Top 5 Marketing Mistakes Eco-Startups Make in Year One

Sharply dressed man pours coffee into white mug that reads "UGH" in capital letters

We’ve compiled a list of the biggest mistakes sustainable companies make in startup mode – and how to avoid them.

Young companies usually have a few things in common – they’re bootstrapping with limited budgets and limited resources – while also facing down a pressing need for revenue and visibility in their market (sustainable businesses in emerging industries can even have it worse, especially if their product or service has never been seen before).

This can lead to plenty of confusion or scrambling in your first year of business, splitting your focus and leading to snap judgements and budget trade-offs as you scale.

What’s the trend when it comes to the first area of your business to suffer?

You guessed it: your marketing efforts.

Brand and marketing initiatives present a tough challenge for any type of startup. But strategic thinking is truly key to marketing success for sustainable businesses and successfully building momentum in year one – from your seemingly smallest marketing tactics to your grand vision for helping save the planet.

Marketing tactics are often woefully oversimplified to a simple list of design assets, rather than given the spotlight as key components of your overarching business plan. Worst of all, we routinely watch sustainable companies develop their offering in a vacuum and forget to look to the market – not surveying potential customers for important clues and valuable insights on how to effectively market themselves.

In fact, when it comes to marketing new businesses, we’ve pretty much seen it all.

Read on for some of the most common marketing mistakes we believe eco-startups make most in year one (and how to avoid them):

You’re thinking TOO green

It’s important to define your unique value proposition before you engage in any marketing activities. It’s the thing that makes you, you. It’s your secret sauce so to speak, your competitive advantage, and your main benefit to your customer. You should be able to sum it up in one statement without a lot of complicated sustainable jargon – but if yours is ‘we’re green’, sorry, but you’re off the mark.

Your sustainability is a feature of your company not its main benefit. It’s the thing that signals to your potential customer, ‘hey, this company will help me feel good about my choices’, not the reason why they should choose you.

Take Bakeys  – the India-based edible spoon maker out of India who took Kickstarter by storm in 2016, raising over 200K for their edible, compostable, vegan product that promises to drastically reduce takeout waste.

Bakeys doesn’t focus on their greenness to push their product. Their simply-stated value proposition?

“Use it, eat it…edible spoons.”

And we get it! It’s clear, to the point, tells us what’s special about them, and it’s got our interest piqued. The fact that they’re providing a real, eco-alternative to plastic disposable cutlery is simply a bonus.

You put a leaf in your logo

Let’s face it, ‘sustainability’ is a fluid concept. It can mean a lot of things when it comes to business – environmental responsibility, true eco innovation, or even ecological focus, etc. Taken another way, it could even apply to businesses standing a chance or not in the long term.

What’s truly ‘sustainable’ today, may not be tomorrow.

Cleantech and clean energy companies may someday face this quandary – are we only successfully lessening our reliance on fossil fuels at the expense of depleting or exploiting other sources, for example? The notion of ‘clean’ or ‘sustainable’ sources will inevitably shift as our technological capabilities and understanding advances.

So what does this mean for your brand? Well, for one, the idea of the ‘leaf’ as a sustainable or green concept may already be outmoded (not to mention cliche). Leaves and green imagery will never go out of style, and using one may be truly appropriate for your model (you might be in the leaf business!), but relying these tropes to visually communicate your eco-value could already be passe. Your greenness should be in your brand DNA, but not necessarily right there in your logo.

You got a friend to build your website

It’s very tempting to opt for the easiest (and cheapest) low-cost option as you build your new brand. But when you’re making a marketing investment, hastily or poorly built marketing assets like your logo, your website or your business cards will probably yield the same amount of return you put into them.

Outside agencies, and consultancies may seem expensive, but compare and contrast that cost with the task management, time, overhead and payroll required to build your own in-house marketing personnel. Not to mention, you’ll be bringing in an established team versus having to build one from scratch hoping they spontaneously develop chemistry.

We’re not saying someone’s uncle or BFF isn’t a terrific brand builder or web developer, but experts who know your industry and the ecological innovation space can help you prioritize and direct marketing efforts, so you can scale according to your budget and capacity.

You assume all eco-audiences are created equal

There’s the type of person who tries to reduce their carbon footprint by offsetting their consumption with micro-donations, or the audience who regularly reads Tree Hugger (we do!). Then there’s the type of person who can be compelled to feel good about recycling (but doesn’t want to feel lectured about plastic packaging 24/7) or the type of person who cares about the planet, but only when responding to a consumer survey.

When it comes to eco-friendly or sustainable business, customers come in all shapes and sizes, and focusing on the exact audience most likely to engage with your brand and your offering is the first rule of marketing – because trying to market to everyone is tantamount to marketing to no one.

The one question you should be asking yourself is, “who exactly is my customer?

Take our client gubgub for example – an efficient protein company offering convenient protein alternatives to traditional sources (like cricket-based protein!). Through extensive market research in collaboration with our team, they determined that not all vegetarians are created equal. In fact, the younger the vegetarian, the more likely he or she is to say that he or she sees industrial farming as the number one reason to stop eating animal products. This audience’s non-meat diet choice is based on reticence towards industrial farming processes as a pollutant, and its negative ecological impact.

It was a surprising insight that drove their laser-focus on a key group of buyers, brand ambassadors and influencers with the most potential to resonate with their offering, and to consume and influence consumption of their product.

You don’t have a plan

Getting your marketing plan down on paper is vital. I’s a document that should outline not just your approach to marketing, but the context for your choices, your overarching goals, the individual tactics you’ll deploy, and the cost and ROI associated with each.

It’s also something your stakeholders really want to see.

The eco-sector is a crowded space, and as competitors enter the market, a well-thought-out marketing strategy can make all the difference – not just with your intended customer, but also with seed investors, VCs and granting agencies who can help you scale.

Most importantly, having a marketing roadmap keeps you focused.

We see it time and time againl new entrepreneurs are so overwhelmed by all operational foundation-building on their plates, they haven’t thought about where or how they’re going to market themselves let alone their goals for the next 6 to 12 months.

But having great marketing strategy should give you clarity, and free you up to concentrate on the big picture.

Most importantly, it should give you oversight on how all the pieces fit together as you build your business’s processes – and its success.

Are you or were you a recent startup? What’s your major marketing challenge? I’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

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