We are so thrilled to bring you The Rival Scale-Up Marketing Playbook! This is your one-stop shop for everything we’ve learned over the years about what drives the growth of successful challenger startup and scale-up brands. We also interviewed some of the leading scale-up marketers, founders and VCs out there to get their perspective and advice on the topics we covered.
You can read the full, multi-media (with audio clips) below or download the PDF (for free!) HERE.📕
So, you are (or hope to be) a successful startup.
You’ve got a product in (or close to being in) market. You’ve got some good investors on board, a great team in place, and things are starting to get real…
But what about marketing?
Whether you’re a marketing lead or a non-marketing founder/exec, you’re reading this because you’re likely already dealing with this truth: what got you here with (or without) marketing, won’t get you to the next level. You have much more opportunity. You have much bigger expectations. You have many more demands. And you need to figure out how to level-up your marketing strategy and system to deliver the growth that you and your investors are looking for.
Here at Rival, we’ve seen and done it all when it comes to startup marketing; working for, in, or on hundreds of start-ups and scale-ups over the years across early, growth, and late-stage. We’ve worked on brand, GTM, acquisition, data/Martech, org design - anything and everything that goes into building a breakthrough brand, a scalable growth machine, and a high-performing marketing team.
This playbook is our distillation of all our learnings and expertise into a clear, actionable guidebook of how to approach marketing for a scale-up.
We break down
- How to think about the role of marketing in a scale-up
- How marketing can help you find and keep product-market-fit
- How to differentiate yourself from the competition
- How to design an effective customer acquisition (for B2C) or sales machine (for B2B)
- How to structure a marketing team and what to look for in key hires
Each section includes an answer to each “how to”, perspective and advice from senior marketers, founders, and VCs, and one specific thing for you to do differently. Our intent and hope is that the learnings, advice, and frameworks included in this playbook will change not just how you think, but how you act as a scale-up marketer and/or founder.
Up for it? Let’s dig in.
Before we get into any of our advice, we’ll start with an important caveat, which might come as a surprise coming from a group of marketers: we believe that the best marketing is actually a great product.
If you can only have one - great marketing or great product, choose great product. No quantity or quality of marketing can fix a bad product, and if you do have a great product, you will have a much stronger foundation from which to build your marketing machine. However, why choose only one? A great product with bad/no marketing is not what you want either. It’s a great product AND great marketing together that will realize the growth potential of a business. So yes, whilst you should be building an A+ product, you will also need A+ marketing if you want to get to those later-stage growth goals. It’s BOTH, not EITHER. And that mindset and approach needs to be baked in from Day 1.
How to think about the role of marketing in a scale-up
There’s an important principle we need to align on at the highest level before we dive into the specific strategies and tactics of what to do with marketing - and that’s HOW to think about marketing itself.
In our experience, most non-marketers (who make up the majority of founders) think of marketing in fundamentally the wrong way. They think of marketing as the “soft, subjective” thing you do to “ramp things up” once you’ve really cracked the product side of things and have “cash to burn”. And maybe, if your product is good enough, you don’t even “need” marketing. We hear from so many start-ups who claim they “don’t do marketing”- usually as a bit of a (not so) humble brag in the context of how great their product is and how much word-of-mouth and organic growth they’re getting already.
We’ve got news for you - these companies are “doing” marketing. They may not be “advertising”, but they are marketing. There’s a fundamental distinction that has caused this misunderstanding. Advertising is not the same as marketing. Not every business is advertising, but no matter what your product is, what stage you’re at, and what your marketing function and budget look like, EVERY business is doing marketing.
Marketing is the bridge between the value of the product and the needs of the market.
Anything that does this is marketing - understanding your audience and their needs, identifying what makes your product different from competitors, ensuring the product delivers on what you say you stand for, and yes, figuring out how to get your product into the hands of customers.
It’s all marketing. It may be claimed or covered by other functions as well (and usually in early-stage businesses there isn’t a “marketer” doing the marketing), but it’s certainly happening. And there’s a huge opportunity for startups and scale-ups who think about marketing in this fuller, broader, and more empowered way. They will recognize that marketing isn’t something you wait on - it’s something that’s fundamental to not just the later stages, but the early and mid stages as well. Marketing has a role as soon as you know the core value prop of the product you want to build. It’s at that point that marketing needs to get to work on understanding how that customer value proposition (CVP) can reach and fill a need in the market, which is ultimately where all growth comes from. When you think of marketing as the bridge instead of the after-burners for a great product, you will take advantage of so many more opportunities than your competitors. (And not for nothing, your investors will really respect you for it!)
