, intent-matching content and a solid internal and external linking strategy(opens in new tab),” says Levenson. “In addition to paid efforts, take advantage of partners with greater reach to deliver immediate results while organic traffic and conversions grow over time. Through these efforts, your company will build topical authority(opens in new tab), organic traffic and ultimately, conversions.” 

Build on, you crazy brand. 

Got thoughts on this story or want expert answers to your marketing questions? Drop Lorna a note(opens in new tab) with the subject line “Marketing Wire.” 

Lorna Garey is executive editor of Brainyard(opens in new tab). She was formerly editor in chief of Channel Partners and Channel Futures and content director, digital, of InformationWeek. 

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