Thinking of Monzo, is there really any other brand that has used community as a “bridge” into the market in a better way? In order to do this well you need to think about the role of marketing in a completely different way right from the beginning, just like Jason Bates and the founding team at Monzo did.
One thing to do differently: make sure marketing has a seat at the leadership table (even if that’s you as a founder wearing the marketing hat) and is tightly integrated with the product team.
How marketing can help you find and keep product-market-fit
So, if marketing is a bridge - what goes over it? Well, the traffic flowing in one direction is obvious and accepted: the product gets pushed to the market. But the traffic that can flow in the other direction if you build your bridge in the right way is just as if not more valuable as a scale-up: the market gets pulled to the product. Another way of saying this is that marketing can (and should) be both a distribution function (push the product to the market) AND an innovation function (pull the market to the product).
Innovation is what drives all growth. And innovation ultimately comes from understanding and then delivering on the needs of a market in better and/or faster ways. In order to do that you need to first understand what the needs of that market are. Marketing is the function that’s responsible for bringing that understanding into the business through research, analysis, testing, and a general focus on the customer. Good marketing (and good marketers) makes a company more customer-centric.
Product-market fit is ALL that matters to a startup, scale-up or any business for that matter. If you have it, it’s hard to lose. If you don’t, you can’t win. Marketing has a crucial role to play in finding and maintaining product market fit by bringing that understanding of the market to the product teams as key inputs, not just bringing the output of the product teams to the market.
Now for a few examples…
Ryan Reynolds has proven himself a savvy and successful entrepreneur. His growing scale-up CV includes Aviation Gin, Wrexham FC, Wealthsimple and Mint Mobile. We had Aaron North, CMO of Mint Mobile on our Scratch CMO podcast earlier this year where he shared how closely connected the innovations they develop at Mint Mobile are driven by marketing and the conversations they have with their clients.
Allison Netzer is the CMO of Nymbus, a leading provider of banking tech. But her role is unique in that she’s not only responsible for marketing Nymbus, a scale-up in itself, but also guides and oversees the marketing of the scale-ups that Nymbus’s partners build and launch. So she’s had more reps than most when it comes to using marketing to find product-market fit.
Tom Davies from Yonder is building an incredible, real-time example of what it means to think about in terms of the role of marketing in a scale-up. Yonder just raised £62.5M for their Series A from Europe’s top VCs, Tom has led “marketing” before there was even a public-facing product. And this is down to the fact that he feels that marketing can really shape the product right out of the gate. He brought a lot of this learning with him from his days building product marketing functions at Wise and Monzo. Check out what he had to say here:
"Get into the product development process early, as early as you can. Product marketing won't define the product from scratch, but it can 'nudge' it in the right direction. This might mean changes to the positioning to attract a slightly different customer, subbing out a feature or benefit for something better aligned with what customers want."
We’ve learned a lot about product-market fit over the years from working with and studying scale-ups like the ones you just heard from. To make things more actionable for you, we’ve distilled our thinking down into five “do this not that” principles that can help set up and enable your marketing function to help you find and keep product-market fit.
Research-Led not Performance-Led
Yes, marketing needs to drive performance and deliver leads/revenue. But as a scale-up, it’s all about finding and keeping product-market fit. So you need to balance the short-term needs and targets with the long-term opportunity of better understanding your audience in order to deliver a product (and brand) that better suited their needs. Make sure your marketing focus, priorities, budget, and team are conducting regular research on your audience, not just trying to generate revenue.
Need States not Demographics
This is a big one, and an easy (at least in a startup) change that can deliver a significant return. Most traditional marketing focuses on the demographics of an audience or customer segment: age, gender, location, income, etc. But what really matters to understanding what will change perception and behavior in a group of people is the needs they have. What is the outcome they are looking for? Why are they looking for that? What is the future state they’re striving for? If you’re familiar with the ‘jobs to be done’ methodology, it’s that but for market research. Segment your audience by need state (i.e. the cause of the change they want) not demographics (the corollary factors that go along with that change).
Community not Audience
Many high-growth scale-ups are driven by a highly engaged group of early adopters who aggressively advocate for product and brand. The value of these communities for the scale-up is not just in the word-of-mouth it drives, but also in the feedback and insight this engaged group of supportive customers can offer. This does not happen by accident. These communities are developed and curated intentionally and usually with significant investment in time, resources, and budget to make them valuable. If you haven’t come across this blog post by Monzo co-founder Tom Bloomfield on how they built Monzo (and its community) in the early days, it’s definitely worth reading now. The difference between reaching an audience and building a community is creating added value through the connection and shared experience that people have around your brand. If you can create a platform where people can connect with each other to share their support and also their ideas, you can build a powerful asset for not only distribution but also innovation of your product.
Integration not Activation
Most businesses point marketing outward. They task it with taking a product to market. But one of the biggest benefits and opportunities is in pointing marketing inward: taking the market to the product. What this looks like in practice is making sure marketing is tightly integrated with product (which usually comes down to how well your CMO and CPO work (or are incentivized to work) together, and giving marketing the responsibility of bringing insights and ideas from the market to the product team. Communities are of course one good source of ideas, but so is research and analysis of the market, competitors, audience (and their need states), and existing (or past) customers.
Test & Learn not ROI (only)
Don’t get us wrong. It’s all about ROI (return on investment). But there’s short-term ROI that you can track with clicks and dollars in and out. And there’s long-term ROI, which is where we’d place product-market-fit, as an objective. A big way that marketing can drive that long-term ROI is by utilizing the resource and budget it has to test hypotheses from within the business to learn more about the world outside the business. The best way to do this is to make sure that every marketing campaign has a hypothesis that it’s testing, not just a target it needs to deliver. For example, you might want to test whether the audience responds more to a positive or negative message. Or which of a few potential new features they’re most interested in. Whatever the hypothesis is, design the campaign around testing it and bringing the learnings back into the business.
How to differentiate yourself from the competition
How often do you walk up and down a supermarket aisle, scroll through Amazon, or look around a trade show and think about just how similar everything looks? It’s so often a sea of sameness - the same colors, the same claims, the same slogans at best, just slightly different versions of the same message. So why do you think your marketing shouldn’t face the same scrutiny? Why do you settle for wading in the “sea of sameness” selling on features and benefits instead of what makes you different? The role of marketing isn’t just to communicate that your product exists, or even why they should consider it. The role of marketing is to communicate clearly and consistently what makes you different and why they buy your product INSTEAD of a competitor.
One of the most common, but also most fixable mistakes we see startups and scale-ups make with their marketing is to stop at marketing the product instead of pushing through to marketing the point of difference. In order to take this extra step that will really set you apart from the competition, you need to ask yourself a question - what makes your product different? Considering how to form a point of difference effectively comes back to understanding what higher-order challenge you are solving for your audience, what you bring to solve it (your positioning), and what the market offers (the category convention). These three forces keep you focused on delivering something that’s relevant, authentic, and differentiated with your point of differentiation sitting between your position and the category convention.
We always use the example of Airbnb and their “belong anywhere” marketing strategy. The “product” that Airbnb sells is a place to stay. But the thing that makes their product different is that you get to truly experience the place you’re visiting when you stay at an Airbnb. When you’re in a hotel room, you could be anywhere - you’re removed from the place you’re visiting. When you stay in someone’s house you’re brought into the local community and experience; You feel like you belong there, even if it’s just for a short period of time.
The framework that we’ve developed for finding and owning this point of difference is called “BrandOS”. Most traditional brand frameworks are focused on defining a product’s benefits and communicating them consistently over time. Even the terminology most of the industry uses connotes a fixed, static presence: brand book, brand guidelines, etc. We believe two things about modern, successful brands (scale-up or otherwise): 1) the focus of the story you tell to the market needs to be what makes you different, not what makes you; and 2) the way you think about and shape your brand needs to be dynamic and adaptable to how the market, your audience, and your own business and product changes over-time. Hence, we build (and recommend you build) brand operating systems that update and upgrade in order to deliver the most relevant, authentic, and differentiated story to the market.
Delbert Ty of Coffee Meets Bagel knows a thing or two about how to create radically differentiated brand positions in the marketplace. Having started his career at P&G he turned his hand to challenger brands across Asia Pacific, leading brands such as Circles.Life (the challenger telco) and now Coffee Meets Bagel.
I've been both the David & Goliath in my career. Goliath when I was in P&G and David when I was in Circles.Life, a telco upstart, and now at Coffee Meets Bagel. As a “Goliath”, one can say differentiation is nice to have but as a “David”, differentiation means the difference between life and death.The way I approach it is by asking myself and my team “how can this be a competitive advantage?” I always start with asking “what's the opposite of my "Goliath"?” Finding the "opposite" or as I've phrased it elsewhere "bad ideas" tends to lead to interesting answers. If the idea is "bad" relative to the "Goliath" as they'll never do it, it could be great for the “David”.
Superscript is a scale-up insurtech company in the UK that has grown quickly in large part thanks to the highly differentiated brand the marketing team, led by CMO Mai Fenton has built. Here’s how she thinks about finding and owning a point of difference in a crowded, competitive market like insurance.
Lucas Bermans has a CV any marketer (including us!) would envy. He’s held senior marketing roles at “L’Oreal, Pepsi, General Mills, MoneySupermarket, Heineken, and Aviva. He also led marketing for one of the fastest-growing scale-ups ever in the UK: Cazoo. He architected and executed an incredibly effective strategy that drove Cazoo to an $8bn IPO in 2021. Here’s what he learned about how to find and leverage brand differentiation for a scale-up:
Think carefully about the one or two things you can say about your proposition that is the most compelling thing to communicate to customers and then say it consistently in all channels you might be using. The more single-minded you can be, the more chance you'll stand out among your competitors and be the brand they go to now or later down the line when they're in market.
How to design an effective customer acquisition (for B2C) or sales machine (for B2B)
For all the emphasis we’ve put on innovation, PMF, and positioning, at the end of the day marketing also needs to generate revenue. The responsibilities that marketing needs to deliver on to fulfill this role will differ for B2C and B2B businesses, so we’ll cover both at a high-level here.
B2C (or SMB)
For B2C scale-ups, as you aim to grow your users and drive customers, it’s no secret that you will need to spend your budget on media channels such as Google and Meta. But it’s not just about churning ads out and expecting customers to show up, you have to plan an effective route to make the most of the media spend you have. Here are 3 pillars that should inform your customer acquisition machine.
- Data orchestration: Success in paid media is rarely about in-platform optimizations these days - now, the best performance marketers are the ones who best understand data orchestration. This is another way of saying “automation is key” but specifically, the automated connection of your various customer data sources to the distribution algorithms on paid media platforms.
- Testing frameworks: It’s increasingly common and expected that growth companies and scale-ups do regular testing and understand how important it is for creative success. But understanding what to test where is crucial. Combinatorial auto-optimisation in ad placements like Advantage+ campaigns on Meta and Performance Max campaigns on Google will automatically test variations of copy, image, or other assets. All you need to do is group them appropriately, set the algorithm toward achieving the objective you set and have fed the proper data with, and the best-performing variation will rise to the top - and combinations reporting functionality on those platforms will tell you more about what themes emerge among your highest performers. But other tests aimed at determining tactic or channel efficiency may require testing plans, like matched-market or pre- and post-comparison.
- On social, creative is the new targeting Generally speaking, some of the best delivery for mid-funnel or brand objectives now are in-feed, or mid-roll, video placements on social - where performance is highly influenced by attention metrics like dwell time and type of engagement. As long as you’ve set the correct audience signals with your well-orchestrated customer data, Google and Meta will (generally) do the rest by using creative as a behaviourally-driven targeting layer - they’ll show it to the people who act more interested and are likely to do the action you’ve asked them to optimize toward. This is why understanding your customer need-states is crucial, as is matching your messaging to the particular barrier you’re trying to overcome.
Gil Efrati has built one of the most powerful scale-up marketing machines in the market right now for Resident Home, one of the fastest-growing e-commerce brands in North America. Here’s how he’s approached building one of the most resilient and effective customer acquisition machines in the D2C space.
For B2B businesses selling to enterprise companies, customer acquisition of course looks different. The bigger the company you’re selling to, the bigger the role of sales in the conversion. But that doesn’t mean marketing doesn’t have a role…As a marketing consultancy, we have delivered impactful work with plenty of B2B scale-ups, some with very specific, small target markets. And actually, it’s probably been some of our most effective work. Enterprise B2B companies tend to undervalue and underinvest in marketing, so the bar is low and the opportunity is high.
Marketing needs to do a few jobs in these companies when it comes to revenue generation.
First, it needs to clearly, simply, and consistently communicate the point of difference and key messages to each audience. The positioning needs to be super sharp and structured in order for the sales team, collateral, and key marketing touchpoints (website, trade booths, etc) to be as effective as possible.
Second, it needs to own and optimize the lead generation funnel. We could (and maybe should) do a whole playbook just on CRM, but for most scale-ups, it’s enough to say that marketing needs to build and own the input into and output from the CRM that generates leads - nurturing them is then a shared responsibility with sales and converting them is owned by sales. This involves connecting market touchpoints to the CRM (e.g. lead capture), marketing (and some sales) automation to help nurture, and upper funnel analytics (what’s working, not working, etc). The specifics of what platform to use, how to set things up properly, and how to run them effectively will differ by business, but the most important thing is to make sure this responsibility is being owned, supported, and evolved by your marketing team.
Colton Pond heads up marketing at Loan Pro and has a ton of experience in building B2B marketing functions, here’s what he had to say:
Marketing is the lifeblood of any organization, and they need to be fueling growth throughout the entire pipeline. This includes creating brand awareness, driving top-of-funnel demand to create opportunities, working hand-in-hand with sales to close deals, and collaborating with customer success on upsell and cross-sell opportunities. B2B organizations who only designate top-of-funnel activities to marketing will not scale nearly as quickly or efficiently.
How to structure a marketing team and what to look for in key hires
We get team and talent questions from scale-ups all the time. Getting the right people on board and set up for success is one of the hardest parts of navigating the scale-up curve and, in fact, it’s THE most important part. The quality and effectiveness of any function within a business comes down to the quality of the people it has and how well it supports them. Marketing is no different.
Hiring and managing a team is as much an art as it is a science. There’s no one right way to do it. Both because every company is different, but also because your approach will evolve as your business does.
We’ll start by talking about the different structures of marketing teams at different stages of a startup's growth and end with a few principles we’ve developed over the years of working in and with scale-up marketing teams.
Early Stage - seed, A.. At this stage, you’re making your first marketing hire (if you have one at all). The first hire (of anything) is always tricky. You need someone who can do a bit of everything while thinking strategically but acting tactically. We’ll save you the trouble - you won’t find someone who checks all the boxes, so you'll need to make some decisions about what you want to prioritize and the trade-offs you’re comfortable making in seniority and subject matter expertise. On the seniority question, we’d recommend hiring too senior rather than too junior, if you can afford it. Getting someone on board who the business needs to grow into is better than having someone who needs to grow with the business. The one caveat is that if the person is more senior, they need to be comfortable getting their hands dirty. Don’t hire someone who says they need to hire a team from day one. On the subject matter expertise, the reality is that whoever you hire you’ll likely need to complement them with either more hires or freelance/agency support in the areas where they are not an expert. This is how it should be in order to get the best of all the worlds you need. However, the expertise of the hire you make should reflect the growth strategy and channels you expect to take as a business. For example, if you think brand will be your growth foundation, look for someone with brand expertise. If you think performance will be, find someone with performance expertise, etc. Don’t try to find someone who’s an expert at everything - find someone who’s an expert in the thing that matters most to how you want to grow, but is comfortable managing the output of the other areas.
Mid Stage - A, B. At this stage, you’re starting to hire specialists. You still have a ‘head of’ (or maybe even a VP/CMO) overseeing the function, but you also do-ers focusing on building and running the specific cogs of the marketing machine. At a high level, the team and roles usually starts to split between 1) brand & comms and 2) performance & analytics. The function and role titles might be different in different companies, but essentially it’s people who craft and tell the story and people who distribute it and generate revenue. You’ll also likely need to invest in agency support at this level to get the expertise and/or added capacity you need, but can’t afford to bring in-house (or it doesn’t make sense just yet). When it comes to agencies, there’s no silver bullet, unfortunately. They’re all so different and everyone has had good and bad experiences. Find someone who has worked with companies like yours - industry and (just as importantly) growth stage expertise is so key. Also, hire the people in the room, not the name on the door. Don’t hire an agency because you’ve heard good things or they have a good reputation. The value you get comes from the people who work on your account. Make sure you know them and feel like there’s a cultural fit as well as a capability fit.
Late Stage - B, C, D. At this stage, you likely have someone on board who knows how to scale a marketing function and has done it before. So we’ll keep this brief. Late-stage org design is all about going deep - deep expertise in the areas of the function that matter most. Doubling down on the cogs of the machine that you believe are going to drive the most growth - and likely it’s many if not most of them. You should also be looking to bring as much of the marketing capability, expertise, and output in-house as possible - for efficiencies but also for insights and innovation. The dynamics and performance of your marketing activity is a gold mine of insights on your customer, market, and product. You want that as close to the business as possible. Also at this stage bureaucracy and politics start to set in - fight them as hard and as much as possible. Integration and collaboration are everything at this level. It’s no longer about what each person can do, but what the team can do together. And make sure you are pushing to keep the team and function thinking and acting quickly. Don’t let it slow down!
Ruth Foxe Blader is a Partner at Anthemis Group, a leading, global fintech VC. She has invested in and helped support the growth of dozens of scale-ups and has seen marketing teams that are structured well and marketing teams that are structured poorly. Here’s what she’s learned from her seat in the industry. Ruth Foxe Blader, Partner, Anthemis Group.
Marketing team structure for scale-ups is one of the trickiest board conversations I encounter. Few early-stage teams are "marketing native," so founders outsource their instincts to early employees, who rarely have experience running mature marketing organizations at scale. It can be tricky: the level of marketing maturity needed to service nascent markets is often non-obvious. But as soon as startups begin to institutionalize their sales process, they must do the same with their marketing function. A scale-up needs a Head of Marketing with a depth of experience and a playbook. Some marketing activities can be externalized, but all marketing initiatives should ladder up to a single strategy owned by one individual with sufficient experience and expertise to continuously assess whether the holistic marketing strategy is delivering against company KPIs. Additionally, this individual and his or her team must be able to concisely express the company's marketing ROI to the board, comfortably justifying the company's investments in marketing as they relate to company success.
In conclusion, as you embark on the journey of scaling up your startup, it's imperative to recognize that marketing isn't an optional afterthought; it's an integral bridge connecting your product's value to the market's needs. And while you may have reached this point in your growth journey without extensive marketing efforts, understanding the profound role marketing plays is essential for sustained growth.
Marketing should be viewed as both a distribution function and an innovation function.
It's the key to finding and maintaining product-market fit, driving innovation, and staying customer-centric, allowing you not only to win short-term but long-term term as well.
When you really understand marketing and apply the frameworks we’ve shared above, you’ll have the ability to make some of those marketing buzzwords actually come to life for your brand.
Remember, by focusing on the “need-states” and not the demographics, you can start to find product market fit and build a community that is actually a powerful asset for your distribution and innovation.
Don’t just market your product and its benefits. Find those sharp points of difference that separate you in the sea of sameness and activate them through your marketing.
And finally, when it comes to structuring your marketing team, tailor your approach to your startup's growth stage. Early on, prioritize hiring a versatile individual with a strategic mindset. In the mid-stage, focus on specialists, and consider agency support. In the late stage, deep expertise, in-house capabilities, and a relentless focus on collaboration become paramount.
Remember, the synergy of a great product and excellent marketing is the key to unlocking your growth potential. So, as you dive into the world of scale-up marketing, embrace these principles, adapt to your unique circumstances, and set your sights on achieving remarkable success. Your journey is just beginning, and with this playbook, you will be able to assess, identify, and capitalize on the marketing opportunities that exist for you.
Now, start putting these principles and practices into action!
If you'd like to discuss things further or get involved with our challenger marketing content and community, please do reach out via the info and links below.